“Not the Same” by Ben Folds Presents: The Spartones from Greensboro, NC

This week, I’ll be writing about some a ca0pella songs I like. I’m sorry this week doesn’t have a catchy tagline like “Get Pitch Slapped.”

Ben Folds was a judge for the a cappella contest show The Sing Off (best known as launching ground for Christmas music juggernauts Pentatonix) along with a handful of other celebrity judges (including Sarah Bareilles for a year!).

A few months before he started that gig in 2009 he released an album of various a cappella groups covering his tracks, which he produced. Some songs, he’s the lead vocalist; others, he’s absent. Folds claims the project was inspired by how much he loved a YouTube video of an a cappella cover of “Brick.” It’s a fascinating and unique album experiment, bringing new light and energy to many of Folds’ best songs. The selection is mostly ballads, and they sound more gorgeous and spacious in this setting. Even if you’ve heard “The Luckiest” and “Fred Jones, Part 2” a hundred times (as I have), you’ll still be bowled over hearing them on this album the first time.

But my favorite entry on the album is “Not the Same.” Something about the multi-part backing arrangement makes the already affecting tune sound even bigger, more sweeping and emotional, than Folds’ original on Rockin’ the Suburbs. There’s an epic beauty to it. The song’s lyrics chronicle someone’s life going off the rails after a bad acid trip, and feel better complemented by the rich, vocal-heavy timbre.

Are you reading this, Colton? I invite you to chime in about this album in the comments. I am certain you have thoughts — As I recall, you have previously listed this album as a favorite of yours. What’s your take on it?

Click here for the full list

Click here for the full list

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One thought on ““Not the Same” by Ben Folds Presents: The Spartones from Greensboro, NC

  1. My favorite track on this album is “Magic.” It’s 95% transcendent, but I think whether it actually works for you or not hinges on whether you buy into the “BUM BUMMM” of voices immitating giant bass drums that leads into the chorus. If those notes come across as hokey, then I think it can sour the whole song.

    As for “Not the Same,” I think it may be a factor that, for me, the live version of this song is the essential one. Folds coaches the entire audience to sing the two chords that begin the chorus, as three-part harmonies, and then conducts the audience transitioning between them. It’s one of those goosebumpy moments, like being in a room full of people singing “Amazing Grace” in unison unaccompanied. And the day I heard it performed live was August 3, 2005, at Wolf Trap: the first concert I ever attended. Possible sentimental factor there.

    I can’t remember if Folds supported the recording process for the various college groups, e.g., by providing space or equipment, or by engineering their tracks. But it sure sounds like they have varying sound quality and none of them come across nearly as clean as the two songs Folds did himself. But beyond that, his songs (I think it was “Boxing” and “Effington”?) are so many millions of miles ahead of all the college kids in terms of arrangement, it’s almost as if the entire album is a joke where Folds came to Earth from space and challenged humanity to an a cappella competition, and he annihilated us. He’s saying, “Hey kids, that was alright. Here is what you could be doing. Yeah. Why don’t you all just give up now and cry yourselves to sleep. I even gave you the songs, and all you had to do was arrange them for human voice, the most beautiful instrument you have. And you all stifled your creativity. None of you managed to break outside the box. Here’s what a cappella sounds like when you actually use the tools you have and stop doing the same thing over and over on every song.”

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