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Jason Panella

Ben Folds Five

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The AV Club reported that Ben Folds got back together with Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge to record a few songs for the new Ben Folds retrospective out in October. They include a link to one of the new tunes, and it's not bad. (Though it sounds more like one of the sleepy tunes from Unauthorized Biography... than anything else.)

A few folks mention circulating rumors of a new album from the trio. While I appreciate some of Folds's solo stuff, I never though any of it matched what he did with the Five. (Especially Jessee's drumming, methinks.)

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Greg P   

The AV Club reported that Ben Folds got back together with Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge to record a few songs for the new Ben Folds retrospective out in October. They include a link to one of the new tunes, and it's not bad. (Though it sounds more like one of the sleepy tunes from Unauthorized Biography... than anything else.)

A few folks mention circulating rumors of a new album from the trio. While I appreciate some of Folds's solo stuff, I never though any of it matched what he did with the Five. (Especially Jessee's drumming, methinks.)

Agreed. A lot of that had to do with the fact that Ben did most, if not all, of the drumming on his first solo outing.

Over the summer I had a couple weeks where I had Whatever and Ever and Authorized Bio on steady rotation. It brought back some wonderful late-90's nostalgia, but also reminded me of how fantastic both efforts are. I use to lean towards Whatever being their high-water mark, but after repeated listens have revised that-- I think Biography is the wonderfully melancholy classic. Lite on snark and bitterness; high on writing, arranging and mood. Some of the lesser tunes (esp. the closing Regrets, Jane, Lullaby) have stood the test of time. Only "Redneck Past" brings things to a screeching halt...

I really want to see these guys reunite. Folds solo is a bit of sappy, wandering mess. Those three albums from the Five were tremendous companions to me on my journey in my late 20's /early 30's.

Edited by Greg P

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Joel   

Reinhold Messner is the correct answer to the question "what is the best Ben Folds Five record."

Very disappointed to see that this new compilation does NOT, after all, contain an entire lost Bf5 album recorded in 1999, which Folds alluded to earlier this year. Hope that will see the light of day eventually.

It's nice to hear they are playing together again, but two things on that song didn't quite do it for me: one, the 21st century production -- even Reinhold Messner, their most polished recording, was warm and dark -- and the lack of harmonies. Something about those three voices together (think "Missing the War") is magic. I agree that Folds has been spotty. He's a brilliant songwriter but when he follows his whims they don't always lead to rewarding places, at least for me. Jessee is one of my all time favorite drummers (and I love the way his drums SOUND, both live and on record), but I think Folds himself is a good drummer, too.

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While I like all of the Five's albums to varying degrees (even the spotty odds & ends collection Naked Baby Photos), I think their self-titled debut is their best. Messner is their most mature album, and has some incredible songwriting (the first four songs might be one of the best runs in their catalog), but I can never make it through the final half of the album. "Lullaby" is a wonderful closer, but four or so tracks leading up to it make it difficult to get to. Just my two cents.

And yes, while Bolds is a fine multi-instrumentalist, he lacks the effortless swing that Jessee has. That guy is tops.

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Joel   

Didn't you read what I wrote, Jason? It's the correct answer.

Just kidding. I do see your point about the 2nd half, but the only track I skip is "Jane." But I love all their records.

Also this! Another new song -- written in 2000. Really digging it. http://stereogum.com/794231/ben-folds-five-tell-me-what-i-did-stereogum-premiere/mp3s/

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Also this! Another new song -- written in 2000. Really digging it. http://stereogum.com/794231/ben-folds-five-tell-me-what-i-did-stereogum-premiere/mp3s/

Yes! It rocks! And Robert Sledge's bass is all fuzzed out. Plus, it has some nice harmonies (which you were spot-on about, Joel).

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Greg P   

A bonafide Ben Folds debate at A&F! Love it.

For the record, Messner is splendid in it's melancholy, sad-sack ENTIRETY, with the exception of "Redneck Past"-- which as a song is passable, but lyrically does not fit the tone of the album at all and hearkens to very early, more immature BF5. "Army" is one of the best songs of the 90's-- a real masterpiece and I doubt he will ever write a better tune ("Narcolepsy" is perhaps a close second) or a better opening verse. "Regrets" is a magnificent lounge jazz number, with one of Ben's funniest narratives, beheaded suddenly by a "wait for it, wait for it" monumental, dramatic rock opera coda. I agree though Jason, the pacing after "Army" and "Regrets" begins to slow and maybe bog down a little. If there was another rager on par with Army, a follow-up song like "Jane" might seem refreshing instead of tiring.

The struggle for Ben, who I believe is in his mid 40's now, is that his comically-venomous, single guy schtick doesn't really work now. The guy's a thrice-divorced Dad, so the mouthy, unemployed "give me my money back you bitch and give me back my black t-shirt" dating narratives seem just a little incongruous. He's tried to branch out and do tunes about his daughter as well as a smattering of sappy love songs about his S.O., but those always seemed flat. His solo tunes "Jesusland", and the tribute to Elliot Smith "Too Late" hit the mark for me, as did most of his story tunes on Rockin the Suburbs. Everything else that followed has been kinda lame. He has a penchant for picking great cover tunes... His Cure, Dre, Lucinda Williams and The Darkness covers almost surpassed his own post-Five output, imo.

