On Tuesday, musician Ben Folds (formerly of the Five) and rock-obsessed novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity
) released a collaborative record called Lonely Avenue
. The result of this musical-literary team-up isn't excruciating. Lonely Avenue
's adult-contemporary jams should please Hornby devotees, members of Folds's more august fan base, and Randy Newman enthusiasts.
Yet, middling as it is, Lonely Avenue sounds downright genius stacked up against other records of its kind. Recent history is pockmarked by ill-advised collaborations between writers and musicians. No matter how prodigious their respective talents, writers and musicians together tend to produce risible crap.
While it's impossible to guess the personal reasons authors and musicians may have for getting together, credibility likely plays a part. These collaborations operate under a faulty linear equation: musician plus author equals smart, author plus musician equals cool. Usually the result is just the opposite.
NPR is also to blame. In these dark times, NPR airplay is one of the last remaining means of guaranteed sales, and to All Things Considered hosts, lame author-musician collaborations represent a scintillating marriage of high and low art. That the results are almost always public-radio-friendly (read: boring and inoffensive) can't hurt.
Here are the worst of the worst:
ONE RING ZERO Authors, beware arch young men in ill-fitting suits, boating hats, and oversize glasses. One Ring Zero snookered far too many literati into writing lyrics for their sub-TMBG tunes. Paul Auster, Rick Moody, and esteemed others (e tu, Margaret Atwood?) appeared on their 2004 record, the despicably-titled As Smart As They Are. The Zeros are the subject of a documentary and got enough NPR airtime to make Robert Siegel jealous, but at what cost?
THE WINGDALE COMMUNITY SINGERS Novelist Rick Moody is a repeat offender, so it came as no surprise when he formed the Wingdale Community Singers with David Grubbs of Gastr del Sol and some other suckers. Their 2006 self-titled fake folk record sounds like Kimya Dawson with brain damage.
"THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET" In 1999, Salman Rushdie wrote a novel called The Ground Beneath Her Feet. The following year, Bono used phrases from said novel to write a U2 song of the same name. Disease disappeared; all the children of the world joined hands to give thanks and praise to the combined powers of their towering genius. Rushdie, ever modest, said the song had "some of the most beautiful melodies [Bono] had ever come up with."
"THE HORRIBLE FANFARE/LANDSLIDE/EXOSKELETON" Beck went public as a Scientologist in 2005. In 2006, he released his first bad record. The Information ends with a 10-minute mess that features Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze muttering over ambient noise. Since then, Beck has guest-edited Eggers's annual anthology, The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Meanwhile, Eggers won over his detractors by writing books from the perspectives of the oppressed. What the Xenu happened in that recording studio?
THE CAPEMAN Paul Simon tapped Nobel Prize–winning poet Derek Walcott to collaborate on lyrics for a musical about a Puerto Rican gang member sentenced to death at 16. The show gestated for nine years before debuting on Broadway. The reviews were universally terrible. According to the New York Times, "it would take a hard-core sadist to derive pleasure from the sad, benumbed spectacle that finally opened last night . . . it may be unparalleled in its wholesale squandering of illustrious talents."