What is it about rock music mixed with an orchestra that makes people giddy? It must be the same reason that teenagers fell for Phil Spector’s wall of sound. The very idea that a giant group of people are all playing some music is exhilarating, as is the monumental volume of the sound produced. With all of the orchestration tacked on to popular music these days, it’s a wonder more bands don’t record with strings, harps, and a row of percussionists. Ben Folds uses the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra to back him on a track list that highlights Folds as a songwriter. Culled exclusively from the three Ben Folds Five albums and his first solo release, this is Folds’ victory lap for the first part of his career.
Folds always sounded better with a band. Since going solo, the two proper albums and three EPs have all fallen short of his work with the Five. Perhaps Folds is overcompensating for his lost band members, trading in a bass player and drummer for a 90-piece orchestra. Or maybe the man just needed a break from playing solo shows. Whatever the reason, the experiment is a success. Opening with “Zac and Sara”, the orchestra immediately creates euphoric pop music with Folds. Of course, the song was already euphoric before rows of strings and woodwinds came to the party, but extra euphoria is never a bad thing.
Only a couple of songs are actually improved. “Narcolepsy”, theatrical to begin with, utilizes its shifts in dynamics even more strongly with such a large group of musicians. The song also features a tenor to handle the backing vocals. This may go with the theme, but the vibrato-heavy voice sounds out of place. “Boxing” sounds even more like a Randy Newman song written for a Disney movie in the hands of the WASO. But it’s a strength here, not a weakness. Other times, the combination of sounds doesn’t work. On some of the up-tempo songs, the busy arrangements muddy the melodies and disrupt the rhythm. Most annoying is a distracting trumpet solo during “Annie Waits” that battles with the lead vocal near the end of the song. Take turns, gentlemen.
The filming technique is relatively standard for concert footage. A close-up of Folds is the go-to shot, followed by swooping shots of the orchestra and the occasional glance at the audience during Folds’ banter. The in-between song chit chat is about what you’d expect from Folds, often witty, something explanatory. Before delivering the punch line to the infamous joke about drummers being homeless without girlfriends (here changed to “percussionists” to fit the orchestra), a duck quacks in delight. The duck is present because the concert was held at a lovely outdoor stage, complete with a pond and what Folds lovingly referred to as the “green petrie dish”. No extras are included on the DVD, but it is mixed for 5.1 surround sound. If you’re lucky enough to own such a system (I am not), I’m sure it would help enhance the orchestration, which is often lost in the stereo mix behind Folds and his piano.
Even with all that’s present, it still feels as if something is missing. On “Smoke”, the orchestra easily replicates all of the instruments and does justice to an already affecting song, but what about those beautiful three-part harmonies? I found myself mentally replicating the lost vocals because I missed them so much. What this exercise demonstrates is that Folds has definitely found new and exciting ways to perform his music, but the songs worked just as well when three guys could nail a track in one take. Regardless, this is a worthy live disc, especially since you can buy it for the price of a CD. Plus, how many times are you able to hear someone improvise a song called “Rock This Bitch” with an Australian orchestra?