Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds, Solo!
REVIEW: Ben Folds: Rockin' the Suburbs
Ben Folds: Rockin' the Suburbs (Epic, 2001)
Many a fan mourned when the Ben Folds Five called it quits in October of last year. I was one of them. While BF5 was far from my favourite band, their music (especially their last two albums) had brought me a great deal of joy - songs like "Army", "Brick" and "Narcolepsy" were both engaging, entertaining, and worth exploring. Much of the BF5's music subsisted on several levels, and it continues to hold up well over many, many listens. They were a band that mixed great piano-play, an ear for melody, and the urge to experiment. You've got to admit, a piano/bass/drums band is rather an oddity in the contemporary rock landscape.
So, with this - the first post-breakup release by any of the Five's three members - one of the most interesting things to learn is not what Ben Folds sounds like, but rather to be able to determine what the other members of the band brought to previous projects. I mean, you imagine a band that has the singer's name is mostly being fuelled by the singer's creative output. (Who really believes that the Innocent Criminals have a lot to do with Ben Harper's sound?) It seems in the case of the BF5 that Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge did indeed contribute substantially to the band's sound. Cause Rockin' the Suburbs, while it's got the same timbre as The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, doesn't really sound the same at all.
Rockin' the Suburbs is a power-pop album, with touches of McCartney balladry and a little too much self-indulgence. The songs are all very entertaining, perfect fare for summer-day lazing and chatting with friends. (Too bad it's not released until September.) Ben Folds' voice is as excellent ever; he hits each note on its mark, easily moving up and down the scales, articulate and clear. The lyrics - while they're rather more upbeat, and there is nary a trace of his (perhaps) trademark vitriol - are of the same variety as always, telling good stories and assembling delicious sing-along choruses.
The album opens with synthesizer-sounding piano smacks and similarly synthesizer-sounding hand-claps. "And so/And he waits and he waits and he waits/For a call/From a friend./The same/It's the same was it always the same?/And he waits/For the last/Time." "Annie Waits" is a song about a woman doing just that, waiting for a call, and it quickly ushers in the tone of the entire record. Upbeat and poppy, with double-tracked Ben vocals, and, well, lots of synthesized stuff. Rumour has it Ben played most of the instruments on this record, and so I suppose the amount of electronic noise isn't that surprising. Nobody's going to be able to learn fifteen instruments with virtuoso competence. The Eighties flourishes can be distracting, however, and his frequent use of strings, especially, come across as production tricks rather than well coordinated additions. "Not the Same" almost sounds like the Cure. Only not so Goth.
"Rockin' the Suburbs" rocks out in shades of "Your Redneck Past", although never quite getting there. It's certainly not "Song for the Dumped", and you can never picture Ben doing cruel and unusual things to his bass, but there are audible guitar crunches. "I'm rockin' the suburbs/Just like Michael Jackson Did/Except he was talented."
Yeah... just like Michael Jackson. The album's ballads are really the weak points. Folds seems to be imitating Paul McCartney quite a bit, injecting a string section every time he begins crooning. The album's closer, "The Luckiest", is the biggest disappointment - both musically and lyrically - and the violins that back him sound pedestrian. It's unfortunate that this album has got to measure up to the BF5's past achievements, but songs like "Magic" and "Selfless, Cold and Composed" are amongst the best piano-driven, ballads of the 90s. What's more, Folds isn't going to escape the shadow of his former greatness when one of his new songs ("The Ascent of Stan") directly rips off the piano part from one of his old songs ("Mess"). And then turns it into something circa 1989.
"Zak and Sara" is a stand-out single, with rollicking piano-play and great vocals. You know from the start that the song's going to be fun, and it goes all the way, with sweet "ooohs" to carry you through. An intentionally-electronic-sounding Moog bleeps in and out - sounding right at home - and the number builds to an anthemic chorus. It's moments like these - where Folds' new, even-more-poppy interests soar, that the album truly rises to the occasion. Far outstripping the work of Stephen Malkmus - a comparable frontman-turned-solo - and kicking the ass for Folds' previous pseudo-solo work ("Fear of Pop"), Rockin' the Suburbs is, during the 'fast bits' (which is most of the album) an excellent record, while a clear departure from the moody and alternative realms that the Ben Folds Five often frequented. While I could do without the New Wave nostalgia and the clumsy strings - and while I hope for some more real sadness to fuel good ballads on the next album - Rockin' the Suburbs, while fairly superficial, stands up on its own, and affirms Ben Folds' talent. I think he's only going to get better.