Ben Folds: Rockin' The Suburbs

Ben Folds: Rockin' The Suburbs

Ben Folds has long reconciled his affinity for cleverly arch pop-culture analysis (his breakthrough single "Underground," et al) with his more down-to-earth role as a sweetly earnest piano man. He's written hit songs using both approaches, but after a solid career at the forefront of Ben Folds Five, he's newly solo, a development that would seem to imply a stylistic shift of some sort. But if Rockin' The Suburbs, Folds' solo debut, indicates any quantum leap, it's in creative consistency. The album finds its star once again poking humor at a fat pop-cultural target—on the title track, he adopts a rap-metal sneer for the line, "Y'all don't know what it's like / being male, middle-class, and white"—but Suburbs' life's blood is its briskly propulsive pop songs ("Annie Waits," "Losing Lisa"), its poignant character sketches ("Gone"), and its lovely, hitworthy ballads ("Still Fighting It"). The result should have little trouble sparking continued interest in a career that could have easily devolved into silly novelty years ago. Likable singer-songwriter Jude Christodal attempted a Folds-style balancing act on his promising 1998 debut, No One Is Really Beautiful, which mixed acoustic folk, upbeat pop-rock, sweetly swooning balladry, and the odd funk-folk single "Rick James." The result was the creative inconsistency Folds now so deftly avoids, but the highs were remarkable: "I Know," popularized somewhat by its presence on the City Of Angels soundtrack, was one of that year's loveliest songs. On King Of Yesterday, Jude smooths out the rough spots, disposing of the failed experiments but sacrificing the dizzying peaks of his debut. That's not to say King Of Yesterday isn't engaging at every turn: Like Rockin' The Suburbs without the comic relief, it's awash in pleasant singer-songwriterly pop that stands up nicely to return visits. Speaking of return visits, Jude reworks "I Do" from his debut, tacking on a few superfluous beats to justify the rehash. But the pretty ballad warrants the additional attention, as it nicely balances out the breezy pop-rock of "Sit Ups," the title track, and virtually every other song on the album. A few more creative risks probably wouldn't have hurt, but it's hard to complain when King Of Yesterday stays planted on footing this sure.

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