Back in 1998 I was a bookish and bullied teenager who sought refuge in the umpteen books I read on the sofa at home. I had an outside interest in music, I liked some of it, I even loved the odd tune/album, but it was not an important part of my life. Then one afternoon during that summer I was sprawled on the sofa reading my book when my sister came home with a new album she had just bought which she put on the CD player. Within 10 seconds not only had my opinion on music changed, I wanted to play the piano and my life was suddenly very different. That particular album was ‘Whatever and Ever, Amen’ by a band called Ben Folds Five.
This is an oft repeated anecdote by me because it really is a very easily pinpointed moment that changed my whole life. I explain my love for that particular album here which I recommend you read first. The reason I say all this is because they have just released (to a select few) their first album in 13 years for which I am using this post to review. Therefore the previous is a disclaimer so I can justify the slavering tongue bath I am about to give this album. If you’re not into PDAs look away now…
Ben Folds Five, despite their name, are a three piece from North Carolina (originally) consisting of Ben Folds on lead vocals and Piano, Darren Jesse on Drums and Robert Sledge on Bass. Their last album ‘The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner’ was released in 1999 to mixed reviews and signaled the end for the band. It was a fitting Swan Song in retrospect and has definitely grown on me over the years. Being my Favourite Band of All Time Ever™ I was disappointed that they had split just as I got into them and as Ben went solo I figured a reunion, despite their split not being acrimonious, was never on the cards. They were not the sort of band a label would come crawling to for a reunion. The fans, however, did. We BFF fans are a nerdy and passionate bunch and so 13 years later they have used us to help record and release their new album. They crowd funded the album using Pledge Music to overwhelming response and are starting a tour in the next few months. They released the album via a digital download to all the people who helped fund it yesterday a week or so before official release. So not only does this gushing fan get a whole new album he gets to see his favourite band of all time ever live. I never thought either of these would happen so please accept my humble apologies for my pant-wetting excitement over this development.
The Sound of The Life of The Mind is probably the only thing I don’t like about the album. Its a petty gripe but in the same way I felt ‘Rise of The Planet of the Apes’ was clumsy I equally feel this one is a little clunky but considering their former album’s titles being quite long and unwieldy this actually is not really an issue. What struck me first about the album, other than it being better than I had hoped, was the production. Reinhold Messner was criticised for being very ‘Wet’, in that it had a lot of reverb and delay on the instruments and vocals, it was very airy which jarred with some people after the tight and natural mix of Whatever and Ever. Life of the Mind, on the other hand, seems to swoop back to their eponymous debut album. This is one of the many delights on this album for me. Having sat through a decade of interminable bullshit from the music industry that is constantly regurgitating the fucking 80s A DECADE WHICH I HATE, it is wonderful to finally hear the start of the 90s revival. If that’s what it is. Each instrument has a very tight yet roomy focus but pushed through the modern rack of protools to add definition. The resulting ‘Sound’ of the album is bright, close, yet warm and simple. The set up hasn’t changed, there are no other instruments but the three of them and those oh-so-pretty harmonies all of which get their own sonic space and very literal breathing room.
Techy bullshit aside – The album itself is absolutely what I wanted to hear. I would have been disappointed if they had simply rehashed one of their other albums and likewise would have been upset if they tried too hard and made it a genre hopping jazz-hip-hop-country-screamcore album. I wanted to hear the same band follow the trajectory of development they showed before and produce an album that has their innate sound but more developed, refined and mature which is exactly what this album is. Everything I loved about this band is still present yet more so.
The title track, Erase Me, shifts tonally minute to minute from bombastic rock to soppy pop and is a planting of the flag for the rest of the album. It is an instant reveal for the three musician’s technical skill and the sensitive production. Darren’s snare rolls are killer, Sledge cracks out the Big Muff in style and Fold’s solo is as pumping as ever. Michael Praytor is power pop at its finest and sounds like a cross between the Eagles and Billy Joel but in a good way, it s a return to their ‘Where’s Summer B?’ and ‘Eddie Walker’ style of Harmony driven chorus hooks. Blue Sky is my personal favourite on the album. It was written by Darren Jesse who wrote the catchy chorus for ‘Brick’ and the emotional high from Reinhold Messner, ‘Magic’. The ghostly and angelic harmonies constantly floating ethereally in the background remind me somewhat of Star Me Kitten by REM, the introduction of the piano riff for some reason really summons up a less 80s sounding Bruce Hornsby. In the same way as the harmonies and apposite lyrics of ‘Missing the War’ utterly break my heart ‘Sky High’ is an understated yet dizzying piece of wistful melancholy that grabs a handful of my angsty heartstrings and leaves me in the same place ‘Evaporated’ used to. Probably one of my favourite songs full stop, not just on the album.
