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Music Review: Ben Folds – Stems And Seeds

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Remastering started with good intentions – make older music sound a little more modern – and has come full circle today to the point that it's now taking awful sounding modern releases and making them sound like the old vinyl masters that remastering was meant to improve. Case in point: Ben Folds' recent Way To Normal, which is a good album that unfortunately sounds awful. It is a flat, lifeless mess of sound. Buried in there is a pile of good songs, I know it, but enjoying them is made all the more difficult by the fact that digital frequency range compression has squashed everything down to nearly mono. And if you know anything about mono, you know that it takes a special ear and talent to produce a good mono mix. This is not a good mono mix, even if that was the intent (it wasn't.)

Sadly, Folds gave in to the trend of making a "loud" album – the same digital compression that made Metallica's Death Magnetic sound as if someone had tuned a radio to static in the background while they were recording also plagued Folds' new material. And fans complained. Luckily Folds was paying attention, unlike Metallica, who acted like their fans were idiots, deaf, or "too old to rock!" if they couldn't appreciate a "modern recording." He relented with this newly released, retitled version – Stems And Seeds.

So what do we get? Under the bland, yet ugly new cover, we get the full album in resequenced order, seemingly suffering not a whit from the evils of compression, and it sounds wonderful. The drums have actual tone, Ben's piano sounds alive and sparkles, and those great harmony vocals sprinkled throughout the album practically sound like they're right in the room. It almost makes me question the need for high resolution, surround sound audio. If you ever wondered why people pay good money for those gold, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs discs, this is why – and you're paying a lot less for this.

Not only do we get the great "demaster," but Folds has seen fit to include all of the now-famous "fake songs" that were leaked prior to the album's release in the fall of 2008, a live version of "You Don't Know Me" from Late Night With Conan O'Brien (with Regina Spektor handling her part live,) plus a piano/orchestra version of "Cologne" that was available on the Itunes and Japanese editions of the album.

Packaged with the CD is a DVD filled with the "stems" (original tracks used to form the songs) so you can mix your own versions of the songs. Very cool. I haven't even messed with this yet, so I must leave that aspect to the opinion of others. Nice as it is, I can't imagine this being something many will actually play with. How many of you played with the stems that came on the DVD with Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero Remixed? Or the semi-stems with Duncan Sheik's White Limousine?

That said, if there is a complaint to be made, it's a simple one: why wasn't it released this way in the first place? There's a possibly philosophical argument to be made here: when the supposed reason for digital compression is because "the masses" want it that way, as we've been told time and time again, and an artist has to re-release his music in an uncompressed fashion because it turns out that was wrong, well, just what the hell is going on? One side can say it's pure greed – many will buy both versions. Another will say it's pure ignorance – the industry doesn't know what fans want. The truth is probably a blend of the two, speaking volumes about the state of music today.

There is an unfortunate dilemma presented here: by buying this, are we saying it's okay to perpetuate the "delayed deluxe edition" tactic that we're all familiar with? Or by buying this are we saying that we really do want our music to sound good, that we want music uncompressed, with high-quality mastering that really allows it to shine? It's a question Mudcrutch fans also faced when news that the vinyl versions of the self-titled album and the Live EP were released, both featuring a CD drawn directly from the uncompressed master used for the vinyl. Ultimately, I think the message sent by buying these "audiophile" editions makes a much clearer mark: we want our music good.

Folds obviously never intended anything beyond simply crafting his little album of piano songs and tossing a few singles to the pop-oriented top-40 market in hopes of some hits, but maybe the experience has been humbling, or maybe even eye-opening to others in the music business. Fans are listening and paying attention, despite the charts and graphs the industry wants to believe says how people listen to music. They're wrong. They've been wrong in the past and they're getting progressively more wrong. Stems And Seeds probably won't sell a huge number of copies, but the fact that it sells is telling. They'll want to write it off for the enticement of the bonus "fake songs," and for some that might be reason enough to purchase, but the majority of those investing the small amount for this release have commented first and foremost on the sound of it. And that is what I hope is getting noticed by those that matter in the industry.

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About Tom Johnson

  • Scott Deitche

    Rush are rematsering two of their songs from their 2002 cd, Vapor Trails. While it featured some of their best songwriting, Vapor Trails was a super-compressed mess a wall of sounds lacking any fidelity. Same story for the above-mentioned Metallica, and the latest release by Evergrey.

    I love Ben Folds, but had not yet purchased Way to Normal. I’ll skip it and head for this.

  • Tom Johnson

    Scott, you’d be fine skipping WtN. You’re not missing anything and gaining a whole lot with S&S.

    And Vapor Trails is a personal favorite – BIG Rush fan here! The two tracks from Vapor Trails that are on next week’s Retrospective 3 are actually completely remixed by Rich Chyki, not just remastered. You can hear very muddy mp3 clips at Barnes & Noble right now, in fact. It’s too hard to say if it’s a huge improvement in sound quality, but it is definitely different. I’m actually anxious to get a best-of just to hear two songs that I already own . . . that seems sad, but in this case it’s justified.