Posts Tagged ‘ben folds five’

Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind (2012)

March 18, 2013

A quick scan of the KMA archives suggests that I haven’t posted an actual album review in two and a half years. It’s only fitting, then, that when I finally do write one up, it’s for an album that came out months ago. Of course, it’s also for a record that took months longer to get shipped to me than it should have, so I guess we’re all at fault here. Share the blame. Or at least my part of it.

To briefly recap the necessary history, Ben Folds Five (Ben Folds, Darren Jessee, and Robert Sledge) was together for roughly seven years before separating in 2000. They reunited for a one-off show in North Carolina in 2008 (one week before I was in the area for a wedding – boo!) but had otherwise gone their separate ways until late 2011 or so, when I first started hearing rumblings of a new album and tour.

Sure enough, in the spring of 2012, Ben Folds Five launched a campaign via MusicPledge (basically, it’s like Kickstarter, except… well, it’s exactly like Kickstarter) where fans could fund the recording of the new album. Rewards for backers ranged from MP3s to a custom version of the song Do It Anyway rewritten to be about you. At $2,500, that one was sadly out of my price range (this did not stop me from considering it, ever so briefly, but I did not Do It Anyway). Instead, I opted for a signed vinyl record (I’m not really into autographs if I didn’t get them personally, but I bought in early and initially, there was no unsigned vinyl option) and a CD. These came with a digital download as well.

Due to some sort of snafu, my copies of the record and CD were months late. I hadn’t even thought of it since I got my digital download as soon as it was available. The first time I realized that I was still owed my rewards was when I got a very apologetic email from Ben Folds Five’s manager, offering me a CD or a t-shirt as a make-good. I opted for the extra CD (which showed up before the CD and signed record I’d initially ordered), which I gave to a fellow BF5 fan.

At any rate, my CD and record finally showed up!

signedbf5

Isn’t that lovely? And as an added bonus, all people who contributed to the campaign were credited in the liner notes as Vice-President of Promotion. This was a running theme throughout the promotion of the record, with fans encouraged to use the hashtag #ImADamVP when tweeting about the record. I’m guessing that I bought in fairly early, given my early placement in the liner notes (two rows under Promotion):

bf5linernotes

So after all that, is the record any good? The first thing I note is that the album, as a whole, sounds more mature than earlier efforts. The first song, Erase Me, is a breakup song in the vein of 1997’s Song For The Dumped. It almost works as a sequel of sorts; while Song For The Dumped takes place immediately after “you dumped me on your front porch,” Erase Me is a few weeks removed from the split, after the singer’s ex “turned around in two weeks’ time, replaced me.” Erase Me doesn’t have the out-of-control anger of Dumped, but there might be even more bitterness.

Similarly, I have no reason to think that the Sara(h?) in the title track is the same Sara-spelled-without-an-H that Ben Folds introduced on 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, but I like to think that she broke up with Zak, grew up some, got her shit together, and is looking forward to moving on with life. This song was written by Nick Hornby (who also collaborated with Folds on the album Lonely Avenue) and I highly doubt he set out to write a sequel to Zak & Sara but I am not about to let “facts” stop me.

I think the best song on the album is On Being Frank. I generally prefer the faster, catchier songs, but Ben Folds does have a knack for writing some nicely depressing songs when he sets his mind to it. This one is written from the perspective of Frank Sinatra’s long-time assistant, who finds himself directionless after Sinatra’s death:

I shook the hands 
Of mafia dons and presidents
And though they always smiled politely
With a measure of decorum
Still their eyes would scan beyond me
For a glimpse of something more
But now he’s gone
And now they’re gone

Frank doesn’t make good driving music and I can’t see it being a hit single – but then, I didn’t think I’d hear a ballad about a teenaged couple’s abortion on the radio either, so what do I know? Compared to Brick, “I don’t know where I might be going / I rode the wind; the wind stopped blowing” is pretty tame.

Now that we’ve had some nice grown-up songs, the chorus of the song after On Being Frank is “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.” This is by far the silliest song on the record, and after dozens of listens, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be about. It’s fun to sing along to, so I don’t really care. And like most songs on this album, there’s a hint of something darker lurking underneath: “Is it all in my mind? I could have sworn I saw it / I thought I was fine, ’til ‘fine’ was what I called it.”

