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Lonely Avenue

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    Lonely Avenue, a collaboration between two eminent artists—American singer-songwriter Ben Folds and English novelist Nick Hornby—was released September 28 on Nonesuch Records.

    Lonely Avenue has its own voice, which comes from some place between the two of us,” says author, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and now lyricist Nick Hornby of his collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Folds. Echoes Folds, “I felt like I’d found something rare on eBay or something. Nick should have done it before but it’s his first big effort and I feel like I really scored here.”

    In their respective media, Folds and Hornby have eloquently illustrated the power that a humble pop song can wield to assuage loneliness or accentuate longing, to offer a pat on the back or a shoulder to cry on. Hornby—who has garnered a devoted following and consistent critical acclaim for such alternately hilarious and heartbreaking music-themed novels as High Fidelity, About a Boy and the more recent Juliet, Naked—sent over sheets of lyrics to Folds from London. The agile Folds—who first gained notice with the success of his guitar-less power pop trio, The Ben Folds Five, at the height of the grunge era—then set Hornby’s words to music at the Nashville studio he’s worked in for the last ten years, a venerable old orchestral room once owned by RCA.

    At various points, Folds was joined by his current band-mates and a string section led by veteran arranger Paul Buckmaster, justifiably legendary for his work with Miles Davis, Elton John, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones. Notes Folds, “He’s the person who makes you feel the goose bumps at the chorus and you don’t know why”—and a first listen to the swelling strings on “Picture Window” will prove Folds’ point. Folds envisioned Lonely Avenue as an album on the technical as well as conceptual level, approaching everything like an old-school LP, recording in analog to two-inch tape and mastering at Abbey Road Studio with vinyl in mind as the preferred format. (Don’t worry if you don’t own a turntable; you can also find Lonely Avenue as a digital download or CD.)

    Lonely Avenue offers equal measures of humor and pathos in often deceptively cheerful songs that unfold like brilliant, bittersweet short stories. Folds literally gives voice to Hornby’s endearingly mixed up, lovelorn characters, who come across as sympathetic even at their most hapless. An aging pop singer has to endlessly and agonizingly reprise his one hit, a paean to a woman he left years ago, to the fans who still attend his shows (“Belinda”). A mother tries to avoid a stunning view of New Year’s Eve fireworks as she attends to her child in a London hospital (“Picture Window”). A suburban man tries to empathize with his tattoo-ed, Metallica-blasting neighbor, while drawing the line at his scary pit bulls (“Your Dogs”). Hornby reconstructs the world of crippled, Brill Building-era songwriter Doc Pomus circa 1962, a fabled tunesmith who held court at the Hotel Forrest in midtown Manhattan (“Doc Pomus”) and imagines, with unexpected tenderness, the moment when Alaskan teenager Levi Johnston discovered he’d impregnated the newly announced vice-presidential candidate’s daughter (“Levi Johnston’s Blues”). There’s also an exuberant, out-of-left-field mash note to real-life American poet Saskia Hamilton that celebrates her euphonious name as well as her work, and deftly manages to rhyme “idyllic with “dactylic.” (Folds’ melody makes that seem easy.)

    The official genesis of this project can be traced to a 2009 dinner conversation between the pair, but it was an idea that had germinated for years as these artists’ friendship evolved out of mutual admiration. As Folds recalls, “On one of my first UK tours, it was probably as High Fidelity was blowing up, Nick was at those shows. If I’d known that the guy whose book I was reading was there, I would have been really nervous. Even though we didn’t meet, that’s where it started. He was listening to my record and I was reading his book at the same time.”

    “I think we’re a good match,” Hornby declares. “I’ve listened to him ever since the first album came out. With some recording artists I think the music comes from some place I don’t understand yet I still love it. But Ben’s stuff comes from a place that I’ve got in me anyway. He was always likely to understand what it was that I wanted to do and vice versa.”

    In Hornby’s 2002 Songbook, a collection of 30 essays about pop songs published to benefit children’s charities in the US and the UK, Hornby ruminated on Folds’ “Smoke” and included it on a CD compilation accompanying the original hardcover edition. The essay was ostensibly about the painstaking craft of creating the effortless-seeming pop song, of which Hornby considers Folds a master, but, like most of the essays in the book, it addressed so much more. Hornby called “Smoke” “one of the cleverest, wisest songs about the death of a relationship that I know” and, he admitted, he turned to it regularly as his own marriage unraveled.

