Ben Folds / Nick Hornby
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2011, Volume 18, #2
Written by John Metzger
Fri February 18, 2011, 06:30 AM CST
There are many puzzling aspects to Ben Folds and Nick Hornby’s collaborative debut Lonely Avenue, which likely explains why critics have either loved or hated the endeavor. Perhaps the strangest of them all is the fact that if Hornby’s name hadn’t appeared on Lonely Avenue’s cover, fans certainly could have been forgiven for thinking it was another of Folds’ solo projects. At the very least, it begs the question of why Folds would follow this course of action to complete something he probably could have accomplished on his own.
Although Hornby penned all of the lyrics for the endeavor, Lonely Avenue is filled with the same types of character studies that long have dominated Folds’ output. The tales also are told with the same blend of sentimentality and humor that Folds frequently has employed. The artists, it seems, are kindred spirits, which explains not only why Hornby has been one of Folds’ biggest cheerleaders but also why there is so little distinction between Lonely Avenue and the rest of Folds’ canon.
Oddly enough, much of the criticism that has been leveled at Lonely Avenue has been aimed squarely at Hornby’s lyrics. For certain, reading through the words that he penned for the material, all of which were printed in the set’s liner notes, does occasionally cheapen the endeavor. A Working Day peers into the mind of an artist whose confidence is easily swayed, but it never digs deeply enough into its subject’s soul to succeed. Likewise, Levi Johnston’s Blues is more humorous than insightful. One must keep in mind, however, that although lyrical musings are a form of poetry, it isn’t unusual for them to feel slight without the music that is meant to accompany them. It is possible to have a successful song with horrendous lyrics. Without a memorable melody, however, the track is dead on arrival.
Fortunately, though, Hornby’s contributions to Lonely Avenue aren’t nearly as dreadful as some would make them out to be. In fact, most of them are stellar, as he paints his characters with vivid details. Tunes like Doc Pomus, Claire’s Ninth, and Picture Window — which respectively capture the lives a storied songwriter who was confined to a wheelchair, a child who continues to suffer at the hands of her parents’ divorce, and a mother who watches a fireworks display on New Year’s Eve from the hospital window of her ill child’s room — not only are drawn with an author’s eye, but they also are distilled with a songwriter’s concision.
Throughout Lonely Avenue, Folds musically doesn’t veer far from the paths he has tread in the past, either with Ben Folds Five or on his own. He kicks up some serious Elvis Costello-inspired dust with the brawling beat of Your Dog, and he laces Picture Window with the same sort of emotional edginess that he previously had used to fuel one of his finest tunes, Brick. Aided by Paul Buckmaster’s dynamic orchestral accompaniments, Folds frequently gets in touch with his inner Elton John, conjuring majestic music that is well suited to highlighting the cinematic drama of Hornby’s tales.
In many ways, Folds hasn’t changed his approach much since his days with Ben Folds Five, though in recent years, he has had more misses than hits. This might partially explain why a collaboration with Hornby was so appealing. In crafting Lonely Avenue, Hornby assumed a portion of the workload, while still allowing Folds to remain true to his roots. With less pressure weighing down on him to do it all, Folds was able to get himself back on track. ½
Of Further Interest...
Lonely Avenue is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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