General 7-1-2005

How I Learned To Love Singer/Songwriters

Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine, the Mountain Goats and others breathe new life into the genre


I’ve always hated James Taylor.

Not on a personal level; it’s not like the guy’s ever kicked my dog or stolen my parking space or anything. But my own tastes, nurtured first by my parents’ old Elvis and Carl Perkins records and later by my small-town smart-kid’s natural drift toward punk rock, have always gone into a full-on cringe at the first hint of Taylor’s particular brand of drippy, earnest folk-pop—it’s hard to like “Fire and Rain” when you’ve grown up with “Great Balls of Fire.”

And so Taylor and his fellow avatars of the vaunted 1970s singer/songwriter style (Jim Croce, Carly Simon, Carole King) have entrenched themselves as my own musical betes noires, and I’ve avoided anything since that’s tagged as “singer/songwriter” music. Imagine my consternation, then, when I took a look at my stack of new CDs not long ago—records that I’d been excited about for months—and realized that there was an imposing pile of work by artists most accurately described by just that term.

I went home and listened to nothing but Japanese noise-punk for a week.

My head thus cleared, I decided to dive into the pile of new singer/songwriters. My first, tentative step was to slip Ben Folds’s Songs for Silverman (Epic) into the CD player. I figured I’d be pretty safe here. Folds has always seemed less like a singer/songwriter than a rock ‘n roller who happens to play the piano; his Ben Folds Five records soundtracked a good deal of my college years. This, his first effort with a full backing band since the Five split up, comes on the heels of possibly the best project of Folds’s career, as musical director for William Shatner’s weirdly awesome Has Been.

I’m pleased to report that the Shatnerian highs continue unabated here. In fact, having resuscitated the career of one ’60s icon, Folds is close to morphing into another—with his incredible ear for effortlessly catchy compositions, his sensitive piano work, and his knack for arrangements that seem epic but never over-the-top, the guy’s practically a floppier-haired Burt Bacharach. Silverman is packed end-to-end with simple, just-right major-key melodies, compelling piano solos, climactic cellos and choral backing vocals. And it bests the Shatner work by also featuring Folds’s nimble lyrics—everything from punchy lines like “the more you know, you know you don’t know shit” (from album opener “Bastard”) to softly emotional moments like “you’re not a baby, you’re my friend” (from “Gracie,” Folds’s achingly gorgeous ode to his newborn daughter). If you’re wanting to delve into the (slightly) softer side of rock, this is a terrific place to start.

For some more mannered rock ‘n roll, let us now turn to the complicated life of Mike Doughty. As the frontman of hipster-jazz-funk combo Soul Coughing, Doughty’s success was tempered by private struggles with heroin addiction and creative tension. So after their 2000 breakup, Doughty got clean and struck out on his own, acoustic guitar and new songs in hand, touring the country and selling his stark solo record, Skittish, from the edges of stages.

Talk about therapeutic. Haughty Melodic (ATO Records) is his first full-band work since, and where Skittish sounded a lot like a bitter laugh into the abyss, Haughty is the musical equivalent of walking outside on a sunny Friday with bills paid, plans made and not a care in the world.

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