    That piece caught Folds’ attention at a time when he was developing an album, Has Been, with William Shatner, who’d guest-starred on Folds’ solo Fear of Pop, Vol. 1,and this improbable project turned into a noble, heartfelt effort. Explains Hornby, “I got an email from Ben asking if I would help write some songs for Shatner, which was obviously too enticing a prospect to resist. I had never written lyrics before—I had never even tried to write a lyric before—but I thought about Bill and what might be fun for him to sing in his own way and I submitted two songs. One took me a long time and one took me no time and Ben was taken with the one that took no time and they recorded that for the album. I think it turned out really great; Aimee Mann sings on it as well. It was so much fun to see my words turned into something different. Then Ben thought maybe we should have a go at something more than that, and that’s how this began.”

    “Nick may not agree with me,” says Folds, “but I see him as a very disciplined writer in the best kind of way. He begins working and you start getting song after song after song. I had far too many to make an album. Which was great. I could just pick out the ones that I felt an immediate bonding with. The first one that we warmed up on was ‘Levi Johnston’s Blues.’ After watching the Republican National Convention the rest of us were thinking, ‘holy shit that woman could be president,’ but Nick was thinking, ‘holy shit, this poor guy’s got to marry the daughter.’”

    Hornby left the musical decisions entirely in Folds’ hands once he delivered his lyrics. With “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” recounts Folds, ”Nick was amused that I made it more cinematic than he ever thought it would be. The thing is, he sees so many angles in something, he could easily sell the depths of what he’s written short, and I think sometimes he does. His books are like that too. He’s a good body snatcher. The way he gets into his characters is seamless.” Hornby had envisioned “Practical Amanda,” about a woman who sees as much fix-up potential in a disheveled man as a rundown house, as “really bright, breezy, upbeat,” but Folds transformed into it a gentle ballad. He also grabbed key phrases from “Password” and repurposed them for some very funny spelled-out bits that particularly delighted Hornby: “That was really a joy to me the way he decided to do it; it was his idea to have the backup vocals spell out the words.” He adds, with a laugh, “All the genius touches were his.”

    Recording to tape required that Folds listen for and swiftly capture serendipitous moments with his fellow players, rather than ponder the endless choices the digital world offers. As soon as the words arrived, Folds sought out melodies for them: “I would basically sit at my computer staring at the text document that Nick had just sent, maybe with a short scale toy bass guitar, thinking about what the song is and what it could be. The next day I’d go into the studio, find the melody on the piano while everyone was setting up, and then I would start barking chords and we’d end up recording by the end of the day. These songs paint pictures so I’m always talking about the words and the guys were always gathering around the piano to see what Nick’s written. The bass player would look at a lyric and go ‘goddamn, that’s cool, I know a girl just like that.’ And then he’d be ready to play.”

    Other times Folds preferred to work, quickly and intuitively, on his own: “For a song like ‘Your Dogs,’ I started playing the piano, then I went to the drums, the bass, the distorted synthesizer, finally coming ‘round to the mic and—boom, there were the lyrics, I’m singing them and we’re done. When that would get old, I’d get into solo piano and Paul Buckmaster mode,” with Folds playing live on a Steinway he recently acquired alongside the string section. “Then we came full circle by bringing back the band and writing the music and recording two songs in two days—‘Claire’s Ninth’ and ‘Doc Pomus.’”

    Sequencing required careful deliberation, according to Hornby: “We had a lot of back and forth about that but Ben’s feeling for sequences and his arguments for them were way more authoritative than anything I could muster. I would start off thinking a certain way then Ben would explain patiently and with great good humor why I was wrong.”

    The result is an 11-song set that’s as playful as it is soul stirring, and more than a little magical. Concludes Folds, “With some albums the comet goes by and you grab it while it’s passing and everything you do has some comet dust on it. This is one of those albums, and I don’t often say that.”

    —Michael Hill.

    Credits

    MUSICIANS:
    Ben Folds, vocals (1-11), piano (1-11), bass (1, 4, 5, 9), drums (1, 5, 9), Moog (1, 3, 5, 9, 10), clav (1), wind chimes (1, 3), handclaps (1), Roland Juno (3, 11), Hammond (4), acoustic guitar (9, 11), ARP String Ensemble (9), percussion (9)
    Joe Costa, handclaps (1)
    Jared Reynolds, bass (3, 7, 8, 10, 11), background vocals (3, 4, 7, 8, 11)
    Sam Smith, drums (3, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11), background vocals (3, 4, 7, 8, 11)
    Chad Chapin, percussion (3, 4, 8, 11), background vocals (3, 8), acoustic guitar (4, 7), primal percussion (10)
    Andrew Higley, Wurlitzer electric piano (3, 11), Roland Jupiter (3, 10, 11), background vocals (3), French horn (4), Roland Juno (7, 8), Moog (7)
    David Davidson, David Angell, violins; Kristin Wilkinson, viola; John Catchings, cello (6)
    Kate Miller-Heidke, vocal (9, 10)
    Keir Nuttal, primal screams (10)