But ugh-- that mostly-wretched "Way to Normal" was almost career ending as was the animated movie placement. A reunited BF5 seems like the perfect cure for him at this point...

Edited by Greg P

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Crow   

A BF5 reunion would be great! What an amazing band. Their "Complete Sessions at West 54th" DVD is one of my favorite concerts on disc. I love the sheer energy Ben and the rest of the band brought to their performances, especially Ben's stand-up style of piano playing.

Post-BF5 Ben Folds albums had their moments, but overall his solo work never had the consistency of Whatever and Ever or Reinhold Messner, both of which albums are '90s classics.

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Joel   

Greg, I think I share your assessment of Folds' career. In my review of Way to Normal I touched on a lot of the same things. I'd suggest that anybody check out the video of the Five's 2008 reunion, on which they played Reinhold Messner in its entirety -- I think it's on YouTube, but I downloaded it from somewhere or other.

I also agree that I'm not sure all the moods of Bf5 would work in this incarnation -- the collegey goofiness of "Tell Me What I Did" is OK because I know it's an older song, but I don't know if they could write new ones like that.

Has anyone listened to Jessee's Hotel Lights records? I haven't, but I have a feeling that he's got an awful lot of heart & soul as a songwriter based on his contributions to BF5.

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I'll have to dig those videos up. I'm interested in hearing some of the Reinhold Messner tracks I don't like in a live setting. Might change my opinion.

And Jim is right about the West 54th videos: they're incredible. I think most of them are up on YouTube, and they do a nice job of showcasing the band in top form.

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Greg P   
I also agree that I'm not sure all the moods of Bf5 would work in this incarnation -- the collegey goofiness of "Tell Me What I Did" is OK because I know it's an older song, but I don't know if they could write new ones like that.

We've had the discussion here several times before, about whether middle-agers can truly play rock n' roll without seeming like embarrassingly flaccid, Dad-caricatures. I've always been doubtful such an endeavor can be pulled off successfully. Radiohead has done well in their mid 40's, but then again they're not playing angry rock anthems.

The power of those first three BF5 albums was in their just-got-dumped, down-on-my-luck-grad-student, white-boy perspective. Singing those profanity-laced, bitter screeds with strong drink poised atop his baby grand and the stool kicked out from under him, made the whole BF5 enterprise seem like a slightly dangerous thing. Still there's some question as to whether Folds-- who was in his late 20's when those songs came out-- was stretching his credibility a bit, even back then, singing about drunken dorm life and such.

So what can middle aged rock guys sing about convincingly? I dunno. The cloying ballads about parenthood and growing old with ones spouse certainly were fitting for a 40-something songwriter, but were hardly the kinda thing you kick the stool out for.

Edited by Greg P

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I also agree that I'm not sure all the moods of Bf5 would work in this incarnation -- the collegey goofiness of "Tell Me What I Did" is OK because I know it's an older song, but I don't know if they could write new ones like that.

We've had the discussion here several times before, about whether middle-agers can truly play rock n' roll without seeming like embarrassingly flaccid, Dad-caricatures. I've always been doubtful such an endeavor can be pulled off successfully. Radiohead has done well in their mid 40's, but then again they're not playing angry rock anthems.

The power of those first three BF5 albums was in their just-got-dumped, down-on-my-luck-grad-student, white-boy perspective. Singing those profanity-laced, bitter screeds with strong drink poised atop his baby grand and the stool kicked out from under him, made the whole BF5 enterprise seem like a slightly dangerous thing. Still there's some question as to whether Folds-- who was in his late 20's when those songs came out-- was stretching his credibility a bit, even back then, singing about drunken dorm life and such.

So what can middle aged rock guys sing about convincingly? I dunno. The cloying ballads about parenthood and growing old with ones spouse certainly were fitting for a 40-something songwriter, but were hardly the kinda thing you kick the stool out for.

Well, hopefully Ben adapts to being a grownup. It happens. You keep waking up in the morning, and there you are.

Ben has a more perilous road than many because he made his reputation doing those snarky, bitter grad student anthems that resonated perfectly with the brainy white kids he was targeting. But surely it's possible to be the same person, but evolve to reflect the times and stage of life in which one finds oneself. And to do it with four or five piano chords and a backbeat. For every Mick Jagger, who still makes enormous sums of money to shake and shimmy his nearly septuagenarian self, there are ten rock stars who have more or less gracefully found a way to keep making music without embarrassing themselves. And surely rock is a big enough and amorphous enough label to encompass whatever these folks end up doing. You don't have to end up emulating Rod Stewart, doing bad covers of Motown and Gershwin. You can make thoughtful music that still rocks, or at least still approximates rock, a la Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Robert Plant, or Bob Dylan, to name just a few old farts who at least occasionally still manage to equal or better the music they made in their callow youth. Maybe Ben Folds can discover whatever it is that motivated those folks.

