Back in í95, when Ben Folds was working on the album that would introduce the Ben Folds Five to the world, he wondered what would constitute success. So he turned to one "successful" bandleader he knew, Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann (Folds played drums and piano in the eclectic and ambitious Barry Black, a mostly instrumental Archers of Loaf side project Bachmann headed in the mid í90s), and popped the question. "My measuring stick for success was selling as many records as Archers of Loaf," Folds says when I catch him "decompressing" in LA after a long ﬂight from Australia, where he now spends most of his time. "I remember one night Eric dropped me off at my house, and I didnít really know what to say, so I just asked him how many records the Archers had sold. He said something like 40,000, and that number stuck with me ó even after we got popular and I became some kind of í90s one-hit-wonder bitch boy ó because last year, when I found out Iíd sold that many copies of those EPs I released, I was very happy."
Oh yeah, the EPs. There wouldnít be a Songs for Silverman (Epic), the new Folds full-length that arrived on April 26, without Super D, Sunny 16, and Speed Graphic, the trio of solo EPs Folds released in 2004. The difﬁcult road that led to Songs for Silverman was full of false starts, breakdowns, and side trips, including the scrapped solo album recorded last year as a follow-up to Rockiní the Suburbs (Epic), the commercially disappointing 2001 solo debut with the unfortunate September 11 release date. That 2004 effort never saw the light of day, though two of its tracks do appear on Songs for Silverman. Instead, Folds entered what he describes as a midlife crisis of sorts, as he slouched toward 40 with a wife, twins, and no band to speak of. He did collaborate with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller as the Three Bens, he arranged and produced a not-quite-as-silly-as-you-might-think solo album for his pal William Shatner, the star-studded Has Been (Shout Factory, 2004), and he recorded those three EPs. But, confused by his solo debutís lukewarm reception, he struggled with the idea of a new full-length.
"Rockiní the Suburbs was an unabashed attempt to kick out some catchy songs and have a bunch more hits," he reﬂects. "But a lot of things were going wrong for me at the time. Having the album come out on 9/11 didnít help. So I ended up with a touring band that I couldnít afford to pay. Touring alone with a piano was great. That was born out of the pocketbook, but in retrospect, it was the beginning of my rebirth. I guess Iíve had some really great failures in the past few years. I mean, Rockiní the Suburbs is a ﬁne album. But after it failed, I had a really hard time ﬁguring out what to do next. Every time I started working on a new album, it sucked."
What Folds describes as "failures" were actually small triumphs. Each EP found its way to the #1 spot on Billboardís then-new downloading chart, and that made him an unwitting pioneer in popís brave new digital world. They reintroduced wayward fans to the manchild piano prodigy with a talent for confessional songs (like "Brick," which was inspired by a real-life situation involving a girlfriend and an abortion), a quirky, "geek-rock" image, and a wry sense of humor reﬂected in song titles like "Battle of Who Could Care Less." The bright piano melody that opens Sunny 16 is undercut by the mixed emotions of the song it kickstarts, "Thereís Always Someone Cooler Than You." Folds goes on to attack the perennial ugly American from an amusingly skewed angle in "All U Can Eat," a song peppered with gorgeous background harmonies, tasteful jazzy piano refrains, and more than enough f-bombs to keep it out of Wal-Mart.
Super D opens with a guitar-less cover of the Darknessís "Get Your Hands Off My Girlfriend" that makes for a decent tongue-in-cheek piano ballad; Speed Graphic offers a straight-faced rendition of the Cureís "In Between Days." The EPs are all over the musical and emotional map: a spare piano-and-voice recording of "Give Judy My Notice" (a tune reworked on Songs for Silverman) runs up against a brisk, drum-driven, harmony-laden "Protection," and "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" gives way to the sobering introspection of "Kalamazoo," which catches its groove on the second chorus and continues to build till disco strings make their debut. Trumpet, acoustic guitar, and strange little electronic touches ﬂesh out the character study "Rent a Cop."
