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In the Folds

 

Ben Folds: Songs for Silverman

Sony, 2005

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: April 25, 2005

By Laurence Station

Have pushing 40 and the responsibilities of parenthood finally wrung the last bits of wiseass witticisms from piano maestro Ben Folds’ songbook? Folds’ second solo album, Songs for Silverman, appears to emphatically make a convincing case toward the affirmative. Truthfully, though, Folds is still as satirical as he’s been throughout his career. (Those seeking to validate this argument need look no further than Folds’ recent wry, deadpan cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain't Shit”.) Folds’ Swiftian barbs simply fly a little lower beneath the radar these days. And this less-obvious lyrical tact applies to Songs for Silverman as a whole. It’s neither as immediately arresting (nor as funny) as Rockin' the Suburbs, his excellent 2001 examination of “white man’s pain.” No castoffs like Fred Jones or Baby Boomer sellouts like Stan to be found here. Silverman (according to Folds, the title has no specific meaning) is a more intimate collection of songs, which makes it less adventurous but more personally felt. Folds has mastered his material to the point that he no longer relies on a smartass punch line to deliver the goods.

Recording with a new rhythm section (bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson), Folds has returned to the core piano, bass and drums lineup that brought him renown fronting Ben Folds Five (with Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse) during the 1990s. There’s less guitar than appeared on the self-consciously trying-to-break-from-the-familiar mold of Suburbs. And that makes Silverman a composed, unfussy listen. There are few surprises, and what’s presented is an impeccably executed collection of pop-rock tunes.

Lyrically, Folds delivers several knockouts. Confident opener “Bastard” is a reality check against kids in a hurry to reach legal drinking age (“They can't wait to grow up so they can kiss some ass”). The tongue-in-cheek “You to Thank” -- about a bewildered couple who marries in Vegas in a drug-fueled haze and then has to deal with their respective families’ overly enthusiastic response -- plays like a hilarious send-up of Folds’ “The Luckiest,” which has become a bona fide wedding day favorite. Getting out from under the thumb of a domineering lover is explored on the chorus-driven “Landed,” which is reminiscent of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” in its theatrically grand arrangement. The theme of bolting from a one-sided relationship is further explored on the more downbeat, regretful ballad “Give Judy My Notice,” a song that initially appeared on 2003’s Speed Graphic EP, and is rerecorded here in a noticeably tighter form.

Silverman’s crowning achievement, though, is the dramatic, string-filled “Jesusland,” sporting a shuffling beat befitting its meandering observations detailing “beautiful McMansions on a hill” and “riverboat casinos.” Folds ingeniously exposes the hypocrisy of those who profit in the name of a man most wouldn’t give the time of day to if they actually met him. (This is one track you’re not likely to find on too many jukeboxes in red states.) It’s also the most politically and culturally biting cut on the album, and it would have been nice if Folds had included one or two more in this vein.

But Folds has weightier concerns. Some of them are extremely personal, like the ode to his daughter (“Gracie”), while others pay respect to fallen artists like Elliott Smith (“Late”). On the closing “Prison Food” (which features some amazing pedal steel from the great Bucky Baxter), Folds addresses the whole “born alone, die alone” mortality question, thus rounding out the conceptual notion begun by “Bastard.” Your birth may be out of your hands, and you know you’re going to leave this earth someday, so make the most of the time in between; don’t sprint to get old, celebrate the simple pleasures in life. Bluntly, enjoy it.

Songs for Silverman is Folds' “comfortable in his own shoes” album. It’s obvious that the one-hit wonder tag he picked up for the career-making single “Brick” no longer applies. What’s left for the artist is making classically sound pop records that celebrate the messiness of everyday living, leaving posterity to those so inclined to obsess over such fickle matters.

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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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