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.
While the subject of the song is nothing unusual for pop music, the dissolution of a relationship, Fold’s use of an extended metaphor to open the song took me by surprise.”What was our home?/Paper not stone/A lean-to at most/And when you fall you’re half away/Gravity won like it always does/Did I weigh a ton?” It might start off delicately and introspective, the opening verse takes a sharp turn after Fold’s has his protagonist pondering his role in the breakup. All of a sudden it morphs into something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an old Queen album as we’re back to the big power chords from the piano and bass and a pounding drum. This, to the accompaniment of Fold’s voice starting to increase in power and climb the scale until he crescendos with “erase me” for the final two times. “Would it be easier to just delete our pages and the plans we made?/Erase me, so you don’t have to face me/Put me in the ground and mound the daisies/Ah, the memory, see how it goes when you/Erase me, erase me”.
During the course of the song, the musical intensity switches a couple of times, matching the feelings being expressed by the lyrics. As we delve deeper into the facts behind the breakup and the relationship, the music and the lyrics become angrier and angrier, with only the occasional respite. Within the context of the song, the anger makes sense as the person reacts to being completely obliterated from their ex partner’s life. The switch from questioning as to why the relationship ended, to anger at feeling discarded and forgotten might seem abrupt. However if you’ve ever gone through the breakup of a long term relationship, the sudden change in emotional intensity makes sense.
Normally I’m not that fond of people singing in the higher registers, as they often start to become too shrill for my ear. However, Fold’s vocal control allows him to express heightened emotion like anger, climb the scale and increase his volume without becoming shrill. This disc is a veritable clinic in vocal technique. No matter how raw or emotional he gets, he never sounds forced or affected. Yet at the same time, he’s probably more emotionally honest than most contemporary male vocalists. Musically, the band is equally skilled. The instrumentation in this song, and the rest of the disc, provides the perfect context for what is being said by the lyrics. Of course not all of the songs are as emotionally difficult as “Erase Me”. In fact, the band shows they know how to have fun as much as anybody with “Do It Anyway”.
This is a fast-paced tune with wonderful jazz/honky tonk piano about taking chances. “If you’re paralyzed by a voice in your head/It’s the standing still that should be scaring you instead/Go on and do it anyway/Do it anyway.” While on the surface the subject matter might not seem to be that lighthearted, the band manages to prevent the tone from becoming too heavy by doing things like delivering the key line of “Do it anyway” in a flat monotone. Then there’s the video they’ve made to accompany the song. This was the song they chose when they were approached by The Jim Henson Company, via the Nerdist Channel, to come up with something to use for a video commemorating the 30th anniversary of Fraggle Rock.
As you can see by the video, while the message in the song is not one to be taken lightly, the band doesn’t take itself too seriously. Which is another thing to like about Ben Folds Five. They aren’t your typical rock and roll band. Just look at any picture of the three guys in the band and you’re more likely to think they work in Silicon Valley than play in a band. Remember, it was the Nerdist Channel that approached them for a video. Well, they may look like nerds but they play as hot (or hotter) than bands who look the image of rock stars. Those of you who liked Ben Folds Five the first time around aren’t going to be disappointed by what you hear on TSOTLOTM. Those, like me, who are hearing them for the first time are in for a real treat. Ben Folds Five prove once and for all, being cool is a state of mind and has nothing to do with the you way you look. They play some of the coolest music this side of jazz you’ll hear from anyone.