Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: The Sound of the Life of the Mind

Ben Folds Five in Chicago

Ben Folds Five are twelve years older since their last tour, but the trio didn’t miss a beat on Sunday night at the Chicago Theater, filled to approximately 80 percent capacity (the band had just performed in Chicago last June).  Supporting their first album since 1999, the band leaned heavily on material from their first two albums, including several surprises that kept even the die-hard fans satisfied.

Occupying only half the stage, Ben Folds, Darren Jessee on drums, and Robert Sledge on bass, ripped through six songs from The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the most effect being “Erase Me” and “Draw a Crowd,” both of which fit in relatively well with the older material.  Folds admitted that they were in a sense rehearsing “Do it Anyway” for the next day’s performance on The Colbert Report, but despite this being the strongest song from the new album, it fell a bit flat live.

I tried prepping my three kids for the concert by playing songs I expected Ben Folds Five to play, but I couldn’t have foreseen “Missing the War,” “Selfless, Cold and Composed” and “Emaline,” and although the inclusion of these lesser known tracks might have made the show more difficult for the uninitiated, it was highly satisfying for long-time fans.  The most surprising inclusions were the Darren Jessee-penned “Magic,” a heartbreakingly beautiful song from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and “Landed,” the only song the band performed from Ben Folds’s solo era.

The distinctive backing vocals that defined the band’s sound in the 90s were tight and on key, so much so that I wondered if some auto-tuning might have been employed at the mixing board.  Either that, or Jessee and Seldge they’ve gotten stronger as singers over the last decade.  It was a pleasure watching Jessee go about his business without fanfare on his minimalist set, though his cymbals were too loud and shrill in the mix, and Sledge, a bit more stocky than back in the day, looked especially happy to be back on stage with the band, and it was hard for the audience not to feed on the good vibes.

When someone from the audience requested “Rock this Bitch,” Ben began an impromptu composition that addressed the request, guiding his bandmates by announcing the chord changes.

The crowd-pleasing “Army” finished the regular set before the band returned with “Best Imitation of Myself” and “Underground,” two of the best tracks from their first album, and “1 Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” ended the evening to a standing ovation. 

I am not a big fan of the new album, and I think the show highlighted how much stronger and more relatable their first two albums of material are than their second two.  Lyrically, little of the new album makes a lot of sense.  It’ll be interested to see if Ben revisits these songs with any regularity in the future either with the Five or as a solo artist, or if they’re relegated to a 2012 time capsule.

Ben Folds Five reunite: an album review

There’s no rule that says lyrics have to make sense, rhyme or be singable.  But it sure doesn’t hurt.  On the first Ben Folds Five album in thirteen years, Folds pursues the lyrical trend he telegraphed in a 2008 Time Magazine interview:

I always want to push the barrier a little bit with lyrics. In songs we're supposed to say, "Girl, uh huh, you done me wrong, you did." But you've got to break out of that.

Break out of that he did, first with Nick Hornby providing the lyrical content for 2010’s Lonely Avenue, and now in The Sound of the Life of the Mind.  Although it’s the first album since 2005’s Songs for Silverman that sounds like it was recorded by a live band, the lack of lyrical flow and hooks keeps the long-awaited reunion from being a more celebrated event. 

When I see Ben Folds perform this Sunday night in Chicago, will anyone in the audience sing along to “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”:

Good morning, mirror
Break the change to me
I tried to stay too close to see
That there's a pattern in the tiles
And a fool who marks the miles
It was long hair
And this time it was no hair

Poetic?  Debatable, I suppose, but not good lyric writing.  Even drummer Darren Jessee’s lyrical contribution to the album, “Sky High” has lines that are too complex for their own good.  This is rock and roll, after all. 

As for the music, by the time the last Ben Folds Five album was released in 1999, they’d already begun to abandon the sound of their first two releases: the slightly out-of-tune harmonies, the raw energy and edginess – these were smoothed out on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner in a more finely-produced collection, so much so that I thought it would be their break-through album, the radio-friendly release that finally finds mass appeal.  It didn’t, but the smoother production remains thirteen years later, making this collaboration sound more like another Ben Folds solo album than a reunion of an old band.  I suspect that live performances of these tracks will invite an edginess on stage that wasn’t captured in the studio.

All three musicians are highly skilled, and Ben Folds is still an insanely talented and smart guy, so the album has its moments.  The opening track, “Erase Me” offers tight Queen-like harmonies (and a line that Folds’s four ex-wives must find either amusing or infuriating: New bio, you’ve gone solo, drawing mustaches on our wedding photo), the distorted bass of Robert Sledge is great to hear again, and Sara without an H is back (on the title track penned by Nick Hornby), this time fleeing her pedestrian friends in favor of going to school to pursue knowledge and beauty.  Coming closest to the signature Ben Fold Five sound is “Draw a Crowd,” which offers one of the few hooks on the album:

Oh, if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall

The best tune on the album, “Do it anyway,” finally has a lyric that makes sense along with a tight rockabilly pattern reminiscent of the Old 97s. 

So tell me what I said I’d never do
Tell me what I said I’d never say
Read me off a list of the things I used to not like but now I think are OK

On “Away When You Were Here,” Folds sings about a father who died when the narrator was still a boy, and imagines what life would be like had he lived:

You’d have lost that weight
You’d have gone so straight
You’d have made my wedding day
You’d have saved my youth from that point of truth
You’d have kept those wolves at bay

It’s a well-executed lyric.  I wish there were more of these on the album.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved