Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ The Suburbs” (2001) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2009-12-20 20:00:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

** This is the third in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **

By Chris Moore:

RATING: 5/5 stars

Ben Folds’ 2001 solo debut Rockin’ The Suburbs is one of those rare albums that thoughtfully balances all-seeing self-confidence and heartbreaking vulnerability.

It is also one of those albums that has gone largely unappreciated.

At the time of its release — September 11, 2001 to be exact — the album received moderate reviews and modest numbers on the album and singles charts.  Folds’ subsequent records have also been dismissed by many sources, holding steady around the three star mark from major reviewers like Rolling Stone.  Still, his more recent work has scored higher on the charts, with Songs For Silverman earning the “mature record” stamp and Way to Normal garnering an inordinate amount of attention from the media, as well as the distinction as Folds’ highest debut on the Billboard charts.

Say what you will about his other work — and Songs for Silverman is a truly great album — but he has never matched the sound, feel, and overall conceptual focus that was present throughout Rockin’ the Suburbs.  Listen after listen, the latter reveals itself to be an exploration of that most basic of all human conditions: loneliness.

Whether intentionally or not, Folds is making statements, track by track, about what it means to confront the truth that, in the end, we’re all alone.  His contemporary landscaping lends itself to this task quite well, as he sets his songs in cubicle-dominated office buildings, behind the doors of extravagant corporate offices, at funerals, and in any number of mundane suburban settings frequented by aimless and/or lost young people.

This was an album I could relate to as a young college student, beginning to think about the world around me and the career — the life — ahead of me.

Likewise, nearly a decade later, this is an album that not only has meaning for me as an adult, but that I also expect will speak to me in decades to come when I find myself, as Michael Stipe would say, staring down the barrel of the middle distance.

Ben Folds' "Rockin' the Suburbs" (2001)

Ben Folds' "Rockin' the Suburbs" (2001)

“Annie Waits” is the ideal opening track, establishing mood with the tale of solitary Annie, waiting on a call that never comes, expectantly watching the cars driving past and wishing she was alone.  Alone, there would be no expectation, there would be no disappointment.  There would be no vulnerability.

The second track moves quickly into the territory of the disenfranchised, featuring two young people, uniquely spelled names and all, screaming out loud to a world that’s not listening.  Zak is the more introverted of the two, choosing to plunk away at guitars, while Sara is rattled by the dreary banality, choosing instead to verbally lash out against a car salesman.  Even Sara has to snap out of it in the end, clapping at the end of her song.

“Still Fighting It” is certainly one of the most personal songs on the album, written as a direct statement to his son.  While expressing the pure joy of fatherhood, Folds also notes that “everybody knows it hurts to grow up,” recalling that “it was pain, sunny days and rain; I knew you’d feel the same things…”

The next four tracks can be viewed as various takes on separation and loneliness.  It begins with “Gone,” a rant against an ex-lover who moved on too quickly, and concludes with “Losing Lisa,” the lament of a lover uncertain of what he’s done to merit a break-up.

The interceding tracks introduce the two sides of a coin all too often stamped out by a contemporary, corporate world that values profit over personality, hubris over humanity.  “Fred Jones Part 2″ describes the final day of a man who has spent twenty-five years working for a newspaper at which he has remained utterly anonymous.  “No one is left here that knows his first name,” Folds sings.  He continues, “Life barrels on like a runaway train where the passengers change; they don’t change anything.  You get off, someone else can get on.”  And so Mr. Jones goes quietly into that good night, ostensibly to conclude a life lived without meaning or true substance.

In other words, a life that many modern-day office workers are in danger of living.

“The Ascent of Stan” an equal and opposite life journey.  Stan is described as having been a “textbook hippy man, and yet somewhere along his path he chose to play the game that would earn him the prestige, the paychecks, and all the financial security that accompanies them; this leaves him, of course, morally bankrupt.

