Ben Folds is all groweds up. Once the clown prince of the `smart-ass’ rock scene, Folds and his Hitchhiker’s Guide-ish unaptly named trio, Ben Folds Five, ruled the college airwaves, making pop culture references, throwing a lot of tongue in a little cheek during live shows and turning nearly every modern rock genre on its proverbial head. After three albums with the band, a side project, a solo debut and three EPs, Folds is back for his sophomore release, Songs for Silverman. Although particular songs still have his trademark wit, this project is more mature, polished and professional than anything the rock pianist has ever done before.
“Bastard” kicks the album off with an intro straight out of Harry Nilsson’s “One.” But once the intro ends, we delve into strictly Folds territory, remarking on the contempt of youth. “You to Thank” is one of the first songs on the album to recall oft-compared artist Billy Joel. At one time Folds remarked that he didn’t really listen to Billy Joel, that he was more of an Elton John fan, even going so far as to wear Elton John gear on stage and covering “Tiny Dancer.” But various songs on Silverman are, surprisingly, Joel-esque. “You to Thank” sounds not unlike “Allentown” with similar themes to “Scenes in an Italian Restaurant” in that the song is about couples who marry too early. “By the time the buzz was wearing off / We were standing out on the sidewalk / With our tattoos that looked like rings.” “Jesusland” has wonderful backup harmonies, but all in all is outdone by a former similar song, “Not the Same.”
As the other side of the coin to “You to Thank,” first single “Landed” does sound like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” It’s a good song, but I kept waiting to hear about Brenda and Eddie. Part of Folds’ apparent `growing up’ has to do with his daughter and he sings a song solely for her with “Gracie.” “Trusted” continues the Billy Joel hit parade, with similarities to “Goodnight Saigon.” One song from the EP’s resurfaces in “Give Judy My Notice.” Hearing this version in comparison to the EP’s really divulges the difference in production for this major label release. The trio of EPs were one man’s noodling, while this new album has layers upon layers of sound and instrumentation. The new “Judy” has pedal steel and sounds like it should be played, not necessarily in a country bar, but in a country bar found in a movie. Then Folds becomes the latest in a long line of artists recognizing the genius of Elliott Smith with “Late” in which he laments the fact that he never got to tell Smith what his songs meant to him.
Reviewing this album has been somewhat of a difficult task. I have been listening to Folds since his band’s self titled debut, falling in love with songs like “Underground,” “Boxing” and “Alice Childress.” Part of me is a little disappointed because I want to hear more of the same. It was only two years ago that he was still making fun of Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi and Limp Bizkit. But part of me also knows that time marches on, things do not stay the same, and the best artists are those who adapt with the times and move forward. I have a strong feeling that Songs for Silverman is going to be one of those records that is going to be fully appreciated after a lot of time has passed, which may be why so many people now are just discovering The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. I’ll let you know definitively in a few years.
Billy Joel- The Stranger
Harry Nilsson- Nilsson Schmilsson
Joe Jackson- Look Sharp!