Former Frontmen Try To Remake Themselves As Singer-Songwriters
“Pop rock” is a musical no-man’s land.
It’s more derisively known as “lite rock,” and it’s an easy category to get shuffled into if you’re a rock band with radio-friendly songs that are light on guitar power chords, but you don’t have the master songwriting chops to get critics’ praise. Bands like Matchbox Twenty, Counting Crows, Train and 3 Doors Down are prime examples.
What this ultimately translates into is a lack of respect. Only a loyal few will wear your T-shirts in public. For the general populace, however, these bands are guilty pleasures. The kind of CDs you’ll hide under the seat of your car or under your bed. No one must know that you like them.
Imagine then the obstacles one would face if you’re the former leader of such a pop-rock outfit and after a first brush with success, you’re ready to leave band life behind and start building the much-cherished solo career.
Two former frontmen of ’90s pop-rock outfits — Ben Folds and Glen Phillips — both faced that challenge when they released their solo debuts in 2001. While Folds had enjoyed an aura of indie chic when he was leading Ben Folds Five with his piano-based, “School House Rock”-type ditties, his hipness didn’t translate into MTV stardom. By contrast, Phillips, who was the lead singer for Toad The Wet Sprocket, enjoyed MTV and radio play with his group’s brand of sensitive-man rock, but they were critically roasted at nearly every step.
Unfortunately for Folds and Phillips, both solo albums were disappointments — commercially, critically and creatively.
Four years later and with their eyes still on the prize, Folds and Phillips have returned with new offerings. They’ve readied new releases that both share a determination in not allowing past slipups or faded glories to keep them from their dream.
Let’s find out if their second solo albums warrant giving them a second chance.
Sometime in the late ’90s, music-making stopped being fun for Ben Folds. Or at least, that’s how it sounds on the records.
But around the time of the Five’s final album, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner,” Folds’ journey as student of songwriting led to him exploring different sounds and a level of accompaniment that demonstrated a deepening sophistication.
Along the way, however, he lost most of the hipster irony and youthful exuberance that made so many of the cuts on the group’s first two albums such pop gems. You got the sense that the newer songs contained a level of emotional investment that was somehow more personal lyrically and yet delivered joyless. (OK, “Brick,” the Five’s only semi-hit was a skin-crawling ballad that detailed a trip to an abortion clinic, but that was only a brief stopover in Downerville for the band.) Nowadays, lyrics detailing anguish or happiness were sung with feeble conviction.
Folds’ first solo album, “Rockin’ The Suburbs,” continued the trend. With the exception of the title track (which injected some much-needed humor into the record), the album was dominated by a series of straight-faced torch songs. Although Folds utilized a wider sonic palette than he had in his old band (strings, guitars, etc.), the record’s melodies were also weaker.
Folds’ latest album, “Songs For Silverman,” is a stronger effort, but one that still falls short of the heights achieved on the Five’s first two albums. He hasn’t quite snapped out of being on auto pilot, but he’s waking up.
The new album comes after a two-year period of experimentation that saw Folds release a handful of Internet-only EPs and helm a record for everyone’s favorite emoter, William Shatner.
The time off has allowed Folds to hone the new songs (some which were first tried out on the EPs). The extra work has transformed several tracks into potential albeit flawed singles. The slam of piano chords on “Bastard” gives the song a lift that its lyrics about getting older threaten to drag down. The piano part is bolstered by a fuzzy, space-filling bassline like the kind Folds employed in his old group. Stacked vocal harmonies and busy piano work give “Landed” a playful vibe in spite of Folds’ deadpan falsetto.
Amid all this seriousness and melancholia, some irony reappears on “Jesusland.” Folds chides reactionary America, crooning verses like he must “pray for Jesusland.” Mildly catchy, this song too suffers from a sense of resignation. The melody — based on a circular piano figure, some jazzy guitar fills and a glum-sounding string coda — trots along with a surprising detachment.
Other mid-tempo songs, like “Trusted” or “Sentimental Guy” (which features a cool jazz standup bass and some marching band-style cymbal crashes), are kind of hum-able but aren’t really memorable.
On “Bastard,” Folds sounds almost crotchety when he snaps that whippersnappers today. “They get nostalgic about the last 10 years before the last 10 years have passed,” he sings. If he’s talking about his fans, “Songs For Silverman” are proof that there’s a reason for their nostalgia.
For More Info:
- Ben Folds’ Official Web Site
- Ben Folds.org (Unofficial Web Site)
- Ben Folds Five’s Official Site
- Frank Maynard’s Ben Folds Five Website (Unofficial)
Confession time: I own two Toad The Wet Sprocket albums. Yes, I bought them with my own money, and on purpose. (In my defense, one is a greatest hits.)
But to be honest, I and all the others who’ve ever bought a Toad album should be allowed to hold head high. We shouldn’t have to hide their CDs. Toad, and particularly frontman Glen Phillips, can really write an great song sometimes. Good songs are good songs no matter who wrote/recorded them.
It was surprising then that Phillips’ solo debut, “Abulum,” was a low-key, folk-rock affair that fizzled upon release. The experience quickly led Phillips back into the safe bosom of his old band only a few years after they’d broken up. Toad recorded no new material, but did tour clubs around the country.
Despite falling into old habits, it seems Phillips still has ambitions to re-launch his solo career. To accomplish this, he attracted a surprisingly strong list of boosters for his new album, “Winter Pays For Summer.” He has a new record deal with Lost Highway Records, which is the home to a number of top-notch songwriters in the alt-country vein, including Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, and the Jayhawks. Phillips also called on songwriting help from ex-Semisonic leader Dan Wilson and guest appearances by Ben Folds and Aimee Man producer Jon Brion.
“Winter Pays For Summer” is a bolder record than “Abulum,” but not the bedrock which will foster a singer-songwriter career for Phillips. Here the disappointments and the successes run about even. The Toad CDs will stay under the wraps.
The album overall draws together elements of classic rock, pop, folk and country that isn’t all that different from the Toad material.
Most surprising is Dan Wilson’s role on the album. Songs like “Falling” or “Finally Fading,” which have melodies that suggest Wilson had a hand in writing them, are in fact Phillips’ creations alone. Both are classic power pop, featuring sing-along hooks, propulsive drumming and cleanly-played rhythm guitar. Instead, Wilson gets co-writing credits on the record’s three softest numbers, “Cleareyed,” “True” and “Released.”
The album has several embarrassing moments too. “Easier” closely resembles one of the Dave Matthews Band’s early singles, and “Don’t Need Anything” is a slightly amended, piano-based recreation of the Eagles’ “Desparado.”
So for now, I’ll still keep my Toad albums under my bed. But, if “Winter Pays For Summer” is any indication of Phillips’ ambitions, I can keep hope alive that they might one day find a place on my shelf.
For More Info:
- Glen Phillips’ Official Web Site
- Glen Phillips UnOfficial Web Site (Unofficial)
- Glen Phillips FAQ (Unofficial)
- Glen Phillips Guitar Tab (Unofficial)
- Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Official Site
- Toad the WWWet Sprocket (Unofficial)
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2005 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.