Ben Folds Five
Passenger Records, 1995
REVIEW BY: Greg Calhoun
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/25/2010
Ben Folds Five's self-titled debut is full of the energy of its era. Self-described as "punk rock for sissies," Folds and company successfully navigated the punk and grunge scene without a single guitar. The album's enthusiastic rock has Folds' vocal melodies and piano riffing backed by an alternative band's rhythm section, complete with an often fuzz-distorted bass. By reinventing the piano trio, the band revived piano rock and it is easy to see why in the songwriting. This album supports its witty, humorous, silly, and even sentimental lyrics with flavorful hooks, jazz-inspired changes, and intense instrumentals.
“Jackson Cannery” is an up-tempo power-pop piece that starts the show with Folds pounding on the keys. The song has tasty drum and bass fills in all the right places to accent Folds’ piano work as he sings about witnessing a mental breakdown on a bus. The bridge provides a soft dynamic of relief before ratcheting up for the close.
“Philosophy” starts off with a smooth piano lick before the rest of the band joins in the mid-tempo fun. The group utilizes back-up vocals very well and the keyboard instrumental solo lines are some of the most memorable to fans and have become a staple of the live show. “Where’s Summer B?” picks up the pace slightly as Folds sings about growing up. Some of his friends, like some of ours, have come out, or felt the pain of divorce, while others dress the same and smoke the same. And they all wonder where has summer gone, the great loss of youthful freedom and carelessness. The relaxed and jazzy bridge matches summer’s attitude and cools down the questioning mantra before setting up the final chorus.
“I was never cool in school / I’m sure you don’t remember me,” is the beginning of “Underground.” Folds and crew wanted to get the punk kids dancing and he wrote a groove that can’t be resisted. The song is a fun take on how we deal with the awkwardness of youth. “Uncle Walter” is a bass-heavy rocker that takes the humor up a level. Folds sings about being left with a friend’s drunkard uncle who is cocksure that he knows everything and that everyone else should listen to his ideas. “Uncle Walter” will put a smile on your face and have you thinking about the Uncle Walter in your life during the catchy bass and piano dueling solo that closes the track.
Lest you think Ben Folds Five was just a frivolous band with some witty lines, they show you a sentimental side in “Best Imitation of Myself” and “Boxing.” The latter shows storytelling prowess and could be part of a musical score, but “Best Imitation” is one of the best cuts on the record. “Maybe I’m thinking myself in a hole,” starts the third verse, “wondering who I am when I ought to know / Straighten up, now time to go / Fool somebody else.” The band captures the essence of playing pretend to fit in. They take it a step further by alluding that entertainers are forced to play the game of illusions more than the rest of us in order to succeed.
Ben Folds Five is an excellent debut that resuscitated the use of piano in pop-rock when it was drowning in the wake of distortion pedals and peaking amps. The band showed they could be wild, empathetic, goofy, and sincere, all while writing catchy songs. This album reminds us of the power of simplicity – much can be done with just a piano, a bass guitar, and a set of drums.