“Carrying Cathy” and “Not the Same” follow the stories of two people who have become lost.  Cathy ends up committing suicide, leaving the narrator with nightmares and regrets.  The subject of “Not the Same” takes LSD, climbs a tree, and returns to the ground as a born-again Christian.  In a sense, the latter song centers around the narrator’s disbelief that he has seen so many people change, “drop like flies from the bright, sunny skies,” and he is left alone with “one good trick.”

For all the bleak subject matter that dominates much of the disc, it is easy to dismiss the levity that the title track offers as contrary to the overall tone of the album.  And yet “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is Folds’ signal to his audience that he has put all things in perspective.  If nowhere else on the album, it is on the title track that he lets all the walls fall down to reveal his sense of humor and unique perspective in as uncensored a manner as possible.

Go ahead and watch the music video.  Try not to laugh, I dare you.

“Fired” continues in the same vein as previous tracks like “Losing Lisa,” describing the painful revelations of the narrator.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “The Luckiest” completes the album on a fittingly somber-sounding note, providing a hopeful story as the singer confesses his love — albeit in a unique manner — through a description of his perspectives on l0ve, life, fate, and choice.  And isn’t this ability to start all over again, heartbreak notwithstanding, the key factor in being able to break free of the loneliness that threatens to haunt all human souls?

It would only take one listen to Way To Normal to reveal that the starting over may also lead to future heartbreak, but that is indeed the story for another review…

When Robert Christgau labeled this album a “dud,” tossing it into the general category of “a bad record whose details rarely merit further thought,” he clearly missed not one but many outstanding attributes of Folds’ debut.  He missed a provocative exploration of the modern human psyche, that lonely, longing, and bruised side that many of us attempt to push aside for the ease of survival.  He missed a fascinating lineup of characters populating the album from front to back — characters like Annie, Zak, Sara, Fred Jones, Stan, Lisa, Cathy, and Lucretia — who are representative of the negative toll society can take on individuals.

And he certainly missed the finely layered vocals, bass, and drums that are always supporting, yet never surpassing, Ben Folds’ considerable talents on piano.

This is an album that I hope you won’t miss.  It shaped the way I see my world, and continues to merit further thought every time I listen to it, all the while being a great deal of fun to listen to.

As I’ve inquired in the past, what more could you ask for in a rock album?

The Weekend Review: May 2012 Report

By Chris Moore:

Strangeland (Keane)

Producer: Dan Grech-Marguerat

Released: May 4, 2012

Rating: 3 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “You Are Young” & “Sovereign Light Café”

For better or for worse, it has been confirmed time and again since their debut that Keane is a good song.  Strangeland continues the trend, and though there are certainly a handful of standouts, the first three tracks set the tone and pace for what is left to come.  There are other piano-based bands that have released more innovative material – Jukebox the Ghost, for instance – and why Keane has taken the leap to such tremendous fame and success (five consecutive number one albums, among other achievements) is still a mystery to me.

 

 

 

Rize of the Fenix (Tenacious D)

Producer: John Kimbrough & John King

Released: May 11, 2012

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “39” & “Classical Teacher”

What was the first sign Tenacious D are back with a new album and ready to rock?  The penis, testicles, and wings of fire on the cover were pretty much a dead giveaway…  It would be easy to dismiss half-rock/half-comedy duo Jack Black and Kyle Gass as merely aimed toward shock value and vulgarity, but even a superficial reading of their work reveals serious musical talent and an expansive vocabulary of stylistic and cultural references.  Rize of the Fenix doesn’t quite rise to the level of mastery set on their 2001 self-titled debut, but it would be difficult to imagine any album recapturing the raw hilarity of that record.  Instead, Rize presents high-adrenaline rock and roll from start to finish, with some interesting tangents and very funny sketches filling in the transitions.  It all culminates in the funny, beautiful “39,” a song that conjures Bob Seger at the peak of his popularity with, of course, some vulgar descriptions added to the standard fare for good measure.

