f every band that you intently listen to in your life, few seem to be as important as the ones that grab your attention in middle school. Indeed, it is an age of intense curiosity, profound learning, and sheer stupidity, and often has an integral part in shaping at least the next decade of your life. This claim holds as true for music as it does for anything else. Sometimes, looking back, the very groups that you held oh so dear elicit nothing more than a painful wince and a nervous laugh. Others release a veritable flood of nostalgia and remind you to dust off the old discs that have been played hundreds and hundreds of times, but years ago. It’s safe to say that no band was more important to me in those times than Ben Folds Five. Indeed, the Chapel Hill trio (har har) were a fantastic ensemble. Maybe more so to those less saturated ears of old, but nevertheless, they were a highly noteworthy blip on the expansive map of 1990s music. Of course, by high school, their three albums, along with the 25 or so other pieces that I had amassed (it’s worth mentioning that the Five also introduced me to the expensive, time-consuming, and utterly enjoyable world of intense fandom) were shelved in favor of the works of other more “mature” artists. And time moved on.
Fast forward two years and hundreds of bands later to 2001, when the recently independent ex- front man Ben Folds released his first solo album, Rockin’ The Suburbs on the familiar Epic imprint. Questions began to arise. Obviously the music would be different, but would it contain the same charming idiosyncrasies that led me to him in the first place? And would it invoke the same feelings? Occasionally, yes. Mostly, no.
Rockin’ The Suburbs finds Folds left entirely to his own devices, as writer, musician, and co-producer (with Ben Grosse, of Filter fame...yeah, I know.) As the flat humor and borderline schlocky balladry of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, BBF’s swan song, began to show, that isn’t always a good thing. While subtlety has never been the strong point of Folds’s ever-present wit, he was usually able to reign it in, leaving the listener with something more than a three-minute joke. Conversely, when the lyrics of his ballads began to fade into Celine Dion territory, Folds’s delivery and the band’s musicianship were always nimble enough to detract the listener from the trite lyricism, or at best, make them embrace it. What’s more, the characters of Folds’s glory days were never anything less than captivating. One of the things that made him such a great songwriter was his ability to flesh out such captivating personalities; some you could laugh with, others you would cry for, but you were always right there with them. Rockin’ The Suburbs is almost entirely devoid of such vividness. Although the album is far from a failure, it rarely reaches the peak of its creator’s potential.
“Annie Waits” opens the album with what is arguably its greatest song. Folds’s acute melodic sense is in full force, but even so, it is here that the apathy towards his world begins. “Gone,” with its thundering piano and Billy Joel-esque “oohs,” and “Not The Same” (which calls to mind Folds’s work in his first band, Majosha,) which boasts the album’s best chorus, are both high points. Folds’s love of show tunes is on full display in “Fired,” a song that ends disappointingly in a bombastic, Queen-ish utterance of “motherfucker,” a shock tactic that is admonished in the preceding title track. But it should come as no surprise, really. On first glance, “Rockin’ The Suburbs” is a pointedly urbane criticism of today’s angry white rap-rockers, but under closer scrutiny, it sounds like nothing more than a polished version of Ben Folds Five improvisations like “For Those of Y’all That Wear Fanny Packs” and “The Ultimate Sacrifice.” In short, something that has absolutely no place on a bona-fide album. Much of the rest blurs together, from “Losing Lisa” to “Carrying Cathy,” from “Zak and Sara” to “The Ascent of Stan”. For the first time in his career, Folds is just plain forgettable. And it’s a sad thing, really.
Chalk it up to being a former Folds fanatic, but I’m not going to get rid of this album. It’s far from unlistenable, just highly unsatisfactory. Come to think of it, inadequacy dogs many of Folds’s subjects. Let’s hope it doesn’t stick with him for long.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01