Cruising through YouTube, Ben Folds discovered that university a cappella groups seemed to gravitate to his songs. Perhaps it was the classic pop song structures, the challenging arrangements or the joys of singing bursts of profanity in four-part harmony that attracted these college students to Folds’ fraternity. But some of the songs, including a version of the recent “You Don’t Know Me” by the University of Georgia group Someone Else’s Money, were nearly as good as Folds’ originals, prompting the caustic piano master to produce “Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella.”
This is not barbershop quartet material: most of these Folds favorites are rendered with intricate vocalese (the technique of imitating the sound of instruments) and beat-boxing, so the Leading Tones of Ohio University’s soulful take on “Brick” sounds as lush as the original. The crescendos that are so intrinsic to “Not the Same” get big, brassy treatment from the Spartones of Greensboro, N.C., and the University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers fully enlist in Folds’ classic, “Army.”
As producer, Folds wraps these great amateurs in a warm, polished environment, and even contributes two a cappella versions of his own, “Boxing” and “Effington.” If this is to be considered a “greatest hits” collection, “University A Cappella” is certainly one of the most original of its type, a courageous and ingenious move for a performer who rarely strays from his 88 keys.