Ben Folds, doing his own thing
New album, 'Rockin' the Suburbs'
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- R&B balladeers top the charts. Punk rappers top the charts. Boy bands and Britney Spears top the charts.
Ben Folds, writer of literate, catchy pop songs, wistfully knows where he fits in.
"I'm really good at writing 'almost hits,' " Folds sighs in a phone interview from a tour stop in Indianapolis, Indiana. "It happens a lot. So when I chart, I'm a mid-charter."
It happened again recently, when the first single from Folds' new album, the title track "Rockin' the Suburbs," bounced around the middle reaches of the Billboard charts and then drifted off to the bottom. "It performed in the oddest way I've ever seen," says Folds. "It was top five in some places, but in other places it wasn't played at all."
It's a strange irony that his biggest hit, "Brick" -- by his old band Ben Folds Five -- was about as uncommercial as they come, a downbeat song about a guy apparently taking his girlfriend to an abortion clinic. "She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly" isn't exactly sing-along-with-the-car-radio material.
But Folds, as much as he'd like his songs to catch on, doesn't write them for the radio. He likes to mix it up. "Each record is different," he says of the four studio albums he's made. "I really reject a pattern. Each is its own sort of thing." The new album, he says, is made up of "simple pop songs."
Surviving 'an album with no singles'
It's also the first album he's made without Ben Folds Five, the three-man band he led for several years. (The group called itself "Ben Folds Five" because the name sounded good, the story goes.)
"The band was done," Folds says, adding that he still gets on well with his ex-bandmates, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee. "Any two of us can hang out, but when the three of us get together, there's that association of 'having done that.' "
Fans who heard the band's last record, "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner," probably knew something was in the air.
Originally, says Folds, he wanted to do something like an opera; his bandmates and label representatives talked him out of it. Nevertheless, "Messner" still has the earmarks of an artier record: expansive, atmospheric songs, tougher themes, intricate instrumentation. Folds calls "Messner" an "album with no singles."
"I thought it was a good business move," he says, adding that he thought the band would put out the record, go on a short tour, then create a more radio-friendly album of pop songs. That's the way the band had worked, making the albums they wanted to. But today's record industry "has no respect for something like that," Folds says. "Messner" was greeted with confusion by fans and radio, and sold indifferently.
The new album is cleaner and more upbeat, with songs such as "Rockin' the Suburbs" and "Zak and Sara" showcasing Folds' sense of humor.
But Folds still takes his lyrics seriously, and the subject matter isn't all fun and games: "The Ascent of Stan" is about a baby boomer sell-out ("Once you wanted revolution/Now you're the institution," Folds sings), and "Annie Waits" is about a lonely woman ("Shadows pass her by and out of sight ... Friday bingo, pigeons in the park"), though the song is boosted with a sizzling verse-to-bridge hook.
"I like lyrical tension with the music," says Folds. "I like there to be levels to stuff."
Musically, the album shows off influences from Elvis Costello to the oddball '80s/'90s band Momus, but Folds says much of that is unconscious.
"It's about associations, when such-and-such was happening in my life and the radio's on," he says. "It's not like I listen to music and say, 'That's what I want to do.' "
The album was partly recorded in Australia, where Folds now lives with his wife, Frally Hynes, but also in a friend's house in Los Angeles, California. In fact, Folds likes the organic feel of recording in houses; one can even hear a phone ring on "Steven's Last Night in Town" from the Ben Folds Five record "Whatever and Ever Amen."
"It's like bringing the audience home with you," Folds says. "For this album, I didn't see any reason to manufacture something to see how clever and crazy I was."
Folds' tour took him around the United States through the fall. When he gets back to Australia, he'll be ready for another album, he says.
It's the life he likes to live, despite the desire of radio, record labels, and even members of his audience to put him in a box. He's been playing piano since he was 9 and growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and if he weren't writing pop songs, he'd be writing fiction, he says: "At least some short stories or a novel."
But, regardless, he'll do it the way he wants to do it.
"There is still some art in pop music," Folds says. "But it can't happen if you're not inspired."
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