    Orchestra: Wei Tsun Chang, David Davidson, Stefan Petrescu, Mary Kathryn Vanosdale, Conni Ellisor, Chris Teal, Carolyn Bailey, Kristina Siemer, David Angell, Connie Heard, Elisabeth Small, Karen Winkelmann, violin; Kristin Wilkinson, Kathryn Plummer, Chris Farrell, Monisa Angell, viola; John Catchings, Anthony LaMarchina, Sarighani Reist, Kirsten Greer, cello
    with
    Jacob (Jack) Jezioro, Joel Reist, bass (2)
    Steve Patrick, Jeff Bailey, trumpet; Roy Agee, Prentiss Hobbs, trombone; David Loucky, bass trombone; Jennifer Kummer, Beth Beeson, french horn (11)

    PRODUCTION CREDITS
    Produced by Ben Folds
    Recorded & Mixed by Joe Costa
    Engineer & Editing: Leslie Richter
    Studio Manager: Sharon Corbitt-House
    Mastered by Robert C. Ludwig at Gateway Mastering & DVD, Portland, ME
    String Arranger, Conductor (2, 3, 8, 11); String Quartet Arranger (6): Paul Buckmaster
    Orchestra Contractor: Kristin Wilkinson
    Music Preparation (3): Aidan Rowe

    Photography by Joel Meyerowitz
    Photographs of Ben Folds & Nick Hornby by Michael Wilson
    Band photograph by Fleur Folds
    Recording Studio Photographs by Michael Wilson & Ben Folds
    Design by John Heiden for Smog Design, Inc.

    Ben Folds uses Shure microphones
    Kate Miller-Heidke appears courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment Australia

on June 14, 2010 - 1:09pm
Release Date: 
Tuesday, September 28, 2010 (All day)
Cover Art: 
Nonesuch Selection Number: 

524876

Number of Discs in Set: 
1disc
Artist Name: 
Ben Folds
Nick Hornby
Album Status: 
UPC/Price: 
UPC: 
075597978629BUN
Price: 
13.00
Label: 
CD+MP3
UPC: 
075597978759
Price: 
10.00
Label: 
MP3
UPC: 
075597978605BUN
Price: 
0.00
Label: 
LP+CD+MP3
Description: 

Lonely Avenue, a collaboration between two eminent artists—American singer-songwriter Ben Folds and English novelist Nick Hornby—was released September 28 on Nonesuch Records.

Lonely Avenue has its own voice, which comes from some place between the two of us,” says author, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and now lyricist Nick Hornby of his collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Folds. Echoes Folds, “I felt like I’d found something rare on eBay or something. Nick should have done it before but it’s his first big effort and I feel like I really scored here.”

In their respective media, Folds and Hornby have eloquently illustrated the power that a humble pop song can wield to assuage loneliness or accentuate longing, to offer a pat on the back or a shoulder to cry on. Hornby—who has garnered a devoted following and consistent critical acclaim for such alternately hilarious and heartbreaking music-themed novels as High Fidelity, About a Boy and the more recent Juliet, Naked—sent over sheets of lyrics to Folds from London. The agile Folds—who first gained notice with the success of his guitar-less power pop trio, The Ben Folds Five, at the height of the grunge era—then set Hornby’s words to music at the Nashville studio he’s worked in for the last ten years, a venerable old orchestral room once owned by RCA.

At various points, Folds was joined by his current band-mates and a string section led by veteran arranger Paul Buckmaster, justifiably legendary for his work with Miles Davis, Elton John, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones. Notes Folds, “He’s the person who makes you feel the goose bumps at the chorus and you don’t know why”—and a first listen to the swelling strings on “Picture Window” will prove Folds’ point. Folds envisioned Lonely Avenue as an album on the technical as well as conceptual level, approaching everything like an old-school LP, recording in analog to two-inch tape and mastering at Abbey Road Studio with vinyl in mind as the preferred format. (Don’t worry if you don’t own a turntable; you can also find Lonely Avenue as a digital download or CD.)

