Ben Folds/Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue

Lonely Avenue

B+

Can we really count Lonely Avenue as a true Ben Folds album? I’d guess that most people are drawn to Ben because of his songwriting, and he had nothing to do with the words on this album—those come courtesy of author Nick Hornby, who gave this album not only lyrics to its 11 tracks but also four short stories republished in a miniature book that serves as this record’s packaging. It’s a cool concept for an album, and in general it’s nice to see records that still treat themselves as physical products—an iTunes download of this album would only be giving consumers half the story, or less. Still, from a Ben Folds standpoint Lonely Avenue seems more like a side-project along the lines of 2004′s Has Been, a collaboration with William Shatner in which Ben provided orchestration for Shatner’s spoken-word lyrical observations. Granted, Lonely Avenue sounds more like a regular Ben Folds record since here Ben does all the singing, too, but I don’t think one can really judge this the same way one might Way to Normal or Songs for Silverman

The point of all that is: if Ben’s not on the top of his game for Lonely Avenue, that’s okay, because whether or not it works as an album is not solely on his shoulders. That’s a good thing, because I do indeed think that, much like 2008′s Way to Normal, Ben’s music here is way too uneven. In an effort to not sound like Ben Folds Five, I think he ends up writing music that isn’t really what people want to hear from him, or is very good (on this album, see: “A Working Day,” “Password“). There is one song on this album that is exactly what I want to hear in a Ben Folds track, “Picture Window,” a beautiful and touching song about spending New Years Eve in a hospital that really works both lyrically and musically. The rest is not all bad, but it’s not great, either.

Fortunately, Nick Hornby totally rocks Lonely Avenue. The lyrics to these songs are top-notch, and his stories included in the album (which run the gamut from postmodern existentialist fiction to family comedy to sci-fi) are incredibly compelling. The album book also contains brief notes on each song from Nick, which don’t explain away everything good about them (a trap writers sometimes fall in to) but give you just enough to draw you in to the story they’re telling. I don’t think Nick really hits a bad note here (unlike Ben), and I’d rather history remember Lonely Avenue as his album, because from that perspective, it is damn good.

There is, too, an unsung hero of this album—orchestral arranger Paul Buckmaster. When I read the liner notes, I couldn’t even believe Paul was still alive, let alone working. I’m most familiar with him through his work on Elton John’s earliest albums, particularly his self-titled record. I think it’s fair to say that in those early days, before Elton’s band really developed, Paul Buckmaster really defined the Elton John sound, and he brings that same sound to Lonely Avenue, much for the better. Besides the above-mentioned “Picture Window” (which musically is only Ben’s vocals and piano and Paul’s strings), his work on a song like “Levi Johnston’s Blues“ would make you swear you’re hearing the exact same string section from “Levon“. I consider this a very good thing.

Overall, I feel Lonely Avenue is mostly forgettable as an entry into Ben Folds’ catalog (except perhaps as a footnote), but really stands out as an excellent example of the work of Nick Hornby. Averaging those two concepts, Lonely Avenue is a record that is very, very good, but not quite great.

tags: ben folds, nick hornby

  • Todd M. Stephanuik

    I’m not too surprised to read a review like this, though I’d hoped Ben could pull off something amazing. Still, the highlight of this album for me IS Nick’s lyrics. I’ve heard Ben write songs and collaborate, but I’d only heard one other lyrical offering from Hornby (see “That’s Me Trying” from Has Been, Shatner). As I LOVE Hornby’s novels and even the screenplay he wrote (An Education, good flick) I am glad to hear he shines through a bit. I can’t wait to read the lyrics while mildly listening.

  • colby

    Interesting. I kinda figured this would just be a celebrity album, something a smidge better than Lindsay Lohan (or that bizarre Scarlett Johnasson album).

    Then again, Hornsby really knows his music; it’s not just High Fidelity, he’s written very smart things about it numerous times.

  • http://nerdynothings.com Rebel Rikki

    Todd, “That’s Me Trying” is definitely one of the many highlights from “Has Been.” Good call. Also, that album’s a great example of Ben writing outside of his wheelhouse and yet making it work. I’m not sure what the deal is with “Way to Normal” or “Lonely Avenue” but they just don’t click to me.

    Colby, that’s interesting. I never really thought of “Lonely Avenue” as a vanity album like Lohan’s or Scarlett’s. I guess I always assumed, and I believe the final product proves me right, that both collaborators are above that kind of thing.

  • http://seankealey.net Noah Nickels

    I agree “a working day” is kinda strange, musically, but on the whole I like Ben’s writing on this album. But that’s coming from a guy who really digs “way too normal,” You Don’t Know Me is one of my favorite Folds tunes. While different from his earlier work, I find the diverseness refreshing. You’re right, Hornby kicks all sorts of ass on this album.

  • http://nerdynothings.com Rebel Rikki

    Noah, I do really like “You Don’t Know Me”. I just found that album in general to be a very uneven experience, but I can see where you’d dig the diversity.

    Also, author’s note: I didn’t realize until last night that the copy I reviewed was actually the deluxe edition. It turns out that the regular edition of the CD doesn’t come with the book of Hornby stories. My bad, guys.

  • Surely Steiner

    I had to take some time to let the album sink in before I commented. Because I’m a huuuuge Ben Folds fan and love Hornby’s work as well, I wanted to pay attention to the lyrics and music on their own. I adore the lyrics — they have everything I love about Hornby. Some are heartbreaking and honest, some bits are just beautifully put together. And the humor and quirk is all there, which is why it’s a perfect collaboration with Ben Folds. If anyone else tried to put music to something like “Saskia Hamilton,” I don’t know if it would work as well.

    It’s a great partnership. Ben is never short on catchy or moving melodies, so it’s really cool to hear his music paired with a new lyrical perspective. I really like the album.

    Also! I was happy to hear Kate Miller-Heidke on a couple tracks. I saw her when she toured with Ben on his solo tour — she’s incredible to see live.

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