The first single off the album is Do It Anyway, a song that Folds basically wrote on the spot in the middle of a live show. He played the original recording during an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on Q and it was amazing just how much of the song sprang to life fully formed (you can hear it about 14:45 into that video clip). Folds recorded it on his phone, I believe, and I’d pay $1.29 for the iTunes download, just because it makes for such a neat b-side. Most of the song is about facing and ignoring your fears, not letting “good” judgment keep you from great experiences (I’ve already talked about what a questionable decision it may have been to write and release that song, given that Folds may never again be allowed to wisely decline any offer). And much like Draw A Crowd, this is a fun number that takes a melancholy turn: “It’s gonna be so very hard to say and watch the trust and joy all drain from her innocent face, but you must do it anyway / It sucks, but do it anyway.”

Michael Praytor, Five Years Later is a about those people that you never quite shake from your life, even though you never do anything to keep them around. The titular Praytor comes back every five years, “in film, divorced, inspired, engaged, in chemo, born again, and fired.” He also showcases a Ben Folds trademark – the dude loves to use proper names in his songs, and if they ever-so-coincidentally rhyme with what he wants to write about, so much the better. I find this affectation grating in some of Folds’ weaker songs, but I am perfectly fine with it here.

There are also a handful of slower songs on this album that didn’t really stand out as much to me. None of them are bad; just not as noteworthy. The album closes with three straight, and when driving around, I find I skip past them to get to some of the faster songs. This isn’t really fair – I especially enjoy Hold That Thought when I actually listen to it – but so it goes.

I was concerned about the Five three would come up with for their first album in over a decade. They’ve made some of my favourite records and I didn’t want anything that would tarnish their legacy. I’ve often said that Ben Folds is a great songwriter who would benefit from occasionally having an editor. He’s written some of my most-loved songs, along with a handful that I just can’t stand. And while there’s nothing here that will displace my very favourite BF5 song (Philosophy, if you were wondering) (or indeed if you weren’t), The Sound of the Life of the Mind doesn’t have anything that I really don’t care for; we get one classic, and a number of solid additions to the band’s repertoire. Folds has said that the recording sessions left them with enough material for two more albums, and I’m looking forward to them.

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SLCR #176: Ben Folds Five (September 29, 2012)

November 4, 2012

I’ve found myself in a bit of a pickle. I knew this review would be a long one, so I had really good intentions of getting it done right away. Now it’s over a month later and I have a four-show backlog, with three more concerts to come in November. I don’t like spending time on reviews that don’t make me proud, but right now I’ve found a reason to sit right down and shit some out.

Song lyric references, ladies and gentlemen!

In all fairness, in the past month, I started a new job, spent Thanksgiving weekend at the farm, and spent a long weekend in Las Vegas. I also drove 13 hours straight twice in three days for this very show. And it’s not like I got any less lazy lately.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: MY HISTORY WITH THE BAND

I never knew why the trio is called Ben Folds Five. I recently saw them on Colbert and they said it was just a joke that nobody thought was funny. Some Googling suggests that they thought the name sounded better than Ben Folds Three. Good enough.

For that matter, at first, I didn’t even know there was a guy named Ben Folds in the band. I thought it was just a statement, like, “Ben folds five towels” or something along those lines.

I had somehow developed a vague awareness of the band, but I first read about and heard BF5 in an issue of CMJ New Music Monthly, back in the days when you might be able to find out about new music via the internet, but you couldn’t actually listen to anything that way. CMJ was expensive for its time ($10 an issue, give or take) but it came packaged with a free CD. I was trying to do a little research online, trying to figure out which issues of CMJ I had (because this is much easier than going downstairs and pulling the CDs off the shelf) and holy crap, you guys, the magazines are all up on Google Books. THIS IS NOT HELPING ME FINISH THE REVIEW. But I do now know that the issue of CMJ that came with BF5’s song Army also had songs by Beulah, The Rentals, Fountains of Wayne, and “Steal My Sunshine” by Len. Wonderful. I also remember CMJ CDs with Squirrel Nut Zippers, OMC, White Town, Alanis Morissette (“You Oughta Know,” so nothing from her Robin Sparkles era), and The Presidents of the United States of America.

I would understand it if I am not selling you on this magazine. But I assure you that for a guy who had nothing more than one Top-40 station, it was a real treat. Mika bought me a subscription for my birthday sometime around 2006 and it just wasn’t the same. I’m sure the internet was hurting them – the magazine folded a few years later – but the CDs no longer felt like the songs had been picked by editors; more like space on the CD had been paid for. At least, I assume that’s how one of Motörhead’s songs about Triple H made the cut. But it’s equally possible that they were doing what they always did and it’s just that my perspective and tastes changed.

