CD Review of Ben Folds Presents: University a Cappella! by Ben Folds
Ben Folds: Ben Folds Presents: University a Cappella!
Recommended if you like
Ben Folds, the Nylons,
Manhattan Transfer
Label
Epic
Ben Folds:
Ben Folds Presents:
University a Cappella!

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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I
n an era of dwindling music sales, evaporated promotional budgets, and careers that are over before they’ve really even begun, it’s hard not to love a guy like Ben Folds, who seems to have limitless carte blanche at Sony – since reaching the peak of his mid-level fame in the ‘90s, Folds has used Epic to distribute all manner of quirky product, from his Fear of Pop project to an EP trilogy and the multiple deluxe versions of his last release, Way to Normal – not to mention the Bill Shatner album he produced.

Yes, Ben Folds makes it hard to hate him – but sometimes, he sure does seem to be trying his hardest to make us do it anyway. Whether it’s by turning in lackluster solo efforts like Way to Normal or by spinning his wheels with tongue-in-cheek cuts like his cover of "Bitches Ain’t Shit," Folds often gives the impression of an artist who understands his strengths and is aware of his potential, but just doesn’t feel like working hard enough to get all the way from Point A to Point B. He also seems like a guy with a hipster’s irritating fondness for kitsch, which is where Ben Folds Presents: University a Cappella! comes in.

Before we go any further, it bears mentioning that a cappella music, in and of itself, does not constitute kitsch, and there are a lot of wonderful groups preserving the art of the format, many of whom appear here. But there’s a reason vocal groups tend to serve as the butt of jokes when they appear on shows like "The Office" – a cappella music requires an incredible amount of precision, and for ears tuned to rock ‘n’ roll’s more shambolic aesthetic, it tends to sound awfully square, especially when being delivered by groups with names like the Treble Makers.

Ben Folds

There are no Treble Makers here – just 14 supremely talented college a cappella groups – but the inherent difficulty of translating pop songs successfully into all-vocal arrangements remains: it’s hard to make them swing the same way, and they end up coming off like novelty tracks. This is the opposite of Folds’ stated goal for the album, but good intentions are only worth so much.

Ben Folds Presents ’ problems are evident pretty quickly; the opening track, "Not the Same," trades the loose beauty of Folds’ studio and live versions for a chugging, unnecessarily busy arrangement, while the follow-up, "Jesusland," is cute, but not cute enough to save one of Folds’ weaker solo tracks. And then there’s "Brick," a disastrous reworking that drapes a classic alt-pop ballad in a cardigan sweater. Similarly misguided, albeit not as profoundly, is a version of "Still Fighting It" with twice the beauty – but none of the frayed weariness and heartbreaking regret – of the original, and a "Fred Jones, Part 2" that sounds more like a terrible hymn than a benediction for a man’s career.

That’s the bad stuff, but the record has its bright spots, too; for starters, "You Don’t Know Me" works perfectly in an a cappella setting, as do "Selfless, Cold and Composed" and "Magic," and this new version of "Landed" does a terrific job of highlighting the quality of a single that should have been a hit. "Time" actually sounds like it was written for an a cappella group, and "Evaporated," while lacking the emotional heft of the original, is recast here as a lovely male-female duet. Further down the tracklist, Presents offers a very nice interpretation of "Army" that actually almost swings enough to carry the song’s humor, while "Fair" comes close to the original’s sound and feel while still standing up well on its own. Folds also contributes a pair of his own performances with self-recorded a cappella renditions of "Boxing" and "Effington," both of which land near the mark.

Appropriately, it’s the closing track, the gorgeous "The Luckiest," that best encapsulates the album’s difficulties: It’s a hauntingly lovely version of a classic love song, but it loses its essential intimacy in this setting – all those voices are sort of numbing after awhile, much like Ben Folds Presents itself. Unless you’re a truly hardcore aficionado of a cappella music, 16 tracks and over an hour of the stuff is a bit much to take. It was clearly a labor of love for Folds – and all the groups who performed on the album – but ultimately, it’s just an interesting curiosity, best taken in small doses, and one which doesn’t add much to the songs it covers.

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