Ben does it again!

With a likability, honesty and profoundness that can match few other pop artists, Ben Folds has done it again with his iTunes exclusive release this week, aptly titled, ‘iTunes Originals.’

For me, this all started in the spring of 1996. It was in my room, some algebra homework staring me in the face, when over my radio I first heard the quirky lyrics, luscious harmonies and pounding piano of "Underground," a new song by a little-known band from Chapel Hill, N.C., called Ben Folds Five.

Little did I know then, it would set the standard I would compare all other music against.

This much we know: Folds burst onto the indie rock scene in 1994, teaming up with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee to form Ben Folds Five. After attracting critical acclaim with their self-titled debut and "Underground," the band signed with major label Sony to produce 1997's "Whatever and Ever Amen."

But Folds has been most recognized for "Brick," the hit-selling single about his high school experience with a girlfriend who had an abortion. Its lyrics are a classic piece of Folds storytelling, but the song is hardly a spec of Folds mind-whirling piano playing and most fans attending his shows probably don't care if "Brick" makes the set list.

Since going solo in 2000 and continuing to tour heavily, Folds has continued to pick up fans across the country with a witty, honest songwriting sense, catchy melodies and that thumping piano that's unlike any of the pre-packaged stuff being played on VH1 or Top 40 radio.

Through it all, Folds often has drawn comparisons to Elton John and another famous piano man, Billy Joel. Folds, however, does it his way -- and with attitude.

To listen to a Ben Folds album is one thing. To attend one of his performances is a completely different experience.

While few other performers haul a baby grand piano across the world, Folds pounds on his with whatever he can find and often ends the show by throwing his stool at the keys like a sledgehammer.

His diverse audiences hang on every word, typically singing the old BF5 harmonies like a concert choir (If you don't know them, don't worry -- it's easy to catch on). Folds even has been known to conduct the crowd while standing on top of his piano. And he divides them into a trumpet and saxophone section for renditions of his bouncy 1999 single "Army."

You want cover songs? Yeah, he might do a couple of those too. I've seen Folds put his piano spin on everything from Kansas' "Carry on Wayward Son" to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," during which he donned a large pair of white rimmed glasses and shamelessly imitated Elton's wide-eyed, open-mouthed piano playing.

And that brings me to today, where somewhere in a box at my home are a half dozen ticket stubs from his concerts. A couple Ben Folds DVDs are stored in our video cabinet and every album he's ever released or appeared on remains either in my car or at the stop of my CD stack.

Now, just when me and every other obsessive Folds fan thinks we know everything about him, he unleashes a collection of untold stories and images of him playing records for hours on the floor of his boyhood home, walking through the school cafeteria with melodies playing in his head and he begins to tell us just how hard of a year he had at age 16 -- a story that brings out a whole new appreciation for ‘Brick.’ He tells us of a mind-boggling realization during the birth of his son and he reminds us just how great an album Reinhold Messner is, despite its commercial failure.

In between all of it is a blend of old Folds tunes that, no matter how many times we’ve heard them, sound amazing anyway they’re played.

My bond with Folds’ music is one I don't intend to break soon. And I'm renewing it again today as I listen to another one his collections with a wide-eyed grin that is perhaps bigger than the one on Ralphie’s face when he opened his Red Ryder BB gun in ‘A Christmas Story.’

It’s a bond I don’t intend to break because few things in life make me as happy as the feeling I have when I'm listening to Ben's music.

More Ben insight ...
a Ben Folds Five Talk About The Songs of The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner
a Ben Folds lyrics database

Good read (03.29.07): Ben Folds is still rockin' the suburbs

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