Ben Folds
Songs for Silverman


Thinking 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?).

If 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

© Beppe Colli 2005 | May 8, 2005