Ben Folds Five
The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

(ImaVeePee Records/Sony)

I bet nobody was more surprised than I was when, totally by chance, I happened to read that US trio Ben Folds Five had reformed. And not only that, they already had an album in the can, plus the obvious world tour ready to roll. I have to admit that, to me, the news appeared as being not entirely in line with the travelogue of Ben Folds, solo artist, in the course of the previous decade, his much-lauded collaboration with UK writer Nick Hornby on the album titled Lonely Avenue being maybe the highest peak of his discography - and a new starting point. OK, maybe I'm wearing rose-tinted glasses here, the truth being that - though it has been lauded for its formal elegance and great variety, not to mention its high level of musicianship - Lonely Avenue was not a big seller. Plus, there are those who argue that Folds's recorded output after the disappearance of the trio amounts to little more than a footnote, and so clamor for the group's reformation - only to be able to declare the new work to follow as a travesty of the group's original spirit? Since the ink was still wet on Ben Folds's contract with Nonesuch, I rooted for chapter two of the Hornby collaboration.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I can't see those qualities - quite intelligent, and highly communicative at the same time - that made Ben Folds Five such a lively anachronism in the US panorama of the 90s. Those three albums originally recorded by the trio - Ben Folds Five (1995); the platinum Whatever And Ever Amen (1997), featuring their smash single, Brick; and their thoughtful swan song, The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner (1999) - don't sound any less fresh and lively to me. And let's not forget that this was a group that was not only a product of the studio environment, their solid musicianship coupled with verve being one of their most prized assets on stage.

But it would be absurd to negate the fact that in his solo work Ben Folds greatly widened his horizons, as it's easy to see on albums such as Rockin' The Suburbs (2001), Songs For Silverman (2005), Way To Normal (2008), and the above-mentioned Lonely Avenue (2010), a fine summary being the triple CD titled The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective (2011), which presented side-by-side the hits, rarities, demos, and live tracks, by Folds and the trio.

Listening to the triple CD it's quite apparent how Folds has grown when it comes to both his confidence on the instrumental side (an obvious outcome of his having to perform long sets on the piano without the backing of a rhythm section) and his palette when it comes to his composing outside the confines (the cage?) of the trio. Let's think about this for a moment: compare how free a soloist/composer really is when it comes to choosing the best instrumentation/combination of players that will make a work shine, when compared to a member of a group that, by necessity, will have to search within those qualities available in the group, with the obvious outcome of having to discard those compositions that won't be served for the best by the group's abilities.

And being a group, Ben Folds Five had a sound, with Darren Jessee's versatile drums and Robert Sledge's often distorted bass, and their fine background vocals, to mesh with the leader's piano and vocals. One can easily compare the trio groove as presented on the DVD-V titled The Complete Sessions At West 54th, filmed after the group had released their second album and had started recording their third, and the Live At My Space DVD-V, where Folds is backed by a rhythm section comprising drummer Lindsay Jamieson and bassist Jared Reynolds. And let's not forget the larger instrumentation which is featured on Lonely Avenue, which can be experienced on those live tracks recorded in 2011 which appear in the above-mentioned triple Best Of.

It has to be said that Ben Folds Five had already reformed, although for a "special occasion, one night only" event: in September, 2008 the trio participated in the MySpace series called Front To Back, playing their album The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner in its entirety. But I have to confess that the importance of those three unreleased tracks, freshly recorded by the group, that appeared on The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective had totally escaped me, since I considered those tracks as an "additional incentive" to motivate their fans. With the only exception of the track penned by Folds, there was nothing memorable, with the Sledge-penned Tell Me What I Did being not much more than divertissement, and the Jessee-composed Stumblin' Home Winter Blues being a pleasant, light track one listened to. Closing the first CD, House by Folds was a highly dramatic page, the synthesizer mirroring the orchestral clothes Paul Buckmaster had so appropriately chosen for Lonely Avenue.

And here we are. Having decided to reform, the trio asked for fans donations through PledgeMusic (the names of those who contributed appear as "Vice Presidents Of Promotion" in a booklet featured with the CD). Appearing on a personal label distributed by Sony, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind was released on September, 18. And while trying to decipher the lyrics - which are not included in the booklet! - I had a look at those US reviews I happened to find online. Well, "enthusiasm" is definitely not a word I'd choose to describe the reviewers' feelings. As it was to be expected, the joy of having the group back is tempered by being let down by a work that nobody could describe as being "memorable". Me, I think that the fact of having to send a text with a deadline linked to the CD release date made for an undervaluation of this album, which is not at all "difficult" but which - in so similar to Steely Dan's Gaucho (which it doesn't resemble at all, by the way) - is definitely a "grower". And I really believe that a certain rush contributed to some colleagues mistaking horses for courses when it comes to the album lyrics (how can a narrator be seen as talking to his sweetheart when the song's first word is "Dad"?). AS it was to be expected, it's been argued that the album suffers from "an excess of maturity".

Produced by Joe Pisapia and Ben Folds, recorded and mixed by skilled engineer Joe Costa, recorded (using analogue gear, I think, recorded sound here being excellent anyway) at Folds's studio and at House Of Blues Studios, both located in Nashville, (very well) mastered by Stephen Marcussen at Marcussen Mastering, Hollywood, California. There's also a vinyl edition (which I've never seen, nor listened to). Funny thing, the ten tracks featured on the album appear to work best when split on the two sides of an LP, the first couple of tracks on each side taking the listener back to the Ben Folds Five of old, horizons becoming wider with the tracks that follow.

