Essential Playlist :: Hanson

I’ve stated before that I avoid anything by Hanson prior to their 2000 release This Time Around. That includes the ubiquitous, over-played, much-maligned “MMMbop.” So, for those of you whose ears fear encountering that track, fear not! This band has put out 5 amazing albums (and a live, best of) since then. This playlist showcases their variety of styles over the last 13 years with the heaviest emphasis on my two favorites: the aforementioned, This Time Around and the previously-reviewed The Walk.

Hanson: All Grown Up

under 1. Strong Enough To Break, Underneath – The band has always been good at saying how they are feeling. Coming off of a very tough several years and deciding to go the independent route, this song is a great statement from a band that’s willing to put every last bit of heart into their music.

walk 2. Great Divide, The Walk – Another great album-opener.  While the driving guitar chords are obvious, I think that the piano action here is the best part.

shout it out 3. Make It Out AliveShout it Out – This track reminds me a lot of the band Chicago with the chord structures, piano style, and horns. The difference is a more aggressive vocal approach than Peter Cetera would have attempted.

under 4. Lost Without Each Other, Underneath – I like the vocal approach on Underneath. It often seems a little rushed and a bit mushy, which I would normally would hate, but Taylor really excels at using to communicate emotion.

walk 5. Georgia, The Walk – The band used the opening piano riff in a series of video podcasts leading up to the release of this record, so there was already a familiarity when the album came out. I know that I use the vague term, “immediacy”, a lot – but this is another great example of just that.

anthem 6. Juliet, Anthem – This is easily my favorite song on the new record. It’s playful and powerful. I love Zac’s voice here and on most everything he does.

live 7. Hand In Hand, Live and Electric (originally, This Time Around) – This song was my first introduction to Isaac’s vocals. I love how he gets so passionate – which is why I opted for the live version in particular.

this time 8. A Song To Sing, This Time Around – I love “downer” songs. I love piano-based pop. I love vocal harmonies. So, for me, this is homerun. It’s a welcomed palette-cleanser at the end of great album (like a “cool down” after a workout).

shout it out 9. Use Me Up, Shout it Out – All the reasons listed immediately above are what make this song succeed. Couple that with Zac’s vocal performance and you’ve got another winner. To me, the horns here are a bit reminiscent of Matchbox 20’s Mad Season record.

this time 10. Save Me, This Time Around – This is one of the very first Hanson songs to really jump out at me. The harmonies are so locked in and the delivery is achingly desperate.

anthem 11. You Can’t Stop Us, Anthem – Like “Strong Enough to Break”, this is another great “statement” song. As I mentioned in my review of the album, I love the chorused vocals on the chorus.

under12. Penny & Me, Underneath – This song is special to me because my wife knew it before we even met.

walk 13. Watch Over Me, The Walk – Another Issac-fronted rock track. As on “Hand in Hand”, he showcases the ability to bring an impassioned and aggressive vocal approach.

live 14. This Time Around, Live and Electric (originally, This Time Around) – I love this version of the song for the way that it builds, then strips out the instruments for the first chorus. Additionally, I love the traded verse vocals. Finally, it showcases more widely spaced harmonies that create a more expansive range. While tight harmonies are beautiful, I love the range here, especially live.

walk 15. Go, The Walk – I’ve said before that this is my favorite song in the entire catalog. Zac shines on the lead vocal. The piano-propelled melody is excellent. There’s no reason not to declare it a “perfect song.”

Hanson: Anthem

Release Date: June 18, 2013

When they began their career some 20+ years ago, the Hanson brothers epitomized the term “pop”. For at least on summer they ruled the airwaves with their catchy, upbeat, overnight sensation “MMMbop“. While their following albums were heard by significantly fewer people, the brothers continued to hone their skills within the confines of the pop genre. On their 2007 album, The Walk, the brothers turned their amps up a notch or two and delivered a solid rock record that should have excited anyone that heard it. They followed this effort with something of a surprise move on 2010’s neo-soul-pop Shout it Out. On their latest effort, Anthem, the boys kick off their 3rd decade in the business with a record that offers a taste of all these sounds – a snapshot of where they’ve been and where they are going.

