hqdefaultIt would appear at a quick glance that late-summer 2015 will be a great time for piano pop. Digging down into it some more, one finds it is only half-true.

First the good news: Joe Jackson’s Fast Forward, his first album of all-new material since 2008’s Rain, is a marvel. It is as if Jackson stepped into a time machine to record a natural follow-up to his last record with A&M, Blaze of Glory. Fast Forward has him singing as if time never passed, and the songs maintain his preternatural compositional maturity…for the most part.

Sometimes the album can be too mature, with a stretch of slow-tempo tunes that can get a bit same-feeling. But then he pushes back with a rocking tune that reminds you, oh okay, he used to do that as well. “Neon Rain” actually rips things up and “Junkie Diva” hits a groove akin to Jackson’s “Dirty Martini” from the Volume 4 record. “A Little Smile” brings forth that pop sound that drove his massive hit “Steppin’ Out.” And in his grand tradition of incongruous covers, he takes a funky stab at Television’s “See No Evil.”

joejackson-578x289And do not take my statement about the slow songs the wrong way. They’re uniformly melodically gorgeous. There’s often just too darn many placed in clusters. I would say that, of the ballad-driven material, the weakest might be the title track which, as an opening salvo for the record, tends to hang things up. It is there for thematic purposes, but I think the initial listen would have been more thrilling had he hit the ground running.

The weakest track is probably going to be the most controversial, being “If I Could See Your Face,” a screed against radical Islam. This too is not unlike Jackson, as he tackled thorny subjects in the past as well, from Reaganomics and patronizing in “Right and Wrong” to consumerism in “It’s All Too Much.” Jackson has every right to issue his personal “Je suis Charlie,” but the song bulges ungainly at the seams. He struggles with weak wordplay just to be able to drop in the line, “…you sick f***.”

Even with that in mind, it is impossible not to cheer for Joe Jackson who has yet again proven that piano pop can have meaning, class, and flawless execution. Unlike…

(sigh)

benfoldsEight songs with the chamber group yMusic and a three-track concerto with the Nashville Symphony aren’t enough to save Ben Folds’ So There from himself. From the snotty (“Not A Fan,” “So There”) to the cringe-inducing, juvenile (“F10-D-A” which, when translated from “F10 – D – A – withhold D” is intoned as “F’d in the A with a D”) there’s little to recommend this offering. “Phone In A Pool,” while at least having a singalong hook, also has that grating demeanor. It doesn’t shout “I’m being ironic, y’all” in your ear as much as it stabs your ear with the irony icepick.

bfolds-630x420The real shame is that Folds relegated the concerto piece to the back end like an afterthought. He is a musically gifted individual, much in the same way as Joe Jackson, someone that Folds has often been compared to. But when Jackson gets an itch for experimentation, he goes all the way. Be it with swing, punk/pop, jazz or orchestral, he is fully committed to what he’s doing.

As evidenced with So There, Folds can’t commit to anything. If he had the intestinal fortitude to just do a full album of orchestral-based material he would have been derided by longtime fans, but the album would have been good. This approach of playing to both camps ensures he pleases neither just on semantics. When one actually digs into the songs, only to realize the kind of disrespect for the audience being spooned out with tracks like “F10-D-A,” it just makes things worse.