Ben Folds – “Songs For Silverman”

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I should take some photography lessons from this guy. Every time I try to take a picture of myself in the mirror with a forlorn look on my face, all that shows up is a bright light.

I’ve got a bit of a dilemma. I’m a huuuge Ben Folds/Ben Folds Five fan…. as I’m sure most of you already know. If you asked me to put the albums in order of my favorites, I’d probably be able to do it.The problem is that it wouldn’t be the same orderthat I would rank the overall album quality. “Songs for Silverman“, his first solo full-length album in at least 3 years, has such a high concentration of songs that I would deem “best he’s ever recorded”, that I would put it just slightly ahead of “Whatever and Ever Amen”, on my favorites, however, there are a few songs that are weaker than anything on the earlier Ben Folds Five release, dropping the actual star rating below WAEA.

While WAEA was a collection of good songs, varying fast and slow, deep and shallow, “Songs for Silverman” is more uniform, and at the risk of sounding like a press release, more “mature”. The songs are for the most part slower, have more instrumentation and vocals, more thoughtful lyrics… and just overall, more ambition. To understand a bit better, a brief history, that will probably turn into a bit longer than I intended.

Ben Folds Five was founded as a “fun” piano-electric(usually) bass-drums trio that specialized in “punk rock for wusses” as it was put. The first album was filled with mostly fast, piano-driven songs that were pretty light and enjoyable, with mostly good melodies and a fairly sloppy production quality that had a feeling of spontaneity. The second album, WAEA, had more of a polished feel, with more strings, some slower songs, a “mouth keyboard” of sorts in some of the songs, and more complex three-part backing vocals. The band moved forward even more with the third album, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner“, a “concept album” that used mainly slower, even more introspective songs, more experimental instrumentation, and a definite album cohesiveness, including lyrical and musical ideas that were carried over into multiple tracks.

The progress stalled though, when the band broke up, and Folds went solo. His next album, “Rocking the Suburbs” seemed to basically be a sequel to WAEA in style and substance, in fact including a sequel song to one on the first album. He played all the instruments on the album, even though some songs sounded like they had electronic drums in places. The problem though, was that he was touring without a backup band or singers, and so he was writing songs that he could play without backing vocals (actually many of the tracks on the album had overdubbed Folds vocal tracks in the background) or extensive instrumentation.

Back to the present, and he now has a more-than-capable drummer and bassist duo behind him. With this in mind, the album at times has a feeling like it might be where the original band could’ve eventually progressed to, but that’s a moot point. What’s important is that with the exception of a few weak tracks in the middle, this album is filled with jam-packed songs that range from jazz and blues riffs to pop to classical-style, sometimes in the same song. The songs are dense, and for the most part under five minutes, yet some of them I’d say are epic. I would especially say this of “Jesusland”, and the last track “Prison Food”, a song that’s moved up to my number two favorite, with an ending that is built up so much and has so much going on between the furious drumming and bass playing, pulsing piano part, the too-many-to-guess-part harmonies going on, and the mood-setting steel guitar, which brings me to my next point.

When this album came out the online Ben Folds community didn’t accept it right away… to tell you the truth it took a few listens for me to get to like it. The songs and tone of the entire album (we’ll get to individual songs in a minute), were completely different than anything that came before, even including concerts the previous summer and the 3 EPs released the year before. The biggest issue for a lot of people was the guitar. Yes, for the first time in any of the tracks that I can remember, there’s a non-bass guitar. In fact one song has a regular acoustic guitar, but another has a 12-string, and two have lap-steel guitars in them, enhancing the fullness of the sound that much more.

Many of the songs borrow short musical ideas, or tones (in the English class sense of the word, not the musical one), from previous songs… including “Jesusland” borrowing an opening from “The Ascent of Stan”, and the tempo and drum styling from “Mess”; “Landed” borrowing the main piano riff from “Philosophy” and turning it inside out; “Give Judy My Notice”, upgrading a solo-piano version from one of the EPs (adding backing vocals, steel guitar, drums, etc.); “Sentimental Guy”, borrowing the bluesiness (is that a word?) of “All U Can Eat” from another of the EPs; “Time” sounding eerily similar to, but a bit more somber than a song called “Bruised” that he recorded with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller; and “Prison Food”‘s main piano part coming from a superfan community favorite that was released on a collection of rareties, “Emaline”. I know that’s a long list, but I sincerely believe that the songs as a whole are different enough, and in most cases, completely better than the songs containing the borrowed ideas. “Landed”‘s been featured as the theme for the kennel club dog show, and now on the Hilton ads, “Judy” was slow and kinda empty without the added music and faster pace, and “Jesusland”, “Time”, and especially “Prison Food” are among the best on the album, if not the best he’s ever recorded.