 

 

Ten Stories (mewithoutYou)

Producer: Daniel Smith

Released: May 15, 2012

Rating:  4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Grist for the Malady Mill” & “Cardiff Giant”

With Ten Stories, mewithoutYou offer a taste of what albums once offered with more regularity: a concept album that involves music, lyrics, and artwork in the grander scheme of its vision.  In this case, the “ten stories” are ten tracks that unfurl the tale of a train crash involving a traveling circus in 19th-century Montana, a story cycle inspired by a book that lead singer/songwriter Aaron Weiss read before the making of Ten Stories.  What is brilliant about mewithoutYou’s latest release is not any one piece in particular, but the manner in which all the components come together: the uncommonly interesting, strong lyrics voiced loudly and with a sense of urgent abandon as appropriate to the subject matter, coupled with carefully orchestrated music that moves smoothly between soft and serious and loud and nearly unhinged.  All in all, the listening experience ends up being like what I imagine it would sound like if Neil Young set out to make a hardcore record.

 

 

 

Born and Raised (John Mayer)

Producer: John Mayer & Don Was

Released: May 22, 2012

Rating: 3.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Something Like Olivia” & “Queen of California”

After stepping back into familiar soundscapes for 2009’s Battle Studies, Mayer has switched it up again, this time donning a cowboy hat and experimenting within the country genre.  As could be expected from a popular songwriter working within this genre, Mayer’s work drifts in and out of the predictable yet does not confine itself to the current standards of the genre.  The result is a steady helping of pleasant, even pretty songs that amount to an easy listen.  You won’t find anything groundbreaking here, but you will find a steady stream of songs that clearly belong together.  Mayer experiments with a reprise of the title track, something he hasn’t implemented previously.  There are standouts, such as the upbeat, catchy “Something Like Olivia” and the solid album starter “Queen of California.”  Throughout, the quality is fairly steady, strengthened by stronger tracks (“Shadow Days,” “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”) sprinkled amongst the more lackluster fare.  At times, there is a feel which can only be traced to an early-seventies Dylan sound, a comparison made all the more tempting by Mayer’s nod to the Bard in one line (“if you see her, say hello”).  Overall, this won’t be considered a great effort at the close of Mayer’s career, but it is a solid installment in his catalog.

 

 

 

Once Upon Another Time [EP] (Sara Bareilles)

Producer: Ben Folds

Released: May 22, 2012

Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Sweet As Whole” & “Lie To Me”

Once Upon Another Time works well as an EP, though I could scarcely imagine an entire album at the pace and tone offered by this effort, though I imagine that is the point of, and perhaps the best reason for, recording an EP in the first place.  As could be expected from any effort with both Sara Bareilles’ and Ben Folds’ respectively impressive creative stamps upon in, Once Upon Another Time offers a strong and creative sequence of tracks.  It starts off as low-key as can be with the largely a cappella title track and slowly building to the drum-backed frustration of “Lie To Me” before backing off to the simpler yet catchier piano-driven tones of “Sweet As Whole” and the final, expansive song “Bright Lights and Cityscape.”  “Sweet As Whole” is the clear standout and stands as perhaps the clearest marker that this is indeed a Bareilles/Folds collaboration: it is pretty and heartfelt yet emotionally wrought and catchy and largely rendered in the base, vulgar language of informal speakers of English.  It seems at first to clash with the sound of the music or even the EP as a whole, but, after a few listens, one should be hard-pressed not to sing along with this perfectly placed climax of the EP.

 

 

 

Magic Hour (Scissor Sisters)

Producer: Scissor Sisters, Calvin Harris, Stuart Price, Alex Ridha, & Pharrell Williams

Released: May 25, 2012

Rating:  4.5 / 5 stars

Top Two Tracks: “Year of Living Dangerously” & “San Luis Obispo”

Just when it seemed that the Scissor Sisters outdid themselves with the outstandingly fun Night Work (2010), they return a mere two years later with an album like Magic Hour, an album that artfully experiments with juxtaposition: of modern and classic sounds, of expansive gems and singles waiting to happen, and of seriously rendered lyrics and what can only be described as a mixture of funny and vulgar.  The list of standout tracks would be longer than the list of songs that fall short, what with tremendous work like the lush, gorgeous “San Luis Obispo,” the foot-stomping, fist-bumping “Baby Come Home,” and the richly textured “Inevitable.”  “Let’s Have a Kiki” is no throwaway and, in fact, begs a sing-along.  And, of course, there is what seems to be the heart of the album, the thesis that drives the work around it: “Year of Living Dangerously.”  All in all, the Scissor Sisters have outdone themselves again and continue to make some of the best, most innovative and engaging music of their generation.