Anyway, I bought BF5’s second CD, Whatever And Ever Amen, based on hearing them in CMJ. I became a fan and just kinda kept up with things from there. Ben Folds Five broke up in 2000 and though I did finally get to see Ben Folds twice (on his own in Fargo in 2009, and earlier this year with the Edmonton Symphony), I was always a little bit sad that I never saw the trio. They got back together in 2008 for a one-off show where they played all of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (my favourite BF5 album) in its entirety. It was in North Carolina, a week before I was in North Carolina for a wedding, and I honestly considered changing my flight, booking an extra week off work, finding a hotel for that week, all that good stuff. Part of me still wishes that I’d done that. So about a year ago, when Ben Folds started talking about reuniting with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee for a new album and tour, I decided that somehow, I’d find my way to a show.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: THE TRAVELOGUE

Regina to Minneapolis is about a 13-hour drive if you don’t speed too badly. I was a bit of a wreck coming into Minneapolis (technically, St. Paul) (I bet they hate it when people do that), but I chalked that up to driving at night, going interstate speeds, not knowing where I was going. It didn’t help that my car is bad for road noise and I spent about an hour driving past “NO STOPPING” signs convinced that I had a flat tire due to the WUB WUB WUB WUB WUB noise. The rational part of me said that if I could steer and change lanes just fine, there was nothing wrong with the car (and there wasn’t), but the rational part of me gets shouted down a lot.

I was a wreck for the last hour of the drive back too, and I knew where I was and where I was going at all times. I learned something about myself driving 13 hours straight, and that is that I can only drive for 12 hours straight. But I’m skipping over things, such as the entire trip.

I found my hotel with a minimum of effort. I’d never used a GPS but it turns out they’re handy! Next time on James Reviews Technology From 10 Years Ago, I’m going to give a DVD player a (waitforit) spin. Do I still have to be kind and rewind?

The hotel was very cheap and looked it, but everything was clean enough and that’s about all I care about. I messaged Mika and CRZ to let them know that I’d arrived, and promptly slept really hard.

I woke up at a reasonable hour and headed out to find some breakfast. I settled for crazy American McDonalds, since it was nearby. This outing turned into multiple shopping trips, as my work no longer gives me a cell phone, and my pay-as-you-go Android phone (Galaxy Gio; recommendation to avoid, though it IS really cheap) won’t actually let you pay-as-you-go-into-the-United-States. My only means of communications was Facebook chat and FaceTime from my iPad via the hotel’s spotty Wi-Fi, so I’d head out, buy stuff, bring it back, check the iPad, head out some more, buy stuff, bring it back, etc. I was able to finally find Diet A&W Cream Soda, and I am saddened to report that it just isn’t as magical as the full-sugar variety. I also got limited edition Candy Corn Oreos, and – spoiler! – they weren’t very good.

Now, this review will wind up posted on CRZ’s message board if I ever finish it. It will also be emailed to people such as my mom, who didn’t read wrestling recaps during the Attitude Era, doesn’t really get what those words mean in that order, and probably thought my days of meeting internet strangers were long over. At least this time my dad didn’t make me have a secret code phrase to be used in the event I was kidnapped but allowed to call him but not allowed to tell him that I’d been kidnapped. (This is not a joke.) Since I’m writing this so late after the fact, I can add that my mom was seemingly much less concerned for my well-being, as she saw Facebook pictures of our historic meeting and only asked “who’s the guy with the hair?”

if I had to be kidnapped, I can think of nobody better to do it than CRZ, who picked me up at my hotel (on the second try) and introduced me to one of America’s culinary wonders. “Have you ever had a taco with a shell made out of Doritos?” I had not. I had somehow forgotten that such a thing existed and would have been super sad to return home without this experience. I can report that it tasted exactly like you’d expect, and should he ever feel the need, CRZ is more than welcome to drive 13 hours for the Pizza Hut hot dog stuffed crust monstrosity that we have here now.

We also visited his house; his workplace (outside only, so I’m not a YouTube sensation); a crazy surplus store that sells foreign keyboards, toilet decorations, and stoplights; a carpeted grocery store full of track athletes in their uniforms which exposed more butt cheek than I’d ever seen at a grocery store; and a drugstore full of holiday decorations with blinking lights (see above, re: YouTube sensation). We also went downtown so that I’d have an idea where the Ben Folds Five show would be and where I should park.

