Nowadays, countless singer/songwriters aspire to the lofty standards set by Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney, but Ben Folds is one of few whose creativity actually measures up to that of his influential predecessors.
Folds's prodigious talents are abundantly displayed on the singer's new Epic Records album, Rockin' the Suburbs. Not only does Folds play all of the instruments on the disc, he composes and performs some of the most literate and humanistic pop songs in recent memory. Tracks like "Still Fighting It," "Annie Waits" and "Carrying Cathy" combine the whimsy of the Beach Boys with the moonlight elegance of Burt Bacharach and the ironic edge of the late-'60s Beatles.
The new album's panoramic sound stems from the unlikely pairing of Folds and producer Ben Grosse (Fuel, Filter). Folds's traditional approach contrasted sharply with Grosse's more contemporary recording methods. "We come from two completely different directions," Folds explained recently. "I've always stuck up mics everywhere, pressed 'record' and everybody plays. Ben Grosse, however, thinks that's [nonsense]. He thinks you are making a movie, and he'll edit every little syllable if that's what it takes. . . . That's where a tug-of-war began, and it's why I think the record sounds as good as it does."
Folds first reared his overachieving head in 1995 as the leader of Ben Folds Five, a guitar-less North Carolina trio whose self-titled Caroline Records debut album blossomed into an indie smash. Freewheeling live performances added to the group's mystique and established Folds as the alt-pop equivalent of Randy Newman.
The trio signed with Epic in 1996, and soon afterwards released the brilliant sophomore CD, Whatever and Ever Amen. A masterful document of suburban despair, the album produced the chart-topping single and music video, "Brick." As the disc surpassed the million sales mark, Ben Folds Five toured with everyone from Beck to Counting Crows and Neil Young.
As the new century commenced, Folds assembled some of his North Carolina friends to record Fear of Pop: Volume One, a solo album featuring vocal tracks by Folds, Star Trek actor William Shatner and Frally Hynes, the woman Ben later married. Later the same year, Ben Folds Five resurfaced with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, an album that further showcased the band's wide-ranging musical skills.
Then, in the midst of their musical peak, Ben Folds Five announced they were disbanding. "We just didn't have the same drive," Folds said. "If it had still been exciting and fun, we would've carried on."
Judging from Rockin' the Suburbs, Folds has emerged from the breakup with his credibility intact. "I think [recording] is my way of keeping my chronicle updated," the singer/songwriter said. "The records document a you-are-there kind of presence. You know how songwriting is - you put into it enough of yourself and cook up the rest."