My journey with Ben Folds all began with an animated children’s movie, Over The Hedge. While watching the cartoon, I couldn’t help but focus on the music playing in the background. It wasn’t a Disney movie, so there was no Randy Newman, but who was responsible for those great vocals?
I remember staying for the credits and to my surprise, finding out that the soundtrack was made up of original songs by Ben Folds. Prior to the Over The Hedge soundtrack, I hadn’t heard much of his, or Ben Folds Five, music. A friend of mine was a big fan of Folds, but I’d never heard anything that really caught my attention.
I finally mustered up the courage to look online, and without hearing any of the songs on the album, bought Ben’s first solo release, Rockin’ The Suburbs (2001) from yourmusic.com (my current online CD dealer). I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the album, but I was pleasantly surprised once I did.
The album starts off with the piano-driven Annie Waits. It’s a bit hard to pin down what genre Fold’s music might fit in. The rest of the album, like this first song, is piano based, with a pseudo indie-rock sound, and almost 80’s sounding vocals. Sure, this may seem weird, and maybe even bad, but Folds has a way of making it all work. Anyway, Annie Waits is a great starter to the album- a fun, upbeat track that you’ll find yourself bobbing your head along to. Zak And Sara gives us the first glimpse of Fold’s clever songwriting skills. The song tells us the story of a young couple, Zak and Sara, and their quirks. Somehow, the story is kept in tact while still being musically interesting.
The album suddenly turns sentimental with Still Fighting It, easily one of the best and one of my favorite tracks on the album. The song is very simple, with just piano and Fold’s vocals, but it’s brilliant. Another story is told here, though it’s from the eyes of a father who is encouraging his young son through the ups and down of life. The lyrics here are so wonderfully honest and heartfelt (“you’ll try and try/and one day you’ll fly/…Everybody knows/it sucks to grow up/…the years go on/and we’re still fighting it”), that you’ll feel as if you truly are invading on a private moment between father and son. Within the first few tracks of the album it’s easy to see that Folds has a way with songwriting unlike most of the today’s popular artists.
Gone immediately picks up the tempo, and reminds me of a doo-wop song from the 50’s. This is another great track. The song, about finally coming to terms with a relationship that’s ended, is cleverly written (“I know that you went straight to someone else/While I worked through all this sh!t here by myself/And I think that you should spend sometime alone/But if you won’t/then you won’t”), and has a catchy tune that’s easy to sing along with.
Now, if you’ve read enough of my reviews, you’ll know that I’m a sap. I’m a super sentimental person; even the Hallmark commercials can make me cry. But don’t let that distract you from the beauty of Fred Jones Part 2. Like Still Fighting It the song is simply composed with piano, Fold’s vocals, and light string work, which is all the better to focus on the emotional lyrics. This song tells the story of Fred Jones, a man who has worked at his job at the paper for 25 years, and is now being forced into retirement. Yes, the first time I heard this song (and okay…a few times after), I did cry, but it’s hard not to. The story of Mr. Jones is delivered with such sorrow that you’ll find it hard not to feel sympathy for the fictional character. Even more so, the story of Mr. Jones is one that many people may be familiar with; I remember my Sophomore History teacher was forced into retirement and how hard it was for her to deal with. The refrain, “And I’m sorry Mr. Jones, it’s time”, adds to the emotional depth of the track.
The Ascent Of Stan is a song about an ex-hippie. I’m not really sure what to do with this track, actually. It’s nice to listen to musically, but just a bit awkward for some reason.
Losing Lisa and Carrying Cathy are both great songs, but for different reasons. Losing Lisa has a catchy beat and chorus, and almost seems like a song from the early 90’s. Carrying Cathy is a slower tempo song, but the lyrics are more interesting, as Folds tells the story of someone who seems to use everyone around them. While both of the aforementioned songs are nice, they aren’t much compared to some of the stronger tracks on the album. The same could be said about Not The Same, a song so bland that I’ve never even listened to it all the way through.
One of the few light-hearted tracks on the album is the title track, Rockin’ The Suburbs. The song starts off with a funky sounding beat, and Folds comes right in singing, “Let me tell ya’ll what it’s like/Being male, middle class and white/It’s a b!tch if you don’t believe/Listen up to my new CD”. This song is simply hilarious. Fold sarcastically pokes fun at himself and this track almost seems like an extension of the movie Malibu’s Most Wanted. Towards the end of the song Fold sings, “ya’ll don’t know what it’s like/being male, middle class and white/it’s gets me real p!ssed off/and it makes me wanna say…” and drops the “F-bomb” with great comedic timing. This song makes it no wonder why he thanks Weird Al Yankovic in his liner notes.
Fired is another great track. Again, comprised of a jaunty piano-based melody, the song draws you in immediately. One of the best lines I’ve heard in awhile lies in the first verse; “Everywhere I go, damn there I am/And I just want to walk away”. Nothing better than a self-depreciating song lyric.
The album closes with The Luckiest, a beautiful ballad. Folds returns to sentimentality here as he admits his love for his significant other in such a sweet and romantic fashion (“and where was I before the day/That I first saw your lovely face/…love you more than I have/ever found a way to say to you”). Everything about the song is amazing; from the tender lyrics, to the simple production (once again, piano and vocals), it’s easy to envision this being many couples’ “song”.
My first introduction to Ben Folds has been great. Rockin’ The Suburbs is an outstanding piece of work, and I’ll slowly start building my collection with the rest of his albums.
1. Annie Waits
2. Zak And Sara
3. Still Fighting It
5. Fred Jones Part 2
6. The Ascent Of Stan
7. Losing Lisa
8. Carrying Cathy
9. Not The Same
10. Rockin’ The Suburbs
12. The Luckiest