"I spent hours putting that cassette together ... A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention, and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch ... oh, there are loads of rules."
Ah, the mixtape. Most of us have compiled one at some point. The starring role for the medium arrived in Nick Hornby's 1995 novel, "High Fidelity," and its 2000 screen adaptation, starring John Cusack. Hornby has had other big hits ("About a Boy" and "An Education"), but "High Fidelity" will always be a favorite for music fans.
Like High Fidelity's protagonist, Rob, Hornby is quite the audiophile, or music nerd. He's made plenty of mixtapes out of the works of others, but never his own. A mutual appreciation between Hornby and one of his mixtape artists would change this.
An essay Hornby wrote about the Ben Folds Five song, "Smoke," led to a friendship with the band's leader and would eventually develop into a unique musical collaboration. "Lonely Avenue," released in September 2010, features 11 songs with lyrics by Hornby and music by Folds.
Though Folds and Hornby worked together once before, on a song for William Shatner's 2004 album, "Has Been," the catalyst for "Lonely Avenue" was likely Levi Johnston. Yes, Sarah Palin's daughter's baby-daddy. "Levi Johnston's Blues," the first song written for the album, is Hornby's priceless take on the Bristol-Levi drama that momentarily overshadowed the 2008 presidential campaign. Hornby didn't have to put much effort into it, forming the chorus from the "About Me" section on Johnston's now-defunct MySpace page. Hornby sent Folds the lyrics, and the song was born.
Pleased with the genius of "Levi Johnston's Blues," Folds and Hornby realized the possibility of an entire album of wild characters. Hornby's interesting narratives and Folds' entrancing melodies and full-bodied performance combine for the strangely entertaining "Lonely Avenue."
Folds is no foreigner to comedy, so assuming Hornby's neurotic subjects came with ease. Folds excellently plays the lunatic role in his manic delivery of "Saskia Hamiltion." He hits another high point in the creepy "Password," obsessively lamenting on the password for a cheating girlfriend's online account.
Hornby's observations of the dilemmas of life are fantastic."Far Above" suggests, "Sure, we have all have soulmates, but we walk past them everyday." For the mother of a dying child in "Picture Window," he writes, "Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease." Hornby is most certainly a skilled writer, knowing how to dig away at his reader's, or in this case listener's, emotions.
Hornby, of course, had to incorporate some musical topics into his writing. The title of the album is a nod to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter Doc Pomus, whose "Lonely Avenue" was a hit for Ray Charles in 1956. Hornby even dedicates a biographical song, "Doc Pomus," to the man behind the scenes of the development of pop music.
"Lonely Avenue" wraps up with a comical number about a musician with one hit, which happens to be about an ex-lover. Think "Layla." Years after the dissolution of the relationship, the artist must repeat his proclamation of love for a woman he traded in for a fling with a busty flight attendant.
Musician-writer combinations usually don't work, but Nick Hornby's wit and Ben Folds' quirk are extremely compatible. Fans of both should already be in the back seat for the ride down "Lonely Avenue."
It may be a tougher sale for those not familiar with either Folds or Hornby. "Levi Johnston's Blues" is a great starting point, or "corker," for anyone with slight interest in the Folds-Hornby mixtape. If you don't get a good laugh out of it, this is obviously not your album and perhaps you need to loosen up a bit.
Ben Folds is online at http://www.benfolds.com.