Return to Emaline (thing)

Emaline
(Or: everything you've ever wanted to know about the genesis of a song you've probably never heard of)

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"This is a song that was recorded for the first album but we took it off
because it had an acoustic guitar in it,
and that's against the law."

Ben Folds, on Sessions from West 54th



Song written by Ben Folds back before Ben Folds Five existed for a previous band, Majosha. It wasn't included on Ben Folds Five's self-titled debut for the reason quoted above - the band was trying for a new(ish) sound by leaving the guitar propped up in the corner and making do with piano, bass and drums. They thought throwing a guitar in on one track would be a cop-out, and they were even more afraid that the guitar-centered song would be the only one anybody ever listened to because it was the most sonically familiar, so they cut it.

There are five distinct versions of this song as recorded by Ben Folds Five and later, of which only three made it onto commercial albums. I wouldn't bother including the first two here at all if it weren't for the fact that all five of them are so shockingly different and yet fit so well into a timeline as to where the song came from and where it's going. It's worth noting that through the 13 years this song has been around, the lyrics haven't changed one bit.



Demo Tape

The first recorded version appeared in 1990 on a demo tape. It's almost unlistenable - it's chock full of unnecessary instrumental fills, the piano work is extremely uncomplicated (not necessarily a bad thing, but here it verges on banging. That, also, is not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't work here.) Ben's vocals are insincere to the point of being smarmy and the drum breaks are quite possibly the cheesiest percussion work I've ever heard.

Then again it's a demo tape, not a concert at Carnegie Hall. Some slack is probably warranted.



The Beginnings

The band's first unofficial collection (called The Beginnings by fans) has another version. The vocals are far, far better (if you can ignore the vocal doubling and self-harmonizing) - apparently Ben realized that he doesn't have to sing like Burt Bacharach just because he writes like him. The first incarnation of the piano fills that would eventually make their way into all the subsequent recordings are first heard here, as are some bits and pieces of Ben playing the inside of his piano, a technique brought to its full potential on Whatever and Ever, Amen.



Naked Baby Photos

This version was the one that was supposed to be a included on the self-titled release. It's essentially the same version as on The Beginnings but cleaner and tighter - it's obviously a studio recording.

That being said...it's good, but it's not great. I'm probably jaded by my opinions of the two later recordings (we're gettin' there, promise) but...it's a little too bouncy. They were right - the guitar completely changes the feel of the song and of the band and not in a way I particularly like.



Sessions from West 54th

This was a live recording of an intimate little concert Ben Folds Five did for the Sessions at West 54th PBS program. The band later felt that it was one of the best shows of their career. I agree - it's really friggin' good.

The version of Emaline on this DVD is something special - they had to find a way to cover the guitar parts on the piano and ended up settling on this intricate combination of arpeggios, leading tones and chords (yeah, that narrows it down, doesn't it?) that are bolstered by the bass and driven by the drums (...and that helped less) so that, as each instrument comes to the front in turn, it sounds like you're at the center of the three of them orbiting around you as they each come into and recede from prominence.

This recording was made after Whatever and Ever, Amen hit the shelves, and it sounds like it - the piano sounds more like a piano and less like a guitar.



Ben Folds Live

The culmination of everything. Ben and a piano and an audience that sounds like it has fifteen people in it. The louds and quiets are painfully noticeable here; so is the sound of a man making love to his instrument - you can hear him hit the pedal on occasion and you definitely hear his stool creak. It's intimate in a way that I didn't think live recordings could be when I first heard it; I later heard a solo Bruce Hornsby cover of The Boxer that further convinced me that I was wrong.

It's gorgeous to me in a way very few songs are, and is definitely worth a listen or three.


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Lyrics and Notes

Ben Folds' lyrics don't look good in text - they tend to rhyme oddly and in ways that aren't immediately recognizable. He's also such a creative melody writer that his melodies make the words work where they would otherwise fall flat. Alliteration and assonance are key, as is the interplay with the melody (something I can't notate for you, unfortunately).

I wish it was
last September
When we could lose ourselves in crowds everyday
'cause Emaline
don't walk in time
she's not the same that's all you can say

when I've heard enough,
I tell myself
that we've learned our lesson, but I
don't wanna walk away from Emaline

they're talking now
does she know what they're saying?
she's got the air
to float above it
I'm sinking in the someone should pay
she's dear to me,
and so expensive
I'm not talking 'bout money
when money talks,
I hate to listen
but lately it's been screaming in my ear
and when I've heard enough,
I tell myself
that we've learnt our lesson, but I
don't wanna walk away from Emaline

it only took me one look to understand Emaline
sometimes I don't know what she's saying
sometimes I do, sometimes I don't know what she's...
saying
but I know, I know
I know what she wants to believe

I wish it was last September

don't let me walk away from Emaline
for stupid reasons
now I'm talking 'bout money
when money talks, I hate to listen,
but lately it's been screaming in my ear

yeah, what advice! Girls need attention
or are you different than all mine?
for all it's worth, she's got attention
from people like you who see black and white
I've heard enough,
I'll tell you what
really shouldn't sit here and whine
I'll take you down to see my Emaline

I wish it was...

Lyrics come in at exactly 250 words
and are about 20% of total writeup length.
Writeup adheres to all copyright policies.

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