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Ben Folds (Five)

 

Two artists for the price of one! Yes, Ben Folds and his old group, the ever-so-wittily-named Ben Folds Five. There's really not too much of a distinction between the two, since Ben wrote all the songs anyway. But I'll get into that later.

lineup of BFF: Ben Folds (vocals, piano); Darren Jessee (drums, vocals); Robert Sledge (bass, vocals).

review index: Whatever & Ever Amen / Naked Baby Photos / The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner / Rockin' the Suburbs / Ben Folds Live

missing albums: the eponymous BFF album, and Ben's solo debut Fear of Pop.


Whatever & Ever Amen - 1997

Rating: ****
Best songs: One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, Evaporated, Fair, Steven's Last Night In Town
Worst songs: Missing the War, Song for the Dumped

 

Two things you need to know about Ben Folds: 1. He's a great pop songwriter. He can do hooks and stuff like nobody's business. 2. He's a bad lyricist. Actually, he's a decent lyricist when he wants to be, but most of the time he tries to be 'clever'. His definition of clever is making random pop culture references and swearing. I guess it's okay if you like that sort of thing, but it's not exactly my cup of advanced tea substitute.

Luckily for them, however, the pop whore side of me wins out to the bitter, vindictive side of me. Jesus, but these songs are wonderful! "One Angry Dwarf" and "Kate" rock along without needing electric guitars, "Evaporated" and "Brick" are beautiful (if sometimes mournful) piano ballads, "Fair" bops along enjoyably, and "Steven's Last Night In Town" is a brilliant take-off of big band jazz. Only two songs (well, three, but "Cigarette" is short enough for me to ignore) inhabit the fat camp that is bad songs: "Song for the Dumped" is an annoying whiny breakup song, and "Missing the War" is a dull piano piece. Otherwise, you're in for a treat, especially since all those people that bought the album for "Brick" five years ago have gotten sick of the album and are selling it on ebay cheaply.


Naked Baby Photos - 1998

Rating: **
Best songs: Twin Falls, Eddie Walker
Worst songs: For Those of Ya'll That Wear Fanny Packs, Bad Idea, Song for the Dumped (again!), Boxing

 

I used to have this one, but no more. However, I can still tell you about it, because I remember clearly that it, ah, sucked. For some reason, they felt the need to release a rarities album after only two records. And when the best song on the album is a cover (in this case, the live cover of Built for Spill's "Twin Falls"), you know you're in trouble.

Anyway, the thing is split between live and studio. The studio half has a few good tracks: "Eddie Walker" is as good as anything on WAEA, and "Alice Childress" and "Emaline" are pleasant enough. "Tom & Mary" and the demo of "Bad Idea", however, are uninteresting and really irritating, respectively. And the live half is worse. They run through several songs that aren't very good, such as "Boxing" (yawn) and "Underground" (not funny). And then they improvise some stupid shit like "Satan Is My Master" and the excrutiating, horrible 'rap' "For Those of Ya'll That Wear Fanny Packs", possibly the worst song EVER. Otherwise there's the aforementioned cover of "Twin Falls", and "Philosophy" is okay. This album is not, on the whole, worth your time, however.


The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner - 1999

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Magic, Army, Don't Change Your Plans, Narcolepsy
Worst songs: Your Redneck Past, Jane, Your Most Valuable Posession, Hospital Song

 

In comes the artsiness. On this, the third and final Ben Folds Five album, the band decided, "hey, let's get all bombastic!" And so they did. And so here's this album.

Anyway, this one's a little less consistent than Album the Previous. There are a few short, pointless songs: "Your Most Valuable Posession" is Ben's dad rambling for two minutes on an answering machine, backed by the band doing some kind of lounge jazz thing, and "Hospital Song" might've been better had it been fleshed out into an actual song. The second half of the album pretty much falls apart with "Posession", as well as the annoying "Your Redneck Past" and boring bit of jazz-pop, "Jane".

Aside from those four tracks, it's smooth sailing. The first four songs on the album are incredible, including the beautiful elegy "Magic", Bacharach-ey "Don't Change Your Plans" and bombast funtime "Narcolepsy". And of course there's the Pathetic Attempt at a Hit, "Army", which is otherwise pretty good. No need to get into the rest of the tunes, which are all fine, but I will note that "Regrets" for some reason ends with an odd take-off of "Nights in White Satin". If you can just try to ignore the stupider lyrics (Dear World: The word "mullet" is not intrinsically funny. Sincerely, Cole.), you should enjoy this one too.


Rockin' the Suburbs - 2001

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Still Fighting It, Not the Same; pretty much any of the others will do, except for...
Worst songs: Rockin' the Suburbs, Carrying Cathy

 

One cover of Steely Dan's "Barrytown" (complete with David Letterman appearance) later, Ben Folds Five became Ben Folds One. Dejected, Ben holed himself up in the bathtub and came up with a bunch of character sketches that are a hell of a lot more mature than most of the stuff he wrote while with Darren "Stevens" Jessee and Robert "Pollard" Sledge. One point of interest is that the music on this one is performed more generically than in Five, because Ben decided to play and sing pretty much everything by himself. He's no slouch on bass, drums, or backing vocals, but the harmonies were richer and the other instruments more distinctive with the other two guys in the band.

Anyway, I think (or at least hope) you get what I'm saying. Ben's melodic sense hasn't diminished any, and with his newfound maturity in the lyrics department, things pretty much even out. There are only two exceptions to the rule: the title track would be okay if it wasn't a bad attempt at Weird Al, and "Carrying Cathy" doesn't really do anything interesting. The rest of the songs are good. Trust me, they are. Really. They're good.


Ben Folds Live - 2002

Rating: ***
Best songs: blah
Worst songs: blah

 

Oh, what a clever album title. Yes, as it implies, this is Ben Folds' live album. Isn't it a bit odd to make a live album after only doing one actual studio album? Anyway, I've reviewed approximately 37 live albums. I still haven't figured out what I'm supposed to say about them. This one is like most: pleasant but unremarkable. The Ben Folds Five songs are missing the frenetic rhythm section, and there's a cover of "Tiny Dancer", and so forth and so on. "Philosophy" is stretched out with some improvisation, and "Jane" still sucks. And there are a couple new songs. See? I don't know what to say. Let's face it, live albums are for hardcore fans.


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