Friday, June 26, 2009

June 26: Ben Folds Five, "Ben Folds Five"

Artist: Ben Folds Five
Album: Ben Folds Five
Year: 1995
Label: Passenger

One of the best things about the musical explosion of the early to mid 1990's was that it encouraged musicians to present their music in a raw, honest form. If you were the type to sing love ballads over electric ukulele, then chances are, there was a market for you. The era also gave rise to the slightly pretentious "indie rock" culture, which remains today virtually unchanged. Within this culture is where many of the "nerdy, yet somehow hip" groups emerged and flourished. High atop the most highly revered musicians of this group was a trio led by a thick-rimmed-glasses wearing piano player from South Carolina. Call them "indie rock," call them "nerd rock," call them whatever you please, yet there is no denying the sensational sound and style of the trio ironically known as Ben Folds Five. The group proper (as in, not Ben Folds' solo work) released four fantastic records before calling it quits in 2000, and their 1995 self titled debut still shines as their finest musical moment, and one of the best of the entire decade.

Everything about Ben Folds Five centers around the band doing things exactly how they wanted. From their choice in instrumentation, to keeping the entire recording process on a very small scale, to the fact that the songs on the album have no resemblance to traditional pop songs, it is also the reason they are such an amazing band. Simply put, the band doesn't care what you think about their music; THEY like it, and it seems to be all that matters. Taking as much influence from Elton John as he does from Nirvana, Ben Folds himself once described his music as, "punk rock for sissys." The music is perfectly constructed pop, yet the mood and lyrics have more attitude, anger, and angst than has ever been heard behind the piano. Perhaps this juxtaposition is no more clear than in Ben Folds Five's legendary anti-anthem, "Underground." The song is a celebration of geeks, freaks, and weirdos who latch to one another within music and art scenes, as the song perfectly illustrates the scene from both the inside and outside. "Underground" quickly became a hit and remains one of the groups' best known and most loved songs.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference in the rock style music performed by Ben Folds Five is the complete lack of guitar. Sticking to their formula of Ben Folds on piano, Robert Sledge on bass, and drummer Darren Jessee, the group very rarely brings in additional musicians or alters their sound. Yet there is nothing wrong with this approach; the group has their sound, they're damn good and doing it, and they're sticking to the formula. The music itself is undoubtedly pop at its core. Folds' piano riffs and compositions are absolutely beautiful and both fantastically played as well as exceptionally catchy. It is the manner in which the band molds their guitarless melodies that make Ben Folds Five so brilliant, as the songs are so good, the lack of the "standard" guitar goes almost completely unnoticed. Sledge (who played in a band with Sully Erna from Godsmack) is a monster on bass throughout the album, sounding like a total rock star, using heavy distortion from a classic "Big Muff" pedal. It is very much Sledge's sound that gives the band a large amount of their "edge." Bringing a heavy love and influence of the finest jazz drummers, Jessee's playing gives the band even greater depth, and his style and ability is heavily spotlighted throughout "The Last Polka." With each member of Ben Folds Five bringing a far different set of musical influences to the table, the resulting sound is truly pop bliss, yet like nothing else heard before.

Along with the superb music he writes, Ben Folds also possesses one of the most perfect pop voices. Whether belting out full volume or quietly singing with his piano, Folds' voice is never anything short of sensational. Sometimes bordering on whimsical, his voice is always filled with emotion and soul, and often times a fair amount of sarcasm or disdain. In many ways, it is the manner in which Ben Folds sings that makes him the ideal anti-pop star, and therefore the ultimate icon for the often pretentious "indie rock" fans. As great a singer as he is, Folds may be an even better songwriter. The lyrics found on Ben Folds Five are some of the most blunt, yet astute observations on people and culture of his generation. Aside from the legendary lyrics of the aforementioned "Underground," Folds presents stunning explorations into human nature, with songs like "Boxing" and "The Last Polka." He also turns the pen on himself with equally brilliant pairing of songs "Philosophy" and "Julianne." Truly, nobody is safe from the pen of Ben Folds, as he puts his unique spin on countless parts of society, yet even when he is cutting you down, the songs remain just as enjoyable and addictive. With his brilliant singing, insightful and forgiving lyrics, Ben Folds represents the paramount of "hip" in a scene where "hip" is the most highly sought commodity.

Attempting to perform pop songs with piano as the lead instrument is no new idea. However, the manner in which Ben Folds plays and performs is like nothing else before him. Tossing traditional notions of how pop music and "piano rock" is supposed to sound, Ben Folds Five stayed true to their own sound and ideals and became music legends in the process. No guitars, irresistibly catchy songs, and with just enough pretentiousness to keep their "indie rock street cred," the band remains the very definition of the word "hip." The crunching, fuzzy bass, bouncing drums, all capped by the stellar piano playing and singing of Ben Folds make the music of the band enjoyable by all, yet still as edgy as anything with ten times the volume. Though Ben Folds has released a number of excellent albums since the trio broke up, one can easily make the case that his best work was done within the confines of Ben Folds Five. Each of their four records are well worth owning, but inching above the others for superiority is their phenomenal 1995 debut record, Ben Folds Five.

Standout tracks: "Julianne," "Underground," and "Uncle Walter."

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