In 1999, I was living in graduate student housing with my roommate who was also the guitarist in my band (and one of my best friends). We were not, however, graduate students. We had been forcefully directed to live in the remote housing because of our behavior during our freshman year.
We weren’t exactly the best neighbors during our first year of college. We once duct-taped someone to a chair in the common room because he was talking too loud in the hallway. Our RA was eventually re-assigned and our shenanigans were no small part. The parties were one thing. But the Quad director had a special meeting with us for the noise: We had full band rehearsal in a second floor dorm room; we played songs together all hours of the day.
We also listened to music constantly. In 1999, we looked forward to three new albums by three of our favorite bands. Guster was due to release Lost and Gone Forever (much of which we had already heard live); Soul Coughing came out with El Oso; Ben Folds Five released The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. And, to add to our presumptive riches, Cake released Prolonging the Magic.
Perhaps we were too excited and our expectations were just too high, but the results of this expected musical bonanza were disastrous. Guster’s album was so sad that I just couldn’t listen to it (but it grew on me, something I will talk about later); Cake’s album lacked all magic. El Oso seemed tame in comparison to Irresistible Bliss and what was for a decade Ben Folds Five’s last album had one good song.
And then Soul Coughing and Ben Folds Five disbanded. I can’t even explain the misery we felt. Two of our favorite bands not only underperformed but then destroyed any possibility of making good on their promise. It was a terrible feeling.
(Mike Doughty’s solo career mitigated the disappointment a little. Ben Folds also put out some great tracks).
To understand this feeling, you have to understand that we listened to Ben Folds Five and Soul Coughing in our cars, at work, as we went to sleep at night. And Ben Folds Five especially had really been the soundtrack of the year before. The semi-live compilation Naked Baby Photos was on repeat as we worked the dishroom or made pizza or drank and played cards.
Most people probably remember Ben Folds as the singer of the hit “Brick”—a song that features one of Folds’ best qualities (his great control over his falsetto and his ability to blend it into his regular voice) but that underplays the other great things about the band: Folds’ rock piano, the distorted bass playing, and the serious sense of play that pervades the self-titled first album (and much of the second, Whatever and Ever Amen).
Rock has too long been a genre dominated by the guitar. Few (if any) pianists ever realized the sonic dynamism of Jerry Lee Lewis (or the soul-R&B moves of Ray Charles, channeled sometimes by Alicia Keys) . Elton John comes close (but is a bit too maudlin and campy); Billy Joel is too broadway and loungey. Ben Folds can really play—he blends vaudeville, swing, and jazz sounds into his solos and flourishes, but throughout his best songs from the first few albums, he plays foot-stomping, wide-open chords of fury.
The complementary instrumentation of the band is also really different. Both drummer and bassist of this trio are survivors of metal bands, so they bring to a lyric/piano centric trio a hard-nosed and technically brilliant playing that combines with Folds’ sublime musicality to create a sound unlike anything I have ever heard.
But what I always loved about the band was the playfulness of the songs (and the storytelling). Early songs like “Underground” and “Julianne” (which begins “I met a girl who looks like Axl Rose / got drunk and took her home / and we slept in our clothes”) balance against more somber and personal reflections like “Best Imitation of Myself”. Even the somber and melancholy “Brick” (which tells the story of an abortion) is framed by songs like “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” or the anthemic “Song for the Dumped”.
Even though I love music, I am generally not in the know about forthcoming albums. I like to come to music ‘organically’ (by accident or sudden passion). I also find that whenever I get psyched up about a release, I inevitably set myself up for disappointment. In this way, I ruined the first experience of Feist’s latest and Mates’ of States’ Mountaintops.
So, when I heard, a week before the release, that Ben Folds Five was releasing a new album, I was ecstatic. So elated and high on sudden nostalgia was I, that I pre-ordered the album from iTunes. I hate doing this. And, to make matters worse, I have only ever once pre-ordered an album that turned out to be good.
“Do It Anyway”
That was the first ominous sign. The second? Two days or so before the album was released
I had a twitter discussion with @professormortis (AKA, the Historian) about the Fraggle-featuring debut video from the album, “Do It Anyway”. Now, knowing my love for the band and my general irascibility, the good Professor noted that BF5 was slavishly imitating the Weezer video from 2002 featuring the Muppets.
I feebly tried to argue that the Fraggles were more elite and thus cooler. I even tried to work some lame mockery of Rivers Cuomo into the repartee, but it was all hollow and forced. I knew deep inside that I was just desperately trying to deny this second and ominous sign: an alt-rock band in from the 90’s reuniting and copying the cheeky 80’s nostalgia of another alt-rock band’s reunion album.
And it took them 10 years to catch up.
Despite these signs, I hooked up my iPod to my computer for the silly Tuesday morning release and turned on the album for my drive to work. The kids were strapped into their car seats. I had a full cup of coffee and I was ready to be blown away.
