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All By Himself

A simple formula: First, there was Ben Folds Five, which was actually comprised of only three members. Then, Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five dropped two of the original Five three, which left only one-- due to the fact that there were only three to begin with. So gone are the Five and two of the three, leaving simply one--Ben Folds.

Got it? Good. Now go get the new album, Rockin' the Suburbs, a CD that is sure to please--regardless of your mathematical prowess or deductive reasoning skills.

Chapel Hill native Ben Folds is back, this time simplifying the equation and silencing any doubts as to whether he could survive without the supporting cast. Not only does Rockin' the Suburbs equal everything the Folds trio offered up, it surpasses them all--and then some.

Make no mistake--Ben Folds Five was a fine band and praiseworthy for intermingling their quirky, light-hearted geekiness with deeper, more melodic arrangements, creating albums that were both honest and satirical, subtle and biting. Alone, however, Folds very simply takes it to the next level, offering a thoughtful, introspective look at life, more often than not opting for the serious instead of the silly, a masterful move that lends beginning-to-end cohesion to the final product.

Without band mates, Folds is free to experiment with a variety of instruments, and experiment he does, with cellos, drum machines and synths, a welcome variation that--while adding dimension to the sound of old--fails to upstage his trademark piano, the jangly, jumping backbone of his music. Hell, Folds even lets a guitar sneak in on a track or two, a big step for the guy whose band didn't even include the industry's lead instrument of choice. Maybe he's slipping or expanding as he matures, but one thing is still certain: Put him in front of his Baldwin, and he's got all of his instrumental bases covered--the rest is just background music.

Folds shoots from the hip and heads straight for the heart with his reflective, emotional lyrics and somber, "learning life's lessons" ballads. On the track "Still Fighting It," he sings to his son, "Twenty years from now maybe we'll both sit down and have a few beers/ And I can tell you about today and how I picked you up and everything changed." Likewise, on "Fred Jones Part 2," a stirring duet with Cake's John McCrea, Folds examines the pains of growing old as he puts into boxes the "things that remind him that life has been good." And then there's the final track, a touching love song to his wife in which he admits that he is "The Luckiest." Deeply moving and never sappy--watch out fellas--he just might make you cry.

If the sensitivity bit isn't your thing, well, there's always "Rockin' the Suburbs," the title track and Ben Folds' glorious return to (and only stop in) the world of wise-ass white-boy angst. Like the man says, "I'm pissed off but I'm too polite/ When people break in the McDonald's line." It's not as meaningful as the others, but it's undeniably fun, and a nice suspension of the serious.

Overall, Rockin' the Suburbs proves that Ben Folds has successfully shrugged the band baggage and is sitting pretty in the solo zone. A new hand has been dealt, but with this ace, he's not folding anytime soon.


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