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Ben Folds | Rockin the Suburbs | review | alternative | rock | Lollipop

Ben Folds

Rockin' the Suburbs (Epic)
by Tim Den

Timelessness cannot be squashed by comparisons. For years, critics have compared piano man Ben Folds (and his previous outfit, 'Five) to the likes of Elton John, Randy Newman, and Billy Joel, seemingly mocking the young ivory-tinkler by praising his ability to reproduce his influences verbatim. But these are the same critics who didn't have the balls to pipe up when 1) Dylan ripped Guthrie, 2) Ramones ripped '50s pop, and 3) Nirvana ripped Hüsker Dü - in other words: New artists who, although borrowing heavily from their influences, delivered even more potent and affective results - so what the fuck do they know? Like the special cases that came before him, Ben Folds has taken his art beyond that of his predecessors (except maybe Newman). I might even go so far as to say neither Joel nor John packed as much lyrical relevance as Folds during their heyday.

Folds not only sketches out stories of everyday life that the common person can relate to (an area Joel and John wallowed in), he transcends them by incorporating irreverent humor, smart-ass remarks, and a down-to-earth yet highly dramatized sense of real-life tragedy (a combination uniquely a product of late-20th-century young adult cynicism).

What other piano-player/singer-songwriter jumps from a tale of middle-class suicide ("Carrying Cathy," which supposedly had been tracked by 'Five for The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, but left off the record due to fears of another "Brick"-like success), to mocking old hippies-gone-yuppie ("The Ascent of Stan"), to describing clairvoyant hair-metal chicks seeing the destruction of guitar solos at the hands of club DJs ("Zak & Sara"), detailing each episode with finesse?

And I'm not talking about using big words or inside jokes: Folds simply tells a story "like it is" in everyday language, but pulling punches when punches are needed and accenting pauses for dramatic effect. All this in time with his piano-playin' and sweet-melody-singin'! He might wear his musical influences on his sleeves, but it doesn't change the fact that he and only he gives this generation reflections of their lives through piano songs. Who else can blatantly make fun of White Suburban America with the title track of his album (I wonder if nü metalheads even get the joke) while getting the audience on their feet with an ironic Rage Against The Machine-styled funk metal jam?

And yes, for some reason, the music on this album sounds as retro as the lyrics feel modern. For the first time, Folds has - without any restraint - swung the gates of his '70s pop (think Wings) tendencies wide open. I personally don't think it's a bad thing, cuz this means that Rockin' the Suburbs is packed with glorious arena-filling anthems that will spark lighters and making-out in the back seat. Sure, you feel a little guilty for being addicted to an album that echoes your Mom's tape collection, but hey, this is your music, man. These are stories of your generation. So what if it makes you wanna grow your poofy hair out just a bit longer? The intertwining piano and vocal melodies stick to your lips like a high school kiss, tugging at your heartstrings during the "sad parts" and refusing to leave your head, even as you go to sleep. Eventually, these songs become the soundtrack of your everyday life, and soon you're recalling fond memories through them. This is what they call "timeless."


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