Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue

January 01, 1970

(Nonesuch)

 

www.nonesuch.com

 

 

Lonely Avenue, the collaboration between American
singer-songwriter Ben Folds and British novelist/essayist Nick Hornby – whose
key subject is rock ‘n’ roll – dares you to criticize it with the lyrics of its
opening song, “A Working Day”:

 

“Some guy on the net
thinks I suck/And he should know/He’s got his own blog.”

 

Talk about preemptive strikes! But nevertheless, much as
Folds – who provided the music, sings and also produces – and lyricist Hornby
might like to present this album as an important, music-literary event that
transcends mere rock (and rock criticism), it has some distracting weaknesses
along with the strengths. A key problem is that, on several of the faster songs
– and “A Working Day” is an example – the melody is chasing the lyrics, with
Folds’ slight, thin voice unable to bring the two together.

 

Another, and maybe this is the result of Folds’ tendency to
let his voice push upward at the end of lines, is that some songs come off too
bright, too weightless, for the subject matter. The key “Doc Pomus,” a tribute
to how the late, physically challenged songwriter (of Ray Charles’ “Lonely
Avenue” and several Elvis songs) turned his tough life into Top-40 material,
lacks gravitas. One senses a Steely Dan sensibility here – an offhandedly sunny
delivery hiding a darker meaning. But Folds’ voice lacks the caustic acidity of
Donald Fagen.

 

In other songs, Hornby for all his talents sometimes delivers
an underwhelming lyric – “Levi Johnston’s Blues” simply isn’t as interesting as
its real-life subject and “Your Dogs” is awfully forced.

 

Still, elements do come together for several really striking
songs, Beatlesque in the tradition of an exquisitely arranged McCartney ballad
like “Yesterday or “Eleanor Rigby.” “Picture Window,” which contains Hornby’s
best and most sensitively observed lyric, masterfully uses implication rather
than overt statement to tell of a mother having to take her child to a hospital
on New Year’s Eve. And the empathetic “Claire’s Ninth” is bathed in gorgeous #Pet Sounds#-era harmonies and also
gives Folds a chance to showcase his flourishing piano work. (On other songs,
he uses Moog nicely.)

 

Throughout, the album benefits from string arrangements by
Paul Buckmaster, maybe pop music’s best ever – listen to the Stones’ “Moonlight
Mile” if you question that.

 

Hornby’s novels High
Fidelity
and Juliet, Naked
have a meta-quality about rock history, placing their fiction in a real-seeming
world of pop music. The album’s final song, “Belinda,” has some of that.
Intentionally overblown in its prettiness, so that you both like it and smile at its excessive grandiosity,
it slyly recalls a 1970s power ballad like “Mandy” in telling of a man
leaving  his lover for someone he met on
a plane:

 

“She had big
breasts/And a nice smile/No kids, either/she gave me extra complimentary
champagne.”
(Does this mean Hornby only flies first-class?)

 

Folds is at his best balancing the song’s humor and bathos,
even supplying a coda that sounds like McCartney getting down on “I’m Down.”

 

You can fault this album’s weaknesses while still admiring
its ambition. Folds actually showed a similar ambition producing William
Shatner’s great (and overlooked) Has
Been,
for which he and Hornby contributed one of the best songs, “That’s Me
Trying.”  Good to see that sparked this
further collaboration, and that they’re still trying.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Picture Window,” “Belinda” STEVEN
ROSEN

 

 

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