Anticipating my conclusion, I'll say that the trio has successfully brought its distinctive formula back, never pretending time has not passed. Folds appears to have chosen those compositions best suited to the group's distinctive abilities (with a string quartet appearing on two tracks). The final result never sounds stale, and surprises abound.

Erase Me is tense and fragmented, the changing sonic palette mirroring the song's moods. Lotsa vocals, sometimes quite scary-sounding, and a finale that's very agile (with a "bad" splice, which is obviously intentional).

Michael Prytor, Five Years Later immediately brings us back to the vocal moods of The Beach Boys. The electric bass turns the mood towards The Beatles, and more in general to a "muscular" side of the British Invasion, halfway between The Small Faces and The Kinks (funny thing, a piano with a short echo reminded be of Nicky Hopkins's intro to the celebrated Kinks track called Death Of A Clown).

The only track here composed by Darren Jessee, Sky High has "heavenly voices" that reminded me of I'm Not In Love by 10cc. It's a fine, succinct, ballad, with a very musical sounding snare, and a double bass played arco.

The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind features a lyric by Nick Hornby. It has a quite courageous theme, given the times (it's a celebration of a girl who studies). Very fine chorus, a fine "call and response" from the vocals, and an excellent bridge where the bass impersonates a cello.

The start of On Being Frank is bound to surprise the listener, reminding one of Frank Sinatra, as per the story narrated here by his (fictional) tour manager. Strings arranged by Paul Buckmaster, and a vocal performance by Ben Folds which reminded me quite a bit of Scott Walker in his orchestral, classic period.

Let's listen to side two now.

Draw A Crowd is a rock/funky song that's quite typical for the trio. Maybe the album's weakest moment, compositionally, it will make sparks flying onstage - it's a perfect encore.

The frenetic, but controlled, piano part on Do It Anyway reminded me of Mose Allison's Parchman Farm/New Parchman. Quite tense and hard.

Hold That Thought has a melody that at first made me think of Tom Petty's Wildflowers, with its fine-sounding snare so similar to Steve Ferrone's. Repeated listening sessions convinced me that this clear, country-flavoured melody is not too far from Phish - even Folds's vocals here sound quite similar to Trey Anastasio's. There's a fine Hammond + Leslie - there's a moment when one can really see the Leslie's horn rotating - and listen to that beautiful unison bass and piano passage, again, sounding not too far from Phish.

Away When You Were Here is maybe the most atypical moment of the album, sounding quite "country", starting with its theme: the chain that links generations - here one immediately thinks of Still Fighting It, off the first solo album by Folds, and of Tomorrow Never Comes, from the final days of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Come to think of it, one will only need to execute a couple of mental contortions in order to listen to this track sung by classic-period John Fogerty (not including the bridge, those modulations definitely sounding as they've been composed on piano). Strings arranged by Folds.

Thank You For Breaking My Heart ends the album, with a rubato in ¾ and a melody that reminded me of 50s-60s doo-wop, of Laura Nyro on It's Gonna Take A Miracle, and of The Philadelphia Sound as filtered by first-period Todd Rundgren. Excellent, restrained work by cymbals and double bass, the piano at the end definitely sounding more than a bit Monk-like.

The review ends here

As I already said above, having a look at some reviews beaming from the USA made me think of a careless attitude, maybe a bit more than the usual standard nowadays.

But the review that puzzled me the most was the one penned by Stephen M. Deusner which appeared in Pitchfork magazine on September 20, 2012. The score was quite low (3.5/10), but I was especially impressed with the review's lack of intellectual rigour. I thought long and hard about my writing about it, since these days the quality of most "intellectual" work in Italy is so low that I fear that - contrary to my intended goals - people could derive consoling conclusions from this, such as "if a magazine like Pitchfork prints such rubbish, well, after all our condition is not so desperate!".

What really jumps off the page is the venom, the vitriol towards the music and the musicians, the writer shooting point-blank against the album cover ("mired in the 1990s": ???), the narrative ("On the new songs, he still favors the perspectives of ne'er-do-wells, slobs, misfits, and outcasts, not because he identifies with them but because they make better punchlines.", but listening to the album makes such as assertion an impossibility), and the vocals, anger making for wrong reasoning: "The title track is his Fame rewrite: While all the other kids are out mixing "cherry cola and Scotch," a girl stays at school and studies: "It's noisy out there, it rocks like a mother," he sings, and it might be poignant if Folds didn't sound like he'd rather be out cutting it up with the heshers.". But the lyric doesn't go: "It's noisy out there", but "It's noisy up there", where "up there" stands for - as per the song's title! - the mind: the girl's mind, also the mind of all those who invented those "mental objects".

For a long time I've suspected that there must be something in Ben Folds that excites great hostility from a particular kind of mediocre mind. One has only to read the review of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner by Brent DiCrescenzo, which appeared in Pitchfork on April 27, 1999 (review score: 3.3/10). A review which starts thus: "Ever since I moved to Chicago I've been running into famous people", and goes on like this: " Ho ho! I didn't need Albini's reassurance to sway me into assailing Ben Folds latest offering, but it was nice to know that someone else was on my side."

Hard times are in front of us.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2012 | Sept. 28, 2012