For the most part, these songs include what could possibly be considered the most difficult piano parts he’s written (especially the first four), and a large number (every one excluding “You to Thank”; “Gracie“, and “Sentimental Guy”) having what might be his most complicated backing vocals to date.

Overall the album is very intriguing and complex, and grows on you the more you listen to it, as long as you don’t get bogged down by a few slower songs in the middle, and the sappy, yet completely understandable, “Gracie”.

****½

“Songs for Silverman” gets four and a half stars, as it’s more complicated and pleasing to listen to than most every pop recording you can find these days, a few of the songs stand out among my top favorites (which is enough to counteract the sub-par ones), and it has a cohesiveness to it, with only “Gracie” feeling akward and out of place.

In case you’re wondering, I’d rate the rest of them, in order of my favorites: “WAEA”- Five Stars; “Rocking the Suburbs”- Four Stars; “TUBORM”- Three and a half stars; and “Ben Folds Five”- Three stars. Not included in those are “Fear of Pop: Volume One“, “Ben Folds Live“, “Naked Baby Photos“, “William Shatner: Has Been“, or any of the EPs.

5 Replies to “Ben Folds – “Songs For Silverman””

  1. Eh, “Bastard” is great, “You to Thank” is quite good, then after those two, it all sort of sounds the same (and I’m the fan of punk music). For Ben Folds, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner” is where it’s at. All things considered, I think I’d put Ben Folds (including the Ben Folds Five albums) in the “better in greatest hits form” sort of artist/band, like the Mad Caddies, Bouncing Souls, Reel Big Fish, etc. Sometimes live albums serve as unofficial “greatest hits” collections, but as you sort of alluded to, Ben Folds live is very, very spare (and he makes what I would consider some odd song choices).

  2. I’d agree that the middle of the album is weak and some songs sound sort of similar, but I’d say that the last two songs sound entirley different from the middle, especially in terms of the production. “UBORM” has a bunch of really wonderful “more mature” (as in more mature than the band’s prior stuff) stuff on it, but weird stuff in the middle, like “your redneck past”, the song with the answering machine, and the first half of “regrets” drag it down below the other two albums that i think are solid all the way through, but not terrific more than two handfuls of times between them. As far as “greatest hits” go, I’m always hesitant to offer that idea, for the same reason that I don’t usually agree with tv/magazine “greatest songs of all time” lists. I would rather hear songs that I thought were better, than ones that were more popular. A Ben Folds greatest hits album would have to include “Brick”, “Rockin the Suburbs”, “Army”, “Song for the Dumped” and “The Luckiest”, but I’d probably only like to listen to half of them on a “greatest hits” album. It’s all subjective, and I don’t necessarily think his/the band’s best songs (in my opinion, and in no particular order) Missing the War; Prison Food; Selfless, Cold, and Composed, Mess, Don’t Change Your Plans, Gone, Fired, and especially anything that was released on an EP or is a rarety (Eddie Walker, Bruised, She Don’t Use Jelly) won’t make it on the list. There’s so much non-album material that I’ve found online that you’d have to plan carefully to fit it on two 80 minute cds, and if you threw in the five full albums that offer a wide variety of songs and styles, you’d have a really hard time getting a selection down to a 50 minute cd and still represent all the eras, as well as the commercially successful “hits” as it were. There is a good amount of stuff that would justifiably be left behind, but I’d probably disagree with what specifically (especially the “on the bubble” songs) was put on it/left out. Also, I think that “WAEA” just works too well as an entire album to break it up.

  3. Also, I just listened to the bonus disc I got with “SFS”, called Songs for Goldfish. Most of the first half is live stuff, with the new band, and it’s so much better than most all of the stuff on the Live album. It actually makes me enjoy “Rockin the Suburbs” (the song) for more than just the bridge. And from experience at multiple concerts and reading playlists of shows, his concert song choices are fine, it’s just the weird selection of songs (silver street? … don’t even know where that song came from… one down and three point six? how about an explanation? etc.) on that live album that needs to be questioned.

  4. When I say “greatest hits form” I mean making a CD (or even a playlist in a computer music-playing program), not waiting for some “official” Greatest Hits album which would include songs you might not like and tries to be an artifact of the “artist,” collecting songs for their significance (first recorded song, first single, first etc.) moreso than a collection of the best songs. I’ll stand by my comment that a Ben Folds “greatest hits form” album would easily fit on a single CD.

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