When I first saw the video for the lead single “Get the Girl Back“, I was taken a bit aback by it’s return to the Shout it Out sound. Given the critical praise their previous record received, this was probably a safe choice for the band. For my part, any instance in which the band strays from their piano-based instrumentation is cause for concern. I’m not a fan of horns, which are all over this track, so my first impression of the record lowered my expectations to some degree.

The album opens with “Fired Up“, built on aggressive guitars and driving (but less-than-crisp) drums. While the brothers are always expected to have great harmonies, the lock up especially well here. “I’ve Got Soul” is another horn-heavy, cowbell-filled Shout it Out-er. It does show a bit of divergence with a bit of Latin/Cubano essence just below the surface.

For me, the album really starts to pick up with Underneath-era style on the Zac-led “Juliet“. I’ve said before that my favorite tracks tend to feature Zac, and here he shines in a whole new way with a stutter-step vocal that could have easily gone wrong. The simple, bouncy piano part propels the song forward and at no point does it try to over-stretch its’ sweet spot. A killer bridge brings the whole piece together.

Isaac takes the band into Jason Mraz/adult contemporary territory on “For Your Love“. The stripped down instrumentation, extensive harmonies, and relatable lyrics make this track a near-masterpiece. Songs like this coming from a stable songwriters with strong family values only deepen the band’s impact.

There’s an intriguing 80’s essence to several songs in the collection including “You Can’t Stop Us Now” and “Tragic Symphony“. The former brings up images of 80’s greats such as Joan Jett and Michael Jackson. Isaac does a great job of leading the way vocally, but the track is really turned on its head (in a good way) by the chorused harmonies. On the latter, there’s an almost frantic feeling built on a collision of strings, bass, drums, tamborine and rushed, tightly-harmonized vocals.

All in all, the album succeeds, but fails to reach the heights that I would hope for. The convergence of so many different stylistic influences (while meshed together in extraordinary ways) can’t out pace any one genre choice standing on it’s own.

Here the band succeeds best when playing it close to the chest, keeping the production to a minimum, and letting the vocals rule the finished product. As mentioned before, when they step away from the piano, things seem to unravel a bit. Additionally, attempts to sound lyrically tough (“Fired Up”, “Can’t Stop Us”) come across as a little unbelievable (the same mistake we’ve seen Joseph Gordon-Levitt making of late).

While I may not spin the album cover-to-cover very often, there are definitely several songs here that will make it into long-term rotation.

Kanye West: Yeezus

Release Date: June 18, 2013

With what I intend to write here, I feel the need to begin by asserting my credibility. I’ve been a Kanye fan since I first heard the second single off his debut record, “All Falls Down“. I wore that record (College Dropout) out. Honestly, I was a fan even before that owing to his extensive production work on Jay-Z‘s magnum opus The Blueprint. I’ve traveled with Kanye through five albums now and have watched him evolve as an artist and celebrity. While I love the freshness of his early stuff, I still think that 808s is his masterwork on all levels: from production, to lyrics, to his much-maligned performance. Dark Twisted Fantasy has its place and brings us to where we are today, but I think that it is ret-conned somewhat in light of West’s latest, Yeezus.

I’ve stuck up for ‘Ye for the last few years. I easily overlooked the Taylor Swift incident when many didn’t – and still haven’t. I’ve mostly ignored the Kardashian mess. I’ve gone to bat for the man when people around me have looked to put him down. I’ve always said “this is an artist, perhaps overwhelmed by the celebrity that his art has garnered for him. Cut him some slack.” One could draw a close parallel to the fall-from-grace story of John Mayer. The big difference is, Mayer realized his mistakes and didn’t make a big deal about convincing everyone of his new leaf. He just quietly packed up and left town, waited a while, put out a phenomenal record, and went back to being quiet.

Yeezy has been his own worst enemy by attempt to be his own most vocal proponent.

Warning: this record is not for the faint of heart, sensitive of hearing, or easily offended. But even if you pass all of those criteria, I’m not sure that this record is really for anyone, period. It is cacophonous and vulgar to such a degree that even the successful elements are tarnished. West has suggested that this is a piece of art and that he is a master artist. I never want to be one to question an artists integrity in creating their art, but I have to say that I hear something entirely different… but I’ll get to that.