It’s okay, I’d forgotten that this was a concert review too.

After getting dropped off at my hotel, I felt no need for a pre-concert meal and instead headed straight downtown. CRZ’s instructions clashed slightly with my GPS – my GPS likes to clash ever so slightly with everyone’s instructions, as it turns out – but between the two of them I found a place to ditch the car and called it good. This was a risky venture due to my superhuman ability to get completely turned around and lost in even the most familiar of surroundings. Mika laughs at me because every time I come up from the underground parking at the mall, I can’t tell which direction is The Bay and which is Sears. It’s less amusing when you’re by yourself and you run the very real risk of forever losing your car in a foreign country. You might think I am making a joke. I assure you that the amount of effort I put into remembering where I parked was massive.

The show was at the Orpheum, continuing my two-show streak of seeing Ben Folds at lovely, new-to-me venues. Sorry, club in Fargo, you were fine enough but didn’t make the cut. Bob Dylan was once part-owner of the Orpheum, but the internet tells me that he sold his stake in it long ago. I didn’t see him there so that must be right.

I had never really looked at my ticket when it arrived in the mail, so I was delighted to find that I was sitting in the sixth row. Actually, it was the third, but there were a few extra rows of chairs set up at the front, filled with people wearing custom Ben Folds Five shirts that read “How’s the view back there?” on the back. Some sort of fan club deal or internet presale, I imagine.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: BEING SURROUNDED BY DRUNKEN YAHOOS

My seat was fantastic, apart from the seatmate on my left. While I played Angry Birds and Doodle Jump waiting for the show to start, this young man had a very animated discussion with his friend about how the show was going to be legit. No, wait – legitimate. He then went into detail about how legit an event has to be in order to merit the additional two syllables. I was fine with this up to a point. But the beer kept flowing, and nearly spilling, and soon I was sitting next to the one guy in the theatre who figures that he’s going to stand up for the whole show while everyone else is seated. His logic was that “it’s bullshit, man.” Eventually, the guy behind us convinced him of the error of his ways. I was in America, so I assume handguns were involved. I don’t know, I didn’t turn around.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: THE HALF-HEARTED ACTUAL REVIEW PART

Our opener was Kate Miller-Heidke, who you might remember from that time I saw Ben Folds in Fargo. This was a fine performance, though I think I preferred her set in Fargo. Her Minneapolis set was very short – 30 minutes on the nose. It’s rare that I wish an opening act stayed longer. She did sing one song that kinda felt like it should have come with a trigger warning. Not that someone can’t sing about such things but it seemed out of place in an otherwise fun set that included her covering The Real Slim Shady. I think the same whenever Ben Folds plays Brick; I know it was a hit but subject-matter-wise, it just doesn’t feel like it fits with the rest of the evening.

Finally, Ben Folds Five took the stage for a show I’d been waiting over a decade for. At the start, it felt like it wasn’t going to be able to live up to how I’d built it up in my head. The first half of the show mixed a lot of new songs with some of the slower BF5 tunes – Missing The War, Alice Childress, Selfless Cold & Composed, Magic, and of course Brick – and it felt like there could have been some more energy. (Though I was truly delighted to get Jackson Cannery, which is not only a great song but also a great fake name to use when you have to fill out a web form.) But by the time the show ended, I thought it was one of the best that I’ve been to all year. I went to the show with one song request, Philosophy, and I was thrilled that they played it. Better, they followed it up with Kate, Song for the Dumped, and Army, making for four back-to-back BF5 classics.

In fact, here’s the whole setlist since someone was kind enough to post it online:

01. Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
02. Missing the War
03. Hold That Thought
04. Jackson Cannery
05. Selfless, Cold and Composed
06. Erase Me
07. Alice Childress
08. Sky High
09. Landed
10. Magic
11. Battle of Who Could Care Less
12. Do It Anyway
13. Brick
14. Draw a Crowd
15. Best Imitation of Myself
16. Philosophy
17. Kate
18. Song for the Dumped
19. Army
~encore break~
20. Underground (preceded by people yelling song requests and an impromptu number called “We Already Started Playing Another Song”)
21. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces

Fans of Ben Folds’ solo stuff might have been disappointed; only one song (Landed) came from the solo albums. Everything else was released by Ben Folds Five, including eleven songs from the first two albums alone. There were only two songs from Reinhold Messner; I KNEW I should have spent that extra week in North Carolina. But apart from that, I was really pleased with the setlist. I didn’t want this to just be a Ben Folds solo show with some extra musical accompaniment.

