Whether it is Steven Page venturing out alone, Ben Folds collaborating with author Nick Hornby or Neil Young reflecting on the past decade with only a guitar and producer Daniel Lanois by his side, here's a look at three albums that (occasionally) cast their creators in a radical new light.
Neil Young, Le Noise: From the fuzzed-up, mercilessly bent opening notes of Walk With Me, it's clear that the gentler, folky inspiration of recent efforts like Prairie Wind has no place here. That's not to say that, over the course of these eight songs, Young doesn't find pockets of extraordinary beauty, such as the devastating Love and War -- thanks, in part, to producer Daniel Lanois' expert digital work -- and take time to mourn those, like his longtime collaborator Ben Keith, who are no longer with us. Le Noise is part purifying exhumation, part final chapter and occasionally harrowing.
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue: On its surface, this would seem like an ideal pairing; Hornby's whip-smart prose has won him legions of pasty-skinned fans, just as Folds' own blend of wry wit and gorgeous melodies have amassed a considerable following. Upon listening to Lonely Avenue, however, aficionados of both men will likely be scratching their heads. It's not that Avenue doesn't brim with plenty of what each does well, but rather that the album stumbles when it should soar. A track like Levi Johnston's Blues is amusing in theory, excruciating in execution.
Steven Page, Page One: Scarcely 30 seconds into the singer-songwriter's latest solo effort (technically, 2005's The Vanity Project marked Page's first venture outside Barenaked Ladies) and die-hard BNL fans may fervently wish for Page to re-join the band that he left last year. These dozen tracks have the snap and shimmering melodies absent from the last several BNL efforts. Page's deft hand with irony and often-bitter insight ranks him among one of the sharpest songwriters in modern music.