A Buyers Guide to Ben Folds

Habitual piano botherer Ben Folds is one of those artists in rock and roll whose reputation far exceeds their sales. Both as a solo artist or leading his misnamed Five, he has been much admired, having been regularly being sought out for collaborations, contributions to soundtracks and generally being considered a musician’s musician and a songwriter’s songwriter. While he’s never been a huge selling artiste, his albums have sold steadily over the decades and his fanbase remains ever active and enthusiastic for new material.

Due to the piano being the primary instrument of his act rather than guitars, Folds’ detractors tend to focus on this as evidence of his lack of rock and roll credentials. This is rather unfair, especially when you take a moment to scan his mature and relatively worldly lyrics. Ben Folds is no lightweight and disposable artist, two decades of modest but consistent success are proof enough of that. In truth Folds perhaps has a tendency to grate his unbelievers due to his too-clever-by-half approach to songwriting and rock and roll in general.

It was perhaps this too-clever-by half-approach that led Folds and his band mates Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums), to name their trio Ben Folds Five (such a deliberate attempt to mislead people no doubt filling the more slow-thinking rock fan with ire). The trio’s self-titled debut was similarly smart, with Folds’ songwriting already considerably better matured than many of his contemporaries and he was already establishing himself as one of the finest rock’n’roll piano players of the decade. Pop fluff this was not. Sure they had the pretty piano features, they had the singalong backing vocals and killer choruses, but they also had rocking arrangements. Has there ever been a song that simultaneously celebrates and de-constructs outsider status as well as “Underground?”. Yes it’s an obvious song, but if it was so obvious, how come no one had done something like that before?

If you can get your head around the fact that Ben Folds Five didn’t have a guitar player, there are rocking moments to be had here, most notably with “Julianne”, “Uncle Walter”, the previously mentioned “Underground” and “Jackson Cannery”.

If I do have a criticism of this album it’s that it is perhaps less focused than the band’s best work and perhaps suffers a little from its potential not being fully realised, that said this is a debut and it was certainly better than the majority of maudlin rubbish that America was producing at the time.

After the modest success of their debut, Ben Folds Five signed to Sony and presented to the public one of the finest albums of the 90s. One of the great relationship albums, Whatever and Ever Amen is also very much a rock album, albeit one where the piano takes primary position where a guitar would traditionally be. It simmers with knowing, witty, yet self-deprecating, emotional frustration, from the opening “One Angry Dwarf  (and 200 Solemn Faces)” and “Fair”, through to the devastatingly fragile “Brick”, it is studded with masterpieces. “Song for the Dumped” is a personal favourite of mine and a brilliantly funny dissection of the angry impotence that so many men feel when a relationship ends in a bad way, yet it’s tempered by more reflective material like “Selfless, Cold and Composed” and “Smoke”. Add to this pop-gems such as “Kate” and “Stephen’s Last Night in Town” and Whatever and Ever Amen is a fully-rounded, sharply-observed album and is generally regarded as the band’s masterpiece, and is still regarded as the high-water mark of Fold’s career.

Whatever and Ever Amen was the album where Ben Folds Five received a degree of wider recognition, to the point where their previous label opted to release the Naked Baby Photos odds and sods collection. While fans of the band were grateful that more material was being made available, it didn’t hang together as an album particularly well, but then again, it was unlikely that it was ever intended to.

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner tries a little too hard to be mature and seems to just takes itself a little too seriously. Whatever and Ever Amen had been a reasonable success and it’s evident that the band’s record label were determined to not only match, but also exceed that success and they did it in the only way that big record labels know how. They threw money at it.

Much of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is orchestrated at the expense of some of the rock’n’roll elements that were so obvious in the band’s previous two albums. This is a bit of a shame as lyrically there are some fine songs here that would have benefited from a much sparser arrangement.

Two songs that leap out of the middle of the album are “Army” and “Your Redneck Past” in that they are by far the poppiest and most accessible numbers on the whole album, but as the rest of the album is an album where your appreciation of it creeps up on you slowly over a period of time. I have to admit, when I first heard The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner I was a little confused by it, as I was expecting more in the way of playful elements, but in recent years I’ve really come to appreciate it for being the band’s most sophisticated release up to that point in their career.

Having released a trio of enjoyable albums and an odds and sods collection, the band still seemed in the ascendency in terms of critical and commercial success, so when it was announced that they split amicably in 2000, it was something of a surprise. Folds himself threw himself into a one man and a piano tour double header tour with the similarly solo Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy and when he returned with the polished and accessible Rockin’ the Suburbs, the first fruit of his solo career that compared favourably to the material he previously recorded with his band. If anything the music is slightly poppier buy occasionally downbeat, with many of the songs dealing with frustration, rejection and loss. The album also has a much more glossy production when compared to his previous work, though this was not detrimental to the material in any way. Indeed, having just come out of the band format, Folds went for broke and played the majority of the instruments on the album himself, even deciding to add guitar to a few of the tracks. The most guitar heavy tune is the title track, which lampoons the then burgeoning nu-metal scene in much the same that “Underground” had parodied the alt-rock scene in the mid 90s. It’s a wry little song and it’s good humoured observations are spot on, but it’s aggressive nu-metal stylings puts it totally at odds with anything else on the album.

Rockin’ The Suburbs proved that Folds could still cut it without his Five, indeed it gave some indications that the was comfortably moving on and was gearing up to become a solo artist of considerable standing.

It was still a surprise though that his second solo album should be live. Granted, it’s solo in the purest sense, with only an extra vocalist joining him on one track which results in much more stripped-down versions of the songs performed which in turn gives the whole album a particularly sparse feel. This is not always a bad thing, but sometimes you just wish some of the songs could boast the wallop that the studio originals did.

Featured throughout Ben Folds Live (can you see what he did there!) are songs that Folds has never released on a studio album and there’s even a credible attempt at Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”, but the real backbone of the album consists of the material from the three Ben Folds Five albums and his solo debut.

Quite why Ben Folds saw fit to return to a three piece band format after his solo debut was successfully recorded almost totally alone is anyone’s guess. Though his second solo studio effort, Songs For Silverman is not a return to his Ben Folds Five sound though, it is a progression from his solo debut.

With Rockin’ the Suburbs there was a sense that Folds was stretching his legs creatively and allowing himself to take a few risks that maybe he didn’t feel comfortable with in a band format. Songs For Silverman admittedly lacks this sense of fun and excitement at the expense of him playing it relatively straight-laced. That’s not to say it’s a bad album, but when I first heard it, I felt as if Folds is treading water and returning to the structured and layered arrangements that he was favouring at the time of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, combining it with the downbeat lyrical nature of Rockin’ The Suburbs but somehow missing the energy and fun that that album boasted.

Although initially disappointed with Songs For Silverman, it eventually revealed itself to be another album where you had to live with it for a few years before it started revealing just how good it was. Lyrically Folds was as strong as ever, and the arrangements are among the prettiest he’s ever written. There are some uplifting moments such as the piano throughout “Jesusland” and there are times that the album can lead to feelings of sincere loss and regret such as “Landed”. Best of all though is “Time”, one of the greatest ‘relationship’ songs that Folds has ever written and one of my personal favourites.

Songs For Silverman has moments of genius, moments where this can be no one else other than Ben Folds, but it also has moments that just fall short of the mark in terms of impact because it is such a slow-burning album.

If Songs For Silverman was the sound of Ben Folds at his most mature and worldly, then Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP was an album that reminded us that he wasn’t beyond just having fun in the studio. Effectively a compilation of EP tracks and other material that hadn’t found a home on either of his solo albums so far, Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP enjoys a liberal helping of cover versions, kicking off in style with a rollicking reading of The Cure’s “Inbetween Days”, a smart reworking of The Divine Comedy’s “Songs of Love” and a less salubrious one in the form of The Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman”, which unlike the other two previously mentioned tracks does genuinely start to grate after a while (but then it would do wouldn’t it?).