Here’s the deal. As far as artistry is concerned, Kanye is among the best. His delivery (solely a matter of opinion) is one of my favorites. His marketing – while self-aggrandizing – is often brilliant. Here, however, he seems to have run out of anything insightful to say and is resorting to the lesser-value content that permeates the genre. (Rick Rubin even attests to the late-stage songwriting.) He’s one of the best in the business, but this is him simply not living up to his potential… but, again, I’ll get to that.

The album opens promisingly enough in the first 57 seconds of “On Sight” before West loses the plot and eventually lets Daft Punk solo their way out of the song. The entirety of “New Slaves” is visionary. “Blood on the Leaves” is a return to the greatness of 808s, with a hint of Late Registration. There’s something to “Guilt Trip” in that it takes that 808s mentality but allows Kanye to do what he does best, simple, straight-up rap.

Warning: Obviously, this is partially editted for TV, but the content is still strong.

Over an above all of this, I just hear a guy who is deeply hurting and unwilling to admit it.

We all know that Kanye was deeply effected by his mother’s death. This devastation was clearly evident on 808s and Heartbreak. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy re-introduced a rapping West, reborn. The themes were darker and the approach was far more aggressive. Gone were the playful days of The College Dropout. On Yeezus, he asks us to receive this latest work as a piece of minimalist art from the Steve Jobs of music. All I can hear is a guy who hasn’t fully exorcised his demons and is at a place of moral and creative bankruptcy who has to keep creating, but has nothing more to give.

He wants us to believe that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks, yet he can’t survive without our validation

I’m going to use my platform to tell people that they’re not being fair. Anytime I’ve had a big thing that’s ever pierced and cut across the Internet, it was a fight for justice. Justice. – Kanye West,  New York Times interview 6/11/13

I think that there is room here to compare to Eminem‘s Recovery. In much the same way, Mathers came out and said, “I don’t care what you think,” delivered (arguably) the best album of his career, and then went back to doing his own thing. There was no convincing needed. The work spoke for itself.

‘Ye’s need for validation – for the sake of “Justice”, or any other reason – will always keep him from reaching his greatest heights. I still believe that he has great art in him, but he needs to  take a cue from John Mayer and really accept himself before he asks us to do so.

I always welcome feedback; on this particular piece, I’ll even come right out and ask for it. I’d love to hear what you think of this record and how far off base you think I am.

Interview :: Chris Clayton

Chris Clayton is an independent record producer, recording artist and worship leader based in the Dallas area. I’ve known him by name and reputation for the better part of a decade. In my early days in the music business we worked with many of the same artists and when I moved back to Texas I happened to end up in the same church with him. Over the last seven years we’ve played together, hung out, and reminisced about the old days. He was kind enough to give me some of his time to talk about some of the changes that have taken place in the music business – specifically recording and producing records – over the last decade.

The Paradigm Shift in Production

Ryan: I’m coming into this with a bias of media overload. There’s just so much new stuff out there. And because it’s so easy to get into, I’m wondering what impact that’s making on everybody from the critic to the producer to the artist to the manager just wading through the wealth of stuff out there.

So, in terms of artists that you are meeting, what’s changing in terms of personality, expectations or people that are coming to you for your help or your employment?

Chris: Your question kind of stumped me because, well, it’s a great question and it needs to be addressed, it needs to be discussed. There’s definitely been a paradigm shift in the last, you could say ten years, but it’s probably been the last five. It seems like it’s just getting quicker and quicker the way things in the industry are shifting.

Ryan: Is technology the driving force in that?

Chris: Yeah, I was going to say technology is a driving force. I think social networking is a driving force behind it.

Ryan: That, and there’s no barrier to entry.

Johnny Cash, Elvis, Macklemore, and The Civil Wars

Chris: Right, so like fifty years ago the only way to get national recognition as an artist was to be signed to a label. You look at like Johnny Cash, Elvis, that genre and that group back then, it was a label that had to thrust that into the marketplace. There was no way to do it on your own. It was a much smaller niche. The artist pocket was much smaller. But now the world has become much smaller and especially in terms of the production side it’s become a lot easier just to do your own thing, set up as an independent, and there’s a lot of good in that in my opinion. I think labels do some great work but there’s a lot more freedom [as an independent].

I’ll speak about him, I don’t know a lot about him, but Macklemore, here’s a guy that’s selling millions of records already, doing incredible things and he’s an independent. I mean, he just played Billboard Music Awards as an independent. The Civil Wars, another great example, an independent artist winning a Grammy. And it’s becoming not as much of a shocker these days with people realizing they don’t need the big brother of a label behind them to put their music out.

Distribution in the Digital Age

Chris: iTunes is a great example: the mere fact that I can go to my digital distributor and upload all my music and in less than 48 hours be worldwide (?). That’s unheard of. That would be a pipe dream eight years ago, ten years ago.

Ryan: You just don’t even need physical.

Chris: Honestly, those are conversations that are being had, especially with artists that I produce. “Do we press? Do we only do digital?” And there are companies that sell the digital download cards and I utilized that for a live record we did. I would say that some artists’ audiences are there where you could do that and be all digital. There are some older folks who don’t really embrace that and still want the physical. And I’m like that, I like to have the artwork in my hand. I’m a “credit junky.” I love looking at who produced it, who played on it, etc.

Ryan: I had a friend who did an album cover for a guy and I thought, “Why?!?” The cost. You’re just losing so much, plus paying someone to design it. It’s crazy to me. I get the point of selling it live, if you’ve got the audience to buy it…

Chris: Right. And I encourage a lot of folks who are starting out who don’t have a lot of a following or shows lined up out the wazoo “there’s really no reason for you to print anything right now.” A lot of it, though, is just “I’m making the CD, I want to have the CD. Not just a bunch of ones and zeroes files.”

Ryan: Right, you want to have that “artifact” in your hands.

Chris: So, I duplicate because I want to capture people right there on the spot, but I’ll still have people come up to the table at the end of the night like, “hey are ya’ll on iTunes?” and I’ll say “yeah” and they’ll just keep walking. So then at that point, I’m praying as an artist going, “I hope you remember to buy it when you get home.” Because as soon as you walk out that door, the world is going to hit you and you’ve got a thousand things on your mind.

Artist Entitlement

Ryan: So, I have this bias (fair or unfair) that there’s a growing sense of entitlement amongst would be recording artists. With the ease of home production, the rash of reality music competitions, YouTube, and plenty of people saying “you should make a record”, people who have no business making records are flooding the market. Of course, the flip side is true: the ease of entry is allowing artists who would never have been discovered to get out there. Are you seeing this entitlement mentality?

Chris: Yeah, I think there is an entitlement issue out there because of the ease of technology people can go buy ProTools or any other kind of digital audio workstation and be setup within 24 hours and record a record. And there are people who have done that and made incredible records through that, and there are some people who have done records that way and it’s backfired and taken them backwards.

Because it’s so easy to make a record, I think it takes the competition up so much higher because if anyone can do a record, then you’ve really got to stand out. If everybody is putting a record out, then you’ve got to kind of rise above the average.

The Plight of the Producer

Ryan: Is that making it easier or harder in terms of getting work as a producer these days?

Chris: It does make it a little bit harder, but I don’t think that people aren’t necessarily hiring me for the ability to push “record” and “stop”. They aren’t hiring me because of my studio or my gear choices that I have. That’s kind of a by-product of what you get when you hire me as a producer. They’re hiring me because of past work and I always tell people that a producer’s best calling card is his last record he’s produced.I would say that 9 times out of 10 – if not 10 times out of 10 – I’m hired because people heard something that I produced and they hear what I can do with songs or what I can do with production.

Ryan: So, what’s happening when perhaps the entitled artist sets foot into the studio. Is there some stand-offish, “don’t touch my songs” kind of attitude coming through?

Chris: As a producer, my job is to help an artist find his or her potential talent within the raw talent they bring me and helping to kind of smooth out the raw talent. I always tell people that if you don’t walk away challenged and changed as a songwriter and musician then I’ve kind of failed in my job of being a producer. My job is to push you to the next level.

And you have to approach each artist differently in that way. Some artists you can push real hard and they take it well and sometimes you push an artist hard and they don’t take it well. Every artist has to be handled differently. I always tell young producers that half of producing is psychology. You have to learn people’s temperaments and attitudes. No two artists can be produced exactly the same. Musically you may do some of the same things, but from an approach and a temperament and attitude and perspective you just have to feel the waters and go from there.


Ryan: With that in mind, then, how do you coach the artist into a place where they are able to be successful with the record that you help them create?

Chris: I’ve been very fortunate to get to work with some really great people. There have been some jobs that are harder than others, but due to the area that I tend to work in with worship artists, most people have a true sense of calling to what they are doing. I just always try to re-iterate to them that the key to longevity is to be humble and teachable. That’s a lot easier when your purpose is bigger than yourself or your music.

If you’re looking for a great producer in the Dallas area, check out Chris’ production site The Beddington House.

Hanson: The Walk

Release Date: July 24, 2007

In anticipation of next week’s release of Anthem, I wanted to go back and re-visit my favorite Hanson album, The Walk. Following a successful (if slightly mellow) outing on 2004’s Underneath, the band removed all the speed bumps to create a timeless record, securing the place amongst the greatest rock bands on the business today. It’s a shame that too few people ever actually heard it.

The album opens with the DD Dliwayo School Choir chanting “Ngi Ne Themba (I Have Hope)” leading into the first single, “Great Divide” which features the choir as well. The inclusion of the choir was intended to help raise awareness of the band’s charity work. Sales from the “Great Divide” single went to the Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto, South Africa. Not that this was a one-time only event, you can still partner with the band to support their giving on the Take the Walk website.

Middle brother Taylor brings his power vocals and personal fervor strongest on “Georgia” which cleverly wordplays the Ray Charles classic. While the entire record is very radio-friendly, this may be the most consumable track for the casual listener. The children’s choir returns alongside trio vocals on the Taylor-led deep cut “Blue Sky“.

This album seems to have a wealth of lead vocals by youngest brother/drummer Zac – and shows him to be (arguable) the best vocalist of the bunch. His “Running Man” is one of the few low points on the album and provides a crystal ball glance into the future of the band’s direction. This mis-step is easily forgivable, though, when followed by the breakthrough performance of “Go“. This song is easily my favorite of anything that they’ve done and may be an all-time favorite of any artist in my collection.

Eldest, Isaac, has a few starring moments on the record as well. Another favorite throughout the band’s entire catalog occurs with him at the helm. “Watch Over Me” succeeds due to his steady, lower range that his siblings lack. He is also able to provide a tempered growl in the tag.

With 17 tracks on the extended edition (only $9.49 from AmazonMP3) the value proposition alone makes this a great record. Recently, my friend Dan and I were discussing whether or not a band can “peak.” I said, you just never know when a band is going to come back with a great record unexpectedly (and I cited Green Day‘s American Idiot) as an example. In my mind, this album is the high point of their collection, but I certainly hope to see them surpass it in the future.

The Silent Comedy: Friends Divide

Release Date: June 10, 2013

I met the guys of The Silent Comedy last summer somewhat by chance. I was trying to get a band to come out to play an event for my company. The guy I wanted wasn’t available, but I got connected to The Silent Comedy instead. I was immediately blown away. They’ve got an amazing aesthetic, but that pales in comparison to their genre-bending music – at times full on rock n roll, at other times fit for a saloon. Fittingly, they’ve had songs featured on both History Channel series and video game trailers.

This EP comes amidst two years of heavy touring across the U.S. and U.K along with the (not quite) equally impressive The Heavy. (At some point when time allows I’ll revisit my story of attempting to catch their show at the El Rey Theater in L.A.) The band continues to tour this summer again with The Heavy, as well as a stint with the amazing Z.Z. Ward.

God Neon: A raucous, barn-burner. The whole album plays out like a night at the bar and this track is your first shot of whiskey. As someone on twitter commented, this is surely a “chair thrower” live. With a driving rhythm and trademark jangly banjo taking the lead, Josh’s aggressive vocals provide a welcomed wake-up call.

Always Two: For some reason, this track reminds me a lot of Pete Yorn‘s Day I Forgot(2008) album. There’s also a hint of Ryan Adams in there. Heartbreaking and relatable, “Oh darlin’ don’t be sad / some dreams they never come true. Remember what your mother said / baby there are always two: / the one you love and the one who loves you.” I would have loved to hear a high harmony on “the one you love.”

Light of Day: Easily my favorite track on the record, this track has a spiritual kinship to their “Bartholomew.” You can almost see a ghost pirate ship sailing through the midnight fog as the eerie intro hits. The full group vocals on the chorus add a fullness and power while extending the creepiness a step further. The song is featured below in a tour promo video.

Simple Thing: This one strikes me as a late night tavern toe-tapper. It’s got a playful, jaunty style about it.

You Don’t Know Me: This is not the classic Cindy Walker ballad made famous by Ray Charles. As I mentioned the album feeling like a night at the bar, this is the “maybe we should call it a night” track. If “Light of Day” is reminiscent of “Bartholomew”, this track brings to mind the band’s “Gasoline“, though it never really lights up the way the latter does.

Ghosts: The doubled vocals by Jeremiah and Josh showcases their familial similarities, while highlighting each one’s uniqueness. It may be the lyrical content, but this track (again) brings to mind the great Ryan Adams. Closing down our night at the bar, this track calls for one more round for everyone with pints held high, arms wrapped around one another as we all shout to the rafters.

There are a ton of artists out there who are right on the verge of greatness. These guys are definitely putting in the 10,000 hours necessary. They’ve got the skill and they’ve made the connections. While they are a bit niche, their undefinable genre has been growing. I’m hoping for the best for them and the next time they make it to Dallas and I’m going to yell at everyone around me to go see them.

Go buy this and everything else they’ve put out. Now.

Artist of the Month :: Hanson

I first encountered Hanson the same way many others did: during the summer of 1997 through the outrageously overplayed “MMMBop“. And, like many, I determined that this was enough for me to never want to  have anything to do with the band. Then, years later, in the most unexpected and unplanned way, I became a fan.

I had returned to my dorm room after a day of classes and flipped on the television which still happened to be tuned to MTV. On the opposite side of the room with my back turned to the tv, I was really digging the song that I was hearing so I turned around to learn more. After a few seconds I said to myself, “hey, that looks like Hanson”. And so I watched all the way through to the credits to find that the song was in fact by Hanson, the title track to their 2000 record, This Time Around.

Fast forward another 3 years, I’m living in Portland, OR and spending most of my free time at the library. Digging through their CD collection, I come across This Time Around, and remembering back to that random listen 3 years prior, I decided to give it a try. (It should be noted that this is the same library collection that made me a fan of Ben Folds, John Mayer, Simon and Garfunkel, and Elton John.) I was hooked. This Time Around is a solid record with a string of memorable tracks including the title track, “Save Me”, “Hand in Hand”, and “Song to Sing”. The band’s voices had passed puberty and the tone was rich. The piano-anchored compositions were immediately relatable without seeming contrived. (Just FYI, I don’t listen to anything prior to this record.)


Obviously, that record could never have lived up to the expectations set by their breakthrough single. As such, they spent a lengthy amount of time separating from their label and recording their follow-up independent release Underneath (2004) as detailed in the documentary Strong Enough to Break. This collection, again, was an all-around great record with plenty of quality songs that no one ever heard including “Penny and Me”, “Underneath”, and “Lost Without Each Other”.

In my opinion, the band reached its biggest musical breakthrough on 2007’s The Walk. On this record, each singer offers strong lead vocal efforts. The collection as a whole is perhaps the strongest of any release in the catalog. And the songs would have been perfect for Adult Contemporary or Top 40 radio if anyone would have played them. The inclusion of an African children’s choir on “Great Divide” is a nice touch highlighting the band’s charity work. Eldest brother Isaac shines on “Watch Over Me”. Perhaps my favorite song from the band is the Zac-fronted “Go” which is both fragile and firm in the greatest of ways.

Upon my early listening, I was not as enamored with Shout it Out (2010) as I had been with previous releases. The Walk had been so solidly pop-rock that the soul-bluesy Shout it Out was a bit of a surprise. The production on the record is a bit less robust than on earlier releases which I’m usually ok with, but here it just seems sterile. I’m usually not a fan of horns and that holds true here as well. While I’m glad that the single “Thinkin’ ’bout Somethin'” garnered more mainstream attention than anything else they had done in a long time, I felt that it sorely missed the greatness of the prior three records. Again, the Zac-led “Use Me Up” is great in the same manner as “Go”.


Now in their 20th year as a band, the brothers are set to release Anthemlater this month. The lead single, “Get the Girl Back” seems to stay in the same sound range of Shout it Out which is a little disappointing. However, as long as they don’t completely abandon the piano in favor of the Rhodes keyboard or other such keyed instrument, all should be fine.

Ben Folds Five: Live

Release Date: June 4, 2013

Some artists just sound better live: Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, Edwin McCain – and for me, Ben Folds.

I first gave Ben Folds Five a listen in college because one of my closest friends was a fan and had all their records. I was unimpressed. While sojourning in a far away land (Portland, OR), I came across Folds’ solo Live album at the neighborhood library. It wasn’t until watching the DVD portion that I finally “got it.” I went out immediately and bought that record for myself. I love his (solo) Songs for Silverman album, but everything else has been very “meh” to me. The recent reunion record, The Sound of the Life of the Mind with the other two who form the “Five” (Robert Sledge – bass, Darren Jessee – drums) had a couple of solid songs, but wasn’t interesting enough on its own accord to warrant a review.

In delving deeper I realized that the work of the Five is a bit more jazz-based in its composition than Folds’ solo work which has more of a traditional pop structure. There’s nothing wrong with that, but placing the non-sequitur lyrics Folds is known for over the non-traditional pace of jazz arrangement can make for a very busy experience. Further, I feel that the piano is a very “honest” instrument (along with the banjo and cello). This allowed even the most absurd songs from Folds’ solo Live to have a warmth to them. I feel that adding the bass and drums takes away from some of that transcendence and brings you back to reality, which is a pretty major loss.

My final complaint is the structure of the album. I love a good live performance album recorded on one night in one location where you really get to experience the show as it was. The compilation live album – with songs culled from multiple performances across varied locations (as heard here) just doesn’t ring true to me. Maybe if I didn’t know it was that, I wouldn’t care so much. A good live performance album should show introduce new listeners to old material, former listeners to new material, and lifers to some hidden gems and new takes on old favorites. A compilation live album tends to be more “greatest hits”-ish and presumably seeks to cover up flaws. It’s just not as real to me.

Two standout tracks from last years The Sound of the Life of the Mindshine here. The lyrics of “Erase Me” are not as buried as they were on the studio version and paint a saddened picture that was not previously evident to me. “Draw a Crowd‘s” already sophomoric lyrics are augmented by an instrumental mishap that plunges Folds deeper into his humorous self.

Classic Five tracks which were also included on the solo Live are part of the setlist. “Narcolepsy” allows the band to showcase their skills with great solo interludes. More great jams occur on “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces“. Although “Dwarf” is the penultimate track, it closes with the classic “Thank You, Goodnight”, though followed by a final cut. We could chalk this up as an encore, however, the fan fave “Song for the Dumped” ends with a call for even more encores – and leaves us unrequited.

Of course, a Folds collection (soloed or Fived) would be incomplete without “Brick” which is helped along here by the additional musicians who keep it from moving beyond depressing. Perhaps Folds’ most relatable, radio-friendly track (and my personal favorite from the catalog), “Landed” is also present. It seems that Folds’ voice falters several times during the performance and leads me back to the studio version.

All in all, the record is a great introduction or re-introduction to the group. While I would lean more heavily toward the solo Live record, many will probably gravitate toward the more robust sounds of Five Live.