Rockin' The Suburbs
by Kevin Roman
Despite all its testosterone-laden juvenile excess, I must thank local station WEJE for one thing. It introduced me and indeed northeast Indiana to a quirky little band called Ben Folds Five.
How ironic. Now that Alternative music has gained a capital “A” on its moniker, it has become an acceptable genre of music for the masses. It now denotes music by any oversexed kid with three chords and an attitude instead of its original meaning, a creative realm of innovative choices beyond the tired 70s classic rock we were saturated with in the 90s. Ben Folds has now turned his lyrical crosshairs toward this phenomena with the title track and first single from his second solo effort, Rockin’ the Suburbs: “ ... I’m rockin’ the suburbs/just like Michael Jackson did/I’m rockin’ the suburbs/except that he was talented/I’m rockin’ the suburbs/take the checks and face the facts/some producer with computers fixes all my s***** tracks ... ” Skewer away, Mr. Folds.
But like “Army” from the Five’s excellent final release, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, this flagship single is more for listener expectation of what Ben Folds and company should sound like, and not representative of what the rest of the album actually is. I worried upon hearing of Ben Folds Five’s breakup and Sir Fold’s plans to continue solo that he would continue in the direction of his Fear of Pop venture, a bizarre collection of instrumentals topped off by a humorous duet with William Shatner. Not to worry, Rockin’ the Suburbs is closer to previous BF5 material than it is to Fear of Pop.
BF5’s debut introduced us to this truly alternative trio of bass, piano and drums. At the forefront was Ben’s amazing keyboard work, backed by a rhythm section that could venture into many musical genres at will. We were also brought at least into the foyer to peek into Ben’s dark world of strange friends, weird relatives, failed relationships and general nerdish insecurity. Whatever and Ever Amen, the second release, brought on an equal partnership of the three accomplished musicians in contributing to the total BF5 sound and, again, Ben’s openness about his dark lyrical world was at once terribly disturbing and fascinating. This scenic tour through neurosis-land was continued unabashed on Unauthorized Biography ... , this time with humongous big production and musical influences as diverse as Burt Bacharach, the Who and Queen.
Rockin’ the Suburbs is almost a culmination of all that BF5 achieved musically. Ben’s ivory work is rich and tasty, reminiscent of the debut album, but it doesn’t seek to impress or cover any new ground. The production is once again big, Big, BIG, a la Reinhold Messner, but at the same time is so low-key that some subtle flourishes might easily be missed. Ben’s covering of all of the other instruments on this album is adequate, though his drumming is nowhere near Robert Sledge’s caliber, nor does it really need to be for what he is attempting. Everything is held back here in order to showcase the real “star” of this CD, Ben’s lyrics. This is not a CD to listen to as background or we’ll totally miss the bus on this lyrical journey. We are taken to the deepest darkest synaptic pathways of Ben’s twisted cranium to view his darkened planet of self-doubt, psychotic associates, miserable losers and high-maintenance ex-girlfriends. We return from the trip squirming uneasily in our Lazy Boy, fumbling for that misplaced Prozac bottle. At the same time, we know that we know people like these, or maybe we even are people like these, because we’ve felt these feelings at times.
Sadly, this CD debuted on the same day four people decided that running their virtual 757 into the towers on Microsoft Flight Simulator just wasn’t enough to please the deity. This CD is the total antithesis of whatever rah-rah song like Proud tuh be an Amer’kun emerges to rally the masses. I’m not sure of this CD’s cathartic or healing value for America, but for some twisted reason, I’m pushing the play button again.
December 2001 review by Doug Driscoll
As I watched Billy Joel and Elton John on one of October’s televised charity concerts, I found myself wondering why no Gen X pianist has stepped up to the plate and knocked this pudgy pair aside. I’ve always been partial to piano-based pop, but these guys are pretty much worn out in my book.
No sooner did Sir Elton announce that his latest album would be his last (thank you, sir!) then I gave my first listen to the new album by Ben Folds, former frontman for the threesome incongruously known as the Ben Folds Five. And within seconds of the first cut on Rockin’ The Suburbs, I had my answer to my question from October. Ladies and gentlemen, the kings are dead ... long live the king!
If there’s any justice in the world, Ben Folds will do 20 or 30 years as this generation’s most venerated pop pianist. To achieve stupendous commercial success he probably needs to do something about his proclivity for the “F” word, but there’s no question that this guy can play piano and craft pop tunes like some sort of alpha Neil Sedaka.
Actually, he apparently can play just about anything, as he proves by playing all the instruments on this disc except for the cello on “Fred Jones Part 2” and a couple of spare guitar parts on “Rockin’ The Suburbs” and “Still Fighting It.” The result is music more lush, more heavily textured than anything Folds ever did with his three-piece band.
There are so many strengths to this album it’s hard to know where to begin. The melodies are gorgeous, the piano playing is superb, the arrangements are as good as anything since Brian Wilson was (sort of) at the helm of the Beach Boys. If you fondly remember those moments in “Good Vibrations” that just knocked your socks off, then you get the idea.
Piano playing aside, what really stands out on Rockin’ The Suburbs are Folds’ lyrics. He peoples his songs with characters that you come to know better with each listen, an ability that I haven’t come across since John Prine. (Listen a few times to “Zak and Sara” and see if it doesn’t bring “Donald and Lydia” to mind). “Still Fighting It” evokes Bernie Taupin’s “The Greatest Discovery” without sledgehammering you with sentimentality. “Fred Jones Part 2” reminds me of Bookends-era Paul Simon. “The Luckiest” is simply one of the best crafted love songs I can remember.
If there’s fault to be found here, it’s that Folds’ boisterous piano playing and poppy melodies sometimes belie the serious story being told in the song lyrics. “Carrying Cathy” and “Annie Waits,” for example, are poignant and serious, even tragic songs, but the melodies are so catchy that you’ll find yourself bouncing around while listening to them. If that’s the worst that can be said about Rockin’ The Suburbs, that’s saying a lot.
Copyright 2001 Ad Media Inc.