With Rockin' the Suburbs
, Ben Folds's music started to take a more serious turn. However, on his second solo record, Ben Folds is more serious and deeper than ever. For those fans of Ben Folds Five's witty, rocking style, this album may not be for you. The maturity level on this record is much higher than before, and so is the musicianship. Also gone is Ben's experimentation with playing all of the instruments himself. Now he has the excellent Lindsay Jamison for drums and Jared Reynolds on bass. While the setup is similar to the Five, the sound is much different. Ben's piano playing is much more subdued than before, though he still has his edge. The drums and bass are present, but they are definitely second fiddle to Ben's piano. Background vocals are still tastefully done, though much like other things on this record, they are less prominent than before. To (roughly) quote Ben himself, "He's not the same."
Tough I may seem very critical of the new sound, All I'm trying to do is warn the potential buyer. The record is excellent, but has a completely different feel than past material he's done. If anything, this record secures Ben in his place as this generation's premeire piano artist a la Billy Joel or Elton John. The music on the album is top notch, but I must explain one thing that lowered my overall rating quite a bit -- the format. The dual-disc thing works horribly. There are two sides, a DVD and CD. The CD side has all of the music on it, but it does not work on all CD players. In addition, Sony made it impossible to rip to a computer (I use WMP, but people tell me it does not work for I-Tunes, either). This inconvenience really irks me, as I have to have a second CD player set up anytime I want to listen to it. Also, the dual-sided format is very easy to scratch and ruin the whole thing. I think this was a very bad decision on the ever paranoid Sony's part. There. I'm done with complaining now. Let's explore the songs themselves.
The first song, Bastard
, sets the tone for the album nicely. Ben's style is obviously more subdued and sinister sounding. Speaking about an aging man who is still partially stuck in his wasted youth, this is proof that Folds's songwriting has greatly matured over the three years plus since Rockin' the Suburbs
. This is probably about one of the darkest tracks on here, but it is also right up there with my favorites. Next is the wonderful You to thank
. Starting with Ben's vocal and light piano, it explodes into one of the hardest tracks on the album. I live the wandering piano line, and the jazzy break towards the middle. Some of Ben's breaks are up there with his best playing I've heard. These two tracks are an excellent album.
If the next track, Jesusland
, is similar to any other Ben Folds song, it would be "The Ascent of Stan" from his previous album. The same style swirling arpeggios drive this song dealing with a disillusioned view on modern society. A beautiful, though simple string break makes this yet another great song. After this is the album's principle single, Landed
. Called by some a modern day "Tiny Dancer," this is the closest to Elton John that Mr. Folds has ever come. Also featured on the DVD is a version of this song with lush strings (making it in my opinion sound even more Elton-esque). However, they were left off because as Folds says,
Had all the string players grown beards, it might have worked.
But there were some Asian girls who were just not going to grow a beard.
(Pointing to a player with a beard)
That guy has a beard. If we could have isolated his track...
After this, we have a tender ballad, dedicated to Folds's daughter, Gracie
. Very light and slightly entertaining, this is mostly Folds and his piano with some slight bass and percussion thrown in there. While many people call this a high point of the album, I honestly don't like this track very much. The piano, light and bouncy, almost sounds a bit too forced to fit the subject matter to me. For Trusted
, Ben is angry again. One of the heavier songs, this deals with someone realizing that his relationship is not quite as well-off as he once thought. Following a fairly common Ben Folds motif, the verses gradually grow in strength and tension, the song reaches an emotional high point during the last verse.
Next is the almost country-sounding song (thanks to the pedal steel played during the verses) Give Judy My Notice
. A fairly upbeat song, the background vocals are top-notch, though much different than past Ben Folds harmonies we've heard, as they are less prominent. This is about as poppy sounding a song as you'll hear on this CD. Next is the Elliott Smith tribute, Late
. Folds, a longtime fan of Smith's music didn't personally know the late singer. "All I knew is that he played awesome music and threw elbows in basketball," says Folds. This is another favorite of mine on this album. Again, it is simple, but Ben's emotion shines through as clearly as ever.
If there is a low point to me, Sentimental Guy
is it. It's a fairly lazy sounding almost lounge-like tune. Slightly entertaining, it just never seems to take off to me. However, it's still a decent track. Don't skip it just because I don't like it. Weird Al Yankovic makes an appearance on Time
, singing background vocals. His distinct voice sticks out on this surprisingly serious (for him) song. If anything sticks out on this song, it does happen to be these rather complex backing vocals. This song has a rather somber feel, but it's another rather high point on the album.
Up next is Prison Food
, a song that originated as a jam with words later put to it. Impressive buildups, spacey slide guitar, and a lack of definitive structure give this song almost a Pink Floyd feel. Then you hear an amazing bridge section with eerie vocal harmonies and a nice guitar solo that scream Pink Floyd. As a closer, this is by far my favorite Ben Folds has in his catalogue.
There is also a slightly entertaining DVD on the flipside of the CD. It stars the band and features guest appearances by Weird Al, William Shatner, and an orangutan. There is some good live footage and studio footage, but it loses its humor after a time or two.
Overall, the music on this CD is worth a 4/5, but the poor way it was packaged forces me to drop it another half a point overall. The inconvenience is very annoying, especially if you need to play it on a DVD player if your only CD player won't play it. If you're looking for very heavy songs a la Whatever and Ever, Amen
, you won't find them here. However, if you want to listen to some mature pop rock with excellent instrumentation, you may want to pick this album up. The man often accused of nat taking his music seriously enough proves his true lyrical versatility here.