Always trying something new and different, Ben Folds has marshaled his strengths in his new chamber pop album So There, hitting us with playful classical crossovers, angular Bacharachian rhythms, glances at minimalism, and sophisticated pop-crossover songs and arrangements.
The album includes eight collaborations with the classical-crossover ensemble yMusic, plus Folds’s three-movement Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero.
The eight songs are a rainbow of fascinating compositions. Sighing strings and fluttery winds undergird the jaunty and complex but sweetly melodic “Capable of Anything.” The subtly funny hymn “Not a Fan” acknowledges the triumph of love over differences in taste. The lovely title track, a hybrid of piano pop and modern classical music if ever there was one, again makes brilliant use of the yMusic ensemble, its instruments playing off Folds’s piano and enfolding his soft vocals.
Kurt Weill meets Randy Newman and Leon Russell on the gently carnivalesque “Long Way to Go.” The Beach Boys surface in the arch, confessional “Phone in a Pool.” Sparkling chamber-group writing and Queen-like choral harmonies get the nod in “Yes Man.” Playful musical self-referentiality pops up in “F10-D-A.”
Folds reflects on his life in and out of music in a number of other places too, singing in the passionate “I’m Not the Man”: “I’m not the man that I used to be…my father’s son, number one…endless potential…a man on a mission.” And the narrator of “Phone in a Pool” reflects: “Seems what’s been good for the music hasn’t always been so good for the life.”
But as demonstrated in these eight shining songs, it’s sure been good for the listener. What makes them work are not perceived references and influences, so easy for a reviewer to note (as I’ve done above), but their artful melodies and arrangements, bolstered by evocative lyrics and smooth, soulful vocals.
Classical crossover is big right now. The Silver Lake Chorus performs original music written for it by pop songwriters. (Right now, in fact, we’re giving away a vinyl copy of the 26-member choir’s debut album here). Gabriel Kahane applies classical sophistication to his chamber-pop compositions. Groups and artists like Sybarite5, 2Cellos, Maya Beiser, and organist Cameron Carpenter touring with his custom-made traveling organ playing a mix of pop and classical mingle traditions with creativity, dedication, and aplomb. Meanwhile The Piano Guys have become enormously popular by transposing pop and rock material into classical settings.
Less successful, typically, are pop musicians’ forays into composing classical music per se (c.f. efforts by Paul McCartney and Billy Joel). A patchwork quilt of styles and influences, Folds’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra displays some scintillating piano passages and some technical proficiency, but not the structural arc (or arcs) that classical-music lovers consciously or unconsciously expect. When the main theme of the first movement returns towards its end, I recognize it, but feel perplexed as to how we’ve gotten there.
The conventionally pretty second movement is romantic in a fluffy sort of way. The dervish finale is the most successful of the movements precisely because it unapologetically borrows rhythms and phraseology from pop music. At moments it reminds me of the classic Renaissance albums of the 1970s.
Buy this album for its glowing classical-crossover songs, where Ben Folds hits his stride in a big way, and not for its ambitious but not very successful attempt at “real” classical music.