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Ben Folds | Rockin' The Suburbs (Epic)
When the first BFF album came out in 1995 it was an astonishing debut, unlike anything else recorded after the mid-seventies and possessing an unstoppable energy and vitality, eschewing all guitar and taking the radical step of using a piano to front a rock band. There were certain hums of disappointment when the follow up slowed the pace somewhat. What many weren't prepared for was Ben Folds the balladeer and the tension between these two poles of his oeuvre continues on this, his first proper solo album (not including the abysmal 'Fear Of Pop' project.) Musically we're pretty much still in BFF territory and though the guitars are perhaps more to the fore, it's still Folds' piano which dominates the musical landscape. Annie Waits is a representative opener, a tale of unrequited love with a piano pounding chorus and melancholy-as-fuck vocals reminiscent of Todd Rundgren circa 1972. Zak and Sara continues the trend of songs named after people (there's a total of six of them here) and is ample evidence of Folds' gift for quietly detailed character sketches, both satiric and empathetic. Always interested in the sadness of aging (check out the superb Boxing on the debut) the album's two best songs return to that subject. Still Fighting It is a superb rumination on the ravages of time narrated by what could be the protagonist of Brick, forty years on, while Fred Jones Part 2, the undoubted highlight of this set, is like Joe Henry's Short Man's Room, a moving portrait of obsolescence and time's hammer that's as good as anything Folds has done up to now. Gone has an irresistible propulsive energy and wonderful multi-tracked vocals that belie Folds' knack for melody and poignant introspection as well as writing truly affecting narratives. The album only really lets up near the end with the angry-white-boy-rock bashing single and title track which despite some hilarious lines ("I'm pissed off but I'm too polite / When people break in the McDonald's line / Mon and dad you made me so uptight / I'm gonna cuss on the mike tonight") ends up sounding a bit too much like the very music it's slamming and Not The Same which despite the promise of its opening lines ("You took a trip and climbed a tree / At Robert Sledge's party / And there you stayed until morning came / And you were not the same after that / You gave your life to Jesus Christ" ) is a mess. The last track, however, brings us back on track, a finely wrought, touching love song whose piano figure stays with you long after the CD's finished.