Lonely Avenue offers equal measures of humor and pathos in often deceptively cheerful songs that unfold like brilliant, bittersweet short stories. Folds literally gives voice to Hornby’s endearingly mixed up, lovelorn characters, who come across as sympathetic even at their most hapless. An aging pop singer has to endlessly and agonizingly reprise his one hit, a paean to a woman he left years ago, to the fans who still attend his shows (“Belinda”). A mother tries to avoid a stunning view of New Year’s Eve fireworks as she attends to her child in a London hospital (“Picture Window”). A suburban man tries to empathize with his tattoo-ed, Metallica-blasting neighbor, while drawing the line at his scary pit bulls (“Your Dogs”). Hornby reconstructs the world of crippled, Brill Building-era songwriter Doc Pomus circa 1962, a fabled tunesmith who held court at the Hotel Forrest in midtown Manhattan (“Doc Pomus”) and imagines, with unexpected tenderness, the moment when Alaskan teenager Levi Johnston discovered he’d impregnated the newly announced vice-presidential candidate’s daughter (“Levi Johnston’s Blues”). There’s also an exuberant, out-of-left-field mash note to real-life American poet Saskia Hamilton that celebrates her euphonious name as well as her work, and deftly manages to rhyme “idyllic with “dactylic.” (Folds’ melody makes that seem easy.)

The official genesis of this project can be traced to a 2009 dinner conversation between the pair, but it was an idea that had germinated for years as these artists’ friendship evolved out of mutual admiration. As Folds recalls, “On one of my first UK tours, it was probably as High Fidelity was blowing up, Nick was at those shows. If I’d known that the guy whose book I was reading was there, I would have been really nervous. Even though we didn’t meet, that’s where it started. He was listening to my record and I was reading his book at the same time.”

“I think we’re a good match,” Hornby declares. “I’ve listened to him ever since the first album came out. With some recording artists I think the music comes from some place I don’t understand yet I still love it. But Ben’s stuff comes from a place that I’ve got in me anyway. He was always likely to understand what it was that I wanted to do and vice versa.”

In Hornby’s 2002 Songbook, a collection of 30 essays about pop songs published to benefit children’s charities in the US and the UK, Hornby ruminated on Folds’ “Smoke” and included it on a CD compilation accompanying the original hardcover edition. The essay was ostensibly about the painstaking craft of creating the effortless-seeming pop song, of which Hornby considers Folds a master, but, like most of the essays in the book, it addressed so much more. Hornby called “Smoke” “one of the cleverest, wisest songs about the death of a relationship that I know” and, he admitted, he turned to it regularly as his own marriage unraveled.

That piece caught Folds’ attention at a time when he was developing an album, Has Been, with William Shatner, who’d guest-starred on Folds’ solo Fear of Pop, Vol. 1,and this improbable project turned into a noble, heartfelt effort. Explains Hornby, “I got an email from Ben asking if I would help write some songs for Shatner, which was obviously too enticing a prospect to resist. I had never written lyrics before—I had never even tried to write a lyric before—but I thought about Bill and what might be fun for him to sing in his own way and I submitted two songs. One took me a long time and one took me no time and Ben was taken with the one that took no time and they recorded that for the album. I think it turned out really great; Aimee Mann sings on it as well. It was so much fun to see my words turned into something different. Then Ben thought maybe we should have a go at something more than that, and that’s how this began.”

“Nick may not agree with me,” says Folds, “but I see him as a very disciplined writer in the best kind of way. He begins working and you start getting song after song after song. I had far too many to make an album. Which was great. I could just pick out the ones that I felt an immediate bonding with. The first one that we warmed up on was ‘Levi Johnston’s Blues.’ After watching the Republican National Convention the rest of us were thinking, ‘holy shit that woman could be president,’ but Nick was thinking, ‘holy shit, this poor guy’s got to marry the daughter.’”

Hornby left the musical decisions entirely in Folds’ hands once he delivered his lyrics. With “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” recounts Folds, ”Nick was amused that I made it more cinematic than he ever thought it would be. The thing is, he sees so many angles in something, he could easily sell the depths of what he’s written short, and I think sometimes he does. His books are like that too. He’s a good body snatcher. The way he gets into his characters is seamless.” Hornby had envisioned “Practical Amanda,” about a woman who sees as much fix-up potential in a disheveled man as a rundown house, as “really bright, breezy, upbeat,” but Folds transformed into it a gentle ballad. He also grabbed key phrases from “Password” and repurposed them for some very funny spelled-out bits that particularly delighted Hornby: “That was really a joy to me the way he decided to do it; it was his idea to have the backup vocals spell out the words.” He adds, with a laugh, “All the genius touches were his.”

Recording to tape required that Folds listen for and swiftly capture serendipitous moments with his fellow players, rather than ponder the endless choices the digital world offers. As soon as the words arrived, Folds sought out melodies for them: “I would basically sit at my computer staring at the text document that Nick had just sent, maybe with a short scale toy bass guitar, thinking about what the song is and what it could be. The next day I’d go into the studio, find the melody on the piano while everyone was setting up, and then I would start barking chords and we’d end up recording by the end of the day. These songs paint pictures so I’m always talking about the words and the guys were always gathering around the piano to see what Nick’s written. The bass player would look at a lyric and go ‘goddamn, that’s cool, I know a girl just like that.’ And then he’d be ready to play.”

Other times Folds preferred to work, quickly and intuitively, on his own: “For a song like ‘Your Dogs,’ I started playing the piano, then I went to the drums, the bass, the distorted synthesizer, finally coming ‘round to the mic and—boom, there were the lyrics, I’m singing them and we’re done. When that would get old, I’d get into solo piano and Paul Buckmaster mode,” with Folds playing live on a Steinway he recently acquired alongside the string section. “Then we came full circle by bringing back the band and writing the music and recording two songs in two days—‘Claire’s Ninth’ and ‘Doc Pomus.’”

Sequencing required careful deliberation, according to Hornby: “We had a lot of back and forth about that but Ben’s feeling for sequences and his arguments for them were way more authoritative than anything I could muster. I would start off thinking a certain way then Ben would explain patiently and with great good humor why I was wrong.”

The result is an 11-song set that’s as playful as it is soul stirring, and more than a little magical. Concludes Folds, “With some albums the comet goes by and you grab it while it’s passing and everything you do has some comet dust on it. This is one of those albums, and I don’t often say that.”

—Michael Hill.

DescriptionExcerpt: 

Lonely Avenue features music and vocals by American singer-songwriter Ben Folds and lyrics by English novelist Nick Hornby, with string arrangements by influential pop string arranger Paul Buckmaster. "The collaboration clicks," says the AP. "There's a depth to the lyrics rare in pop songs, and they inspire top-notch work from the ever-inventive Folds."

ProductionCredits: 

MUSICIANS:
Ben Folds, vocals (1-11), piano (1-11), bass (1, 4, 5, 9), drums (1, 5, 9), Moog (1, 3, 5, 9, 10), clav (1), wind chimes (1, 3), handclaps (1), Roland Juno (3, 11), Hammond (4), acoustic guitar (9, 11), ARP String Ensemble (9), percussion (9)
Joe Costa, handclaps (1)
Jared Reynolds, bass (3, 7, 8, 10, 11), background vocals (3, 4, 7, 8, 11)
Sam Smith, drums (3, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11), background vocals (3, 4, 7, 8, 11)
Chad Chapin, percussion (3, 4, 8, 11), background vocals (3, 8), acoustic guitar (4, 7), primal percussion (10)
Andrew Higley, Wurlitzer electric piano (3, 11), Roland Jupiter (3, 10, 11), background vocals (3), French horn (4), Roland Juno (7, 8), Moog (7)
David Davidson, David Angell, violins; Kristin Wilkinson, viola; John Catchings, cello (6)
Kate Miller-Heidke, vocal (9, 10)
Keir Nuttal, primal screams (10)

Orchestra: Wei Tsun Chang, David Davidson, Stefan Petrescu, Mary Kathryn Vanosdale, Conni Ellisor, Chris Teal, Carolyn Bailey, Kristina Siemer, David Angell, Connie Heard, Elisabeth Small, Karen Winkelmann, violin; Kristin Wilkinson, Kathryn Plummer, Chris Farrell, Monisa Angell, viola; John Catchings, Anthony LaMarchina, Sarighani Reist, Kirsten Greer, cello
with
Jacob (Jack) Jezioro, Joel Reist, bass (2)
Steve Patrick, Jeff Bailey, trumpet; Roy Agee, Prentiss Hobbs, trombone; David Loucky, bass trombone; Jennifer Kummer, Beth Beeson, french horn (11)

PRODUCTION CREDITS
Produced by Ben Folds
Recorded & Mixed by Joe Costa
Engineer & Editing: Leslie Richter
Studio Manager: Sharon Corbitt-House
Mastered by Robert C. Ludwig at Gateway Mastering & DVD, Portland, ME
String Arranger, Conductor (2, 3, 8, 11); String Quartet Arranger (6): Paul Buckmaster
Orchestra Contractor: Kristin Wilkinson
Music Preparation (3): Aidan Rowe

Photography by Joel Meyerowitz
Photographs of Ben Folds & Nick Hornby by Michael Wilson
Band photograph by Fleur Folds
Recording Studio Photographs by Michael Wilson & Ben Folds
Design by John Heiden for Smog Design, Inc.

Ben Folds uses Shure microphones
Kate Miller-Heidke appears courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment Australia