SONGS FOR SILVERMAN Ben Folds
"'The whiz man' never fit him like 'the whiz kid' did," Ben Folds sings on "Bastard," the opening track of his second solo album.
He could be singing about himself. In the mid-90s, when Ben Folds Five stormed onto the indie scene, Folds was the 88-keyed whiz kid. Like Elton John with thrift store duds and a foul mouth, he pounded the piano with gleeful abandon, sometimes even diving from nearby speaker cabinets onto the instrument. His songwriting too had a kind of recklessness--wiseass punk meets tossed-off charm. But beneath the surface, there was always a craftsman of the highest order.
Now that he's stopped body-checking his piano and dropping gratuitous profanity in his songs, Folds is refitting himself as a more modest whiz man. It's really a process that began on BFF's final album, The Unauthorized Biography of Rheinhold Messner, and continued through 2001's solo CD Rocking The Suburbs. I've read some complaints about this new album being too "mellow." But I'd rather think of it as maturity. After all, wouldn't the spectacle of Folds trying to act like his 25-year-old self and singing "Song for the Dumped" again be a little pathetic?
His forward motion does have a retro spin, in that he's chosen to form another trio, with rhythm section of Lindsay Jamieson (drums) and Jared Reynolds (bass). An adept multi-instrumentalist, Folds could easily have handled all the parts himself. But he benefits from interaction, especially in the vocal harmony blend that gives this album such richness and lift.
Like many albums today, Silverman is frontloaded. "You To Thank," a story of a couple who rushes into a Vegas marriage, matches its rollercoaster emotions with dynamic shifts and a melody that captures the resignation and angry frustration of the narrator. "Landed" is an escape from a crazy ex-lover, with an uplifting falsetto hook that sums up a lot with a little: "Bye bye, goodbye, I tried." Folds has always been a clever storyteller, but his lyrics here are about less is more. Not a word is wasted in the gospel-tinged "Jesusland," as he describes Bible Belt terrain with its "beautiful McMansions" and "crosses flying high above the malls."
Elsewhere, a tune for his daughter, "Gracie," is affectionate without straying into Paul Anka territory, and "Late" is a touching farewell to his friend Elliott Smith. The album runs out of steam a little towards the end, with "Time" (which sounds like a retread of the BFF's hit "Brick") and the meandering "Prison Food," but even B-grade Folds is better than most.
Another album or two like this, and I think "whiz man" will fit Ben Folds just fine. Bill DeMain