*****Note to AC staff: I could easily break this overview down into a few seperate articles, perhaps a career overview and expanded reviews of each of the albums. Would that be a better format for this type of material? It seems to me that it could generate more page hits. Let me know what you think.**********
Most people knew of Ben Folds Five because of their hit radio single Brick (with the “she’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly” lyrics), but I had somehow made it through the ’90s without ever hearing that song once.
My first exposure to Ben Folds Five was when I was a freshman in high school would overhear the cool older kids make references to their songs, but I never actually heard their music until four years later when I started working at my college’s student radio station, which makes sense, because Ben Folds Five were nothing if not darlings of college radio. At that point Ben Folds’ solo album had just came out, so I actually listened to that before any of the albums released by his previous band, Ben Folds Five (who were actually a trio).
And although I’ve been to a number of Ben Folds concerts, I much prefer his work in Ben Folds Five with Darren Jesse on drums and Robert Sledge on bass. Folds seems to thrive in collaborative efforts (see his EP done with Ben Kweller and Ben Lee as “The Bens,” or his work with William Shattner), and though he was undoubtedly the leader of the band, Jesse and Sledge brought more to the plate than is generally acknowledged.
Here’s a run-down of the band’s four full length releases (three LPs and a collection of rarities), charting their development through the ’90s.
Ben Folds Five (1995)
The band’s first, self-titled album is undoubtedly their most energetic. There’s a rawness to the recordings, due in part to relatively unsophisticated recording techniques, and to the chaos of a band made up entirely of percussion instruments.
The songs are mostly poppy and bright, often with Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse singing “Sha na na” or “do do do” back-up choruses. Even though Ben Folds is the lead singer on all the songs, Sledge and Jesse provide vocals on all but the last two songs as well, which means this is also the album where Ben Folds Five sounds the most like a band.
The songs themselves are a mixed bag in many senses. There are the requisite songs about relationships and self-reflection, but you can sense that the band is almost going out of their way to avoid clichés.
One of the two songs most blatantly about girls (both breakup songs), Julian is a nearly impressionistic portrait of furious denial, complete with a determinedly upbeat chorus and chaotic moments glass-breaking climax, and the other, The Last Polka, is an actual Polka. The sole ballad on the album is called Boxing and in fact a dialogue between two boxers.
This eclecticism has mixed results. On Underground, a theatrical half-parody, half-tribute to the indie/alt-rock scene featuring “hand me my nose ring!” as dramatic spoken word dialogue, it is charming.
On a few songs, it’s frankly annoying. Uncle Walter is supposed to be a skewering of a long-winded relative comes off as far too long-winded itself, and an embarrassing waste of Ben Folds Five’s considerable energy.
But for every clunker, there are two or three great songs to make up for it. “Where’s Summer B.?” is a perfect piece of low-fi pop and “Jackson Cannery” is a rollicking rocker. All told, this album is a tremendous debut for a band that seems to be nearly overflowing with creativity and vigor.
Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)
The band’s follow-up record starts off right where they left off, with quirky, lively songs, virtuoso piano melodies and poppy back-up vocals. This was Ben Folds Five break-out album, but the reason for that had more to do with what changed than what stayed the same. The first two songs sound like they could have easily come from the previous album, but the third song is Brick, an achingly beautiful and somber ballad that is a dramatic departure from the band’s previously rater flippant tone. It was also their only mainstream hit.
Though about half of the songs were typical Ben Folds Five, half of them were slow ballads without back-up vocals or the familiar bubbling energy. The result is a much more balanced album that actually feels more like an album than the loose collection of songs of their debut. Nearly every song on Whatever and Ever Amen is about someone leaving or being left. Even the joyous Kate! is about longing from afar. Many of the songs are toe-tappingly upbeat, but all of them are ultimately about being alone, although the beautiful melodies and clever lyrics will distract most listeners from noticing to this for quite a while.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)
This album was a more direct departure for the band – a loose concept album low on snark and heavy on horns, strings and introspection. It continues the themes of loneliness and isolation from Whatever and Ever in a more direction manner, telling the story of a man who could never stay in one place until he finds himself laid up in the hospital. That’s not much of a story, but Reinhold Messner doesn’t provide many narrative links to draw further conclusions from, relying instead on repeated musical and lyrical themes.
The first three songs are almost-operatic ballads, recalling the theatricality of Underground, but on a much more subdued, ponderous level. The narrator of Narcolepsy, the first song, begins with the lyrics “nothing hurts when I go to sleep,” and goes on to relate his constant falling asleep to psychological state that prevents him from connecting on an emotional level. This is followed by the beautiful Don’t Change Your Plans, which charts the affects of this emotional narcolepsy on the narrator’s relationships, and Mess, where he reflects on where it has gotten him.
The fourth song, Magic, was written and previously recorded as a solo track by Darren Jesse, who co-wrote many of the band’s best songs (Brick, Kate, Where’s Summer B.?, Song for the Dumped) with Folds. The song is about someone’s death, possibly Reinhold’s, and is the only Ben Folds Five song, other than covers, which Folds does not receive writing credit for.
After this comes the centerpiece of the album, a legitimate five-song suite that sees the band departing from the somber ballads of the rest of the album and embracing some more experimental and familiar ideas. The sparse Hospital Song provides a narrative anchor for the rest of the album, and the energetic Army is the album’s candy center, a throw-back to Ben Folds Five’s earlier albums that is lively, funny and the only thing off of this album to get any radio play. Your Redneck Past and Your Most Valuable Possession are strange, but appealing songs that highlight the band’s characteristic eccentricity at its peak, and Regrets ties the whole suite back together with a jazzy number featuring the best backup vocals by Sledge and Jesse on the album.
The final two songs on the album are two more wistful ballads, although they are more encouraging and optimistic than the ones that opened the album. A listener who came expecting typical Ben Folds Five would be rather confounded by this whole affair.
It’s rumored that the band considered releasing the center suite as an EP on its own, which may have been more of what fans were looking for, as it is the only part of the album where Ben Folds Five’s traditional, geeky quirks get to shine. The whole album is a tribute to their originality, however, and the album itself could be considered a giant quirk in and of itself.
Though creatively and critically successful, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was a commercial bomb. Perhaps unsure of where to go after this, the band split up the next year. Ben Folds went on to have a successful solo career, but he has yet to recapture the youthful enthusiasm and energy of Ben Folds Five.