Instincts run hot and cold, depending on who is relying on them. Some artists go against the grain and it works out fantastically for them. Some make last-minute choices that, while not haunting them forever, certainly don’t help them a hell of a lot. Ben Folds runs somewhere in the middle.
His biggest successes came early on as the namesake of the Ben Folds Five trio. That first eponymous disc was eminently buzz-worthy, whipping indie kids into a frenzy much as we’ve seen with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Arctic Monkeys and, more recently, Vampire Weekend. The second disc, Whatever And Ever Amen, made a strong case for the resurgence of piano pop, and indeed we hadn’t heard something so pretty (and at the same time vitriolic) since Joe Jackson’s punk period. It didn’t hurt that “Brick” suddenly became an unexpected hit. After one more studio disc and a b-sides/live cuts compilation, though, the three in the Five were reduced to one.
Folds’ first solo effort, Rockin’ The Suburbs, was greeted enthusiastically by diehards, applauded by a large number of critics, and ignored by pretty much everyone else. It isn’t for lack of trying — Folds dabbles with many different musical styles on Suburbs, opening with what sounds like an E.L.O. homage in “Annie Waits” and doing quite well with it. The strings on the song are arranged by friend and frequent collaborator John Mark Painter (of Fleming And John fame). Several great songs make their way through the speakers, including the return of Fred Jones in, um, “Fred Jones Part 2” (and his life hasn’t gotten better since his appearance on Whatever…), the hard-ish rocker “Not The Same,” and the unfortunate passing of the cardboard crown from father to son on “Still Fighting It.” The album’s varied tones were not enough to sway converts, some judging the piano not angst-y enough for the subject matter, while others liked the music but found Folds’ phrasing too profane (probably the same who are perennially offended by Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack.”)
His next move was a series of EPs offered through his website and manufactured by his label. Among the mini-albums was a collaboration with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller, appropriately titled The Bens, on which Folds paid tribute to yet another influence. I doubt anyone who listened to the tune “Bruised” didn’t hear a smidgen of Joe Jackson in there. That song and “Wandering,” from Speed Graphic, indicated the next full-length was going to be awesome.
Songs For Silverman wasn’t awesome. It is the album I’m least likely to pull up when I’m in the mood to listen to Ben Folds. For starters, there is a sameness across the disc that sometimes causes the listener to think they’ve heard the current song earlier in the album — not a positive attribute. It is a consistency of mood that sometimes works on concept albums and musical theater, but creates tedium here. Still, because Folds is a solid writer and musician, the release isn’t a total wash. “Time” is a gorgeous ballad, the kind we’ve come to expect from the man, and his Brian Wilson-esque backing harmonies with Al Yankovic (yes, that Al Yankovic) propel it to repeat status. Then there is the first single from the disc, “Landed.” It’s a narrative of a man trying to reconnect a friendship, apparently sabotaged by a lover who wanted the protagonist all to herself. The lyrics, while often sweet, are also frequently as incisive as some of the man’s profanity-laced classics, except this time he does in the victim with a sly variant and not a blunt instrument.
This is where we bring up that thing about instincts, and how sometimes they just don’t work. “Landed” was initially recorded with an arrangement for strings, again orchestrated by John Mark Painter. Apparently, at the last minute, Folds felt the sound wasn’t working, and remixed the track for Silverman with the strings off. It is my opinion that, had things been left alone, “Landed” could have been a big hit. Just as Folds channeled Jeff Lynne and Jackson previously, “Landed” with strings sounds amazingly like a tribute to Yellow Brick-era Elton John. The elements collide perfectly: Painter’s sweeping sections lend a sense of drama not unlike Del Newman’s on that landmark Elton album. Folds’ knack for dropping invective in an aside like “Down comes the reign of the telephone czar…” is nephew to some of the great, mean lines Bernie Taupin once wrote, and his choirboy voice and key phrasings fondly recall Elton’s.
We could have really used a shot of that memorable sound, what with John sounding more and more “Vegas” in recent years. Homage might have been the intent of the song (though that’s merely my speculation,) yet it would explain why, at the last minute, Folds turned 180 degrees. To my ears, it truly sounds like Elton could have done “Landed” in 1973 and perhaps that was just too on-the-mark for comfort. That’s my impression, but since we’re not big on impressions at Popdose, I’ll let you decide for yourself. Offered as a digital extra on the Silverman dual-disc release, we submit, for your approval, the strings version of “Landed” (download).