Sunday, May 08, 2005

Review: Ben Folds, Songs For Silverman

A mere four years after his solo debut, Ben Folds follows up with the inferior, but still decent enough, Songs For Silverman. Granted, 1991's Rockin' The Suburbs was a tough act to follow. After a few fine (but invariably flawed) discs with his Ben Folds Five trio, Suburbs managed to weed out most of the intermittent lyrical smarminess and occasionally grating musical showmanship that dragged down bits of the BFF albums, featuring song after song of hook-filled, catchy rockers and ballads that dared to get emotional and insightful without falling into the tendency towards sappiness that plagues many piano-based artists. After that, Folds seemed to lie low, tossing out a quickie live disc and a few Internet-only EP's. Silverman cherry-picks some of the tunes from those EP's and adds in a bunch of new ones. The highlight, "Landed," already showed up on an EP, and it continues in the vein of prior work, sticking in your head like gum (though something about the chorus rings a bit too close to Carole King territory for me). A few other tunes similarly weld Folds' gifts for character-based storytelling (and the usual assortment of bitter break-up songs) and melodic richness. But unfortunately Silverman also revives the fatal flaw of the BFF's swan song, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner: it's kinda dull. Many of the songs, while pretty enough, just don't go anywhere. This is particularly apparent on the latter half of the disc (back in the vinyl days, this would easily be one of those records where you rarely flip to side two). The nonstop musical variation and moving choruses that buoyed Suburbs are largely lacking. Maybe I noticed this more than I should have, having bought the disc at the same time I picked up the remastered Whatever And Ever Amen, Ben Folds Five's 1997 breakthrough cd, reissued with a slew of bonus tracks. Whatever And Ever highlights Ben's pluses and minuses -- a few unimaginably catchy and fantastic songs ("Brick," "Kate," "Ballad Of Who Could Care Less," etc.), weighted down by a tendency towards lyrical and musical excess that was annoying, but at least rarely dull. Silverman, at the end of the day, is the work of a truly mature artist who has shaved off the unnecessary cleverness that plagued his earlier works but in the process lost some of the edge that made him one of the more original voices in the indie rock scene. Final analysis: Buy the reissued/remastered Whatever And Ever; buy Suburbs; and only then grab a copy of Silverman if you need to cool down a bit.


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