Monday, September 17, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five

Originally posted on Tuesday, April 11th, 2006:

For some, Ben Folds Five was merely a one hit wonder. For others, the trio was a life-changer. Myself, I’m one of the latter.

Being formally introduced with the “Battle of Who Could Care Less” video on 120 Minutes, I was very intrigued to know more about this piano-bass-drums combo. Once I heard Whatever and Ever Amen, I was hooked. As a matter of fact, out of all of my favorite bands, Ben Folds Five is one of the few that I liked right away and I have held the same kind of admiration ever since. Their three proper albums (and one b-sides collection) are staples in my record collection and they may very well be (or soon be) staples in your collection too.

For a band that was once described as “punk rock for sissies,” you may realize how effortlessly these guys walked between fun, semi-goofy pop songs and some really deep and powerful stuff too. It helps that they had it right from the beginning and kept maturing.

Ben Folds Five (1995)

In 1995, Ben Folds Five (featuring Ben Folds on piano on lead vocals, Robert Sledge on bass and backing vocals and Darren Jessee on drums and backing vocals) really stuck out in the guitar-driven world of alternative/college rock. Though it garnered some decent airplay on college radio and 120 Minutes, Five was commercially ignored (except in Japan). Regardless of initial sales figures and notice, for a debut album, it would set the trio on a great course by giving them many sidestreets to go down in the future.

Sounding like a group of jazz students who also grew up on Top 40 pop, Folds, Sledge and Jessee weren’t afraid to rock and be a little tongue-in-cheek in the process. However, they weren’t some novelty revue dripping with irony.

From start to finish, Ben Folds Five doesn’t slow down or get out of control. Take a listen to “Philosophy” and you may find yourself bopping along to this catchy little tune. However, you might be surprised that a song supposedly about a penis is actually worth listening to over and over.

Fan favorites like “Julianne” and “Underground” would come from Ben Folds Five, but one particular track tucked away towards the end shows how wide this band’s range could go: “The Last Polka” has a relatively fast punk rock feel cut up by rather quiet and mysterious verses. When everything crashes down in the outro into half time, you may be wishing that it goes even longer.

Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)

Though there are a number of upbeat numbers on Whatever and Ever Amen, it was a quiet ballad about abortion that gave Ben Folds Five their first and only mainstream crossover hit. “Brick,” a track co-written by Jessee and Folds, came after two great singles, “Battle of Who Could Care Less” and “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” stayed at bay on specialty show playlists. While “Brick” is a great song regardless of the mainstream visibility it brought, a number of classics are on this album.

Though songs like “Kate” and “Battle of Who Could Care Less” are instantly likeable, a song like “Fair” builds up to an unforgettable chorus augmented by strong backing vocals from Sledge and Jessee. Other tracks like “Steven’s Last Night in Town” and “Smoke” showcase the band using more complex rhythms and moods to varying degrees of success. Yet it’s the simple and slow final two tracks that end Amen on a truly strong note: “Missing the War” and “Evaporated” complete the album in rather subdued fashion, but they’re both beautiful requiems about moving on in life.

Naked Baby Photos (1998)

With the mainstream success of Whatever and Ever Amen, a door was opened to what else the band had lying around and whatever they wanted to do on the side. Folds cut a solo record under the moniker of Fear of Pop, and Volume 1 features his first collaborations with William Shatner (check out the half-amusing/half-silly track, “In Love”).

Though the album is a rather goofy and experimental addition to the Folds-related catalog, Naked Baby Photos (a collection of demos, b-sides and live tracks) is very much worth your while if you like Ben Folds Five and Whatever and Ever Amen.

Certain tracks on Naked Baby Photos show more of the band’s humorous side (witness “For Those of Y’all Who Wear Fannie Packs,” “Satan is My Master” and “The Ultimate Sacrifice”) but a select few make you wonder why they didn’t end up on a proper album. “Emaline,” a track left off Ben Folds Five (supposedly because it features an acoustic guitar), would prove to be a live fan favorite in the years to come.

Another highlight is their cover of Built to Spill’s “Twin Falls,” which has the distinction of being a rare case where the cover is better than the original. Built to Spill’s version is a quick little ditty, while Ben Folds Five transform it as a longer, driving track while staying true to the original.

