Album Review: Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!

Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella

Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella

Technically, this probably would have made my Best of 2009 So Far list… if I’d managed to listen to it in time to compile that list. Like I’ve said, I am so dreadfully behind on listening to new music this year that its really sort of sad.  So my album reviews here are really more of “things that have finally made it into my CD drive” rather than “new and fresh off the presses”.  Oh well, that’s life.

Anyhow, this CD brings together two things that I have perhaps a bit of an irrational soft spot for:  Ben Folds and his quirky piano rock, and college a cappella groups.  I could go into a lengthy discourse about how I’m still sad that I never went to a college with any a cappella groups, but I won’t.  Suffice it to say, sometimes I think, well, if I go back to school for another degree, maybe I can join one then!

The CD is a nice romp through Folds’ musical catalog, from his own take on “Boxing” (from 1995’s Ben Folds Five) to “You Don’t Know Me” (2008’s Way to Normal).  I don’t think a better set of great Ben Folds songs could have been assembled, really.  This album is essentially a best-of collection for Folds, despite the fact that he only sings on two of the tracks.  He’s left the fourteen other tracks to be desconstructed and rebuilt by college a cappella groups across the country, hand picked by Folds to appear on the recording.  A cappella might get mocked in the mainstream, but don’t be fooled: these kids have some serious talent.  In a world dominated by endless studio sessions and AutoTune, this album is simply talented young people standing around microphones, singing their hearts out.  In fact, though it pains me a bit to say it, I’d say the weakest spots on the CD are the two tracks that Folds arranged and performed himself a cappella.  It’s not like they’re bad tracks by any means, they just don’t seem to sit well with the rest of the album for some reason to me.  (Although I do like the fact that he performed “Boxing” from his first album and “Effington” from his most recent.  Whether he did it on purpose or not, I don’t know, but it’s a nice little full circle moment.)

Tracks that stand out in particular for me:  The Spartones’ “Not the Same”, The Washington University in St. Louis Mosaic Whispers’ “Still Fighting It” (the last line of which, “you’re so much like me, I’m sorry”, just always kills me, no matter who is singing it), and The Washington University in St. Louis Amateurs’ “The Luckiest”, the arrangement of which is just hauntingly beautiful.

Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella! was released April 28 on Sony Records.
Check out Ben Folds’ official site, or buy the album.