May 5, 2005

Ben Folds: Songs for Silverman

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More of the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when referring to Ben Folds. His latest offering, Songs for Silverman is a testament to the fact that it is often best not to fix what isn’t broken, a paradigm which many musicians often discard in an attempt to defy expectations. Songs for Silverman features the same piano pop and quirky lyrics that propelled Folds to stardom in the mid ’90s as the leader of Ben Folds Five.

Though it has been four years since his last full-length studio release, Rockin’ the Suburbs, Folds has managed to satiate his adoring fans through the release of four EP’s, three of which were released under his own moniker and one the eponymous EP of the Bens (also featuring Ben Kweller and Ben Lee). While the EP’s gave Folds a chance to experiment, covering songs by artists as diverse as Ray Charles and The Darkness and deviating stylistically at times from his signature sound, Songs for Silverman signifies a return to antiquity.

What most distinctly differentiates this album from Rockin’ the Suburbs is the use of a band approach. On Rockin’ the Suburbs, his first album after disbanding Ben Folds Five, Folds played all of the non-orchestral instruments, even adding electric guitar on several tracks, providing a sound that markedly contrasts his previous efforts — Ben Folds Five consisted solely of piano, bass and drums and was consistently marketed as a guitar-less group.

Employing bassist Lindsay Jamieson, who also worked on the EP Speed Graphic, and drummer Jared Reynolds, Folds creates what I like to call “Ben Folds Five in a box.” More specifically, Jamieson and Reynolds play their instruments and sing backup vocals remarkably similarly to Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse of Folds Five. Jamieson even goes as far as to use a fuzz effect on his bass, a sound which had come to define Sledge’s playing. Furthermore, the use of sustained back-up vocal harmonies to supplement the spacious trio sound, often singing what would be the notes of a fourth instrument, is a trick which Folds has used for the duration of his career.

All of these tricks, per se, sound excellent, although the edge of the original Ben Folds Five sound, which was enhanced by youthful defiance and originality, is often absent here. This is not surprising, however; professional musicians would be hard pressed to recreate the magic of a style created unintentionally by three friends simply playing music the only way they knew how. Even though this authenticity is at times lacking, it is less a detractor and more a sign that Folds has matured and is using the music that served him well in the past as a springboard, allowing the 38-year-old to age gracefully.

As with just about all of his previous projects, Folds’ songwriting is top-notch. The band offers an array of contrast, evident from the get-go. On “Bastard,” the opener, the steady quarter notes on piano comfortably embed the lead vocal for a verse with intermittent bass and drum fills, leading up to a chorus with all three instruments plodding along while the band sings in three-part harmony. The following tune, “You to Thank” provides an even greater dynamic range, with Folds pounding the lower region of the piano through the chorus, a technique that has essentially become his trademark, only to cut out and immediately return to the quiet theme of the song. As if this were not enough, the verse crescendos back into a state of cacophonic bliss.

Keeping with tradition, Folds covers a breadth of subject matter with his lyrics. His unique approach is readily apparent: traditional songwriting topics are either absent or addressed from a bizarrely original perspective. “Jesusland” skillfully pokes fun at the fact that many religious zealots have ostensibly made Jesus into a commodity (“They drop your name/ But no one knows your face/ Billboards quoting things you never said … From offices to farms/ Crosses flying high above the malls”), while “Trusted” tells the tale of a confidant who gets caught reading a loved one’s diary. Even seemingly simple topics, such as a relationship gone sour, are treated with the utmost complexity. The album’s first single, “Landed,” refers to the woman in the relationship as the “telephone czar,” acknowledging the fact that, “She never told me you called/ back when I was still in love.”

The most intriguing lyrics are on “Late,” a tribute to the late Elliott Smith. Folds explained in an interview that he sought to avoid the typical elegiac song in which the writer mournfully laments the loss of a genius. Rather, he touched upon that with which he was familiar, most specifically the fact that Smith, whom he knew briefly when they were both up-and-coming in the ’90s, threw elbows when playing basketball. He discusses the clubs that they both played during their ascent and the fact that “The songs you wrote/ got me through a lot.”

Other highlights on the album include “Sentimental Guy,” which is somewhat of a departure, with a New Orleans feel that channels the likes of piano great Dr. John, and “Time,” on which Weird Al Yankovic contributes a backing vocal track. It is also important to note that of all the material released on the EP’s, Folds chose only to include “Give Judy My Notice,” which he revamped slightly, with the help of Bucky Baxter, who contributes pedal steel guitar on the tune.

If you are a fan of Ben Folds’ songwriting or the power pop styling of Ben Folds Five, Songs for Silverman is a must. If you are just looking for original songwriting or a unique approach to music, this album is certainly worth checking out. Although as a caveat, I will add that if you may want to pick up a Ben Folds Five album (perhaps Whatever and Ever, Amen) in order to acclimate yourself to Folds’ sound and sense of humor, before immersing yourself in his more mature, introspective work.

Archived article by Scott Eisman
Sun Staff Writer