Ben Folds has always had a penchant for big background vocals and harmonies in his songs, and he’s not just encouraged, but physically directed the audience to sing along in his concerts for years. So it’s not really a shock that he’d find it appealing that college a cappella groups are covering him. What is a surprise is that he liked the idea so much that he actively recruited groups to submit their versions of his songs and compiled the best of them into an album.
So here we have Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella, 14 a cappella songs from 14 different groups, and two songs that Folds himself rearranged into a cappella settings. Curiously, neither of Folds’ takes on his own songs are standouts on the album. It highlights how much the arrangements make or break these songs. Folds’ version of “Boxing” may well be the worst song on the album. What was an affectingly melancholy song for voice and piano on Ben Folds Five is ruined here by an overabundance of voices. The harmonies are laid on too thick, the voices are too busy, and worst of all, a soprano floats gratingly above the whole arrangement, distracting from Folds’ voice and lyrics. “Effington”, from last year’s Way to Normal, fares better because the song itself is so fun, but the arrangement is still not particularly interesting.
Most of the album, however, is quite strong. Many of the groups choose upbeat songs that were originally filled with backing vocals, relatively natural picks. “Not the Same”, “Landed”, and “Jesusland” all work extremely well as a cappella tunes and are quite entertaining. Regardless of whether they’re male or female, the various soloists and leads from the groups are universally excellent, even when the arrangements aren’t quite top-notch. The University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers fall into some of the more typical a cappella group tropes on their version of “Army”, throwing in silly phrases into their backing vocals and hard-to-decipher sentences that are undoubtedly hilarious inside jokes to the members of the group. But “Army” is such an entertaining, upbeat song that these bits come off as charming. On the other hand, The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Fifth Element doesn’t come off nearly as well on “Fair”. This is the typical college vocal group performance that is supposed to be clever but comes off as cloying and aggravating. They throw in vocal references to about three other Folds songs and it gets real old real fast, sinking what is otherwise a solid version of the song.
A handful of the groups make more unconventional choices. They pick slower, nuanced songs and pull them off pretty successfully. The Newtones from Newton, MA do a choral setting of “Evaporated”. It’s a tender, understated take on the song that stands as one of the best on the album. The Sacramento State Jazz Singers version of “Selfless, Cold, and Composed” gets a little bogged down with vocal jazz stylings and harmonies, but it’s also a great showcase of vocal chops. West Chester University of Pennsylvania’s all-female Grace Notes do a lovely take on the excellent “Fred Jones, Part 2”. The big highlight, though, is The Voices in Your Head from The University of Chicago doing “Magic”, the only song drummer Darren Jesse wrote for Ben Folds Five. The original was dark and sparsely arranged but also managed to sound epic. It’s a difficult, difficult song to perform, but the Voices do it with aplomb, capturing the feel of the song without trying to replicate it precisely. On the other hand, a pair of these slower choices fall quite flat. The Ohio University Leading Tones take on Folds’ biggest hit, “Brick”. The original was very personal and moving, but the a cappella setting leeches the personal touch from the song. The lead vocalist is excellent, but the rest of the arrangement imitates the original instrumental parts and ends up sounding almost comical. This problem crops up again later on with the Washington University in St. Louis Amateurs’ take on “The Luckiest”, another very personal song that loses that personal feeling in the a cappella setting.
Like any compilation, Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella has its ups and downs. The good definitely outweighs the bad here, though, and is a worthwhile listen for any big fan of Folds. For those not as familiar, this probably isn’t the best introduction to his material. He did a solid job curating these performances, though, mostly staying away from typical jokey college a cappella groups. Going with ensembles who took to the challenge with a more serious bent gives the album a little more weight than, say, a browse through YouTube for vocal versions of Ben Folds songs.