Could this man have been the heir to Randy Newman's hysterically biting throne?
The Second Disc's coverage of Randy Newman's reissues from last week got your catalogue correspondent thinking about the possibilities lately that Folds - the definitive indie-pop pianist and one-time leader of Ben Folds Five, one of the best acts of the 1990s - should have ascended to that same jaunty position Newman commanded in the prime of his pop career. Sadly, this didn't happen - and admittedly, it isn't hard to see why.
As a songwriter, Folds knew how to create a narrative that could draw pure emotion out of you. Casual fans know (and in many cases over-exaggerate the virtues of) "Brick," the band's most commercially-successful single despite being an incredibly tragic, true-life tale of Folds taking a high-school girlfriend to get an abortion. Dig deeper through the Ben Folds Five discography (all three albums and one compilation worth) and you'll discover plenty of other biting tunes that fuse you-are-there lyrics with eminently hummable melodies ("Steven's Last Night in Town," "Underground," "Don't Change Your Plans").
It's a fascinating output, and simultaneously an upsetting reminder of how far the guy's gone. Proper solo debut Rockin' the Suburbs, released a year after the Five imploded, continued that trend of well-written, occasionally ornate pop songs, but it was lost on most audiences thanks to an unfortunate release date (September 11, 2001). Folds went indie for a string of EPs in 2003 and 2004, but some of the songs felt too dashed-off or bloated. Songs for Silverman (2005) had its moments, but not enough. And his most recent effort, Way to Normal (2008), was elevated by material that wasn't on the record; Folds leaked "fake" versions of several of the songs that were brilliantly anti-funny.
And that's just the music; Folds is even more insufferable as a personality, making ridiculous videos on ChatRoulette and judging ridiculous music shows for NBC. None of these things have polarized much of his fan base, though, making one wonder what Folds would have to do to alienate listeners - and if he should consider doing it, just for kicks.
Folds' newest record, Lonely Avenue, is set for release in September on a new label, Nonesuch Records (his first effort away from Epic Records, his home for 15 years). Encouragingly, it features lyrics from another, less-tired pen: that of Nick Hornby, the British author/music enthusiast famous for novels like High Fidelity and Fever Pitch. Time will tell if Hornby becomes the much-needed Bernie Taupin to Folds' Elton John, but in the meantime, it might do well for Epic to start considering what they can do with Folds' catalogue.
But how would Legacy go about such a thing? A compilation for Folds and/or his Five might never make sense; there were never enough "hits" to justify such a package, and Folds himself always seemed to be opposed to a hits set (last year's unusual Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella was as close as he'd allow). However, next year is the 10th anniversary of Suburbs, that ridiculously underrated effort - and there's enough bonus material to justify such a set. It would, in all theory, look something like this.
Ben Folds, Rockin' the Suburbs (Epic EK 61610, 2001)
- Annie Waits - 4:18
- Zak and Sara - 3:14
- Still Fighting It - 4:16
- Gone - 3:22
- Fred Jones Part 2 - 3:45
- The Ascent of Stan - 4:13
- Losing Lisa - 4:11
- Carrying Cathy - 3:48
- Not the Same - 4:17
- Rockin' the Suburbs - 4:58
- Fired - 3:49
- The Luckiest - 4:44
- Hiro's Song - 4:21
- One Down - 4:23
- Girl - 3:44
- Make Me Mommy - 2:54
- The Secret Life of Morgan Davis - 2:41
- Bizarre Christmas Incident - 2:25
Track 13 from Japanese pressings of the album (Epic/Sony ESCA 8352, 2001)
Tracks 14-17 from Rockin' the Suburbs EP (Epic 671849 5, 2001)
Track 18 previously unreleased - Folds wrote this track after he was approached in 2000 to do a song for a Christmas film. He penned this profane, perverse song about a visit from Santa gone wrong and turned it in, not knowing that the film in question was the big-budget adaptation of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! He hastily delivered a family-friendly replacement, "Lonely Christmas Eve," that ended up on the soundtrack (Interscope 069 490 765-2, 2000).
Another much-appreciated possible reissue that would remind audiences of Folds' early, mad genius would be the only record of his late-'90s side project, Fear of Pop. That one, mostly instrumental, entirely alternative record showcases Folds easily running through lots of styles (ambient, funk, other dance subgenres) and instruments (Folds, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, particularly shines in the rhythm section). And, for better or worse, Fear of Pop was largely responsible for building William Shatner up to another wave of kitschy success; his wacky, hilarious appearance on the tone poem "In Love" was the precursor to those early lounge-act ads for Priceline (Folds in fact was a member of the backing band for at least one of those ads) as well as his strangely captivating record Has Been from 2004 (which Folds produced and arranged - and even more ironic, Hornby contributed lyrics to that LP as well). Legacy could only ever be successful with a Fear of Pop reissue by licensing it to an indie label, but it would be something.
Fear of Pop, Volume I (550 Music BK 68809, 1998)
- Fear of Pop - 3:26
- Kops - 6:08
- Slow Jam '98 - 4:51
- Blink - 1:24
- In Love - 4:46
- Interlude - 0:22
- Avery M. Powers Memorial Beltway - 5:58
- I Paid My Money - 3:17
- Rubber Sled - 4:55
- Root to This - 5:10
- Still in Love - 1:26
- In Love (Chukwu Mix) - 5:37
- In Love (Charlie Dark Mix) - 4:28
- In Love (Thievery Corporation Mix) - 4:53
Tracks 12-14 from 12" promo - Giant Step Records B2S 41778-S1, 1998