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Ben Folds
Rockin' the Suburbs
(Sony/Epic)
US release date: 11 September 2001
by Jason Thompson
PopMatters Associate Music Editor

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The Crease in the Folds

When I was but five years old, my older brother brought home Billy Joel's album The Stranger in 1977. I suppose you could say that that album changed my life, as it was the first record that sowed the seeds of music addiction within my blood. Since then, I have always loved to hear pop music that was keyboard or piano based. So it was with much joy that I embraced Ben Folds Five when they seemingly came out of nowhere during the last decade.

I can't tell you the number of times I played Ben Folds Five's debut album. I couldn't get enough of Folds' sweet melodies, wry sarcasm, and unforgettable songs that somehow managed to fit nicely within the confines of everything else that was popular -- and completely opposite -- of what the trio was doing. It was with much anticipation when I bought the band's second album, Whatever and Ever, Amen. But I couldn't help but feel something had changed. Folds' mood had grown a little darker, his topical songs a bit heavier. Still, things like "Brick" sounded great, even if the album overall seemed a little more "serious".

By the time the band's final album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, came out, I completely wrote Folds off. The fun of it all was just gone for me, in its place were the kind of singer/songwriter bits that plenty of people before Folds' time had created. It just seemed that Ben was maybe trying too hard. Of course, it won him a lot of new fans and critical praise. Some critics loved it so much that they forgave Folds for his first album. Sorry, but I'm one of those guys who thinks that Ben was exciting and far more interesting when he jumped out of the gate.

I always felt that Folds was more entertaining when he kept his songs relatively energetic, or at least moderately paced. The heavy-handedness that burdened portions of Amen and most of Messner never did a thing for me. For me, the joy still rested in things like "Philosophy", "Julianne", and "Uncle Walter". I don't make any apologies for that; Folds definitely has an uncanny knack for writing catchy pop tunes. When he pulls out the slower numbers, things start to sound a little same.

So how is Folds' solo debut (not counting the semi-anonymous Fear of Pop album he released while Ben Folds Five was still together) Rockin' the Suburbs? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it feels like a mix of the previous BFF albums all rolled into one. Basically, there's something for everyone here, but probably not enough to fix the fans of either his earliest or later work. Folds seems to want to please everyone on the disc, making the listening experience a bit haphazard, if not a little predictable.

Frankly, things couldn't start off better with the first two tracks, "Annie Waits" and "Zak and Sara". The former is as great a pop tune as Folds has ever written, while the latter flexes funky with touches of synth here and there, flowing freely over another one of Ben's trademark character studies. It should be pointed out that Folds handled pretty much all of the instruments on this album, much like he does when creating demos. To hear the songs, you'd never know that anything had actually changed. The performances are as tight and crisp as they ever were.

By the time "Still Fighting It" and "Gone" roll around, Rockin' the Suburbs seems to take a turn back into Whatever and Ever Amen territory. "It sucks to grow up", sings Folds in "Still Fighting It", a plaintive tune that owes much to Folds' love of Elton John as it swings between its quiet and powerfully bouncy moments. "Gone" features a bit of Beach Boys-like backing vocals and plenty of key pounding. I only wish that Ben's drumming wasn't as heavy as his piano playing on this track. At times, it seems like the cymbal crashes are about to take everything over.

When the notes of "Fred Jones Part 2" and "The Ascent of Stan" come through the speakers, the album seems to transform into Reinhold Messner. Here, Folds pulls out the heavy subjects and tugs at the listeners' hearts. Sorry, but the only thing these two songs did for me was get my index finger itching to hit the skip button on my player. Fortunately, things pick up once more with "Losing Lisa" before retreating back into sentimental territory on "Carrying Cathy" (jeez Ben, have much luck with the ladies?).

"Not The Same" skewers an acid-head turned Jesus freak with hints of Queen lodged into the vocal mix, while the title track finds Ben returning to his good old funny self. "I got shit runnin' through my brain / It's so intense that I can't explain / All alone in my white boy pain / Shake your booty while the band complains". It's a welcome sound on the album, albeit one that comes a little too late. "Fired" keeps up the humor and piano bounce, even if Folds still finds it necessary to drop silliness like a harmonized "motherfucker" at the end of the song. The kids, of course, will find this cool. To me, it just poses a paradox of sorts when on the flip side of the coin, Folds tries so hard to get serious.

Rockin' the Suburbs isn't a great album by a long shot, but it does provide a fairly decent sampler of the kinds of things Ben Folds can do. The hardcore fans will be sure to eat it up and drool all over Ben's new tunes, but overall Folds seems to be comfortably treading waters of the past on this disc. Not that there's anything at all wrong with that. It would just be nice to see him kick out the jams once again instead of working the sentimental groove time and time again, even if that formula does mean more record sales.

 

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