Album review: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, "Lonely Avenue"

October 18, 2010

I'd never be so vain as to think that the song is about me (and don't you, don't you), but "Working Day," the opening track on the much-ballyhooed collaboration between twee piano balladeer and sorority heartthrob Ben Folds and English author and devout music lover Nick "High Fidelity" Hornby sure covers any of us who've been dubious about and/or oblivious to the charms of the former in the past. "I'm a loser and a poser"... Everything I write is s---," Folds sings, delivering Hornby's words in a quirky multi-tracked chirp over an annoyingly bubbly synth. "Some guy on the Net/Thinks I suck/And he should know/He's got his own blog."

Well, despite this blogger's predisposed aversion to most things Folds, that is offset by an equally strong and abiding fondness for all things Hornby -- heck, I even appreciated his screenplay for that unbearably creepy 2009 film "An Education" -- and there was no reason why on paper this pairing wouldn't work. Folds certainly has old-school Tin Pan Alley songwriter-for-hire chops, he just has no taste. Hornby has plenty of that -- his enduring worship of Bruce Springsteen aside -- and few novelists have ever shown as deft and unfailing an ear at choosing the perfect pop/rock soundtracks to inform and illuminate their characters' souls. But rather than the strengths of each balancing the other's weaknesses, the teaming brought out the worst in both.

Just witness "Levi Johnston's Blues," if you can bear to. Yeah, it really is about that Levi Johnston, baby daddy of Sarah Palin's grandkid. Driven by a romping Billy Joel-style piano that inexplicably yields at times to bad arena-Weezer "whoa-whoa'ing," sub-Sha Na Na "bop-bop shoo-wala-wala'ing," and incongruous Yes synth soloing, it's impossible to tell if Hornby is goofing on the insta-celeb, shirtless Vanity Fair model, and candidate for mayor of Wasilla, or empathizing with this troubled exemplar of Generation Y and pleading for a bit of understanding a la, say, Steve Earle's "John Walker's Blues." Let's go to the lyric sheet, shall we?

So I say, "Mother in law? No, we aint getting married"/ They say, "Soon you will boy, she just announced it"/ I get on my dirt bike and ride to my girl's home/Gonna lay down the law/Tell her what's goin' on/I'm a f---in' redneck, I live to hang out with the boys/Play some hockey, do some fishin' and kill some moose/I like to shoot the s--- and do some chillin' I guess/You f--- with me and I'll kick you're a--.

Really, Mr. Hornby? Really?

Things never get any better lyrically -- and "Password" might arguably be even worse as it portrays a cyber stalker trying to hack an ex's logon ("You went to school in Chicago/Your mom's maiden name is Dupree/Your favorite actor is DeNiro/Your birthday's 03/08/83"). But Hornby the lyricist may escape the scrutiny he deserves, overshadowed as his work is by some of the most overwrought, precious, and off-putting melodies and arrangements that Folds has crafted, from the faux-Hall and Oates blue-eyed soul of "From Above" to the mock- Barry Manilow of "Belinda," and from the "gonzo" New Wave of "Saskia Hamilton" to the Philip Glass meets "Glee" silliness of "Doc Pomus."

That last is ostensibly an homage to the legendary tunesmith who co-wrote "A Teenager in Love," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "This Magic Moment," and "Viva Las Vegas," among many other classics, but it's hard to imagine him using Folds' sheet music to wipe the doggie-doo off his boots. Gee, I wonder what Pomus would say about this disc if he could blog from the afterlife?

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, "Lonely Avenue"(Nonesuch) Rating:.5/4