Music

Ben Folds: Way to Normal

Way to Normal is about the realization that the very concept of "normal" may well be a myth.


Ben Folds

Way to Normal

Contributors: regina spektor
Label: Sony
US Release Date: 2008-09-30
UK Release Date: 2008-09-29
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Duck! Here comes the kitchen sink!

Here are a few of the production flourishes that Ben Folds has seen fit to utilize on his latest album, the fittingly-titled Way to Normal: sampled crowd noise ("Hiroshima"), high-pitched hip-hop synths ("The Frown Song"), staticky programmed beats ("Free Coffee"), thick strings ("Kylie from Connecticut" and "Cologne"), and overdriven distortion ("Dr. Yang"). None of this is even to mention that there's a guest star along for the ride -- Regina Spektor shows up to provide counterpoint on the brilliant first single that is "You Don't Know Me" -- and a lyrical snippet that references Lisa Nowak's ill-advised, passion-driven trek from Houston to Orlando ("Cologne").

Pointing these things out illustrates a vital point about Way to Normal, namely that Ben Folds is writing and performing music as if he has something to prove again. Songs for Silverman almost felt like an artist's last album, because so much of it was written from the point of view of a sage, knowing narrator who was more than willing to comment on the fortunes of those around him and offer words of advice to those who needed it. Songs for Silverman was sober to a fault, nearly joyless (save for the short-but-sweet tribute to his daughter) in its contentment.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Way to Normal is an album borne of a year of personal upheaval, the details of which have not been highly publicized (at least by Ben himself), but did yield a divorce and remarriage. Way to Normal is about tantrum throwing, quiet reflection, the twisty road that leads to acceptance and the realization that the very concept of "normal" may well be a myth. So much of the album is about subtext and hidden meanings that it's hard to find anything "normal" about it. Folds wrote these songs with more than one meaning in mind, and to truly appreciate the album (or, at least, to truly discuss it in any sort of engaging manner) is to acknowledge this.

Take one of the most blatantly misogynistic songs of Folds's career, a little ditty he titled "The Bitch Went Nuts". On one hand, it's a song that seems analogous to his own "Song for the Dumped", a song that rails agains the "bitch" who so egregiously wronged him. She did "stab [his] basketball and the speakers to [his] stereo", after all. And while Folds is quite obviously writing the cuss-filled diatribe for the sake of shock value and juvenile giggles (any guy who would cover Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" is certainly prone to as much), a read between the lines starts to reveal the insecurity that lies behind such a rant. "Why do they all go, why do they all go?", he repeats over and over, neurotically, desperately frustrated that he can't keep the women he dates from going ballistic, placing the blame on their precarious sanity. It's here that Ben Folds and the narrator of his song become separate people, and you get the sense that Folds himself knows better than to think it's always her fault.

The sense of mutual "guilt" when it comes to the decay of a relationship seems to be a constant throughout the album, as a matter of fact. "You Don't Know Me" sees Folds and Regina Spektor trading lines in the chorus as Folds wonders what's keeping them together in the verse, while the utter heartbreaker that is closer "Kylie from Connecticut" is a tale told from the point of view of a woman whose suspicions of her husband's infidelity reignites the passion of her own affair from 30 years before. "Cologne" eschews the issue of guilt altogether, instead coming off as something like the not-so-happy ending to the tale began in Rockin' the Suburbs' "The Luckiest", simply offering sadness via the beautifully frank lyrical style that Folds has mastered over the years.

And yet, despite all of this, Way to Normal is not a breakup album -- at least, not in the way that albums like Sea Change or Blood on the Tracks are.

If anything, it's more like rebirth, as if whatever the last year brought has caused Folds to rediscover his youth. On one hand, there's an energy to these songs that hasn't been present since the days of the Five. "Dr. Yang" nearly approaches the old infamous B-side "Bad Idea" in its urgency, "The Frown Song" plays a bit like a middle-aged take on "Underground" or "The Battle of Who Could Care Less", and "Brainwascht" sports a beat that borders on techno, similar to that of "The Ascent of Stan". Not to mention that the kitchen sink production re-ignites memories of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the final (and this reviewer would say best) Ben Folds Five album. On the other hand, it plays almost like a missive to be yourself, that insincerity and deception lead only to heartbreak and regret. Uncle Ben is giving us advice again, except in a far less obvious way than on Songs for Silverman.

Perhaps most importantly, Folds has given us something to talk about again with an album that works, front to back, on both musical and lyrical levels. Way to Normal is discussion fodder for die hard fans, but it's also pleasing enough on the surface to draw in casual listeners, even going so far as to bait those who would call him the new generation's Elton John by subtitling "Hiroshima", which opens the album, "B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head". There is nary a weak link to be found. More than anything, Way to Normal is simply Folds's way of showing us that, at 42, he's still doing this piano-power-pop thing better than anyone else around.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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