Louis C.K. knows what it’s like to be male, middle class, and white: “I open my eyes, remember who I am, what I’m like, and I just go, ‘Ugh.’” And like the bat signal cast on an Ambien cloud, Ben Folds Five saw the sign and answered C.K.’s call, emerging with their first album in 13 years. Shamon!
Besides sharing the same birthday, Louis C.K. and Ben Folds have quite a bit in common. Like Louie, The Sound of the Life of the Mind addresses love and loss through a sidelong smirk and both barroom raconteurs have an intuitive knack for translating average-Joe neuroses into novel entertainment. Where C.K. says “Ugh,” Folds inserts falsetto. Either way, we are immediately drawn into their beautiful, dark, twisted, and totally average fantasies. After all, C.K. and Folds are more concerned with the look of the hand basket they’re in than the fact that it’s probably taking them to hell.
Self-deprecation is familiar territory for Ben Folds Five – the “nuke-another-Grandma’s-apple-pie-and-hang-my-head-in-shame” espousing trio. But sophisticated production, tight hooks, and Gregorian-style harmonies keeps Sound sounding interesting. The album never reaches “Brick”-levels of solemnity, although that may be because the guys in BFF are no longer alone in their white boy pain. Folds, for one, is not the same smartass 30-year old opining about girls who look like Axl Rose and dress like the Cure. Today, BFF is working through “heartaches that never ended” (“Sky High”). When Folds sits at his piano on “Away When You Were Here”, he tells his girl with faraway eyes, “I’m older now, I can see through lifting haze.” His comprehension is not cultivated cocktails, but rather, southern-tuned strings. (Well, maybe one cocktail.)
Before Louis and Ben, there was Frank. And the song “On Being Frank” transforms Frank Sinatra into one of Folds’s everyman idols. The piano lines are gorgeous and grand – a nod to Sinatra’s career – especially as Folds’s vocal inflects on the words “I had it all.” The inspiration? Only the Lonely – Sinatra’s “alternative” record. Evocative and wry, Sinatra released the record in 1958 after recovering from his shipwreck of a romance with Ava Gardner. Ole’ Blue Eyes appeared on the cover dressed as a clown – a poor man’s Pagliacci – which is to say that at 43, Sinatra was likely picking over the same hand baskets as C.K. and Folds are now.
Similarly, Folds tip toes around minor chords and crashing cymbals (“Erase Me”), daring to be forgotten, but also kind of hoping to be forgotten. At 46, ambivalence suits the bespectacled piano man more than rocking the suburbs does, although, his characters in the new songs are still very much in New Jersey (“On Being Frank”), at the strip mall (“Hold That Thought”), and drinking cherry colas and scotch at other malls (“The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind”).
The theatrical title track is about an unhappy bookworm named Sarah, whose sole respite from high school mediocrity is Keats and Frost. But on “Do It Anyway”, Folds lays into feverish chords on behalf of all the Sarahs, as he sing-speaks: “There will be times where you might leap before you look.” It kind of sounds like a class clown rendition of “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. “Promise me you’ll give faith a fighting chance,” requests Womack. Folds, who is both adult and contemporary, but not quite Adult Contemporary, provides the crude corollary: “It sucks, but do it anyway.”
The most easily identifiable BFF track on Sound is “Draw A Crowd”. It’s that familiar fructose of major-chord melodies paired with Folds’s blithe, bawdy, barfly logic: “If you’re feeling small and you can’t draw a crowd/ Draw dicks on the wall.” It’s like a more meta-“The Battle Of Who Could Care Less”. This song will have you scrounging for your dusty Sony CD case to really go on a solid Ben Folds Five tear (though if you were the type to own one of their albums, you were probably also the type to have memorized them).
BFF’s legacy is understated, because none of these guys ever really went away. But let it be known that the world has missed Ben Folds Five. In their wake, we witnessed the sublime spring of piano-driven songwriters like Jason Mraz, Jack’s Mannequin, The Fray, and Sarah Bareilles, to name a few. Yet after all this time, the freewheeling Ben Folds Five still do the best imitation of themselves.
Essential Tracks: “Draw A Crowd”, “Sky High”, and “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”
Feature artwork by Mike Zell: