Our favorite sardonic and geeky alt rocker is back, but this time he’s bringing friends.
In a move fitting of only Ben Folds, he is putting out his first official “greatest hits” album, but instead of him performing them, he has gotten some of the best a cappella from universities and high schools around to help him out with “Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!” For those unfamiliar with a cappella bands, the concept is to perform full songs, without any instruments other than your own body. Everything you hear is snaps, claps, stomps, whistles and of course vocals.
The album contains 16 of Folds’ tracks, re-imagined by some of the best minds colleges have to offer. Overall the album isn’t subtle or soft. The idea of a cappella leads to a very full sound, even if the original might have just been Ben and a piano.
As for track selection, most everything a Folds fan would be looking for is there. Notable omissions however are “Annie Waits”, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and “Smoke”. Folds even gets in on some of the fun, performing on new versions of “Boxing” and “Effington”, two songs from different times in his career. While “Effington” shines, “Boxing” falls flat. Maybe it’s just too old for Foldsto redo, but it’s one of the worst tracks on the album.
Standout tracks include a fantastic job on “Selfless, Cold, and Composed” by the Sacramento State Jazz Singers. They handled the instrumental ending in a way that rivals the haunting original even though they managed to put some different varieties on the vocal music, by incorporating a lot of choral style hymns and even some scat singing. The other big surprise was “Evaporated,” which strays farthest from the original, but because of that fact, it isn’t bound by one’s own preconceptions. As expected, “Army” might be the best overall track on the album. It’s upbeat humor matches perfectly with the very idea of college-style a cappella. The translation is flawless, and this version might even surpass the original. The end cap on this album is a simple but great take on “The Luckiest,” which wraps up the whole album excellently.
Unfortunately, while these songs are all done pretty well, they do lose something in translation. Part of the reason the Ben Folds has been successful is that half his songs are fun, ironic and playful while the others are truly sad and sometimes even a bit disturbing. No song suffers more from this then “Fred Jones Part 2″ which is a song that invokes true hate towards the frantic pace of life and one man’s struggle with being replaced. However, this version almost seems happy and doesn’t inspire the same feelings that the original did. Technically, it’s fine and one of the better arrangements, but it lost its meaning and soul once you removed Folds’ shaking voice and timid piano. While it is not the fault of anyone involved, it’s hard to portray the weariness that the originals had using this format. Additionally, each individual song is certainly listenable, but as a whole, it is a lot for people who aren’t normally fans of a cappella.
It is still a “must buy” for fans of Folds’ music and fans of a cappella. Any big Ben Folds fan would be wrong to look over the album simply because it’s a “greatest hits” style compilation. Any a cappella fan should also look into this, because it’s a great selection of different styles and takes on one artist. However, if you’re just a casual fan, or someone looking to jump on the Ben Folds bandwagon, I’d suggest going to the classics like “Rockin’ the Suburbs” or “Whatever and Ever Amen” or even his newest work “Way to Normal”. It’s not perfect but Ben Folds has never been about being perfect. He’s about being creative and going outside the normal. This is just a different way of doing that.