The annals of rock history don't want for passionately perturbed malcontents who punt from and perch precariously upon piano stools--Tori Amos, Elton John, Alicia Keys, and that dude from OneRepublic immediately leap to mind. Ben Folds is, nonetheless, a special case. As frontman for the egregiously named Ben Folds Five and later as a soloist, the North Carolina native has made misery his great subject; consider that one of his biggest singles, the devastatingly autobiographical "Brick," was about accompanying a girlfriend to an abortion clinic and the ensuing, damning silences that followed.
Since breaking through alt-rock's guitar-dominated ceiling in the '90s as a ivory-tickling wiseacre willing and able to enable William Shatner's perpetual career resuscitation, Folds has established himself as an poignant-if-flippant chronicler of Generation X adult angst. A worthy heir to Billy Joel's kingdom--even if he isn't quite banking that Billy Joel bacon, yet--this thrice-divorced husband and father of two knows the growing pains of which he emotes: the splits, the tattoos, the aspirations, the adolescent freak-outs, the pals finding God through drug experiences, the old fake IDs where ex-girlfriends are, regrettably, "dressed up like the Cure."
"Late," from 2005's
Songs for Silverman
, puts the lie to the romantic myths of the tour-as-career even as it offers a poignant, intimate eulogy for the late Elliott Smith. "Elliott, man, you played a fine guitar/ And some dirty basketball," Folds admits, piano notes rippling underneath him--a steady, constant tide that belies the likelihood that Folds' own emotional turmoil could have easily set him upon a similarly final-exit course.
Way To Normal
finds Folds as irritable and vengeful as ever--if not more so. There are excursions to linguistic regions few middle-class, middle-aged Hair Club for Men candidates dare to tread; see the rowdy breakup plaint "Bitch Went Nuts," with its slap-happy ivories and unashamed invocation of the c-word. A misbehaving pooch has a boogie-blues number dedicated to him ("Errant Dog"); a tour stop in a German city becomes the setting for a crippling bout of loneliness (the ravishingly melancholic "Cologne"). In a surprise move, Folds goes in for a duet with fellow pop-piano pugilist Regina Spektor, who's young enough to be his baby sister--and more than holds his own ("You Don't Know Me"). Indeed: Folds' downer parade keeps on truckin', even as the world at large pretends it stalled and died eons ago.
Ben Folds plays tonight at Rams Head Live. For more information visit ramsheadlive.com.