By Luke Smith

Paul Wong
Ben Folds, male, middle class and white.<br><br>Couresty of Epic Records

Daily Arts Editor

“I mean it”s not fucking cool to be like Billy Joel,” laughs Ben Folds. “I sing out of tune all the time, and I get shit wrong, and he doesn”t.”

A man stands at a piano plays his heart out and everyone wants to say he”s Billy Joel, except for him. The problem with being a guy in front of a piano in music now, a time when metal and rap/metal are barely alive and kicking yet somehow still dominating airwaves, are the inevitable comparisons to piano composers of yore. Folds narrates many of his songs in the third person, with lyrical styling sharing similarities with ex-Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus.

Folds formed and lead the ironically titular group in 1994, sans guitarist, near the height of over-commercialized guitar grunge. Ben Folds Five released a self-titled independent effort whose tin-pan alley indie-pop propagated a major label bidding war. It was the band”s follow-up and Sony debut, Whatever and Ever Amen that broke the band: The bitter “Brick,” about a pair of teens sneaking off to have an abortion, beamed out of top 40 and modern rock radio towers alike. Whatever was a leftfield hit, selling over a million copies.

The band released a B-sides and outtakes LP in 1998 before dropping their final album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Reinhold portrayed a desperate band, beginning to grow apart. Widely regarded as the strongest of the Ben Folds Five catalog, the album was met with praise and lukewarm sales. Messner was a darker depiction and often a departure from the upbeat piano pop for which the band was known. Reinhold incorporated stringed arrangements and even a quasi-experimental tune in “Most Valuable Possession” (the song was an answering machine recording of Folds” father, with tweaked musical backgrounds and a fatherly lecture on the importance of intellectual preservation). The record was far more commercially inaccessible, especially to radio”s fickle ears, than the Five”s previous efforts, and sales slumped.

November of 2000 brought the unexpected announcement of the Ben Folds Five”s breakup. While the band was unraveling during the support tour for Reinhold, anxiety, nervousness and tension were high inside the Five. Folds told the Michigan Daily, “During the time when the band was breaking up, I had to go out and feel like I did when I was playing a talent show in 12th grade.” After the Five disbanded, Folds began work on his second solo record (his first, an avant-pop album recorded under the moniker Fear of Pop, came out in 1998).

Rockin” the Suburbs hit shelves in September of 2001, and Ben Folds was back, minus the Five. The album most resembles the pop sensibility of Whatever and Ever Amen, but the recording is bigger, and the writing is better. Songs like “Zak and Sara,” “Fred Jones Part 2” and “Carrying Cathy” continue the smarty-pants third-person narration that Folds cultivated in the mid-“90s.

Suburbs is undoubtedly the slickest recording Ben Folds has released, either by himself or with the Five. “The songs probably relate a little stronger,” Folds said, “and in a way, it”s probably not as exciting because it is so highly produced.”

Part of Folds” reasoning for the resounding pop sensibilty on Rockin” the Suburbs was the lack of radio play the Five”s final album received. “I really felt like I”d written songs before that should”ve been hits, and I don”t know why they weren”t. They weren”t produced the right way, we took too many liberties with it, they weren”t big enough recordings and for some reason, they weren”t really flying at radio, and I thought they should.” When recording Rockin”, Folds took careful heed of producer Ben Grosse”s words: “I thought, “OK I”m going to listen to the advice of my producer, and when something doesn”t sound big or large enough or pop enough, I”m gonna make it that way,” because I don”t want to take a great song and have it wasted.”

After a pair of successful tours last fall and winter, Folds is hitting the road again. “It”s my first real solo tour it”s just going to be me, a van and a piano.” Folds” solo tour will be the first time he”s revisited the Five”s material during his regular set-list since the band”s break up. (Folds” encores during the two fall tours consisted of him at the piano playing audience requests.) He said, “With the encore sets, I don”t need a set-list, because whatever someone wants to hear, I can play it.”

Listeners shouldn”t expect to hear a set-list of new material rest assured, he”ll be playing all kinds of songs. “Anything goes, unless its something I really don”t feel like I”m inspired to play at that moment, or its something that really doesn”t make sense at the piano,” he said.

And the all-too frequent Billy Joel comparisons? “I would like to be compared to Randy Newman or Todd Rundgren. I dig what they do.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *