Ben Folds – Stems And Seeds (2009)

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by Tom Johnson

Remastering started with good intentions – make older music sound a little more modern – and has come full circle to the point that it’s now taking awful sounding modern releases and making them sound like the old vinyl masters that remastering was meant to improve. Case in point: Ben Folds’ Way To Normal, which was a good album that unfortunately sounded awful. It is a flat, lifeless mess of sound. Buried in there is a pile of good songs, I know it, but enjoying them is made all the more difficult by the fact that digital frequency range compression has squashed everything down to nearly mono. And if you know anything about mono, you know that it takes a special ear and talent to produce a good mono mix. This is not a good mono mix, even if that was the intent (it wasn’t.)

Sadly, Folds gave in to the trend of making a “loud” album – the same digital compression that made Metallica’s Death Magnetic sound as if someone had tuned a radio to static in the background while they were recording also plagued Folds’ new material. And fans complained. Luckily Folds was paying attention, unlike Metallica, who acted like their fans were idiots, deaf, or “too old to rock!” if they couldn’t appreciate a “modern recording.” He relented with this retitled 2009 version – Stems And Seeds.

So what did we get? Under the bland, yet ugly new cover, there was the full album in resequenced order, seemingly suffering not a whit from the evils of compression, and it sounded wonderful. The drums had actual tone, Ben’s piano sounded alive, and those great harmony vocals sprinkled throughout the album practically sounded like they were right in the room. It almost made me question the need for high resolution, surround sound audio. If you ever wondered why people pay good money for those gold, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs discs, this is why – and you were paying a lot less for this.

Not only do we get the great “demaster,” but Folds had seen fit to include all of the now-famous “fake songs” that were leaked prior to the album’s release in the fall of 2008, a live version of “You Don’t Know Me” from Late Night With Conan O’Brien (with Regina Spektor handling her part live), plus a piano/orchestra version of “Cologne” that was available on the Itunes and Japanese editions of the album.

Packaged with the CD was a DVD filled with the “stems” (original tracks used to form the songs) so you can mix your own versions of the songs. Very cool. Though, nice as it is, I can’t imagine this being something many actually played with. How many of you played with the stems that came on the DVD with Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero Remixed? Or the semi-stems with Duncan Sheik’s White Limousine?

That said, if there was a complaint to be made, it’s was a simple one: Why wasn’t it released this way in the first place? There’s a possibly philosophical argument to be made here. When the supposed reason for digital compression is because “the masses” want it that way, as we’ve been told time and time again, and an artist has to re-release his music in an uncompressed fashion because it turns out that was wrong, well, just what the hell is going on? One side can say it’s pure greed – many will buy both versions. Another will say it’s pure ignorance; the industry doesn’t know what fans want. The truth is probably a blend of the two, speaking volumes about the state of music.

There is an unfortunate dilemma presented here. By buying this, were we saying it’s OK to perpetuate the “delayed deluxe edition” tactic that we’re all familiar with? Or by buying this were we saying that we really do want our music to sound good, that we want music uncompressed, with high-quality mastering that really allows it to shine? Ultimately, I think the message sent by buying these “audiophile” editions makes a much clearer mark: We want our music good.

Folds obviously never intended anything beyond simply crafting his little album of piano songs and tossing a few singles to the pop-oriented top-40 market in hopes of some hits, but maybe the experience has been humbling, or maybe even eye-opening to others in the music business. Fans are listening and paying attention, despite the charts and graphs the industry wants to believe says how people listen to music. They’re wrong. They’ve been wrong in the past and they’re getting progressively more wrong. Stems And Seeds didn’t sell a huge number of copies, but the fact that it sold at all was telling. They’ll want to write it off for the enticement of the bonus “fake songs,” and for some that might be reason enough to purchase, but the majority of those who invested the small amount for this release commented first and foremost on the sound of it. And that is what I hope is getting noticed by those that matter in the industry.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
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