The BEST COLLABORATIONS of 2011 (The Year-End Awards)

By Chris Moore:

The following artists are being recognized for their notable collaborations.  Had they not worked together, their tracks and, in some cases, albums would not have been nearly as successfully rendered.  Wanda Jackson and Jack White have to earn the top mention for the comeback release of the year.  Jackson was once a hitmaker, a notable player in the rockabilly scene (dating Elvis Presley for a time), but I certainly hadn’t heard of her before this year.  With White’s electric leads and the fitting arrangements that walk the line between classic and modern, The Party Ain’t Over makes good on the claim in its title.

Beyond this collaboration, the others on this list are more traditional.  8in8 was a cool idea: get together to write, record, and release eight tracks in eight hours as a way of showing just how much the music industry has changed in even the past several years.  Gillian Welch’s role, dueting on the Decemberists’ The King is Dead, was a vital one, just as Norah Jones and Jack White added their vocals to a couple tracks and elevated the Rome soundtrack.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out and praise the (brief) reunion of Ben Folds Five, just as much as if I didn’t note that some of the tracks on The King is Dead have a strongly R.E.M.-esque vibe to them at least in part because Peter Buck is playing on them.

1)  Wanda Jackson and Jack White (The Party Ain’t Over)

2)  Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, and Damian Kulash (8in8)

3)  The Decemberists and Gillian Welch (various tracks on The King is Dead)

4)  Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi, Norah Jones, and Jack White (Rome: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

5)  Ben Folds, Darren Jesse, and Robert Sledge (as Ben Folds Five for three new recordings)

6)  Norah Jones and Hank Williams (“How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart”)

7)  The Decemberists and Peter Buck (various tracks on The King is Dead)

8)  Bob Dylan and Hank Williams (“The Love That Faded”)

9)  Kevin Hearn and Garth Hudson (“The House of Invention”)

10) Lupe Fiasco and Matt Mahaffey (“State Run Radio”)

“Time” (Ben Folds Cover- Jim’s 1st on Piano!)

By Jim Fusco:

Welcome to another edition of the Laptop Sessions on the best music video blog on the web.  Tonight, I bring you my first Laptop Session on the piano, which I actually learned to play before the guitar.  In fact, I taught myself piano- it’s actually very logical in the way it’s set up, so once you learn some of the chord patterns, you can just go from there.

Anyway, tonight’s video is a cover song of the piano master, Ben Folds, and probably my favorite all-time song from him: “Time” off “Songs for Silverman”.  Weird Al joins him on the choir-like backing vocals, which is one of the reasons that this track is my favorite.  I realized, though, that the song is great on its own, so that’s why I wanted to do a Laptop Session of it.

You may notice that the vocals are a bit “airy”.  Well, you see that microphone in front of me?  Perfect placement.  I even make sure to sing directly into it most of the time.  Well, I wanted to get the whole piano sound.  My ZOOM H2 microphone actually has 4 mics in it.  The two on the front are put in a 90 degree angle and the two on the back are placed at 120 degrees for a “wider” pickup range.  I wanted to use that 120 degrees to pick up the piano and my voice.

That only works if you turn the freakin’ microphone around!

So, you couldn’t hear my voice at all and the piano was very muffled.  But, through the magic of equalization, I managed to brighten the piano sound and bring my vocals out of the mix and salvage the video.  I had two others I recorded at this session (originals) on my fiancee’s piano, but those had to be scrapped.  I’ll go back again and re-record those, making sure this time to turn the microphone around…

I hope you enjoy tonight’s music video.  I guess I can’t plug the word “acoustic” tonight, but I guess it’s considered an “acoustic piano” as opposed to an electric piano.  Have a great Sunday and make sure to stop on back for another video the Laptop Sessions acoustic guitar AND piano music video blog!