Posted by: dan | March 13, 2009

focus: ben folds – stems and seeds

Occasionally, Ben or Dan will write a review of an artist, album, event, or another music-related subject. The first subject in the ‘focus’ series is Ben Folds’ Stems and Seeds.

Dan: Both Ben and I have been fans of Ben Folds’ work since he used ‘Five’ as a suffix for the name of his band, but I get the honour of reviewing some of his work first. This is because I have the off-shoot (I’m not apologising for that) of Way To Normal that is Stems and Seeds. Thanks to Ben, I’m now a member of the People’s Front of Judea, the official Ben Folds’ fan club, so I got Stems and Seeds signed, and it arrived in a blaze of merchandising glory. You can see the postcards, stickers, and lanyard fan club pass in the picture below, amongst the contents of the Way To Normal box set. It makes sense to go through this chronologically, as it all starts back in July 2008.


(Way To Normal box set and Stems and Seeds package. For a closer look, click here).

Way To Normal (Fake Leak)

Fake albums need fake cover art...

Fake albums need fake cover art...

I have to confess that when I got my hands on the leak (already being touted as a fake), I was sceptical. I thought it might be real, but an old, unfinished version. It explained the short tracklist, and poor production. I did, briefly think Ben had taken a turn for the terrible, singing uninspired lyrics, and seemingly rushing the music. Then I got to the sixth track, which shared the album title. The intro was so incredibly bad, it couldn’t be real. And so it proved. Soon enough, Folds spoke up, confirming it as a self-penned fake, created in a few hours and designed to poke fun at the seriousness with which some bands take themselves.

Way To Normal

... and official albums need official cover art

... and official albums need official cover art

Three months later, Way To Normal was released, and as you’ve seen, I went a bit crazy and bought the box set. The contents of which were the album on CD and vinyl, a DVD, poster and a bonus CD entitled ‘I Made It Up On Stage‘. Way To Normal is a strong album, reaching the levels of quality heard on Rockin’ The Suburbs. While Songs for Silverman was slightly lacklustre in places (but certainly not without moments of greatness), Way To Normal kept form, and had a proper feel and flow. There are two sides to Ben’s music: one focuses on lyrical depth and softer beats, while the other strides in to great, raucous musical tunes and angry vocals. On Way to Normal, tracks like ‘Effington’ and ‘Bitch Went Nuts’ stayed on Ben’s lively pop side, while songs like ‘Cologne’ and ‘You Don’t Know Me’ remained true to the tenderness shown in more recent songs. The only low point came with ‘Errant Dog’, the unlistenable ‘Free Coffee’ and the awful intro to ‘Bitch Went Nuts’. Fortunately, they came in one batch, making it easy to skip them.

The small bonus CD that came with the box set, I Made It Up On Stage, is basically a compilation of various songs Ben (as the title suggests) made up on stage. It’s basically a documentary on how Ben can write a song about pretty much nothing on the spot, and nearly all of them are variations on his ‘Rock This Bitch’ theme, which you should be familiar with if you’ve ever seen him live. While none of them could really stand up on their own, or be released as a b-side, they make a nice addition to any Ben Folds’ collection, mostly as an interesting side-note on his creative process.

Stems And Seeds

A signed copy of Stems and Seeds

A signed copy of Stems and Seeds

Stems and Seeds is split over two discs. The first is Stems, which contains all the tracks from Way to Normal split into their component parts for remixing and re-editing in GarageBand or other music editing software. Of course, this is best for those who know what they’re doing, or have some experience working with music. I could have a go, but I don’t really have any idea where to start, and it’d take me a long time before I could make anything close to passable. So instead, I experimented with turning off the vocals to ‘Errant Dog’ and listened to the music jolt about all over the place, before switching off the weirder parts of ‘Free Coffee’. It was easier to listen to, but was definitely lacking something. It’s fascinating to hear how a song is the sum of its components, and how important every part is to the finished piece. Ultimately, Stems is brilliant for anyone who likes fiddling with music editing and creation, and almost a documentary on song creation for everyone else.

Seeds, on the other hand, is an audio CD of two halves. The second half is an official release of the Fake Leak version of Way To Normal, but it’s still no better than it was originally (bad, yes, but it does have an amazing orchestral version of Cologne on it). If you didn’t get hold of the leak first time around, you should enjoy it as a piece of Ben Folds memorabilia. It’s another view of the spontaneity involved in Ben’s creative process, adding to the aforementioned I Made It Up On Stage disc. I’ve saved the best for last, as the first half of Seeds is Way To Normal. That doesn’t sound like much, but at the same time it sounds amazing. The poor quality of the original release was noticeable and disappointing, but it didn’t jump out at me as it had with others. But listening to it again is incredible. In comparison, Way To Normal sounds like it was recorded through felt, with walls behind all the instruments. Everything is dull and covered with a fuzzy quality. But on Seeds, it all springs back into life: all the instruments can breathe, the vocals have room to move, and it all sounds much clearer. Nowhere is this more noticeable than on ‘Free Coffee’. You’ll notice that above I listed it as skippable and unlistenable. Instead of hearing it being recorded, you can hear it being played. Now I can listen to it quite happily among the other tracks, including ‘Errant Dog’, even though I’m still not keen on the lyrics to that track.

The other thing to mention about Seeds is the tracklist. It seems to have been re-ordered to no purpose or point. It’s lost the flow and feel that Way To Normal had, and as a result, it sounds like a collection of songs instead of an album. Which is a shame, as it means you have to choose between listening to the album, or listening to the songs clearly. Of course, you can always recreate the album by re-ordering the tracks in your music player, but it’s not the same when you play the CD. There is one upside to that, though: the ‘Bitch Went Nuts’ introduction is missing entirely, as it should always have been.

All in all, it’s been a bit of a shaky ride for this album. Three versions, each of which are imperfect, but combined provide a glorious aural experience, each of which should be a must-have for any Ben Folds fan. It’s just a shame it took so long for it to sound right.

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Responses

  1. I might get the stems and try a make a version of Free Coffee you like. But then I like it the way it is…

    • I agree. Free Coffee was amazing. One of the best tracks on the album.

  2. I’m coming over with a sack of tea, I want to have that box set in my hands. Great review guys, Ben Rocks (and not just the suburbs).

    • Hooray! You can’t have the boxset, but you can look at it for the price of a cup of tea.


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