Monday 6 July 2009

The Ben Folds Bastard Effect

1 solemn face.

After a week of having my ears assailed by monstrous amounts of compression (and not for the first time), I thought a sonic palate-cleanser would be in order.

You see, when I review a record for Heavy Soil, I listen to it a lot. I listen to it on my iPod – on trains and pavements and (occasionally) in my workplace, in a vain attempt to insulate myself from the hubbub of competing telephone conversations in a too-small office. I listen to it hoofing out of my Denon stereo. And, best of all, I listen to it on ludicrously (to some) expensive headphones, lying in bed, the only illumination the cyan of my alarm-clock radio (which, incidentally, has FUCKING STOPPED WORKING AFTER ONLY 6 MONTHS.)

... And, by the time I come to write the review, my spongey brain is sopping. Pretty much saturated with the music in question. Sometimes, it's like being saturated with Champagne. Others, like being saturated with less pleasant liquid.

And perhaps that's why the posts on Heavy Soil always end up so goddamn long. Because I'm trying to wring my brain dry of all that music.

Sometimes, I almost hate writing reviews. I know: weep for me.

Why in the name of Beelzebub are you telling me all this?

Fair question. I suppose in an attempt to convey the degree to which posting an album review on Heavy Soil is like bursting from a dank and fetid tunnel into glorious, airy, sunlit countryside. All of a sudden, I am free to listen to whatever I like.

And what I liked was this:

Ah – Mr Folds ...

You may remember that Heavy Soil was no admirer of Ben Folds' latest solo album, the childishly narcissistic and spitefully misogynous Way To Normal.

It was, therefore, a palate cleanser in more ways than one to return to Whatever & Ever Amen – released in 1997, back when Ben Folds was still plural. 'One Angry Dwarf' is definitely one of my favourite songs on the album (alongside the fantastic 'Kate') – and what an album opener. It grabs, dear reader, it grabs. It holds. It shakes.

It's also refreshingly unproduced. The album was recorded in a house rented by Folds, and is free of studio-induced ubercompression and innumerable overdubs.

Anyhow, it got me thinking

Specifically, thinking about musicians' perceived personality. You see, before listening to Way To Normal, I'd tended to assume that Ben Folds was a pretty decent sort of chap. Perhaps a touch irritating at times – but extremely likable. Way To Normal radically changed that perception. It left me thinking that, actually, Mr Folds might just be a bit of a twat. And an unpleasant one, at that.

And, since then, I haven't fancied listening to Ben Folds (Five) once. Until now. So that's 9-10 months of abstinence from a band/artist to which I'd previous listened frequently.

That's a pretty considerable effect.

I can't imagine that an album that was simply bad would've had this kind of effect. Sure, there'd've been disappointment; maybe a touch of disillusionment, were the artist in question to be one I'd hallowed as reliable. But not wholesale avoidance.

It seems pretty clear, then, that there's a degree to which my liking for an artist is connected to my conception of his or her personality.

I don't actually think this should be the case, from the perspective of critical integrity. It's my view that one should review product, not producer. But I'm pretty sure it is the case, nevertheless.

I should add: this doesn't mean that I must like an artist's personality before liking their music. There're plenty of musicians whom I either know or suspect to suffer from various character flaws, and this doesn't necessarily affect my opinion of their music.

Instead, it seems to have something to do with betrayal. Because I'd previously extrapolated a personality for Ben Folds on the evidence of his work pre-Way To Normal, the sudden revelation of misanthropic-Folds was deeply disconcerting and repellent.

Whereas if I'd thought from the beginning that the guy was a bastard, I reckon I'd just have thought, 'That was a pretty crap album' and had done with it.

What do you reckon, then, soilers? Am I a weirdo? Or have you experienced similar feelings yourselves? Oh com[m]e[nt], all ye faithful.


Amelie said...

On creativity:
Every artist should be allowed a "dry patch" or "less than amazing" period in his or her lifetime. We can't all be incredible all the time. Having said that, I personally believe that once an artist has attained a certain credibility, comfort level, and studio of his/her dreams, it becomes more difficult to create edgy music...because the edge has been eliminated.

On Ben Folds:
In my opinion, his genius as of late has resided in his ability to produce other artists' albums. Take Amanda Palmer's first solo album. To hear the originals, then hear what he did with instrumentation, is nothing short of amazing.

On personalities:
I, too, am guilty of gauging an artist's personality by his/her music. We humans are critics, label-ers, and categorizers by nature (I believe it goes back to our evolutionary cycle) and I am more than willing to admit that I judge a person by the music he/she listens to. Favorite band is Nickelback? Let's not hang out.

I see nothing wrong with this, as long as it doesn't turn into moral classification. Zappa's music sounds like it's on drugs, but Zappa was as sober as the chair I'm sitting on.

Anonymous said...

My enjoyment of music is enhanced by the impression that the creator would be the kind of person I'd respect. Not necessarily someone I'd want to know -- I love Thelonious Monk's music, I have great respect and affection for him and his sense of humour (in music and deed) appeals to me, but I imagine he'd be very difficult person to hang out with. But I don't get the impression he was ever truly unpleasant.

Bitterness has been a humorous undercurrent to Ben Folds' work, but I agree Way To Normal made him come across as a total bastard. Even if rumour tells you an artist isn't very nice, it's problematic when it actually comes across in the music. Maybe he's just lost his way a bit recently.

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