Perhaps the nicest perk about being Arts Editor at the Record is the deluge of promotional CDs I receive on a weekly basis from record labels seeking to score positive publicity and boost album sales in the college student market. Many of these musical bribes I use as coasters, but once in a while, I receive one that ends up on repeat in my common room.
Imagine how thrilled I was when, within 24 hours of each other, I had the serendipitous luck to receive copies of both Ben Folds’ transcendent new live album and Duncan Sheik’s promising recent release, Daytime. Not only are both albums terrific compilations of two tremendously talented artists, but both will be playing in Lasell Gymnasium on Oct. 31 for the Homecoming concert sponsored by the All Campus Entertainment (ACE) Concerts Committee.
Folds is a veteran of the Williams concert scene, having last played before an Eph crowd in 1999 at the helm of his critically celebrated but now-dissolved ensemble, Ben Folds Five. Folds has more recently been touring and recording as a one-man act and, on occasion, with a backup band. His 2001 solo album Rockin’ The Suburbs picked up where he left off with BFF â€“ here his songs are blessed with more emotional complexity and less pop, melodies with catchy hooks and lyrics impeccably describing the dysfunctional suburbia Folds chooses to examine.
In the tradition of his successful summer tour, “Ben Folds and a Piano,” it’ll be just Folds and his pet Steinway in Lasell. And if Ben Folds Live, to be released in stores today, is any indication of Folds’ performance style, an outstanding live show doesn’t require much beyond those two elements.
On-stage charisma is the hallmark of a superlative live program. On Ben Folds Live, he does the audience the courtesy of explaining some of his more oblique and controversial masterpieces, like the BFF hit “Brick.” Folds confirms the long-standing rumors that the song is about his former girlfriend who underwent an abortion while they attended high school.
His exposition serves to heighten his fans’ relationships to the songs instead of patronizing them, and enables a deeper appreciation of Folds’ expression. On another track, Folds explains the context of “Not the Same” with a story of a friend of his who, while on an acid trip at a party, climbed a tree and discovered Jesus there.
His solo efforts more than merely suggest that Folds was the mastermind behind BFF’s success â€“ they outright prove that his gift for poignant lyricism and dynamic keyboards powered their triumphs as a collaborative effort. Other songs included on the live album â€“ like “The Luckiest,” an aching love song written for his wife Frally Hynes, or “Fred Jones, Part 2,” a dirge about a retiring journalist â€“ break the listener with empathy for the characters Folds spins out of his imagination or plucks from his own life. With lyrics like those in the second verse (“In a white sea of eyes/I see one pair that I recognize/And I know/That I am, I am, I am/The luckiest”), “The Luckiest” is among the most moving declarations of love ever set to music.
While he is often accused by even die-hard fans as misleading listeners’ emotions by setting depressing lyrics to infectiously upbeat tunes, Folds boasts an intelligent and charming sense of humor. Rounding out the album, an impressive improvisational piece entitled “Rock This Bitch” and his cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” capture the magnetic spontaneity inherent to a Folds concert.
Duncan Sheik, whose 1996 single “Barely Breathing” off his self-titled debut album popularized him with continuous radio play, will be touring with Folds after Oct. 20 for the remainder of Folds’ U.S. fall tour. Released in August, Sheik’s fourth album Daylight makes the move from the pop that characterizes his other recordings into a smooth, luscious rock more in the style of David Gray.
While Sheik overindulges in synthesizer overlays and relies too heavily on the lyrical poignancy of the “la-la-las” that pepper multiple tracks, Daylight is pleasant to listen to, if perhaps more than a little brooding and at times monotonous. The album’s first single, entitled “On a High,” is the only song that attempts to rise above the melancholic rhythms favored on the other tracks, but even here the lyrics undermine the upbeat tempo â€“ Sheik sings, “I’m trapped inside my conspiracy of happiness/Said I was yours, you were mine but I didn’t really mean it/And I lied and I lied.”
“Barely Breathing” is infinitely preferable to anything found on Daylight, but tracks like “On Her Mind” and “For You” suggest Sheik is still hooked on the same tender nostalgia that he hints at in his earlier work. “Half-Life” is in that same vein of romantic despondency. Sheik, like Folds, does his best work pairing upbeat tunes with dark emotional observations, the result of which initially deceives the listener into thinking that the song’s message glows with optimism.
Tickets to the concert will go on sale to students Oct. 17 in Baxter Mailroom, with a midnight presale in the Snack Bar on the night of Oct. 16. Tickets are $7 with a Williams College ID; for non-Williams students, tickets will cost $20 and will be sold starting a week before the show.