Achieving coolness does not seem to be the point in a capella music, nor has it hampered a cappella groups’ popularity on college campuses across the States. Indeed, my small college had no fewer than seven official cappella groups — as well as several rogue singing clubs.
On Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!, Ben Folds has collected 14 of his songs as arranged and recorded by various college singing groups, as well as two songs (“Effington” and “Boxing”) that Folds himself re-imagines a la a cappella. Hundreds of groups auditioned their renditions via YouTube, and Folds brought his favorites in for studio sessions. Hardly a greatest-hits collection (his hits have been few and far between), the resulting album is more of a survey of songs that spans a musical career.
But here’s the thing: Half the fun of a cappella is watching the performers. Without the live-performance aspect, the music tends to sound exactly as it is — lively but ultimately amateurish. Although Folds has culled a crew of talented singers who were undoubtedly stoked to be a part of this release, the album as a whole comes off as vanity project.
His lyrics are typified by engaging narrative structures and quirky characters, both of which lend themselves to the a cappella style, but Folds is a pianoman first, and his songs are not made better by the extraction of his signature instrument. Several songs did turn out nicely here: Album opener “Not the Same,” performed by the Spartones from Greensboro, NC, has a skillful and emotive lead vocalist, as does the “Landed” by the University of Colorado’s Buffoons. In the end, though, this is an unnecessary album that only clutters Folds’s discography.