Ben Folds really should be a poster child. The problem is, you’d need to show him in action.
There’s no two ways about it. Folds looks like — and probably is — a piano nerd. If you see him perform live, though, you want to look at your kids and say, “That’s why you should stick with the piano lessons!” Many people wouldn’t imagine this smallish, bespectacled man playing so dynamically that it is like, as someone I know described it, “heavy metal piano.”
Fortunately for us, Folds is more than just a talented pianist. He is equally adept at the too rare talent of songwriting. On Songs for Silverman, heavy metal piano gives way to a slightly more constrained set of songs that still point up his talents. Some of that constraint makes this one of those CDs that may not grab you on first listen, revealing nuances with each subsequent one.
About half the songs deal with the pains and joys of relationships in a variety of settings and from different viewpoints. Folds can be biting at times. For example, in “Give Judy My Notice,” which initially appeared on one of three EPs Folds released via the Internet while working on Songs for Silverman, he says, “But Judy/I won’t be your bitch anymore/And follow you around.” Folds is not solely sharp-tongued, singing touchingly of his daughter on “Gracie.” Equally heartfelt is “Late,” an homage to singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who committed suicide in 2003 at age 34:
Elliott, man, you played a fine guitar
And some dirty basketball
The songs you wrote
Got me through a lot
Just wanna tell you that
But it’s too late
It’s too late
Just as Folds uses vignettes of real life to examine the personal, he does the same in looking at broader subjects. For example, “Jesusland” touches on the contradictions of America’s pride in its Christian ethics. Taking us through an American landscape with the “McMansions on a hill,” Folds writes:
Town to town
Broadcast to each house they drop your name
But no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you never said
You hang your head and pray
And, as he did on his prior solo studio release, Rockin’ the Suburbs (which had the misfortune of being released on September 11, 2001), Folds makes his listeners aware of the passage of time. In “Bastard,” the opening cut, he reminds that “[p]retty soon you’ll be an old bastard too.”
Presented largely in trio format, Folds backs up his lyricism with his fully intact musical and tune crafting skills. The standard edition of Songs for Silverman comes in the Dual Disc format, a CD on one side and DVD on the other. While some have reported problems with this format, it does provide the benefit of a DVD with the music in 5.1 Surround Sound and a 25-minute documentary that gives glimpses of the making of the album, the artist’s personality and his live performances. A special edition is also available that has an audio CD, a booklet and a separate 40-minute DVD.
If Songs for Silverman has problems, it is that it lacks some of the range and power of the absolutely tremendous Suburbs and his live performances. You could also be critical that “Give Judy My Notice” is the only tune making the transition from the EPs to this commercial release. Anyone familiar with the EPs likely could select songs from them (e.g., “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You”) they prefer over a couple of the selections here (e.g., “Sentimental Guy” or “Prison Food”). That, however, does not change the fact Folds again displays the voices and emotion — love, hate, humor, tenderness, sarcasm — that make him one of America’s finer and more versatile modern pop songwriters.