I will admit that I found myself misty-eyed during the album’s first sounding. Immediately recognizable throughout is the sound that was missing in Ben Folds’ solo work: the crunchy and thrash infused bass work of Robert Sledge accompanied by the phenomenal percussion of Darren Jessee. From the first few bars of music, I could feel the rawness of the backing musicians and taste the unique and wonderful sound.
“Keep Fishing”, Weezer (2002)
But, in truth, the elation was short lived. My relief soon gave way to panic (that maybe the band was never as good as I wanted it to be) and depression (many of the songs are sad in tone and longing ). So, to combat my doubts, I listened to the previous albums and put the new one away for a while.
When I took it back out, it is clear that what is missing is the verve and play of the first album (and some of the tracks on the second album). After the release of “Brick”, the band seems to have gotten too sentimental or maybe they played out their silliness and had only adult remorse left. The Autobiography of Reinhold Messner is deficient on fun: the single “Army” is playful, true, but itself too autobiographical and cynical.
This is more of what I was hoping for
Part of my depression, I know, is from the fact that I know that the band has aged just as I have and that self-doubt, excessive reflection and sentimentality replace play and fun for all of us. I know that I am expecting too much to insist on BF5 to turn back the clock to a very different world and time, to a different me.
Again, this is not to imply that I am not happy, but to confess that my own appraisal of the new album is so steeped in nostalgia as to be almost completely subjective. Perhaps I should refuse to review the album? Wiser men might make that choice.
The first track, “Erase Me” , sounds proggy (especially in the rather severe alternation between the showtuney verses and the more dissonant chorus) and made me think/hope that the band was taking a new direction. The bass line booms in its distorted turns and the drums are as hard-lined as ever; Folds’ voice control and use of his falsetto are better than ever.
But there is something missing. The song seems over-thought, overwrought, and under felt. This is not a single and it is a second-string track on a good album. On this album, it is the best. The chorus, title, and plaintive “Erase Me”? Too colloquial to be clever and too cynical to be fun. Absent is the playful self-regard of “Julianne” or the deprecatory hilarity of “Underground.”
We all get older and worse. Entropy sucks.
That something is missing is true of most of the songs. They are too long for what they offer (all over 4 minutes until the penultimate track. On some, like the sweet-sounding attempt at a ballad, “Sky High”, seem to repeat segments searching for a hook. Even then, Folds’ voice and piano phrasing almost pull it off—put the relegation of 2/3 of the band to the background and the absent verve fall just a bit flat. The last three tracks on the album combine occasionally beautiful piano playing with somber lyrics, ballad structuring and the under-utilization of the whole band. The songs, if you can listen to them without getting depressed, don’t linger long in the mind.
Track 5 (“On Being Frank”) evokes Frank Sinatra both literally (where he set the thermostat) and musically (the sound and the opening line “I had it all”), but this is a Sinatra post-mortem, missing life and its vitality. The title track “The Sound of the Life of the Band” features some beautiful piano phrasing and apt percussion—but I keep feeling like they’re searching for something like “Brick” or mired in a mid-aged and morose funk. I mean, we all know that our best days will one day be behind us, right?
Don’t get me wrong, Ben Folds can be introspective. His “Best Imitation of Myself” is insightful, memorable and a beautiful song. It combines levity and self-reflection in an unprepossessing way that allows it to grow with each listening. The levity is gone. The music at times seems too forced. He does hit his poignant moments, as when he characterizes well the acceptance of growing old in “Do it Anyway” (“I used to not like you / now I think you’re ok”). But still, the sentiments seems less than profound and the anger only partly articulated.
At times, BF5 attempts a more youthful speed and timbre—Track 6 “Draw a Crowd” aims for a lighter yet cynical tone. The chorus (“Oh-oh if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowd /Draw dicks on a wall”) depends on the wordplay of the double meaning of “draw”—but the meanness and bitter dismissal of an audience was much more pointed and melodic in “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces”.
And the characters in the songs—one of Folds’ greatest talents as a songwriter is creating vivid figures—are alienated or dislocated. The female protagonist of the title track’s internal dissonance is itself the ‘sound of the life of the mind’. The second track “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”—a similarly marginal fellow who keeps showing up at the singer’s similarly alienating reunions is one of Ben Folds’ specialties (songs using names and biographies) but even despite its faux-Beach boy beat and harmonies, it is forgettable and unmelodic in comparison to his solo “Zak and Sara” or the earlier “Alice Childress”.
As I read back over this review, I really hate that I wrote it, But I did. Part of me hopes that I am being too harsh and that the music will grow on me–I love Ben Folds’ Five work and respect them as musicians. This album makes me feel like I fear that they feel—growing older and tired and far more reflective than is healthy for a 45 minute period.
If you can catch the band live, I am sure that the songs will breathe better spaced out and interspersed with the classics. Fans will enjoy moments in the album. Anyone new to the band might be confused why fans clamored to have them reunite.