At a time when mook metal is pummeling rock into submission, Ben Folds' commitment to storytelling through pop songcraft feels like a rear-guard revenge of the nerd. His quietly devastating portraits of teen ennui and middle-age anomie work bittersweet magic like arsenic candy canes.
On Folds' latest album, Rockin' the Suburbs (and first since the dissolution of his band Ben Folds Five), the North Carolina native uses his altar-boy voice and filigreed melodies to spin a song cycle of faith and faithlessness; the album's gallery of jilted lovers, castoffs, and sellouts are lost in strip mall purgatory, clinging to the possibility of redemption as their little worlds fall apart. Gentle Ben's genius is that he can transform such dissolute material into joyful noise.
The opener, ''Annie Waits,'' a two-hanky tale of a would-be spinster, bops along to a plucky piano and a Casio drum rhythm, while the ballad ''Still Fighting It'' shrouds a father's existential crisis in a velvet fog of swooning strings. Folds' sly humor rises to the surface on ''The Ascent of Stan,'' a stab at a '60s radical-turned-organization man, and on the title track's riff on white-boy angst. But for all of its snickers, Suburbs is serious businessa pop fantasia that seals Folds' rep as the Cole Porter of underclass underdogs. A-