Half satirist, half romantic, Ben Folds looks upon Middle America with a jaundiced yet affectionate eye. On his official solo debut, Rockin’ the Suburbs, he applies his storytelling skills to a batch of piano-centered tunes that recall the likes of Elton John, Joe Jackson, and early Paul McCartney. Folds is an astute observer of human foibles — his portraits of adolescent oddballs (“Zak and Sara”), broken-down working stiffs (“Fred Jones, Pt. 2”), and flaccid rockers (the title tune) are vividly drawn. He tempers his desire towards keyboard embellishment with a sense of proportion, avoiding arrangement clutter in favor of classic harmonies (“Still Fighting It”) and crisp dynamics (“The Ascent of Stan”). The most pleasing development here is Folds’ growth as a balladeer. Without veering into sappiness, he manages to achieve a heart-tugging grace on tracks like “The Luckiest” and “Carrying Cathy.” Just when he threatens to turn into a “sensitive” singer/songwriter, Ben slips in subversive lyric details — “Losing Lisa,” for instance, merges the love of a girl with the pleasures of shopping. Folds’ boyish midrange vocals and fragile falsetto add a poignant touch. Sweetly sardonic, Rockin’ the Suburbs is the sort of wry valentine only Folds can deliver.