At one point, Ben was talking about one part of one song that he always screws up and someone shouted out “DO IT ANYWAY!” It occurred to me that writing a song called Do It Anyway and releasing it as a single might have been a bad idea. He’ll be hearing that for the rest of his life whenever he doesn’t feel 100% in to something. “I’ve always wanted to skydive but I’m terrified of heights.” “Dessert? I don’t know, I’m really full.” “But if I pull the pin on this grenade, we’ll all die!”

After waiting so long (and driving so long), it was hard not to feel like the show was over too soon. Looking at the setlist, it’s clear that the show was show-length and I had nothing to complain about. And by and large, I got all the songs I wanted. Ending on One Angry Dwarf was a highlight. But all too quickly, we were headed out the door while the theme to The Rockford Files played. The guy sitting to my right (i.e., not the drunk) really enjoyed the reference to Rockford in the song Battle of Who Could Care Less and I’m pretty sure the actual Rockford theme was his favourite song of the night.

Following my escape from downtown Minneapolis, I grabbed a late dinner at Wendy’s (this would turn out to be a bad idea), stopped at my hotel to eat and wash up, and then headed back out to meet CRZ and his wife Kim (who I also know from these very internets) at the Turf Club to see The Zoobombs.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: ARBITRARY AND CONVENIENT RULES

In the past, I have used “I don’t want to review shows by friends of friends” to shirk my writing obligations, and I’m going to do that here to avoid writing a separate review, even though none of us had even heard of The Zoobombs before. CRZ was there to see the opening acts, Birthday Suits and Still Pacific, which both include people that he knows. Good enough for me. I arrived too late to see either of them, so I’ll officially review them as follows: A+++++++ five stars awesome would see again. CRZ, feel free to tell them they can quote me.

I would actually go see The Zoobombs again, though we don’t get a ton of Japanese bands through middle-of-nowhere, Canada, so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get the opportunity. Wikipedia tells me they’re from Tokyo. It also tells me that they’ve opened for The Flaming Lips and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and that their bass player is named Moostop, which is fantastic. (I don’t want to speak for Wikipedia, so I’ll clarify that I added the last bit, though I think the awesomeness of the name Moostop was implied in the article.)

From the show, I can tell you that they’re very loud and very good and they aren’t going to bother to stop just so you can clap for them. They WILL stop if the drummer – whose name is Pocky, says Wikipedia – wrecks his bass drum from rocking too hard (“Broken,” he said) and they need to borrow a bass drum from one of the openers, but that’s it.

CONCERT REVIEW TROPE: CHICKEN

Once The Zoobombs were done wrecking up the place and CRZ had bought one of everything, Kim said “Chris tells me you’ve never had White Castle.” Which I have not, and didn’t even know was a thing in this part of America. For ease of navigation, it was decided that I would go back to my hotel, and they’d arrive shortly thereafter with food. This is how I ate four fast-food meals in one day, and why I woke up with the most incredible food hangover I ever did have. Am I the only one who gets that? If you eat too much bad-for-you food too close to bed, you wake up feeling hung over even though you didn’t drink?

It was worth it, though. I’ve been craving White Castle ever since I got back, but even if I didn’t like the food, it was worth it just for the sight of CRZ and Kim showing up with a freaking cardboard SUITCASE full of cheeseburgers. I mean, I knew that Crave Cases existed. And I knew from the size of it how many cheeseburgers there would be inside, but I still wasn’t ready for the actual sight of 30 cheeseburgers all lined up and ready to go. And because three people obviously need more than 30 cheeseburgers, they also showed up with bags (multiple!) of chicken rings. These are exactly what you’d expect – chicken finger type things in ring form. I do not know why they are rings. I do not care. They are tasty in ranch dip and I generally don’t even care for dip.

I forgot to give them the leftovers when they went home, so my room smelled like White Castle cheeseburgers (which is to say, Lipton onion soup mix) all night. This is why I had dreams where people were feeding me and I was begging them to stop. And in the morning, I didn’t have so much as a glass of water until I made it to Fergus Falls, Minnesota and their fine Subway. You know I’m coming off a bad eating day if I’m really pumped for vegetables. I made up for it later by buying a jar of fried apples at Bismarck’s Cracker Barrel, but they are, to this date, unopened.