For his 2015 album So There, Ben Folds teams up with classical sextet yMusic to create a daring new breed of chamber pop lined with Folds' signature brand of musical humor. The first eight tracks with yMusic are the heart of the album, while the three movement piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony serves as a nice bonus.
The players of yMusic are not just any ensemble, often premiering works from serious classical composers like Nico Muhly and Marcos Balter. But even though this is primarily a pop record, the music they play is no less intricate. The orchestration throughout the album is beautiful, brilliantly utilizing extended techniques and complex harmonies while supporting the songs perfectly. yMusic’s virtuosity is especially present during the instrumental breakdown of the album’s title track, “So There.”
It’s been a long time since the days of the mid-1960s when chamber pop was the norm. This genre has needed a swift update to catch up with the enormous change in both the pop and classical scenes. While the ’60s tended to favor the use of baroque instruments in pop production, Ben Folds’ incorporation of yMusic is strictly contemporary in its approach to arranging (although he does reach back in the musical lineage to feature some Burt Bacharach-style arranging in “Long Way to Go”).
Since the days of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band there has been a significant rise in the number of chamber ensembles throughout major metropolitan eras due to their practicality. Pop music has also significantly evolved to incorporate a myriad of new sounds and styles. It would seem now is a perfect time to reunite these two estranged partners, which Ben Folds does in this album.
So There features some of the most sensitive songwriting in Ben Folds' catalog, from the intimate string and piano writing on “Not A Fan,” to the lush chamber pop ear-candy on “Yes Man,” to the more traditionally Ben Folds pop-rock sound on “Phone in a Pool.”
“I think on this I’ve stretched in my vulnerability as a writer,” Folds states in a Billboard interview, and it shows. His lyrics on So There are predominantly autobiographical and slightly angsty, which at times can be a bit much. I will say there’s a certain level of charm in Folds’ sophomoric brand of humor (“F10-D-A”) that keeps this album from being bogged down with sentimentality, but it also risks detracting from the sophisticated musical writing that supports it.
This is truly an exciting album because it is a successful blend of a top-tier classical chamber ensemble with stellar pop production in a modern vernacular. Hopefully this is the start of a trend that will continue to evolve and prosper.
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