Songs for Silverman
about the changing fortunes of the instrument called "the piano"
in the course of the XX Century can be interesting and stimulating;
we can notice that the eclipse of the instrument goes hand-in-hand (or
is mirrored by, or is in a relationship of implication with) with the
disappearing of those musical traditions whose language flowed through
those hands that played the piano. Classical music and jazz, sure. But
also the blues, Otis Spann, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, New
Orleans, gospel music, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin. Also The Beatles,
Bacharach's melodies, America as seen from UK by The Stones and Nicky
Hopkins, progressive, singers-songwriters and so on. Then we had better
amplification for live use, contact microphones and some attempts
at an honorable compromise (does anybody remember Yamaha's CP80?).
the 70s can be defined as The Piano Decade, the 80s - think Fairlight
and drum machines - saw Bruce Hornsby as a lone example. In the 90s
- the decade of guitars, Nirvana and Soundgarden - a trio of piano,
bass and drums curiously called Ben Folds Five was just a curio, their
(brief) success notwithstanding. It's at this point that the piano almost
becomes a "female-only" instrument - for reasons of space
here I'll only mention Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and Fiona Apple. Ben
Folds Five split after what's regarded to be their best record - The
Unauthorised Biography Of Reinhold Messner (1999) - and I lost trace
of them. Here I have to confess that I totally missed the news about
the release of Rockin' The Suburbs,
the leader's first solo album, in 2001.
Loosely speaking a "concept album" (the closing track appears
to lead us back to the first track), Songs For Silverman is a good album
whose compositional language is quite complex - it'll only appear of
little substance at a superficial listening (this being, I think, the
only thing this album has in common with Steely Dan). It goes without
saying that those possessing a highly "selective knowledge"
will only mention Elton John as an influence on Ben Folds; here EJ's
influence is only directly felt in the piano intro to Landed, a song
that makes one wait for an orchestral arrangement by Paul Buckmaster
(there's none). Of course, there are similarities: we can hear more
than a bit of Joe Jackson (You To Thank, Gracie); Paul McCartney circa
Revolver/Sgt. Pepper's.../Magical Mystery Tour (the piano and bass on
Trusted); the Beach Boys (the bridge on Sentimental Guy, with vocals,
upright bass and French Horn); the strangest item here is represented
by Prison Food, a mix of The Who circa Who's Next and 10cc - here the
repeated piano arpeggio seems to quote Lazy Ways, from How Dare You!
(and isn't it true that Last Polka referred to One Night In Paris?).
All this doesn't mean that the album is derivative, only that its language
has a history.
The album is very well recorded (be sure to have your amplifier warm)
without being perfect (we have some "plosives" from proximity
effect); the trio works like a charm, and it's nice to see that Folds
has found two agile and versatile musical partners in drummer Lindsay
Jamieson and bass player Jared Reynolds: just listen to Jamieson's ability
in quite diverse musical situations, and the way Reynolds adapts his
sound and approach - "tuba" and fuzz on Bastard, a fast arpeggio
during the chorus to Jesusland. On some tracks we also have violin and
cello, pedal steel, upright bass and some uncredited instruments: a
wind instrument (Bastard); acoustic guitars; what to me sounded like
an Hammond B-3 (Jesusland, Landed, Late). Nice harmony vocals, a very
good piano (a Baldwin), some nice production touches - check the camera
noise on the last track (at 3'02" and 4'10").
The leader sounds wise and versatile as a pianist, also a good singer
and writer of intelligent compositions (just check the bridges) that
are quite harder to sing and play than they sound. A nice opening track,
Bastard; Jesusland is in a way the peak of the album; Landed will sound
fantastic on the radio; while Give Judy My Notice is the only weak moment.
The four tracks placed at the end of the record are maybe the best ones:
Late (dedicated to Elliot Smith); Sentimental Guy, with those chords
coming "late"; Time, with an interesting melodic development;
and the aforementioned Prison Food.
© Beppe Colli 2005
CloudsandClocks.net | May 8, 2005