Dw. Dunphy On… Ben Folds

SilvermanInstincts 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.

suburbsFolds’ 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.

landedWe 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).

Buy Rockin’ the Suburbs (Amazon)
Buy Songs for Silverman (Amazon)

  • David Ragland

    I couldn't agree more with you saying that Suburbs is great, and that the EPs implied a great full-length follow-up, only to be let down by Silverman. Highlights of the EPs are “All You Can Eat”, “Adelaide”, and “Songs of Love” (a Divine Comedy cover). I also really like “Hiro's Song”, which, strangely enough, only made it onto a Japanese single, if I'm not mistaken.

    The thing is, though, that, as great as Suburbs and some of his solo stuff is, I feel like none of it comes close to being as musically interesting and as lyrically clever as the stuff he did with Ben Folds Five- especially when you listen to songs like, “Missing The War”, “Selfless, Cold & Composed”, or almost anything from Reinhold Messner. When I want to listen to Ben Folds, I tend to go straight for the BFF albums. Am I alone in this opinion?

    “Landed” with strings is reminiscent of Elton- Madman Across the Water era. I like it more than the album version. Thanks for sharing it. His strings version of “Smoke” is worth giving a listen to as well.

  • Alice Childress

    He dropped the ball in various ways: “Fair” and “Kate” from Forever & Ever album sounded like one to grow on, but seemed like the whimsy got knocked out of the act when “Brick” hit. “Bruised” by the Bens also ended up being more obscure than it should have been. And both Kweller and Lee had subsequent catchy AAA hits that weren't as good … maybe Folds just showing his age?

  • http://musikanmeldelser.smartlog.dk Morten

    Wow, that version of Landed is fantastic. Being a huge fan of both Ben and Elton, classical-tinged piano pop is right up my alley. I still loved “Songs For Silverman”, so you won't hear me complain about that album

  • hagen

    Another puzzler is the pretty danged good track Still (Reprise) from the Over the Hedge soundtrack, which sounded better than most anything on the Silverman album. Folds is pretty amazing, but when he falters, it is a real disappointment. One of the great things about Suburbs was the amount of fun he sounded like he was happening (which reflected the first two BFF discs), and his work on Shatner's Has Been sounds a lot more free and exuberant than Silverman, and more memorable, too. And while I'm kinda complaining, did anyone else feel bugged by the Silverman multiple release strategy? You had the Dual-Disc, and you had the Special Packaging with the DVD, and it seemed a lot of hullabaloo for a less-than-remarkable album. And I'm a fan of less-than-remarkable albums (it's what drew me to Jefito's blog in the first place), but this time it didn't work. It seems he had more fun with Darren and Robert, but maybe fatherhood did him in. Being content can really blow it for an artist, or so I've heard.

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    Wow. That's amazing, way better than the album version. A golden opportunity, missed.

    That said, I'm not sure it would have been a hit. It SHOULD have been a hit, but nobody cares about vintage Elton John anymore. Tragic, but true.

  • http://www.grayflannelsuit.net/ GrayFlannelSuit

    I was just going to mention the Shatner album – that's by far the best thing Ben's been associated with musically since the Reinhold Messner album. I listen to that disc far more than any Folds solo.

    And add me to the list of fans who enjoyed Rockin' the Suburbs and the EPs, only to be let down big time by Songs for Silverman. If you're going to try and ape the feel of early Elton, at least come up with some more memorable hooks.

  • hagen

    I don't know that Folds is ever seriously trying to emulate Elton, but I do know that Folds is a serious mofo of a hook writer himself (more times than not), and he seems to have lost his way a bit with Silverman. That means the next album will be a classic, right? Whenever the next album is?

  • http://themeparkexperience.blogspot.com EricGrubbs

    Maybe Jeff should repost my Complete Idiot's Guide to Ben Folds Five/Ben Folds? Whatta y'all think?

  • http://onthetrailofthegreat.blogspot.com Spence

    The EPs were pretty hit and miss too though. Some terrible covers and average originals, but overall redeemed by stuff like Protected and Kalamazoo. I hope he stops pissing around with soundtrack stuff and gets back to making proper, solid records like Suburbs and the last BFF one.

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    An excellent idea!

  • hagen


  • Thierry

    That song as a whole may have a whole lot of Madman-era Elton in it (or maybe some Turnstiles-era Billy Joel, and even a bit of Phish circa Billy Breathes), but what I heard first was the chord progression from James Taylor's “Fire and Rain”. Not that I'm complaining – this version of “Landed” is great!

  • http://themeparkexperience.blogspot.com EricGrubbs

    I might be in the minority here, but I think the strings take away the power in the bridge. I like them in the verses, though.

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    I like “Silverman” too, but it took me two years. Like many other people here, I thought it was boring overall, although I liked about five of the songs. Then I started to like one or two more, and then I realized I was fine with not liking every song. “Silverman” does have a sameness that previous Folds albums don't have, except for “Reinhold Messner.” “Silverman” is still better than “Reinhold,” in my opinion.

    I'm not bothered by “Captain Jack's” masturbation joke. But Folds's sense of humor seems to indicate that you could show him the funniest episode of something like “Mr. Show” and all he would remember were the fart jokes. He cut out the juvenile crap on “Silverman” but seemed to lose some of his joie de vivre in the process.

  • mrmilk

    I love Songs For Silverman. As an owner of all the import singles etc, Songs For Silverman hit me hard. It's an older record…it reminds me of Sail Away by Randy Newman. Very pretty songs, dressed down. Not a bad track on it. The subtle nature really brings out the small variations. That said, he never made an album that subtle. Jesusland sounds like nothing else on the record, Prison food sounds like Pink Floyd, and Sentimental Guy & Gracie are two of the most touching things he's ever done.

    Very interesting that he's still capable of a Hiro's Song or a There's Always Someone Cooler Than You, but Silverman, he leaves them off. No jokes. No tricks. Just a great songwriter album. It's his Crowded House album or something. I adore it and I'm going to listen to it now. I implore you to give it another try.

  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    Agreed. I mean, I don't love “Silverman” like you do, but I like where Folds is coming from. It's missing something, but it's a step in the right direction and a more successful attempt at a somber record than “Reinhold Messner” was.

  • Old_Davy

    Thanks DwD. That is a great version of “Landed”.

  • colin_all_the_shots

    Sentimental guy is the only song on SFS, that is worthy of mentioning, to me anyway.

    if everyone is a fan of Ben Folds i encourage you to check out http://www.mypsace.com/worldscollide people who have listened to BF5 have also bought this album.


  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    It's not that dramatically different from the original, though, is it? On the other hand, the “ska remix” of BF5's “Kate,” which is really the strings version of the song, is as good as the original version.

  • Old_Davy

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  • http://mulberrypanda96.blogspot.com rwcass

    It's not that dramatically different from the original, though, is it? On the other hand, the “ska remix” of BF5's “Kate,” which is really the strings version of the song, is as good as the original version.

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