Ben Folds gets symphonic on his latest release

“So There” is clever and eclectic, despite some relative low points

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Ben Folds is a master of the Very Good Album. That is to say, he consistently crafts full-lengths composed almost entirely of excellent songs in any number of styles, alongside one or two duds. Folds is such a talented songwriter that even his duds aren’t bad — they just don’t stand out next to his many masterworks. “Ben Folds Five” and “Songs For Silverman” may be exceptions to this statement, as they are great from start to finish.

Folds’ latest release, “So There,” prominently features the orchestral stylings of the yMusic Ensemble, and it concludes with a three-movement piano concerto composed by Folds and performed by the Nashville Symphony. It also fits firmly within the standards of a Very Good Album.

Opener “Capable of Anything” is upbeat and piano-driven, providing a very strong start to the album. Its lyrics are at once uplifting and vaguely insulting, like many of his best conversational tunes. The song’s arrangement is baroque pop a la Sufjan Stevens, rich with swirling flutes and slick string ornaments.

Follower “Not A Fan” is considerably more sparse, with only piano and melancholy strings accompanying Folds as he describes a friend’s mediocre musical taste. It’s a gorgeous composition that contrasts nicely with the relative bombast of “Capable of Anything,” and the lyrics are wryly humorous without becoming judgmental.

The title track is good, but not a standout with chromatic, tempo-shifting bridge serving as the main highlight. “Long Way To Go,” on the other hand, crosses over into dud territory: uninteresting with a plodding, repetitive rhythm and an anti-climactic mid-song musical peak that leaves the second half feeling like filler.

“Phone in a Pool,” however, is one of Folds’ finest songs in recent memory. Instantly catchy and self-deprecatingly confessional, the song’s chorus is pure ear candy and segues back to the verse with a smooth electric guitar riff. “Yes Man” boasts stunning, massive vocal harmonies and a charming refrain of “Why didn’t you tell me that I got fat?”

“F10-D-A” is by far the album’s oddest track, in which Folds plays on chord names with the phrase “Effed in the A with a D.” The humor is crude, but it’s hard not to chuckle when a group of highly talented professional musicians makes a nerdy music joke about swear words. “I’m Not The Man” is a slow-building ballad which runs a bit long but reaches a lovely, earnest finale as Folds lists off the things to which he once aspired before declaring, “I just wanna be.”

The album ends with a twenty-minute concerto. This intriguing piece of music makes striking use of sections of solo piano contrasted with sections of massive symphonic complexity. Movement Three of the piece includes a bizarre theme reminiscent of circus music which transitions stylistically back to solo piano before ending on a quiet but whimsically chromatic piano, horn and harp melody. The concerto merits its own separate review, but generally speaking it’s enjoyable and captures Folds’ unique style in a highly atypical musical setting.

On the whole, “So There” is very good but feels a bit more like a compilation than a cohesive full-length. Admittedly, the cover makes this ambiguous by referring to “8 chamber rock songs … plus his Concerto.”

The parts can be taken together or on their own. Either way, they’re worth a listen, and the first eight tracks as a unit — relative duds included — are on par with almost anything else in Folds’ extensive catalogue. Smartly crafted and highly eclectic, “So There” is sure to please old fans and newcomers alike.

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