Itís easy to see (or hear) what Folds had in mind when he opted to take the EP route. But in the wake of Rockiní the Suburbsí perceived failure, it was still a risky commercial move. "It probably came from the same bad business mind that had the idea to play punk-rock clubs with a piano in the ﬁrst place. But the music business should also be about music. If you like something but it doesnít look good on paper, well there has to be some world where that makes good business sense. A German magazine said that if that the EPs had been released as an album, it would be one of the best American albums of the year. This sounds like such an old-dude thing to say, but they actually signed a petition to bring me back to Germany because of those EPs. I played for 3000 people in Berlin."
Although itís full of songs that detail the growing pains of a guy wrestling with the downside of domestic bliss, Songs for Silverman, on which heís backed by bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson, a suppler rhythm section than the Fiveís more playful Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums), has nothing whatsoever to do with the ﬁlm Saving Silverman, a Jack Black vehicle that deals with some of the same issues. "I found out about the ﬁlm after I named the album," Folds conﬁrms. "Iím sure I heard of the movie somewhere, but the album is just Songs for Ďsomebody else,í Songs for Ďblah, blah, blah . . . í I was going to use a real personís name, but I was told I couldnít. So it became Songs for Silverman."
I struggled for years to hear more Elton John than Billy Joel in Folds until I realized there was no need to hear either. Still, itís heartening to ﬁnd echoes of "The Sun Went Down on Me" in the rolling piano intro to the discís ﬁrst single, "Landed." The song nails a morning-after hangover that follows an interlude of misguided romantic intoxication to an exuberant chorus and a piano hook Elton would be proud to call his own. The mood ranges from shame to sorrow to liberation, as Folds uses a fragile falsetto to put himself on the line: "And Iím not sorry if youíre not sorry/And youíre not sorry until I make you . . . " Heís no Elton John, and he never will be. Indeed, he goes farther than ever before to deﬁne and reveal himself as himself on Songs for Silverman.
And he knows it. "The Ben Folds Five made a big ﬁrst impression and it became hard for people to see beneath that. We were Ďthe piano band that rocks.í It was something solid you could afﬁx to the band. But as you evolve, it becomes harder to put what you do into one sentence. Now itís Ďthe 38-year-old piano dad who had one hit in the í90s showing us his fucking diary.í And we came of age in an era when crafting songs about yourself was considered emotionally lewd and pretty fucking dodgy. Irony was in, and the singer-songwriter was bad news. So we had to make the songs hard and strong because I was emotionally lewd on [1997ís] Whatever & Ever Amen ó the hit songís about my teenage experience with my girlfriend having an abortion. All those songs were as café singer-songwriter as it gets: they just had all kinds of bells and whistles on them to disguise that fact."
Songs for Silverman doesnít want for bells or whistles, as the pitch-perfect Beach Boys harmonies that adorn "Jesusland" attest. But Foldsís lyrics are more direct. Thereís no mistaking the subject of the Elliott Smith eulogy "Late" because, well, the line "Elliott, man, you played a mean guitar" gives it away. "Gracie" is a rockabye ballad about Foldsís daughter; "Sentimental Guy" is unadulterated introspection; "Give Judy My Notice" is a bitter, bruised kiss-off to an ex-lover ("I wonít be your bitch anymore/And follow you around/And open the door"). Itís classic and contemporary at the same time. But if confessional songwriting isnít your cup of tea, then no amount of cream and sugar will make Folds palatable.
He knows that, too. "Iím a little scared about the way this album is going to hit people," he said before the discís release. "Iím attached to the music world. I donít live in a cave. I hear all this big fucking shiny-ass shit on the radio. But I donít have to do that anymore. The thing that disappoints me about mainstream music is that we donít seem to moving away from that. Everyone still has their shades on. And then I think about my little album trying to sink or swim out there with all this gaudy stuff, I get concerned. I think people are going to think that I sound too serious and tired and boring. Iím bracing for that."
I remind him of his discussion 10 years ago with Eric Bachmann. "Yeah, I guess it would be nice to sell 40,000 copies."
Ben Folds | July 2 | Sunset Music Festival at the Newport Yachting Center | 401.846.1600 ext 221
Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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