(Imaveepee Records/Sony Music)
If it were possible for Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi and
Power Pop progenitor Todd Rundgren to create a love child, his
name would be Ben Folds!
Back in the mid 90s, Ben Folds stood out in an era of
flannel, piercings and greasy hair. Pianist Ben Folds partnered
with drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge, forming
their trio, Ben Folds Five, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Grunge had exploded in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death.
Bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins ruled
the air waves. In the midst of this sludgey and dour gloom, Ben Folds
Five was a breath of fresh air. The band pioneered an intriguing new sound.
A guitar-less trio, Ben Folds Five focused on Folds’ virtuoso piano skills,
snappy, taut melodies and lyrics that pivoted between sarcastic and poignant.
The band’s eponymous debut came out in 1995, but it was their
sophomore effort, 1997’s Whatever & Ever Amen that brought them
critical and commercial success.
Perhaps it was a case of “too much too soon,” because following
their third effort, The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner,
the band called it quits in 2000.
Ben Folds soldiered on as a solo act while Darren Jessee
and Robert Sledge also continued in music but with diminished results.
In late 2011 the trio reunited and the result is their new effort,
The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind.
The album opens with the bang of “Erase Me,”
which is equal parts menacing and plaintive. An ambitious slightly
cacophonous melody , the instrumentation clangs and careens like
malevolent circus music. The lyrics, which detail the dissolution of
a marriage veer from sad betrayal: ..”Would it just be easier to delete
the pages and plans we made?” To incredulity and devastation:
“Erase me, what the fuck is this, you’re crazy/ Turn around in two weeks
and replace me, treat me like a ‘Bro and tase me…”
Ben Folds’ lithe piano runs and droll lyrics take center stage
for most of the record, but on “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,”
and “Do It Anyway,” Folds and Robert Sledge share the spotlight
The former locks into a sweet early 70s groove. The lyrics
make plain that this song is the antithesis of “Fire & Rain.” Instead
of mourning the loss of a fragile friend, Folds is tormented every few
years by his childhood bully!
While most bassists would be content just keeping time,
Robert Sledge takes a page from Jazz bassists like Jaco Pastorious and
Stanley Clarke by playing the melody. Here his sinewy riffs weave in
and out of Folds’ cascading piano fills.
On the latter, the snarky self-help lyrics take a back seat
to Folds’ barrelhouse piano rolls and Sledge’s commanding bass lines.
One of Folds’ gifts as a writer is his ability to create vivid
character vignettes in his songs. The best tracks on The Sound Of
The Life Of The Mind drop the listener into a series of richly detailed
An achingly beautiful melody underscores “On Being
Frank.” It is the sad tale of a celebrity hanger-on: “I had it all, or
should I say I saw it all.” As the valet to Ol’ Blue Eyes, the narrator
has lived the life of luxury once removed.
“Away When You Were Here” is sort of a reverse “Cat’s
In The Cradle.” Here the spectral presence of a deceased father
looms large. Folds reaches an epiphany when he realizes “You
could age with grace, if I freed you in my mind.”
Only Ben Folds could begin a song with the couplet,
“She broke down and cried at the strip mall acupuncturist,
while the world went on outside.”
That introduction sets the scene on “Hold That Thought.”
Here he sketches out lives of quiet desperation. The buoyant
melody belies the wistful words. Folds’ piano solo is lovely
but economical, echoing the Vince Guaraldi song, “Skating,” and
Todd Rundgren’s eternally optimistic “We Gotta Get You A Woman.”
Other highlights include the breakneck title track ,
a tale of triumph that unspools like an “Afterschool Special.”
On “Sky High” Folds drops the smart-ass façade to wallow in
this beatific ballad of heartbreak.
Folds is at his most self-deprecating on
“Draw A Crowd” when he confesses, “I Only wanted to be
Stevie Wonder, but I had to settle for this vanilla thunder.”
The closing track, “Thank You For Breaking My
Heart” strips away Folds’ trademark irony. Accompanying
himself on piano, Folds is rueful and heartbroken but
wiser for the experience. The melody is lush but elegant
with pirouettes and filigrees . This is what it might sound
like if Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson ever collaborated.
In a pop music landscape littered with Justin Bieber
and Carly Rae Jepson, Ben Folds Five seem as weird now as
they did in 1995. Thank God! It’s great to have them back.
(Imaveepee Records/Sony Music)