Probably the first thing you'll notice about Ben Folds Five is they're a trio not a quintet. However, before you can puzzle about this too much you'll then notice the band are a very odd configuration of instruments for a pop trio. Instead of the usual guitar, bass, and drums you'd expect to find they are drums (Darren Jessee) piano (Ben Folds) and bass (Robert Sledge). While you find plenty of jazz combos along those lines, I can't honestly think of any pop trios who don't rely on guitar. So even before you listen to a single note you know you're going to be in for something different.
Now I'm sure none of this is news to a lot of you out there as Ben Folds Five first started recording and producing music in the mid-1990s. However I wasn't really paying attention to pop music in the '90s and missed out on their first go round. It wasn't until last year Folds even came to my attention. He was part of an experiment with author Neil Gaiman, Damian Kulash, of the group OK Go, and vocalist Amanda Palmer. 8IN8 was an attempt by the four of them to write, record, and produce eight songs in eight hours during a live internet broadcast. While it ended up taking them 12 hours to produce six songs, the resulting album, Nighty Night, was really quite good. I was very impressed with what I had heard of Folds on this recording, and made a mental note to check out more of his music in the future.
Well the future is now, as Ben Folds Five has released their first studio recording since they broke up in 2000. Unlike in the past where they were signed to a label, The Sound of the Life of the Mind (TSOTLOTM) is not only self-produced, they also raised all the money for its production by utilizing the crowd funding site Pledge Music. Pledge Music not only assists artists in raising money for a vast variety of projects from touring to special editions of recordings, a percentage of the money raised is directed to a charity of the artist's choice. For Ben Folds Five, that meant raising money and awareness to promote the fields of music education and music therapy.
As for the recording itself, it confirmed my initial impression that one should always expect the unexpected from this band. We all have our own prejudices and when I think of pop music where the piano is lead instrument my expectations have been shaped by what I've heard previously. So I thought this would be an album of finely crafted melodic tunes with the occasional ballad thrown in for good measure. So the opening track, "Erase Me", took me completely by surprise. It opens with Folds pounding out chords on the piano accompanied by Sledge playing heavily distorted power chords on bass. The opening bars end suddenly and are replaced by quiet notes picked out on the piano with gentle accompaniment from bass and drums as Folds begins to sing.