Album Review: Ben Folds, ‘So There’
There's a convincing argument to be made for the classical music world standing to benefit from the presence of an offbeat figure like singer-pianist Ben Folds. Luckily for Folds' existing fanbase, though, he hasn't retreated all the way to the conservatory just yet. With So There, his first collaboration with the six-piece chamber ensemble yMusic (Beck, Jose González), Folds manages to straddle three different realms for something of a mixed-bag listen that touches on traditional pop and classical at two opposite poles with chamber pop at the midway point between them.
Fans who initially gravitated to Folds for his inimitable hooks and tunesmanship will have to stretch a little in order to digest So There in one sitting, particularly when it gets to the three-movement "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" that takes up the album's final 20 minutes. That's not to say that "Concerto" makes for an especially challenging listen or that it disrupts the flow much. Even the most classical-averse listeners should find themselves already acclimated to the mainstream film score-like tones of the first movement. And even when Folds gets more daring and spacious in the second movement, he never suspends his natural inclination toward melody.
Folds explained via press statement that he approached the rest of this material as if writing pop songs for a small orchestra. That approach does little, if anything, to compromise or dilute Folds' essence as a songwriter. A string of four songs in the album's middle section -- "So There," "Long Way to Go," "Phone in a Pool," and "Yes Man" -- come close to the signature cadence of Fold's alt-pop trio Ben Folds Five but, unsurprisingly, lack the crackling rhythmic elasticity that drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge brought to Folds' songs. Nevertheless, Folds proves that working with a chamber ensemble isn't all that much of a stretch for him.
Moreover, fans will recognize the humor and wry, self-effacing wit that recur throughout So There. Even while making mature observations like "Seems what's been good for the music hasn't always been good for the life" still leaves himself room to goof. On "F10-D-A," for example, Folds and yMusic build the entire tune out of the sound of him singing the chords as if he were showing the progression to the musicians in the room. And, in too many examples to list here, Folds' lyrical bite still stings as sweetly as it ever has. With So There, he breaks new ground while for the most part retaining the qualities that charmed his audience the first time around.