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Ben Folds 

Songs for Silverman (Epic)

Only Ben Folds could make Dr. Dre's FCC-frightening ditty "Bitches Ain't Shit" -- currently an iTunes extra -- sound sympathetic. But garnering sympathy for sometimes-unsavory underdogs is something the ivory-tickler has been adept at for his entire career. The difference with Songs for Silverman, his second solo studio album, is that the persona in its songs most deserving of compassion seems to be Folds himself.

Like The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the 1999 opus of the Ben Folds Five, Folds addresses relationship schisms with unsentimental honesty. "But Judy, I won't be your bitch anymore," he trills on a pedal-steel-inflected narrative about ditching a poisonous entanglement. On "You to Thank," he refers to the willful ignorance of friends and family toward an impending divorce by observing, "We put on a pretty good act/And they seemed to all need to believe it." Folds' music reflects the pensive tone, ditching the primary color piano-pop of 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs for mature arrangements redolent of the Beach Boys and '70s Elton John. However, the depth of Folds' introspection -- as evidenced, in particular, by the father doting on his daughter in "Gracie" -- never sounds heavy-handed, despite its refusal to allow smirking jokes to get in the way.

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