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Ben Folds Five: The Smart Kids Grow Up

Music Features Ben Folds Five
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The Ben Folds Five was a trio, a “bad math joke,” as the namesake singer-pianist-leader once put it. They were an anomaly in the late ‘90s, a piano band in a guitar universe, playing six-chord songs in a three-chord world, writing uncool lyrics in a cool scene, lyrics about dwarves, abortion and narcolepsy. They released one masterpiece (Whatever and Ever Amen) and two pretty good albums (plus an odds-and-ends compilation) between 1995 and 1999 and then called it quits in 2000. And although many of their songs, from “Song for the Dumped” to “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” described break-ups at their ugliest, the trio’s own split was by all accounts amicable and civilized.

Folds went on to record and tour in various formats: solo, trio, quartet and quintet. He released three albums under his own name—2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs, 2005’s Songs for Silverman and 2008’s Way to Normal—and collaborated with actor William Shatner on 2004’s Has Been and with author Nick Hornby on 2010’s Lonely Avenue. Drummer Darren Jessee formed the folk-rock band Hotel Lights, while bassist Robert Sledge formed International Orange and subsequently the Bob Sledge Band.

Then MySpace invited the trio to reunite for its Front to Back series where a band plays an entire album in its original sequence. So on Sept. 18, 2008, the Ben Folds Five reassembled at the University of North Carolina to play its final album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

“We enjoyed it,” Folds remembers, “and without saying anything, we all knew we were open to something else. My contract stated that I had to give Epic a retrospective with three new songs on it. It was the perfect opportunity for doing something with Darren and Robert. Because it was a retrospective, we chose three songs that sounded like the ‘90s. Two of them were songs that Darren and Robert had written 12-15 years ago, and the other was a new song I had written to sound old.

“When we were warming up, though, we did a session of 10-15 newer songs. A lot of them ended up being songs on the new record. I had a couple of new keyboards sitting next to me and we pulled out a guitar for one song, so the arrangements were more of the moment; they clearly weren’t retrospective. It was a lot of fun because it was coming so easily. It became obvious that we should keep going, it was that inspiring.”

The three ‘90s-sounding songs became part of the three-CD compilation The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective, released last year. In fact, 22 of the set’s 61 tracks featured the Ben Folds Five. The 2010s-sounding songs wound up on the Ben Folds Five’s first new album in 13 years: The Sound of the Life of the Mind.

The title track is the only song that Folds didn’t write on his own; it features Hornby’s lyrics with Folds’ music. But its story captures the loneliness of a smart kid, in this case a high school girl named Sarah who chooses not to hang out with the girls at the mall, with the boys at the fistfight or with the crowd at the party at the house where the parents are away. “She just can’t bear the stupidity, the boredom, the grind,” Folds sings. “She stays at school, so she can hear the sound of the life of the mind. It’s noisy up there; it rocks like a mother.”

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.

“When the band happened the first time,” Folds admits, “I couldn’t appreciate it. No one should have perspective on what you’re doing in your 20s. You shouldn’t understand yourself right off the bat, because life is all about figuring out who you are. If you already know, how can you grow? We were playing a lot of punk clubs and trying to keep up with the band who just got off the stage before us. So we thought we were a punk band, but we were taking well-written pop songs and turning them on their side.”

The songs are better written than ever now—and more pop than ever too—but still tilted sideways. “Being Frank,” for example, is not about Frank Sinatra but about his valet, the guy who “set the thermostat, pulled his girls and hung his hats.” Folds can’t sing like Sinatra, but he can arrange strings like Nelson Riddle and can capture the bittersweet story of someone who basked in a fame that wasn’t his—and who was left out in the cold when that fame disappeared.

Strings also underline the melancholy of “Away When You Were Here,” an elegy for a dead father. There’s a genuine sadness in the lead vocal, but there’s something else too—a lingering resentment “that you were away even when you were here,” a contrarian feeling reinforced by the way the bass and drums push back against the strings. A similar contradiction is implied by the title of “Thank You for Breaking My Heart,” which features unaccompanied voice and piano for the first verse and chorus but then allows the paradoxical feelings to tangle like vines in a Brian Wilson arrangement of voices joining and tearing apart at peculiar intervals. The ‘90s Ben Folds Five could never have pulled off these songs.

“We’re better musicians now,” Folds claims. “I’m a much better technical piano player now, and the same is true of them. I look back at the old records and ask myself, ‘Why did I let up on my left hand there? Why did Robert do that?’ Darren was always the most lyrical player; in the past maybe we would have run over him, but now he sticks to his guns more. He’s kind of like Charlie Watts; he’s in a really rocking band but he’s not playing that hard. Robert’s tone has improved a lot, and he can play anything. I can give him a line, even a really fucked up line, and he can play it now.

“I’ve been touring with just a piano, which has made me a better player. I grab voicings with an ease and a vocabulary I didn’t have before. I don’t just pound away at the left hand; I can do different things. At the same time, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll piano player; no matter how jazzy my piano playing gets, I’m still a rock ‘n’ roll piano player. It seems you have a couple in every generation—Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, then Elton John and Billy Joel—but now it’s gotten pretty thin. I don’t know why that is.”

The new album’s lead-off track, “Erase Me,” sounds closest to the old Ben Folds Five. It opens with pounding, distorted piano chords, but that punkish bit slams to a halt, and the first verse finds Folds warbling in his highest tenor over pretty piano: “What was our home? Paper, not stone, a lean-to at most.” But the garage-rock rumble returns for the chorus, which taunts an ex-lover mockingly: “Erase me, so you don’t have to face me; put me in the ground and mow the daisies.” It’s another ugly-break-up song, as funny as ever. Then it’s back to a sensitive verse, followed by another loutish chorus, back and forth, each transmission shift executed suddenly and cleanly.

“Those dynamics—that’s just the way we see things. If you can surprise someone in a three-minute song after three-minute songs have been around for 50 years, you’ve done something. It was mostly Nirvana who showed the way on quiet-soft; Kurt Cobain should be in the Mount Rushmore of Rock and Roll as far as I’m concerned. You have to cheat to get dynamics on a recording. It’s like photography—you can’t capture the sun and the deepest shadow in the same picture—the art is making the viewer feel like they’ve seen it. The art in recording is similar; the contrast between our loudest parts and quietest parts is not as great as it seems if you look at the decibel dials.”

The trio has already begun its first tour in a dozen years and will remain on the road at least through December. After that, who knows? But it’s already obvious that Folds is a different singer, a different pianist and a different songwriter when he collaborates with Jessee and Sledge.

“We cut our teeth together,” he explains. “We’ve got a sound. I’ve enjoyed making records that skirted on that sound but weren’t that sound. Now I enjoy playing with a band that as soon as they’ve played three bars, you know who it is—like Johnny Cash’s voice. Who wouldn’t want their songs played with a recognizable sound? Having a band that has that kind of sound gives me a context. If nothing else it’s the sound of a band that made a mark in the ‘90s. To me that’s interesting; I think, ‘What can we do with that?’ If someone gave me Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five now, I’d say, ‘What can I do with that?’”

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