Can tunes about midlife crises and mortality coexist with aspirations to rock suburbia "just like Quiet Riot did"? On Rockin' the Suburbs, his solo debut, Ben Folds continues to wear the crown of pop's most introspective wiseass. The difference this time is one of scale. Whereas with Ben Folds Five, he sometimes sounded like he was overcompensating for the lack of a lead guitar in his oddball power trio, he now indulges his taste for florid Seventies-style AM-radio pop with epic displays of one-man band virtuosity. Sometimes the humor verges on camp (the title track), or the poignance drowns in Barry Manilow-isms ("Still Fighting It"). But mostly, Folds' songcraft is a winning mixture of the plush and the prickly, with buff arrangements that echo past pleasures, some of them guilty: a twist of Billy Joel's bombast on "Zak and Sara," a swig of Beach Boys soul on "Gone," a hint of Todd Rundgren's falsetto utopia on "Fired." Amid the pomp are some gorgeous tunes ("Annie Waits," "Lucky") about growing older, and their irony-free tone suggests that Folds may someday yet be able to get through an entire album without smirking.
(RS 878 - September 27, 2001)
(Posted: Sep 4, 2001)