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Ben Folds Redefines “Normal”

Patrick Griffin | Thursday, October 30, 2008

“Way to Normal” is the title of the latest album produced by the cynical rocker, Ben Folds. Though the title of the album may suggest otherwise, the musician’s third full length studio album proves to be far from the norms of pop rock. The album may seem like trademark Ben Folds irony, the North Carolina native would argue that the album is a return to his inspirational roots.

“This new album is really about me being free, which is why it feels cathartic and expressive,” Folds said on his official Web site. “It’s about me coming back to being myself.” “Way to Normal,” which hit the stands on Sept. 16th, is expected to be a popular reinvention for a diverse Folds following.

Though Folds’ Web site promised “irresistible hooks and piano-pounding pandemonium that listeners haven’t been treated to… since his years with Ben Folds Five,” “Way to Normal” features few structural differences compared to his previous albums. That isn’t to say that the album is a failure. It packs the same sardonic punch that has earned Ben Folds his devout fan base.

The album strongly opens with two crowd pleasers entitled “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” and “Dr. Yang.” The first track is an account of the public humiliation Folds earned after falling off the stage while performing in Japan. Not only did the accident afford the performer medical attention, it also provided the material for one of the album’s most memorable tracks when set to the rhythmic pounding of Folds’ piano. “Dr. Yang” similarly drives the listener deliberately toward a final fuzzed and energetic crescendo.

In addition to the signature anthems, Folds births several romanticist ballads that call to mind previous works such as “Brick” and “The Luckiest.” Accompanied by a subtle orchestral ambience, Folds ponders both the beginnings and failures of relationships in “Cologne.” The song draws a curious reference in citing former astronaut Lisa Nowak who, “put on a diaper and drove 18 hours to kill her boyfriend.” Concluding the album with a similar romantic observance, “Kylie from Connecticut,” recants the past affair of the long-wedded protagonist Kylie. The final track of the album lulls the listener into appreciative tranquility with its wandering piano line and clinching string section.

The album’s first hit single, “You Don’t Know Me,” featuring the bright vocals of Regina Spektor, may be the best track on the album. The poppy single combines many of Folds’ best musical and lyrical tendencies juxtaposed with Spektor’s swooping voice. Behind a conscientious assessment of a failing relationship, the staccato of an accompanying violin parallels, once again, a catchy and memorable piano line.

Folds agrees that the addition of Spektor vitalizes the single: “She gave it more life. I think she’s one of the best singers out there, she’s just so talented.”

Many of the other tracks spawn from characteristic Ben Folds lyrical spontaneity and harsh opinion. He criticizes, with tonal contrasts between verse and chorus, upper class elitism in “Frown Song,” and even voraciously attacks a critic through several challenges of the victim’s integrity in “Brainswascht.”

At times during “Way to Normal,” Folds displayed the musical charisma of some of the greatest piano rockers: Elton John, Billy Joel or Freddie Mercury. The album isn’t flawless though. More than once, Folds deviates from the flowing structure of his typical musical style for droning conversational tangents. The misplaced digressions lengthen several songs unnecessarily, boring the listener. Fortunately, these shortcomings are limited and do not excessively taint the album’s integrity.

If you are a faithful Folds fan, “Way to Normal” will resemble the pianist’s past albums – a collection of both catchy anthems and emotional ballads whose appeal gradually grows on the listener. For those who are unfamiliar with the artist, the album is an excellent introduction to Folds’ quirky and acerbic tendencies. If you’re looking for an album that deviates from typical pop trends, look no further than Folds’ most recent redefinition of the word “normal.”