On paper, Ben Folds’ side projects seem like bizarre stunts or products of drunken dares. First he teamed up with sentient punchline William Shatner to produce and co-write Shatner’s bittersweet, unexpectedly well-received comeback album Has Been. Now he’s commissioned a crazy, alternate-universe greatest-hits collection in University A Cappella!, a collection of Folds’ songs performed by university a cappella groups. Why? You’d have to ask Folds. Heavens knows what’s going on inside that man’s mind. Like Has Been, Ben Folds Presents is a curious semi-vanity project that occasionally transcends its gimmicky premise. The elaborate, sometimes overly busy vocal arrangements highlight the lush Beach Boys/Burt Bacharach harmonies and wryly literate storytelling that have long been fixtures of Folds’ oeuvre, while boisterous, upbeat numbers like “Army” are executed with moxie to spare. A Capella leans heavily and perversely on ballads, and while there are a few misfires (like an ill-considered glee-club-goes-R&B rendition of “Brick”) and some awkward beat-boxing, the best renditions retain the exquisite melancholy of the originals. The disc is little more than a footnote in Folds’ aggressively eclectic career, but it’s a surprisingly vital, intriguing one.
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