The title track, to be honest, sounds a bit flat to begin with but by the time the backing vox and that chorus kick in I was sold. The production really sells this one. It sounds huge for their little 3 piece and is probably the catchiest on the album. After that I was waiting for the mid album ballad which I got in spades. On Being Frank like ‘Alice Childress’ and ‘Selfless, Cold and Composed’ before it, this one requires a little time to get into. It is wordy and measured not histrionic like seems to be the norm for ballads these days. The string arrangement is sympathetic and not overpowering and Ben’s vocal delivery is understated and thoughtful, everything I want from a ballad. Darren and Robert sit back comfortably propelling the song toward it’s simple harmony laden climax. Structurally one of their best songs. The string arrangement and performance remind me of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from Sgt. Pepper. I can give it no higher praise.
Draw a Crowd is their rockin’ leap back into the rest of the album. Oddly this is also a continuation of their trend of critical and acerbic appraisal of music culture, see ‘Underground’, ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’, ‘Army’, ‘Rockin’ The Suburbs’ all follow this lyrical formula for pointing out the absurdities of modern music and its surrounding bullshit. The refrain of “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall” is in exactly the same template as “Will you never rest, fightin’ the battle of who could care less?” and “Officer Friendly’s little boy’s got a mohawk” and “some producers with computers fixing all my shitty tracks” in it’s irreverent appeal. Another anthem for people who honestly couldn’t give a crap about modern pop culture or looking “Cool”.
Do It Anyway was released early as a pre-release single and to me it sounded, and still does, the most like Ben’s Solo stuff. This is not a bad thing as it shows yet more development but again benefits from the production and Darren and Robert’s much more idiosyncratic approach to their respective instruments. Robert’s Bass playing is seriously tasty on this one and Ben’s Solo is a pip. Reminds me most of ‘Redneck Past’ and ‘Regrets’ form Reinhold Messner. Hold That Thought, is a country infused slow number that again seems more like Fold’s solo material such as Jesusland and The Ascent of Stan but that beautifully Crosby, Stills and Nash organ and harmonies make it different again making probably the most non-Folds or Five song on the album but in a really good way. The lyrics on this one are great too. A bit of a grower but a track that really shows growth and an ability to not follow a formula from all three, probably the most pleasing track on the album for me.
Away When You Were Here, wanders dangerously close to generic pop balladry to begin with but, typically, when those strings kick in with that little refrain you’ve got another little emotional gem. More importantly it is the (admittedly fictitious) account of the death of Ben’s father. My own father, who encouraged my piano playing and got me lessons and whom I played together with in a duo, died a few years ago making the lyrics and subsequently the whole song heartrendingly pertinent. It meets an odd union with the rest of the album but couldn’t have been done by anyone else and typically speaks to me in a very profound way and I wouldn’t have it written by any other band.
The album closes with ‘Thank You for Breaking My Heart’ another quiet and simple ballad that follows the Five’s brilliance for closing an album with absolute classics like ‘Boxing’, ‘Evaported’ and ‘Lullaby’. The instrumentation is sparse and light but the production holds your interest on the lovely Satie-esque piano line right until the wonderful, bathetic, end.
In short, I have a new album to add to the favourites. It has been a good year for me and music after having spent bloody years in the wilderness of the cavernous void of creativity and banal, dull market saturation from the likes of our modern pop icons over the last ten years but Dr. John’s latest and Graham Coxon’s along with this album has given three albums this year I have not just enjoyed but really loved and SOTLOTM is the cherry on the cake.
I know not everyone likes this band, most site Fold’s accent and somewhat saccharine lyrics as to why, but I couldn’t care less about his accent and the lyrics are largely why I love this band. As I said in my review of ‘Whatever and Ever’, I cannot be objective about this band or its material. I honestly think they are a great and musical band with some wonderful songs to their catalogue but the fact of the matter is this band is Me. They are nerds, they are cynics, they are scared of girls yet can’t live without them at the same time, they are easily heartbroken, they love music, they love the Beatles, they are everything I am and all of my character traits in a single entity so I am naturally going to be drawn to them. Apart, they don’t grab me as much as they do together but apart they have developed into the same thing I have developed into, whatever that may be, so hearing them again is like meeting old friends and finding we still have so much in common. We’re still just as cynical, just as angry, just as heartbroken, just as silly, just as funny, just as thoughtful, just as sad, just as happy but with the benefit of time and perspective have given us fresh eyes resulting in this fantastic album.
I’d recommend it but as a very much outed fanboy I doubt you’ll be able to take me seriously now. I don’t care. My favourite band, just wrote some of my favourite songs and released my new favourite album, which, if you don’t mind, I’m off to listen to again.