CD REVIEW Ben Folds Lets You Play the Producer
Mix to Your Delight, then Mix It Again!
Stems & Seeds
Produced by Dennis Herring
Released February 10, 2009
The Ben Folds fanbase has spoken: 2008’s Way to Normal was TOO LOUD and we want our money back; or, at least, a remix.
Given that the majority of Ben Folds’ followers are uptight audiophiles (and I say this with utmost respect), it’s clear that they just weren’t satisfied with the way the last record sounded. Instead of letting his fans down, Folds decided to re-release Way to Normal, with a fresh mix sensitive to the most discriminating ear. However, the questionable mixing doesn’t end there; because if the fans hate the mix, then they should mix it themselves, right?
Released in mid-February, Stems & Seeds is a double-disc product that opens up new possibilities in the artist-listener relationship. Fans with Macs (read: audiophiles) can load the stems of the original Way to Normal album into their Garageband software — and let the experiments begin! You can turn the vocals up – or down – cut out the bass track, add effects, or chop out the drums arbitrarily for a genre-bending contemporary experience. This move alone proves that Folds is approaching genius. Finding a way to merge the culturally-ubiquitous with the culturally-necessary has never looked — or sounded — better. Such an effort hearkens back to Radiohead’s remix contest, where the aged Brits released modified stems of a small selection of songs encouraging fans to “make them better.”
The other disc contains the seeds, which translates to the full Way to Normal tracklist in addition to some peculiar gems: full versions of “fake” songs Folds leaked on an early hoax version of the album and a couple of live tracks. The new mix treatment sounds less harsh, and allows Folds’ vocals to sit calmly above the rich instrumentation. The release of each Ben Folds solo album has seen increasing attention to multi-instrumental arrangements and a variety of sonic color choices. The lyrical content of this album is more blatantly humorous, and Folds returns to using casual vulgarity. In “Bitch Went Nuts,” he matter-of-factly sings “… she called me ‘cunt’.” Sillier lyrics follow and also find themselves weaved into songs like “Free Coffee” (“they didn’t charge me / they didn’t charge me”) and the opener “Effington” (where Folds will start a new “effinglife”). Though “Free Coffee” includes a novel electronic backbeat, these three make up the weaker tracks on the album.
The clear standouts are “You Don’t Know Me” and “Cologne,” both of which bring out two very distinct strengths of Folds’ writing style. The former is a bouncy pop tune with tongue-twisting lyrics that glide forward with no slip difficulty. Giving them an extra boost is Regina Spektor, and the vocal duet is a rare moment in recent pop collaboration. The slower, contemplative “Cologne” features Folds’ falsetto over a vivid chord progression, often arpeggiated. The string arrangement found on this song is a somewhat diluted memento of the earlier Ben Folds Five piece “Narcolepsy.” Even the rock and roll bulldozer “Errant Dog” will translate nicely live, and could pass as an early Rolling Stones b-side.
Stems & Seeds is a success — not necessarily for the music but mainly for its bold decision to challenge fans to mix the album according to their listening pleasure. The album will become a prized toy for fans and curious listeners to revisit frequently, giving new identity to the record itself. Folds is still writing strong, catchy hits, but his age might put him past the humor he’s injected into the new material. Take your own stab at the new songs by purchasing Stems & Seeds and remixing it yourself, or just catch Ben Folds when he rocks MIT for our annual Spring Weekend concert. Tickets are currently on sale at http://sao.mit.edu/tickets/2009/spring-concert.