BEN FOLDS FIVE: BEN FOLDS FIVE (1995)
1) Jackson Cannery; 2) Philosophy; 3) Julianne; 4) Where's Summer B.; 5) Alice Childress; 6) Underground; 7) Sports & Wine; 8) Uncle Walter; 9) Best Imitation Of Myself; 10) Video; 11) The Last Polka; 12) Boxing.
It is usually said about Ben Folds that, during the young innocent days of his North Carolina childhood, he was teaching himself the piano by learning Elton John and Billy Joel songs. Fast forward approximately twenty years into the future, and although the man himself bears a rather uncanny facial resemblance to a young Elton John, his musical style certainly veers closer to Billy Joel: think either of a subconscious patriotic tug, or maybe of Ben being a light, playful kind of guy, not particularly hungry for Elton's sweeping old school ambitions.
However, «closer» by no means signifies «identical». The first album by Ben Folds Five was released in 1995, the middle of the «smart/ass/ decade» where emulating the relative intellectual simplicity of Billy Joel, no matter how much you liked him in the first place, would neither be a promising commercial move, nor a respectable artistic decision. Besides, Ben's interests and preferences did extend to genres other than early 1970s piano pop — these songs show an equally strong influence of Sixties' pop, garage rock, and psychedelia, and it is no total coincidence that the album came out in the same year as the debut of The Apples In Stereo: both reflect the same demand for intelligent retro-pop with a modernistic update that seemed to emerge at the time as a healthy underground antidote to... well, whatever it was that irked and annoyed you about music in the early Nineties, I guess, be it Michael Jackson, Nirvana, or Mariah Carey.
«Ben Folds Five» is actually a trio (with Darren Jessee on drums and Robert Sledge on bass), although if you throw in the guest musicians (Ted Ehrhard on violin, Chris Eubank on cello), you can technically squeeze out a «five» all right, but the real reason is, Ben simply thought that «Folds Five» sounded more harmoniously than «Folds Three». Besides, when you fold, you do usually fold five, unless you're playing three card poker, but that's beyond the point. And the point is, there is no guitar whatsoever on the album — just piano, bass, and drums, with some extra strings every now and then. This does not mean, however, that Ben Folds Five know not how to rock out — Sledge's distorted roaring bass, Jessee's maniacal pummeling, and Ben's aggressive punching of the keys occasionally come together in garagey barrages of rock noise that were quite unthinkable in the days of early Elton John, when he, too, still favored the piano/bass/drums «power trio» format, with optional orchestration.
Ben's individual talents, pulled out one by one and stretched out for all to see, are hardly jaw-dropping. As a piano player, he seems to be about as good as a self-taught hard-worker gets; as a singer, he's competent in mid-range but frequently gets off-key when climbing higher, with an irritating indie knack of despising perfectionism; as a composer, he knows how to craft hooks but just as frequently leaves them frustratingly undercooked; as a lyricist, he is astute and always finds a way to get his ideas through, but not always a properly impressive literary way with words to express these ideas. But throw in a little bit of everything, and it is not difficult to understand how the man quickly got himself a reliable fanbase.
Actually, my biggest beef with the record is none of that, but rather the fact that the piano / bass / drums formula gets routine and predictable rather quickly. The piano melodies, regardless of whether they come from a music hall, torch ballad, or garage-rock mindset, do not have too great a range, and, anyway, the piano is really only there for Ben to provide a general backing for the voice — he does not solo all that much, and quite a few of the songs are introduced with accapella singing, which immediately takes your attention off the instruments, or simply bury the piano under a vicious rhythm section onslaught altogether. In the end, while this is formally «piano pop», I did not get the impression of a love connection between Ben and his instrument — not something you could accuse either Elton or Billy of, regardless of your feelings for them.
But despite this, it is hard to dislike the album once you've gotten the hang of it. First, when the trio is on, they're on: the fast-flowing pop hooks of such songs as ʽJulianneʼ, ʽSports & Wineʼ, ʽUndergroundʼ are unbeatable, not to mention the intelligence. ʽUndergroundʼ has always been singled out in particular, with its derision of subcultures and stereotypes — "who's got the looks? who's got the brains? who's got everything? I've got this pain in my heart, that's all" is one of the simplest and truest send-ups of the «indie mentality» in the history of indie rock, adequately set to a completely «traditionalist», un-gimmicky melody. But a sucker for a sweet catchy chorus like me will probably put ʽJulianneʼ with its funny, catchy falsetto over its upbeat, fast tempo ahead of socially relevant thematics.
One thing Ben will try to seduce you with is his honesty-simplicity value complex. He bares it all already on the second track, called ʽPhilosophyʼ: "I see that there is evil / And I know that there is good / And the inbetweens I never understood / Won't you look at me, I'm crazy / But I get the job done". (Then, as if to prove that he does get the job done, he throws in a textbook Gershwin quotation in the outro). Although this is just an extract ripped from a denser, more ambiguous and allegorical context, this feeling of being relatively uncluttered by excessive, trumped-up complexity of feel and thought permeates the album — the songs are all either about personal relations with girls, friends, and the rest of the world, or little character portraits well in the old Brit-pop vein (ʽUncle Walterʼ; ʽBoxingʼ, a ballad written from the perspective of an aging Muhammad Ali that forms a surprisingly touching conclusion to the record). They are all coherent, ensuring that the album is more than just a sum of its parts, and make it easier to overlook particular problems with «undercooking» of the melodies or occasional bum notes that Ben refuses to correct.
Anyway, the album does strive for a philosophy, and every time a new artist like that arrives, the correct question to ask is, «is this guy for real? should he be taken seriously?». And, well, it is difficult for me to imagine Ben Folds tugging at anybody's heart strings with the skill of a Ray Davies, or blowing anybody's mind with the weapon arsenal of a Todd Rundgren, but at least he is definitely for real, and making the best, and most graciously coordinated, use of all his talents that an «average smart Joe from North Carolina» could ever make. Quite a natural-coming thumbs up here — and, on a technical trivia note, this is probably the best ever pop debut album to be released at the not-so-tender age of twenty-nine. In a different age, the artist would only have room for one more before he'd be written off as irrelevant — that's one social disease that the Nineties, and the aging of rock music in general, have cured us from.
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