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Kazooing Alone

Four Go Home, Ben Folds Alone

By Sandra Chung

Once upon a time, when radio stations were cluttered by over-mixed pop, three guys from North Carolina topped the charts with an acoustic single about a high school couple having an abortion. The band, Ben Folds Five, featured pianist and lead singer Ben Folds, drummer Darren Jesse, and bassist Robert Sledge. The single, “Brick”, turned the ears of the pop-washed country toward their unique, guitarless sound and helped their 1997 album Whatever and Ever Amen go platinum. Their last album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, didn’t sell nearly as well, though career changes rather than unsatisfactory sales caused the gropu to disband on Halloween 2000 (after seven years and three albums together).

While Jesse and Sledge are assembling new bands, Folds has put his musical talent to work on a solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs. Since Folds did most of the songwriting for the band, Rockin’ doesn’t stray far from the sound of his old group’s music. Folds remains loyal to the same artistic influences: folk, soul, indie rock, Elton John, Burt Bacharach, the Pixies. The main difference between the solo album and the Five is that Folds plays nearly all the instruments on Rockin’. Acoustic and electric guitars, a few guest voices, strings, melodica, and odd percussion instruments lightly spice the basic piano, voice, bass and drums mix.

Folds’ characteristic sing-along style incorporates uncluttered, acoustic instrumentation with rich, expressive lyrics. Rockin’s tracks are no exception. Folds flits between deeply personal ballads, sad or humorous stories, and fun, spontaneous riffs (which center around real or imagined people). The refrains are catchy and the songs are as comforting as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk.

The title track of Rockin’ is an outrageous commentary on modern culture. Folds praises 80s music icons while ragging on psychobabble and complaining about evil vibes from bass-blasting low riders at a stoplight on his way “to the store for some preparation H.” He punctuates the rant with a hip-hop breakdown: “Y’all don’t know what it’s like/being male middle class and white.” Guitars, which were never incorporated into the Five’s music, make an effective (if unskilled) appearance on this track.

“Fired” has a playful, lounge act flavor, with Folds’ nimble fingers vigorously working the ivories. He launches into a more electronic sound with synthesizer work in “The Ascent of Stan.” Cake lead signer John McCrea lends a guest voice to “Fred Jones Part 2,” the lyrics of which continue the story of a character introduced in the song “Cigarette” from Whatever and Ever Amen.

Folds indulges his fondness for writing character sketches with songs like “Jones,” “Losing Lisa,” “Carrying Cathy,” and “Annie Waits.” A darker tone and flowing refrain distinguish “Cathy” from the many lighter pieces about relationships. “Gone” draws special attention with the bitter, angry tone of a jilted lover. Folds showcases his talent with the keyboard by ending the album with an honest, Dylanesque tearjerker, “The Luckiest.”

The deceptively simple and upbeat feel of Folds’ infectious music doesn’t necessarily repulse listeners whose tastes lean toward the alternative and punk genres. The Five’s sometimes swingy, sometimes rockish, often poppish sound didn’t disguise their sheer musical depth. Rockin’ the Suburbs retains Ben Folds’ creativity and honesty and is a refreshing break from the monotonous depression or saccharin sweetness of mainstream music. Longtime Five fans should definitely grab Rockin’ this September; everyone else ought to give it at least a good listen.