The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

Ben Folds Five

ImaVeePee Records, 2012

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Like the streaking comet that they have often seemed to resemble—a hurtling mass of molten awesomeness, one minute beautiful and the next destructive—Ben Folds Five have come ’round again.

From their mid-90s origins, the BFF—Robert Sledge on bass, Darren Jessee on drums, Ben Folds on piano and lead vocals—veered back and forth (and back again) between giddy explosiveness and ice-cool melancholy through a trio of memorable albums, culminating in the group’s heretofore swan song, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner. Folds’ self-described “punk for sissies” returns on The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind in all its bipolar glory, complete with fresh tales to tell and new perspectives to explore.

What’s apparent immediately is that this isn’t so much a reunion as a renewal. There was never any bitter breakup; Ben Folds got married and moved to Australia, and so it was time for all three guys to go off and try something different. Jessee fronted his own band, the deliciously gauzy Hotel Lights; Sledge co-founded indie-rock semi-supergroup International Orange; and Folds kept right on writing and singing about his life, never fully abandoning the piano-bass-drums trio format he’d perfected with the Five.

What’s fascinating and wonderful to notice on The Sound is the ways in which the band has matured, and the ways in which they gloriously, thankfully have not. Their vocal work, it must be said, is better than ever, with Sledge and Jesse providing terrific harmonies behind Folds’ imaginative, always emotionally spot-on readings of these songs. As has been the case throughout Folds’ career, the songs capture the specific time and place he’s at in his life, older and wiser, perhaps a bit more reflective, but no less direct in the way he cuts to the heart of any situation and exposes its messy underpinnings.

Kickoff cut “Erase Me” reintroduces the band in fine style, locating for the first time the exact midpoint between the Five’s two musical poles and then bouncing back and forth between them. The opening bars are all throbbing, thrashing punk energy, and then the verse goes to a smooth, sophisticated, almost nightclub jazz feel, before exploding again at the chorus. At the bridge, rather than having an instrument solo, they break it down and proceed to run wild with three-part harmonies, delivering vocal gymnastics seemingly designed to give Brian Wilson whiplash. It’s just the kind of bizarre, brilliantly unexpected move that these guys were known for in their prime. Moments later the song surges to a violent, shuddering end and all that’s left to say is “Damn: they’re back.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” is a tune about the randomness of life; specifically, that one guy from elementary school that you keep running into for the rest of your life. Featuring particularly snazzy fuzz bass work from Mr. Sledge and sassy falsetto from Mr. Folds, it starts off like a lost track from Whatever And Ever Amen: “It was the opposite of ‘Fire and Rain’ / (You know the song) / I never thought I’d see this guy again / (But I was wrong)…” Brilliance ensues, and continues with “Sky High,” another gorgeous Jessee ballad that adds strings and an ethereal vocal chorus on top.

Batting cleanup, the poignant and incisive title track—a holdover from Folds’ recent work with novelist Nick Hornby—exposes the inner life of a teenage girl, with spectacular chorus harmonies to boot. “On Being Frank” is Bacharach/David-style story-song about living in the shadow of greatness (“I had a dream / but dreams had other plans for me”). And then we’re back to sassy with the manic, potty-mouthed “Draw A Crowd” (“If you’re feeling small / If you can’t draw a crowd / Draw dicks on the wall”).

The acceleration continues with “Do It Anyway,” a blisteringly-paced dose of the sort of older-brother advice that the 1995 Folds might have gagged on, but that sounds natural and wise set against a double-time beat and Folds’ most frenetic delivery. “Hold That Thought” is the weak link here, feeling like a miscast Folds solo tune, a mid-tempo number with rolling piano melody and deadpan delivery.

All this assembled goodness aside, it’s in the late going that this album completes the trip from welcome reunion to artistic triumph. “Away When You Were Here” is an absolutely devastating and—knowing Folds—probably autobiographical song sung by a grown son to the absent father who died when he was young and was never truly present when he was alive. There’s one revelatory moment after another through the verses, and the string-accented choruses and bridge are just stunning. Closer “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” locates the same midpoint between poles that began the album, this time taking a lyric that could have felt like snarky irony and presenting it instead as a gut-wrenching attempt at bravado.

Folds, Jesse and Sledge could have left well enough alone, figuring they had already said what they had to say as a band. Or, they could have reunited out of nostalgia, or a desire for a guaranteed payday, or just to please the fans one more time. (And, frankly speaking, all of the above may factor in some small way.) But this is no nostalgic roadtrip, no cursory attempt at recapturing a little of the long-gone magic. The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is every inch the rightful heir to the original three BFF discs, and everything you could possibly have hoped for from the renewed musical partnership of these three unique talents.

Or, as Ben might say: it will make you laugh, then kick your ass.

Rating: A-

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© 2012 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of ImaVeePee Records, and is used for informational purposes only.