Gettin’ Mad Spins: Ben Folds – Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Gettin’ Mad Spins, my own album of the week-style feature. This week, I have been listening to Ben Folds‘ latest quirky release, the interesting and unique Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella.

For those familiar with Mr. Folds, you’ll know that he has never been one for normality or someone who’ll sacrifice an idea just because it may not sit well with some of his fans or detractors. This is, after all, the guy who’s done a piano-and-vocal cover of Snoop Dogg’s ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’. Folds was well-known as the brains behind of the excellent (and ironically named) three-piece Ben Folds Five who disbanded in 2000 after three excellent albums (Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner), although they reformed for a one-off gig last year.

Since 2000 he has released a few solo records, and gained some mainstream airplay with the single ‘Landed’ from 2005’s Songs for Silverman. However, his latest release is a million miles from the other records he’s released solo. Upon hearing that his tracks were popular with university (or ‘college’ since they’re American) a cappella groups, he sent out an invitation on his Facebook page for submissions of these songs to include on a new record. And thus the album was born.

It’s certainly an interesting and diverse collection of songs, Folds himself appearing on several, but it’s a really mixed bag of the excellent and the average. The song selections themselves prove interesting as different groups create different sounds – some use a beatboxer, some rely solely on singing whilst some opt for percussive basslines – and try and recreate some wonderful tracks.

A lot of enjoyment can defintely be garnered from this record, as the wonderful track listing plays almost like a Folds greatest hits, and those groups who really nail the songs make for sometimes beautiful, sometimes entertaining listening. The covers of ‘Magic’ (from The Unauthorized Biography… by Ben Folds Five) and ‘Time’ (from Songs for Silverman) are the highlights, with the groups able to create a wonderful overall sound, replicating Folds’ often insanely complex piano parts and the lead melodies with admirable accuracy and panache.

Folds himself tinklin dem ivories.

Folds himself tinklin' dem ivories.

However, just as there are quality moments, some of the songs stumble due to unsuitable lead singers (‘Not the Same’ and ‘Brick’ suffer the most from this) who, while doubtlessly having some vocal chops, just cannot capture the sound that Folds himself can, and they sometimes feel more vocal showpiece than well-constructed. A shame, given that the songs that falter are some of Folds’ best, but perhaps it’s due to the quality of the original recording that these songs disappoint: it’s hard to improve on such brilliant originals.

Despite its unevenness, Ben Folds Presents… is an enjoyable record which is a testament to the ingenuity of the groups themselves in trying to cover songs by a wonderful modern songwriter. Although some are worth skipping, some beguile you listen upon listen, and those who produce good covers are really excellent to listen to. It’s a very up-and-down record, all told, but the quality of the songs themselves often shines through, showcasing Folds’ talent for writing and university students’ ability to re-tune these tracks to their own styles.

7/10 – Definitely worth a listen. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but a bold and interesting record the likes of which we don’t often see.

YouTube playlist with the groups performing live

Spotify

Sickest tracks: ‘Magic’ (The University of Chicago’s Voices in Your Head), ‘Time’ (Princeton Nassoons), ‘You Don’t Know Me’ (The University of Georgia’s With Someone Else’s Money).

If  you like this, you’ll also like: Not really comparable to much, but you’ll definitely enjoy Ben Folds’ work: Rockin’ The Suburbs, Songs for Silverman, Way To Normal (all solo), Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (with Ben Folds Five).

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