Something of a trademark for John Lennon, slap echo -- likely tape slap -- is featured on both piano and lead vocal. The effect alludes to sounds of the 1950s (n.b. Elvis), perhaps giving the song the wisdom that comes from age, haunting us from the past from the day it was released.
Ben Folds Five
Distorting a signal causes it to take up more spectral space in your mix, focused mostly on creating higher harmonic energy. Distorting a bass risks creating a sound that obliterates pretty much everything else in your mix as the low bass frequencies spread ever higher across the rest of the audio band through harmonic distortion. Bass distortion should be used sparingly, strategically, and only in an arrangement that has room for it.
Erase Me is one of many excellent examples from Ben Folds Five, with bassist Robert Sledge using a Big Muff distortion pedal to show us the way. It's used sparingly, coming in at choruses and moments of intended chaos while returning to a clean sound in each verse.
It's used strategically, supporting the emotion of the song. I hear it as our protagonist simply being pissed off. Distortion is a nice way to expresss that. During the sadder parts, when our lonely hero is less animated and more introspective, the bass is clean. The distortion is level-dependent. The harder he digs in on the instrument, the more harmonic distortion he creates. While it's no holds barred during the choruses, notice how he backs off in level slightly, taming the associated distortion and retreating to a simpler performance during the piano solo in the coda at the end. With distortion, it seems, comes the responsibility to use it with control, to listen to -- and make room for -- the other players.
The trio setting is one of the few places you can get away with so much distortion on bass. It's a smaller, more open arrangement than a four or five piece rock band. The musicians then know how to use the distorted bass and play around it. In the choruses, the distorted electric bass takes-on the role of rhythm electric guitar, with Ben's ever-bright Baldwin piano fitting in around it using simpler chugging rhythmic parts, panned wide left and right around the center bass. In verses, the bass returns to a cleaner sound, playing expressively, melodically. WIthout distortion, it is easier to hear the drums and piano, and Ben's piano playing takes advantage, offering up more complexity and subtlety.
This snare sound offers a nice example of using compression to exaggerate the tasty timbre of the instrument. In addition, when drummer Darren Jessee slams hard, compression on close and room tracks enhances the live ambience of the performance space. Thanks to this type of compression, the snare doesn't so much get louder in the choruses, instead it is made to feel more intense. A timbral crescendo, via compression.
The lead vocal is bone dry, filtered for low-fi splendor (no highs/no lows, either through microphone choice or EQ), and limited for a clear clamping-down on dynamics. The drum loop, the witty and open arrangement -- with banjo and theremin-like synth and harmonica -- beg for a vocal that also sounds artificial, and under the influence of machinery. The man is not super.
Doublings on the vocal, most obviously at the end of several choruses, singing, um, the hook and title, "I'm no Superman," allow for the feeling of crescendo in a mix whose pieces are kept static, unchanging and repeating.