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)

Regardless of whether The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was a tremendous leap forward or a tremendous leap into head-scratching confusion, the album was a relatively major departure for Ben Folds Five. Though it does contain shades of being a concept album (certain lyrics and melodies are repeated in various songs), don’t think this is some career-killing baffler. A track like “Don’t Change Your Plans” features a killer bridge section with the kinds of horns that you hear in classic Burt Bacharach hits. Though their previous albums had a nice balance of slow/sad songs and happy/upbeat songs, the general feeling on Messner is morose, even on upbeat tracks like “Army.”

The album may have been a little too mature for fans at the time, but it’s a real grower. Going from a track like “Regrets” (with its “Sunshine of Your Love”-like finale) to the quiet introspection of “Jane” and “Lullabye,” Messner would eventually be the concluding statement from the Ben Folds Five. Though sessions were held for a fourth proper album, the band called it a day in March 2001.

In the years to come, two Ben Folds Five posthumous releases surfaced: The Complete Sessions at West 54th DVD features a very memorable set shortly following Whatever and Ever Amen’s release. Amen itself was reissued in 2005 with seven bonus tracks (including an amazing, neo-bossanova cover of the Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly”).

As for their ex-members, Jessee formed his own band, Hotel Lights, which features him on lead vocals and guitar. Though Hotel Lights’ debut was originally self-released, Bar None reissued the album in March 2006. Sledge would resurface in a band called International Orange, which broke up last fall. Folds, re-married, a father of twins and living in Australia, would prove to be the most visible ex-member of the Five.

Rockin' the Suburbs (2001)

Released on 9/11, Ben Folds’ first proper solo record could be thought of as a safe retread of Ben Folds Five’s first two albums. Featuring Folds playing almost all of the instruments himself, Rockin’ the Suburbs could also very well be mistaken for a lost Ben Folds Five album. The fuzz bass playing of Robert Sledge and the busy jazzy drumming of Darren Jessee are present even though it’s Folds playing the instruments.

The most drastic departure for Folds is the album’s title track. Spoofing the nĂ¼-metal and hip-hop of the day, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” sounds a little dated now, but it’s still a funny little satire of suburban angst. The rest of the album is very worthwhile, especially the bouncy “Not the Same” and the closing track (and possible “first dance” song at many weddings), “The Luckiest.”

Songs for Silverman (2005)

Before Folds’ second solo album appeared in 2005, a number of Folds-related material was released. Released on Epic in 2002, Ben Folds Live consists of favorites from the Ben Folds Five catalog, Rockin’ the Suburbs, three new songs and a cover of “Tiny Dancer” — all featuring just Folds’ voice and piano. The new songs (especially “One Down”) are worth hearing, but the versions of “Army” and “Not the Same,” with the audience accompanying Folds, are the real treasures here.

As he worked on tracks for a new solo album, Folds would release three EPs: Speed Graphic, Sunny 16, and Super D. While worth having for the hardcore fan, they aren’t truly essential (though the original version of “Give Judy My Notice” and his covers of the Cure’s “In Between Days” and the Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” are great to have). Don’t get me wrong, there are some great songs spread across the fifteen total tracks, but the real deal came when Songs for Silverman finally arrived in 2005.

Though further delayed so Folds could collaborate with William Shatner again (this time, a rather amusing/silly full-length entitled Has Been) and the Bens (featuring Folds, Ben Kweller and Ben Lee), Silverman shows Folds shedding his funny side in exchange for a more overt tenderness. Luckily, this grown-up still knows how to write great, memorable songs.

Tributes to his daughter and the late Elliott Smith come across as heartfelt instead of sappy drivel. “Landed” is a perfect soundtrack for anyone coming out of an intense relationship and realizing how much else is out there. “Trusted” is a slower, but pounding little trek through one’s realization about the duality of trust. Folds has never shied away from serious topics in his songs, so it should be very interesting to see what he does next.

Until that drops, check out the recent DVD release, Live in Perth, featuring Folds joined by the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra on a number of Ben Folds Five tracks and selections from Rockin’ the Suburbs. Also worth finding is Songs for Goldfish, a special ten-track album which features an assortment of non-LP material, like “Hiro’s Song” and a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Side of the Road,” which which came out in conjunction with Songs for Silverman.

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