Artist: Ben Folds
Title: Rockin' The Suburbs
Genre: piano-driven alternative jazz-rock with jokes
Ben Folds is one of my favorite artists. I've seen him in concert I want to say six times now and will be seeing him again in February. Every show is a little bit different--I've seen him do a 5-piece rock production, a stripped down 3-piece, an 8-piece jazz ensemble, once accompanied by an orchestra, and twice solo with a piano--the most recent of those shows without even a complete set-list. The last half of that show was requests delivered via paper airplane. He's a brilliant musician and unapologetically silly. After his band Ben Folds Five split in 2000, he started work on a solo project that would become Rockin' The Suburbs. It's a weird hodgepodge of a record, although all of it sounds unquestionably like it was written by Ben Folds. The arrangements are... unorthodox. Fired and Zakk & Sara feel like they could have been on a Ben Folds Five album, lacking only Darren Jessee's and Robert Sledge's backing vocals. Others, like the opener Annie Waits, are filled out with all manner of blips and whats-its, a piano composer playing around with song shapes since he no longer has to make room for only drum and bass.
Three of my favorite songs in Folds' entire repertoire are on this album. The first is the title track, in which he tears apart the tropes of what was considered modern rock in 2001. It opens with the line "Y'all don't know what it's like bein' male, middle-class, and white. It's a bitch, if you don't believe, listen up to my new CD." The closer is another favorite, The Luckiest, which is just a gorgeous love song. I also have a ton of affection for The Ascent Of Stan, about a former hippy having to deal with the fact that he is now "the man". Folds tends to write songs about interesting people or stories from a detached perspective, always with humor and sympathy. Zakk & Sara is about a girl going with her boyfriend to buy a new guitar and having an out-of-body experience (or something) and discovering the future of EDM. Not The Same tells the story of a friend who climbed a tree while dropping acid at a party and while he was up there found God and converted to Christianity.
It's an odd duck, but a compelling one.
Further Listening: Between his solo work and his albums with Ben Folds Five, Folds has quite a catalog. They don't all work for me, but I recommend Ben Folds Five's eponymous debut or Folds' solo Way To Normal, an album that was accompanied by a "leaked" version, in which he and his band made up and recorded a bunch of songs in like a day with the same titles as the ones on the official album in order to befuddle downloaders. And I'll be damned if the leaked version isn't nearly as good. It includes Bitch Went Nutz, which is easily his second-most-offensive Christmas song.