BEN FOLDS: ROCKIN' THE SUBURBS (2001)
1) Annie Waits; 2) Zak And Sara; 3) Still Fighting It; 4) Gone; 5) Fred Jones, Pt. 2; 6) The Ascent Of Stan; 7) Losing Lisa; 8) Carrying Cathy; 9) Not The Same; 10) Rockin' The Suburbs; 11) Fired; 12) The Luckiest.
Alas, it cannot be denied: solo Ben Folds is not the same thing as the Ben Folds Five. Right away, this is made evident on the twenty-sixth second of ʽAnnie Waitsʼ, as a silly «piston-style» drum machine starts counting out time, instead of the trusty frantic rolls of Darren Jessee. Later on, a real rhythm section kicks in, with all parts provided by Ben himself — but he is neither as aggressive or inventive a drummer as Darren, nor does he have the same knowledge of / love for the bass guitar as Robert Sledge. Bass-wise, he sometimes goes for a Paul McCartney approach (independent melodicity of the instrument that does not require astute technique) — ʽLosing Lisaʼ, for instance, has a bass-piano combo not unlike the one on ʽWith A Little Help From My Friendsʼ — but his drumming is also similar to McCartney's rather than Ringo's, and that pretty much says everything about why solo Ben Folds is inferior to Ben Folds and his good friends.
Formally, Rockin' The Suburbs is not a «one-man project» of the Paul McCartney, Roy Wood, or Adrian Belew variety. A couple of friends help Ben out on guitars (and he himself plays some guitar as well, breaking the solemn vow of long ago), some cellos and background vocals are also contributed by outsiders, but the general idea is that Ben Folds, indeed, is planning on rockin' those suburbs on his very own. Which he does, on the title track, introduced by a distorted syncopated pop-metal riff (said to imitate Korn and Rage Against The Machine, but I'm sure it would also get the Noel Gallagher seal of approvement), a silly whistling synth tone to compensate for the macho guitar tone, and appropriate lyrics: "Let me tell y'all what it's like / Being male, middle class and white".
The song itself is an obvious parody, from the lyrics ("just like Bon Jovi did / I'm rocking the suburbs / Except that he was talented..."; "you better look out because I'm gonna say fuck") to all the «threatening» guitar tones, and while it did help push Ben farther into the limelight, becoming his biggest solo hit, it also might have sealed his fate — stereotyping him in the same camp as The Barenaked Ladies and other «smarty-clowns» of the era. (For that matter, the Ladies were stereotyped, too, but in their case, I actually believe that their «smarty-clown» material was always better than their attempts at being taken seriously; not the case for Ben Folds). The rest of the album, however, sounds nothing like the title track.
Instead, it sounds... well, fairly traditional. Sentimental ballads and happy-sad piano pop songs growing around various real and imagined life stories. Sometimes around life stories that claim to be real but look so hyperbolically weird that the brain refuses to acknowledge them as such (ʽNot The Sameʼ is supposedly about a friend who got drunk, climbed up a Christmas tree, and the next day climbed down a born-again Christian). Sometimes with a whiff of kid-friendly psychedelia (ʽZak And Saraʼ, with airy vocal harmonies and astral electronic effects spicing up the old music hall), sometimes with just a slight trace of light techno (ʽThe Ascent Of Stanʼ), and sometimes with an unintentional rip-off of something emotionally similar — the soul-twisting lonesome-heart ballad ʽFred Jones, Pt. 2ʼ takes a large chunk of its melody from Dylan's ʽLonesome Death Of Hattie Carrollʼ, doesn't it? Those are some emotionally tough chords out there.
The bad news is that some of the songs are boring, or, at least, you don't really need a Ben Folds to lay them upon you. ʽStill Fighting Itʼ, for instance, has fun lyrics, but the simple melody dressed in existentialist sauce could just as well come from Alanis Morissette. ʽGoneʼ is a homebrewn power ballad for which Ben does not have enough power — not even enough power to bring it down to a satisfactory melodic resolution. ʽCarrying Cathyʼ, ʽThe Luckiestʼ — all these confessional ballads somehow fail to bring home the bacon. Maybe the presence of a Robert Sledge could have helped, but standing as he is here on his own, Ben just doesn't have the strength to pull it off on a consistent basis.
The charisma is still there big time, and I couldn't actively «dislike» the album even if I forced myself to do it. But let's put it this way: no matter how talented and likeable, Ben Folds is no Elton John, and not even Elton John ever tried to do without anybody else's help on any of his albums. Rockin' The Suburbs is an honest and partially successful try, but as for that other part, its success must have been doomed from the very beginning.
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