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Greg P   

I personally think the first single is pretty damned fetching.

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I'm a fan of the new album. I'm still letting it sink in a bit, so I'll probably have something more substantial to say later (or, since it's me, probably not), but man is it good to hear the Sledge/Jessee harmonies/rhythm section kicking in.

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Greg P   

... but man is it good to hear the Sledge/Jessee harmonies/rhythm section kicking in.

Yes! Folds just never found this dynamic with any other side musicians. I'm still trying to determine whether the Folds song formula still works in 2012, but for now the answer is a tentative "yes".

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Joel   

... but man is it good to hear the Sledge/Jessee harmonies/rhythm section kicking in.

Yes! Folds just never found this dynamic with any other side musicians. I'm still trying to determine whether the Folds song formula still works in 2012, but for now the answer is a tentative "yes".

What I'm wondering about is what approach they took to recording. I love the sloppy notes, the sounds of people talking at the beginning and end of songs, the warm feel of their early records -- it all feels very analog & 'dudes in a room' -y, even if it's not. I'm worried that stuff won't come through on a 2012 recording. Planning to pick up the record this weekend.

EDIT: I just remembered that "Army" actually has really obvious autotune on it that I didn't notice the first time around.

Edited by Joel

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Greg P   
EDIT: I just remembered that "Army" actually has really obvious autotune on it that I didn't notice the first time around.

Where??? I dont remember that all... You might be thinking "Redneck Past", which i think uses a vocoder on one part. Need to go back and listen

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What I'm wondering about is what approach they took to recording. I love the sloppy notes, the sounds of people talking at the beginning and end of songs, the warm feel of their early records -- it all feels very analog & 'dudes in a room' -y, even if it's not. I'm worried that stuff won't come through on a 2012 recording. Planning to pick up the record this weekend.

It's a bit more polished than their self-titled, but it still feels less slick than the back half of Reinhold Messner. I guess they wanted Caleb Southern to produce again, which would have been awesome, but scheduling conflicts made it impossible for him.

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Greg P   

I'm with Jason-- the production is fine. I dont think it's that difficult to record the trio.

I like about half the album. The problem i have is with Ben's songwriting approach... When the band does their trademark goofy jazz-punk meets prog saloon-tunes as in "Erase Me" or "Do It Anyway"(best song on the album IMO-- classic BFF), it feels like they are back with a vengeance. Unfortunately those moments are too short-lived. When they attempt to pick up where Folds left off in his solo career (piano pop and ballads) the results are decidedly more tepid. "Sky High", "Away When You Are Here", "On Being Frank" and the sleepy closer all suffer from this middle age Mannilowism.

There was a always an unpredictable, angry rock n' roll element to the first three BFF albums. Sure their rants were sophomoric, but they were consistently fun and chaotic. Those essential components are absent at times from the new album-- and let's be realistic, they may be gone forever.

"Hold That Thought", one of those ambling, wistful Folds tunes, evokes "Jesusland" with it's country two-step and offers an engaging, mid-life alternative to the jilted boyfriend rage of the BFF of yore.

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I like about half the album. The problem i have is with Ben's songwriting approach... When the band does their trademark goofy jazz-punk meets prog saloon-tunes as in "Erase Me" or "Do It Anyway"(best song on the album IMO-- classic BFF), it feels like they are back with a vengeance. Unfortunately those moments are too short-lived. When they attempt to pick up where Folds left off in his solo career (piano pop and ballads) the results are decidedly more tepid. "Sky High", "Away When You Are Here", "On Being Frank" and the sleepy closer all suffer from this middle age Mannilowism.

I'm actually a fan of most of the ballads, since they — at least musically — seem more to recall the back half of Whatever than Reinhold. (I really don't like the back half of Reinhold.) I think "Sky High" is one of the prettiest tunes on the new one; maybe I just like Jessee's songwriting ("Magic" was a highlight from their third LP). The title track has really stuck with me too.

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Greg P   
New live album streaming. Interesting choice of tunes and venues.

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Joel   

EDIT: I just remembered that "Army" actually has really obvious autotune on it that I didn't notice the first time around.

Where??? I dont remember that all... You might be thinking "Redneck Past", which i think uses a vocoder on one part. Need to go back and listen

Just saw this long after the original conversation... I meant "really obvious" in the sense that "it was the 90's so people weren't listening for autotune, but now that we know what it sounds like, you can totally tell it's on there." I also mean autotune for its original intended use -- "subtly" nudging notes into tune, rather than the Cher/Kanye West/magic singing robot device it became.

Anyway, if you listen closely to the first 2 verses I think you'll notice it. Esp. on "So I took my old man's advice / three sad semesters..."

Looking forward to checking out this live album!

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Greg P   

New album of orchestral pop tunes, streaming

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