Ben Folds – Rockin’ The Suburbs

Ben Folds - Rockin' The SuburbsIf you’re worried about Ben Folds Five disbanding, don’t be. If you’re worried that post-Five Folds would sound like Ben’s ill-fated 1998 side project, there’s no cause for concern. This album, Folds’ first solo project, proves that he’s certainly got the stuff to forge ahead on his own.

Sticking to the same musical-hermit-crab-with-a-few-guests style that Jeff Lynne adopted for the latest ELO album, Folds plays almost everything himself, though he occasionally has a helping hand with vocals, and tracks several numbers with a string section backing conducted by longtime collaborator John Mark Painter. The result is something which, in places, sounds quite a bit like Ben Folds Five – many of the songs were written and arranged for a piano/bass/drum combo – but is a major evolutionary jump. Folds is famous for his humorous, geek-angst-ridden songs, but he’s also known for his uncanny ability to set short character sketches to music. He shows his pop acumen a little more obviously here than on any of his previous work (with the possible exception of the Five’s lovely swan song), with wall-of-sound harmony backing vocals, and amazingly catchy hooks. If there’s a failing to Folds’ D.I.Y. approach, it’s his drumming – Benny, you don’t have to hit the cymbals on every beat. They’re an accent thing. This style almost distracts one from the majestic pop hooks of “Gone” and a few other songs.

The cryptically titled “Fred Jones, Part 2” (there’s no evidence of part 1 anywhere) is a beautifully-arranged melancholy tale of a man’s thankless last day at a job he’s held for 25 years (the whole song is buoyed by a solo cello that makes it even sadder), while “Losing Lisa” sports an arrangement that’s almost straight out of a Phil Spector ’60s epic. “Carrying Cathy”, a song about a guy whose friend is suicidally depressed, really hit home with me, since I’ve lived that story before (though thank God it wasn’t a “successful suicide” – and though I’m tempted to go off on a tirade about what a horrible term that is, I’ll save it for another time). “Fired” is a gloriously goofy story of a manager who’d love nothing more than to shitcan his entire staff (a song I’ll probably be blasting at work before too long, and which reminds me a lot of “Steven’s Last Night In Town” from Whatever And Ever Amen), and the title track – also the album’s lead single – is perhaps the biggest nod to the Ben Folds Five legacy, the hilarious and profanity-ridden lament of a small-time musician 4 out of 4who must “face the fact that some producer with computers will fix all my shitty tracks.” The thing is, that song is not representative of the other songs around it, and some listeners expecting more boisterous tunes along the lines of Suburbs may feel like they’ve been misled. But for me, I actually prefer the rest of the album to that single – and I think it’ll open a few eyes and ear to Folds’ potential as well.

Order this CD

  1. Annie Waits (4:17)
  2. Zak And Sara (3:11)
  3. Still Fighting It (4:25)
  4. Gone (3:22)
  5. Fred Jones, Part 2 (3:45)
  6. The Ascent Of Stan (4:14)
  7. Losing Lisa (4:10)
  8. Carrying Cathy (3:49)
  9. Not The Same (4:17)
  10. Rockin’ The Suburbs (4:58)
  11. Fired (3:49)
  12. The Luckiest (4:25)

Released by: Epic
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 48:42

[…]

Ben Folds Five – Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold MessnerThe fourth album from Folds, Sledge and Jessee – actually, technically only their third album since Naked Baby Photos was more of a B-side/outtake compilation slapped together by the band’s first label to capitalize on their major-label success – ventures into more adventurous and mature musical territory that one might expect, given the alternative-rock pedigree that put them on the map. Reinhold Messner introduces a more introspective and pensive side to the band, and also explores the musical possibilities of overstepping their well-known piano/fuzz bass/drum combo. Small string and brass ensembles liven up several tracks, notably “Don’t Change Your Plans”, which sounds very much like a good, smooth early 70s Chicago tune in its instrumental break. The voice and the lyrics are still true to Folds’ past work, but aside from the opening track and a couple of amusing upbeat songs halfway through the album, the music is slower and more intricate – even better than, say, “Brick” (which was no slouch). There are also indications – namely the hilarious yet strangely touching track “Your Most Valuable Possession”, which consists of a jazzy musical backing under an actual message left on Folds’ answering machine by his father – that Folds’ Rating: 4 out of 4experimental side project Fear Of Pop was a necessary testing ground for some very interesting possible future directions for Ben Folds Five. I have no reservations about nominating Reinhold Messner and Jason Falkner’s Can You Still Feel? as the best rock/pop albums of the first half of 1999. Highly recommended.

Order this CD in the Store

  1. Narcolepsy (5:24)
  2. Don’t Change Your Plans (5:11)
  3. Mess (4:03)
  4. Magic (4:02)
  5. Hospital Song (2:05)
  6. Army (3:25)
  7. Your Redneck Past (3:43)
  8. Your Most Valuable Possession (1:55)
  9. Regrets (4:07)
  10. Jane (2:42)
  11. Lullabye (3:53)

Released by: Sony 550
Release date: 1999
Total running time: 40:37

Fear Of Pop – Volume One

Fear Of Pop - Volume OneThis side project from the Ben Folds Five frontman is billed as an “album of instrumental and spoken word music by Ben Folds” and Caleb Southern (the latter being the producer of the Ben Folds Five albums so far). And of course, its other main claim to fame is that it features the vocal stylings of one Mr. William Shatner on the song/rant “In Love”. The song in question consists of a standard modern-day synth-R&B backing vocal, while Shatner – as a frighteningly embittered rejected lover – proclaims his newfound disdain for the (former) object of his affections in a classic Shatner-esque performance. He doesn’t actually sing, so this is easily Shatner’s best musical appearance on record. Another attention-getter is the quasi-rap “I Paid My Money”, a song whose lyrics – “I see people leaving early, they don’t know what they’re missing, they don’t know what they’re missing, they’re missing half the movie!” – almost sound like an ode to everyone who paid full admission price just to see the trailer of a certain upcoming George Lucas opus. It’s also hilarious when Ben calmly announces “Funky bass!” in his unmistakable-for-anything-but-white voice. As an amusing diversion, Fear Of Pop fits the bill nicely, but it will probably come as a shock to those who are used to even the wildest Ben Folds Five tunes. Unlike those songs, Folds makes use of guitars, 2 out of 4synths, samples, and just about everything you could think of as the antithesis of the Ben Folds Five sound. There’s something distinctly late-1980s about the feel of Fear Of Pop. If you’re expecting to get a laugh out of this, go ahead and pick it up. If, on the other hand, you’re expecting more Ben Folds Five smoothness, you might want to wait until this hits the cutout bin.

Order this CD

  1. Fear Of Pop (3:26)
  2. Kops (6:08)
  3. Slow Jam ’98 (4:50)
  4. Blink (1:24)
  5. In Love / guest vocals: William Shatner (4:46)
  6. Interlude (0:22)
  7. Avery M. Powers Memorial Beltway (5:59)
  8. I Paid My Money (3:16)
  9. Rubber Sled (4:56)
  10. Root To This (5:09)
  11. Still In Love (1:26)

Released by: Sony / 550
Release date: 1998
Total running time: 41:44