The Sound of Ben Folds Five

After all of my sulking, as my friend Gina called it, over the summer because I couldn’t make it to Summerfest for Ben Folds Five’s reunion show

Wouldn’t you know it, the band announced in August that it was coming to Kansas City. I held my breath and snagged a ticket within minutes after they went on sale.

Tomorrow night, barring an unfortunate surprise (See: The Shins nightmare), I will be heading to the Starlight Theatre for the second time this concert season to the see the one and only Ben Folds Five. It will be my 10th Ben Folds show, and my fifth with the original lineup; I briefly recounted those past shows in my Summerfest post in June and have been doing a lot of reflecting on those good times over these last few days.

And now 12 years after their heartbreaking separation, I’m still having trouble believing they’re back.

Of course, I pre-ordered the band’s new album a couple months ago, too. Then, a note appeared in my email inbox a couple weeks ago with a link to download it. (Novel, right? Decades ago I was buying Ben Folds Five CDs at music stores, and now I’m getting digital files sent to me via email. … Although I did order a CD copy, too, for good measure, as part of the special album package I purchased.)

I’ve listened to the album a few times, but I’m still developing my opinions of it.

It may be coincidence, but there seems to be nods to Folds' past songs and albums throughout the record. “Hold That Thought” reminds of “Jesusland.” “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” reminds me of “Boxing.”

After the opening track, “Erase Me,” which I can hardly stand to listen to, the album is pretty decent. But it hardly carries the catchy, sassy fun that made the early Ben Folds Five albums so captivating.

Rather, the album is more mellow and darker than the early albums. The new album is progression, an aged maturity and a sense that these guys are full-fledged adults who are wiser from their life experiences. So in that sense, as a true fan who’s grown from youth to adulthood with Mr. Folds, I appreciate the album’s grown-up feel.

Paste puts it more eloquently than I in its story about the band this week

One often had the sense that in its original incarnation, the Ben Folds Five were a bit embarrassed about being the smart kids in school. They tried to cover up with what Folds called “punk-rock for sissies," deliberate sloppiness, undifferentiated loudness and low-brow jokes (admittedly, the jokes were often very funny). But they don’t sound embarrassed anymore.

Now the vocal harmonies are painstakingly precise. Now the allusions to Robert Frost and Frank Sinatra are unexplained and unironic. Now the bursts of grunge noise are carefully controlled and contrasted against jazzy piano. Now even the low-brow jokes (“If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on a wall”) are pointedly framed by Beach Boys harmonies and Herbie Hancock Fender Rhodes. It’s like anyone you meet after a 13-year absence: They’re the same people, but they’re not.

My only real beef is that most of the songs hardly feature Robert Sledge or Darren Jessee the way the early albums did. Those harmonies are lacking and “The Sound of Life” sounds a lot like Folds’ previous solo releases.

Nevertheless, the album has a couple strong standouts. “Sky High,” the wistful tune the group used in the promo video that made me tear up, is by far my favorite track on the album. I also really love “Hold That Thought” with its harmonies and arpeggio piano, and the elegy, “Away When You Were Here” (the instrumental track was featured in another promo video). I’d give the catchy “Draw a Crowd” high marks, too, if it wasn’t for the sophomoric lyrics in the chorus. … “Do It Anyway” is decent song. Even better, the video features the Fraggles.

Using iTunes rating system, I give the album a 3.5 out of 5 stars.

It was inevitable I would rank it against all other Ben Folds albums. Earlier this week, in preparation for the show, my good friend Tom challenged me on Facebook with this question: What one Ben Folds or Ben Folds Five CD do you take with you on your “stuck on a deserted island forever” vacation?

After much consideration, I answered “Ben Folds Five,” the self-titled debut. It’s raw, fun and upbeat. The harmonies are solid. The songs are timeless.

And I proceeded to rank the other albums, too. No compilations or live sets. Just original studio albums … And really, I could take either of the top three on an island and be content.

1. Ben Folds Five
2. Whatever and Ever Amen
3. Songs for Silverman
4. Rockin' the Suburbs
5. Sunny 16 (EP)
6. Speed Graphic (EP)
7. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
8. Super D (EP)
9. The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
10. Lonely Avenue
11. Fear of Pop: Volume 1
12. Way to Normal (… Only because this is the only Ben Folds album I don’t own, and the reviews weren’t positive. The only song I’ve heard from the album is “You Don’t Know Me,” which I do enjoy and is part of my collection.)

I’m counting down the hours to tomorrow night.

Good reads & links ...
a Ben Folds Five Craft First New Album in a Decade
a Ben Folds Talks New Album, BF5 Reunion
a Ben Folds discusses and performs "The Luckiest"

No comments: