The piano hasn't always been a sissy's instrument. Thanks to Keane, youngsters today associate the old Joanna with fey tinkling to accompany big-faced mummies boys. Nope, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis weren't afraid to break a nail or two. Little Richard was a howling, barking freak with a penchant for make up and moonshine, and Jerry Lee Lewis had fingers like hammers, enjoyed setting his instrument on fire, and tried shooting Elvis through the gates of Graceland because he couldn't handle the fact he wasn't the King of Rock & Roll anymore. Both hard-assed mothers and both extremely cool, despite the fact Lewis liked shoving it up his 13-year-old cousin. But for a while now the piano has been unfashionable. In the 80s everything went synthetic (apart from some cunt called Bruce Hornsby). And Elton John persevered of course, turning from badass into bad arse.
So it's the mid 90s and Ben Folds and his chums try to single-handedly make piano rock cool again. They failed spectacularly, but they had their moments. And now Ben is a wizened old campaigner who's dropped the 'Five and shied away from the plinky-plonky Supertramp and ELO impressions. There's nothing remotely 'cool' about 'Songs For Silverman' but in some ways we benefit a whole lot more because of it.
From the opening irascibility of 'Bastard' through to the crescendo of 'Prison Food', Folds is firing on all cylinders: "If you'd written me off I'd understand" he sings on the magnificent 'Landed', "'Cause I've been on some other planet". Clearly he's aware a return to form was overdue and here it is. On the back of the CD there's a whole page
dedicated to his wife thanking her for her commitment which reads: 'The lady has ears. There's not a title for what she does; it's too important.' You might want to be sick just now, but chug back your vomit for a minute. There's certainly a sense that everyone involved in the making, and there are few (Folds produced it, and he and his wife did all the artwork) were taking part in a labour of love. It's often disillusionment that inspires the best art rather than smug contentedness, but not here. Yes, you can be happy and make good music.
Not only is Folds singing better than ever, and not only is his song-writing oozing confidence - but the musician in him is also at the peak of his powers; the piano playing is just mesmerising. It's technically impressive, but it's all tastefully done with thankfully little superfluous noodling or showing off. And it's not just him - the bassist and drummer prevalent through most of '...Silverman' are spectacularly, almost supernaturally in tune with the main man.
This is not Keane that's for sure. When a band can become as ubiquitous and massive worldwide as Keane while lacking any bite or imagination with an instrument as exciting as the piano at their finger-tips, it's heartening to know someone out there is still trying. 'Songs for Silverman' is in no way sissy at all.
reviewed on 28 Apr 2005