Rockin' the Suburbs
The Music Box's #4 album for 2001
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2001, Volume 8, #11
Written by John Metzger
Since his debut, Ben Folds has become known as a bit of a smartass. Not that he didn't deserve it. His lyrics have poked fun at everything under the sun, and his responses in interviews have often been fabricated on the spot. Unfortunately, this has often led to the quick dismissal of his music as frat-boy entertainment. And this couldn't be further from the truth. Like other famed songwriters — including Loudon Wainwright, Randy Newman, and Warren Zevon — Folds uses his wit to make a point.
With each passing album, Folds has grown as both a songwriter and a lyricist, and his latest disc Rockin' the Suburbs — his first since the demise of Ben Folds Five — is most certainly his best release to date. Where his songs once toiled in the trenches of teen ennui, he now has turned to the travails of middle age. It's an album that majestically captures the loss of innocence as seen through a revolving cast of characters that reflect the eyes of middle America. He updates The Beatles' She's Leaving Home into the suicidal depression of Carrying Cathy and recasts Harry Chapin's Cats in the Cradle in his own image as Still Fighting It; The Ascent of Stan finds a former hippie joining the establishment he previously loathed; in Fred Jones, Part 2, a long-time newspaper man is downsized; and Gone snares a jilted lover lost in a chemical haze. As Folds sings on Still Fighting It, "Everybody knows: It sucks to grow up."
Even at Rockin' the Suburbs' silliest — the rambunctious title track — Folds harpoons the usual complaints spewing from the mouths of most white, middle class Americans — complaints that just don't hold water in comparison with those of his other characters, let alone those of the urban centers. Clearly, Folds doesn't find strip-mall laden, suburban life to be quite the American dream it's laid out to be, nor does he find its inhabitants to have their priorities in order. Make no mistake — as with Brick, this is serious stuff.
Rockin' the Suburbs finds Folds continuing along the same musical path that he grandly explored on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (actually, this truly began with the hit single Brick) — only this time Folds performs all of the instruments himself, save for the shimmering orchestrations by John Mark Painter and a few backing vocals from Fleming and John as well as Cake's John McCrea. As such, Folds' songs are repeatedly bathed in a swirl of timeless pop that recalls the music of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Hollies — albeit as piano-led groups, funneled through more recent outfits like Wilco and Weezer. Indeed, with Rockin' the Suburbs, Folds' dream is fully realized. At times — as on the lonely tale Annie Waits or the anger-filled Gone — his melodies are perky, upbeat, and downright cheery, even as the lyrics turn decidedly dark. In other instances — like the somber Fred Jones, Part 2 and the reflective Still Fighting It — the refrains soar beautifully, capturing genteel sorrow with stunningly magnificent grace. In the end, however, Folds puts things in perspective by capping the disc off with The Luckiest, a gorgeous love song for his wife. Here, Folds touchingly reflects upon his own situation, realizing how good life has been to him. It's a deeply personal moment that becomes universal, begging the listener to take a moment of reflection, set aside petty problems, and focus upon what is truly important. If America actually does that, Folds will have succeeded in Rockin' the Suburbs. If not, it's still a damn fine album.
Of Further Interest...
Rockin' the Suburbs is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box