We all knew that Journey’s Steve Perry-less reunion was never going to spark the big comeback of piano-driven pop/rock. It was going to take something fresher and more sincere to inherit the throne that Billy Joel left after he put out his last good album in the late ‘80s. After four albums with his well-respected trio, Ben Folds Five, Ben Folds has released his first solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs, an effort that does more than just aspire to inhabit the void left by Joel. Make no mistake—Ben Folds is the new Piano Man.
Rockin’ the Suburbs isn’t a Ben Folds Five record and gone are the neo-barbershop harmonies and fuzzed-out bass solos that characterized the band’s records. Musically, the album sounds closest to their final release, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, with its Burt Bacarach-style smoothness and electronic influences. Parallels to Billy Joel’s work is undeniable on tracks like “Zak and Sara,” which jams just like the second half of Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and with song titles like “Carrying Cathy” and “Losing Lisa,” it’s impossible not to recall the style of Joel’s “All for Leyna.” Folds’s dabblings in electronic instrumentation combined with his heavy reliance on a classic drum kit and bass guitar has yielded tracks like “Annie Waits,” where an electric string bass melds with drum programming, producing a slicker, deeper rhythm that mercilessly demands that we get our groove on. In “The Ascent of Stan,” Folds dances quickly over his piano keys while a techno bass drum rocks mercilessly on every downbeat; maracas and banjos mock the track’s silly arrangement and an electronic-infused bass somehow holds the mess together.
Folds captures all of Joel’s radical guilt but has transposed it onto one character with “Stan,” and he has thrown in a bit of the famous songwriter’s blue collar storytelling flavor without going all-out Springsteen: “Once you wanted revolution, now you’re the Institution/How’s it feel to be ‘The Man?’” We’re spared Joel’s obsession with New York and his occasional wallowing in self-questioning, which, while compelling, doesn’t compare to Fold’s dry wit and lovelorn boyishness. Folds is not completely without his band’s reference, though; he returns to the story of Fred Jones (from “Cigarette,” off the band’s second record), in “Fred Jones Pt. 2,” which, much like “Cigarette,” highlights his understated social commentary, telling of an aging man caught in the corporate cross-fire.
Compared to the current state of pop/rock, Folds is a fresh breath of sincerity and casual sarcasm. The singer speaks to a boundless audience with lines like “Everybody knows, it sucks to grow up…and everybody does.” Of course, Folds is hardly casual with the title track, which gives him the envied position of being the only pop icon to take on the inanity of today’s pop with any intelligence. (True, Eminem was there first, but making fun of ‘NSync and Britney Spears doesn’t make him any more relevant or astute.) Folds provides the indictment of rap-rock we’ve been waiting for with the track’s opening line, his solid yet dorky tenor injecting all of the sarcasm needed to drive his point home: “Let me tell y’all what it’s like, bein’ male, middle class and white.” Folds does his best Fred Durst, repeatedly screaming, “You better watch out because I’m gonna say ‘fuck,’” a hilarious line so filled with bite that it destroys any notion that nü metal should be taken seriously. Surprisingly, the song’s outro sounds more like a spoof of Rage Against the Machine than anything else, which may be a nod to the fact that Rage stands for something more than the “white-boy pain” that Folds pokes fun at.
Perhaps what makes Rockin’ the Suburbs so satisfying is that while it indeed rocks, it relies so heavily on Folds’s primary instrument. Because the singer built the songs on a solid 88-key foundation, it’s impossible to accuse Folds of hiding beneath electronic production gags the same way he accuses a “producer with computers” of fixing all of nü metall’s “shitty tracks.” Indeed, the piano is an infectious instrument that can balance rock’s often overindulgent use of guitars. With class and energy, Rockin’ the Suburbs may be what puts Folds permanently on the map of relevant rock.