Ben Folds | Presents: University A Cappella (Epic)

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cd_ben-folds.jpgThis compilation succeeds at being a change from run-of-the-mill "best of" and live albums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

They may sound like strange bedfellows, but Ben Folds and college a cappella actually have quite a bit in common. Both have the ability to go from sweeping cascades of melody to complete lyrical silliness in about a nanosecond. Both can perform just fine with between one and zero actual instruments. And, perhaps most interestingly, people tend to place both in one of two categories: utterly amazing or unbearably annoying. To the benefit of Folds and the 14 groups represented here, this reviewer falls in the former category for both.

Folds has labeled the release as both his new record and his "greatest hits." Despite the absence of a few beloved singles ("Underground," "Philosophy" and "Rockin' the Suburbs," to name a few) and the inclusion of a few subjectively lesser tracks ("Time," "Evaporated"), his latest is a definite improvement over the "one new track stacked on top of the old masters" style that dominates "best of" albums. In addition, Folds went in to the project with a knack for group vocals, as heard on 2002's Ben Folds Live, in which he uses his audience as both a three-part harmony ("Not the Same") and a two-part horn section ("Army").

The renditions here are quite impressive, especially given that each track was done with only six mics, four hours of allotted recording time, and no additional tuning or overdubs. There are no outright duds to be found, only a variety of mostly fresh takes on tracks from each of Folds' albums, dating back to the Five's 1995 debut. Some groups change things up by featuring soulful lead vocals (the Ohio Leading Tones on "Brick"). Others opt for female-fronted group harmonies (the Sacramento State Jazz Singers on "Selfless, Cold, and Composed"). The Wisconsin Eau Claire's Fifth Element brings a fun, scat-heavy version of "Fair," while Georgia's With Someone Else's Money lets their Folds and Regina Spektor stand-ins bounce their vocals back and forth on the fantastic, ideal-for-a cappella "You Don't Know Me."

The pair of Washington University in St. Louis squads put forth two strong tracks, with the Mosaic Whispers turning in a faithful version of "Still Fighting It" and the Amateurs succeeding on every level with a gorgeously arranged and serene "The Luckiest." The album's standouts, however, are the University of Chicago's Voices in Your Head, who tackles the haunting "Magic" with gentle respect (even while imitating a timpani), and the all-female West Chester University of Pennsylvania Gracenotes, who submit a beautiful rendition of "Fred Jones Part 2" that builds its last chorus to a heart-wrenching finale. Folds also arranged a pair of his own tunes for the album, adding operatic flair to the timeless "Boxing" and unbridled goofiness to the up tempo "Effington." By drawing from the opposite ends of his catalogue, Folds succeeds in not only challenging himself, but holding his own with the established crews.

While it helps that Folds' songs lend themselves naturally to the a cappella style, this compilation succeeds at being a change from run-of-the-mill "best of" and live albums. A few tracks actually sound more at home on this offering than their originals. The proceeds for the release may be going to charity, but here's hoping these hard-working ensembles get the attention they've more than earned. A | Aaron Brummet

RIYL: Lots of voices, the theme from Carmen Sandiego, Billy Joel's "For the Longest Time"

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