The real meat here though is Folds’ own compositions, “All U Can Eat” and “Learn To Live With What You Are” show that Folds’ muse was very much still intact. With “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You”, Folds’ had created one of the best songs in his repertoire since the heady days of Whatever and Ever Amen. Most people will buy Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP for Folds’ notorious cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” though. Sure, it’s a novelty track, but it’s an oddly beautiful and perfectly executed one.

Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP’s upbeat feel was maintained on Folds’ next full studio album, Way to Normal, which from the self-consciously zany front artwork alone, you can tell Folds is in a playful mood. Way to Normal kicks off with the rousing “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hits His Head)”, possibly the only song in my audio library about head-trauma and the great songs just keep coming. The first seven tracks demonstrate Folds’ range, as it ricochets between smart duets with Regina Spektor, odes to runaway canines and even the morose and reflective “Cologne”, which indicates that Folds can write a tear-jerking tune without having to resort to mawkish sentimentality.

This golden streak is ended abruptly by “Free Coffee”, which is mis-judged just when you thought that Folds may have just recorded one of the most consistent albums of his career. From this point onwards it seems Folds’ quality control goes for a wander. There are a couple of strong tracks though, with “Brainwascht” being a highlight, though programming the spoken intro to the blunt “Bitch Went Nuts”, as part of the preceding track achieves little beyond annoying those who use the ‘shuffle’ functions on their iPod too regularly.

Folds’ next move would be an intriguing collaboration with novelist Nick Hornby, which resulted in the album Lonely Avenue. With Hornby as lyricist, it was an interesting experiment, though truth be told, you probably wouldn’t have realised it wasn’t Folds lyrics if you hadn’t been told. While it’s a perfectly good album, it’s not one that has ever grabbed me as one of Ben Folds vital releases, though “From Above” was something of a career highlight for him.

Having reformed for a few one off performances and short tours, it seemed inevitable that Ben Folds Five would reform on a more permanent basis. They marked their return with The Sound of the Life of the Mind, a clumsy album title, but a fine return for the band. From the opening “Erase Me”, a relationship based strop of a song in the grand tradition of “Song for the Dumped” and “The Bitch Went Nuts”, this is Folds playing to his (and his band’s) strengths. Okay, maybe the sound has softened over the years, but this as potent an album as Folds had released in years.

The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a particularly consistent album by Folds’ recent standards and that alone is reason for celebration. Add to this the best album artwork of his career (or maybe it’s just my fondness for retro-robot designs), a whole poster of thank you credits and strong songs like the previously mentioned “Erase Me”, “Draw a Crowd” and “Do It Anyway”, this may be one of the best albums of Fold’s career.

I have to admit, like many people I really wasn’t sure if reforming Ben Folds Five was a backward step for Folds and his bandmates, especially given my traditional dislike for bands that reform after their initial split, but on the strength of this album I hope that this reunion is not a one off and that they continue to make albums as great as this for years to come.

Throughout his career Ben Folds (with and without his Five) has been a great live act, enjoying a rare connection with his audience. Indeed, the last time I saw him play the O2 Academy Sheffield, he played a twenty minute solo set by way of an apology for there being some unavoidable technical difficulties that meant that the piano had had to be replaced a third of the way through the gig. There’s not many artists would have done that.

Over the years he’s been involved in some interesting side-projects, be it the Fear of Pop project, or Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!. Perhaps most fascinating was the fact that he played a key role in William Shatner’s 2004 ‘come back’ album Has Been, an album which could have been a disaster, but thanks to Folds musical guidance was something of an unexpected success.

Despite being an unrepentant Ben Folds fan, I have to admit that over the years his albums have been a little uneven. That said, I know that regardless of this, on each of his albums there will be at least three songs that I will have a genuine emotional connection with. That’s why I will continue to buy his albums as and when they are released and that is why am, and probably always will be, a fan of his work. Sure, not all his albums will be great, but I’ve discovered that patience with his work does really pay off. Sure, there’s the career-spanning best of out there, but for me, as well as many others, Ben Folds is a musicians whose material you want to lose yourself in and discover the hidden gems, and the only way to do that is through his full albums.

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