Ben Folds once described his unique musical group Ben Folds’ Five as “punk rock for sissies.” There may have never been a truer statement. With Folds at the piano, Robert Sledge on bass, and Darren Jessee on drums, the trio forged their own path into rock culture with songs that ranged from the somber and reflective to the bizarre.
Now, on his first solo effort since that group’s demise, Folds’ Rockin’ the Suburbs attempts to carry on the torch he and his band first lit in the early 1990’s.
Folds is an excellent piano player, and most would argue that he is equally talented as a songwriter. He certainly falls short with neither talent on this new album. His piano and pen are both sharp, each allowing him to pick apart aspects of his life and share them with us all. Springsteen used to write as though he were giving each listener a little view into his life, and Folds accomplishes the same with Rockin’ the Suburbs.
For the average fan, though, this album may be a little hard to swallow. While Ben Folds’ Five carved its niche by being a rock band with a piano, this album is not a rock album. But it’s not a pop album either. It seems to fall somewhere in between, a cross between Elton John and Barry Manilow, part rock, part storyteller, all piano. Therein lies the problem. Folds may not admit it, but BFF fans won’t be able to listen to these admittedly good tunes without wondering what these well-written songs would sound like with Jessee on the drums and Sledge providing a bass lick or two and back-up vocals. All three still seem to be on good terms, and they are the first people Folds thanks at the back of his album, and you can’t help but wonder where this album would be with the trio intact. In short, Folds sounds very much alone.
The songs themselves are excellent, and while you will certainly want to skip past some, many are well worth listening too, especially for longtime BFF fans. “Annie Waits” has a great beat, and “Still Fighting It” has a good chorus with wonderfully thoughtful lyrics. The title track is brilliantly funny, a slew of quips at the expense of Ben’s own life and musical style. And the final song on the CD, “The Luckiest,” is easily the best love song Folds has ever written, hefty praise considering some of his earlier work with BFF.
Overall, most will find the album to be full of potential, but with a definite sense of incompleteness. For any BFF fan, it’s a must-have, the next step in a great songwriter’s career. For the casual fan, this may well be an album that they choose to pass by.
Archived article by Charles Persons