The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner

Ben Folds Five

550 Music, 1999

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Writing reviews is one weird gig. With me at least, they're sometimes longer being born than the McCaughey septuplets. And then sometimes lightning strikes…

While shopping for my nephew's birthday, I spot Ben Folds Five's new disc The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner. This isn't hard to do given that the cover is a bizarro black, white and red movie-poster image, a multiple exposure of an oddly sinister man in a double-breasted white suit. The band's 1997 album Whatever And Ever Amen remains a favorite of mine, with its alternately sad, sardonic, angry and blissed-out attitude coupled with wildly creative piano-bass-drums musical backing. Still, I'm shopping for my nephew, not me…

Two for him, one for me, I think.

I've got six minutes between Borders and home in the car, long enough for maybe one song after I'm done wrestling the shrinkwrap into submission at the first stoplight. Four bars into "Narcolepsy" I know I made the right choice. It opens in classic Ben Folds Five style -- all of them. Folds begins solo on the piano massaging a soft, bluesy melody - that suddenly jolts into a rippling, baroque arpeggio -- that just as suddenly explodes as Robert Sledge's fuzzed-out banshee bass and Darren Jessee's crashing drums and a goddamned string quartet all plow into you at once, rumbling and careening around like a psychedelic orchestral thunderstorm.

And then it's back to Folds solo on the piano again beneath his plaintive voice as he spins the tale of a guy who literally shuts down every time anyone outside himself challenges him to feel a real emotion. Calling this song "different" is like calling Slobodan Milosevic "testy."

The amazing part is how the band throws everything -- kitchen sink and all the cabinets, too -- into this song and it all holds together in one exhilirating burst of sonic surprise. The ever-evolving Folds style is so original -- so melodic and yet aggressive, so urgent and bouncy and yet often sadly matter-of-fact, that the comparisons really get lost. A little Joe Jackson in the punk attitude and the fondness for big band music, to be sure, a dash of McCartney in some of the nakedly romantic pop tunes, yes. Maybe even a pinch of Freddie Mercury in the showmanship and the occasional layered vocal chorus. But the truth is Ben Folds Five sounds like nothing you've ever heard before -- nothing.

The song fades with "I'm not tired / I'm not tired / I'm not tired / I just sleep." I check the booklet and note that the string quartet -- frequently supplemented by a flugelhorn -- is utilized on about 2/3 of the songs. A flugelhorn. With that I come to my senses sitting in my garage with the engine off muttering "f#@$ing genius" under my breath.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The next morning on the way to work the treats emerging from my car's CD player include the exquisitely melancholy -- yet somehow also indescribably loopy -- "Don't Change Your Plans," with its Chicago bridge (flugelhorn, anyone?), and the Jessee-penned, simply stunning "Magic." A classic BFF ballad in the "Brick" neighborhood, it's all gorgeous piano lines, deadpan vocal delivery and a devastatingly raw and beautiful lyric ("You're the magic that holds the sky up from the ground... Trading places with an angel now").

"Genius," I mutter again, pulling into a parking space at work.

Lunchtime. I'm parked in a dead-end a block from my office eating in my car and listening to "Army" for the first time. This qualifies me for Daily Vault writer's combat pay, since the lyric keeps making me cackle out loud with my mouth full and there's no one in sight I could possibly lip-sync "Heimlich manuever" to.

"Well I thought about the Army / Dad said, 'Son, you're f#@$ing high' / And I thought, 'Yeah there's a first for everything' / So I took my old man's advice / Three sad semesters / It was only 15 grand spent in bed / I thought about the army / I dropped out and joined a band instead…"

Beyond his talent for painting cool shades of sad confusion, there is probably no one sharper and funnier out there today than Ben Folds at matter-of-factly skewering the lives of the self-absorbed and semi-delusional. The narrator of "Army" is the kind of endlessly scheming, absurdly romantic and shamelessly pathetic character Woody Allen used to write for himself before he turned into a bitter, self-worshipping old bastard. You can tell Folds identifies with the fellow in "Army," and yet he never flinches in his description of the ludicrous fantasies that propel him blindly through life.

On the way home I'm entertained by the clever "Your Most Valuable Possession" (whose chief lesson seems to be never to erase the really interesting phone messages friends and family leave on your machine when they're half-asleep). But then Folds turns back to nailing hard emotional truths… to a lounge piano beat. The music to "Regrets" bounces along deceptively underneath a brutally honest lyric: "I thought about… all the great ideas I had / And how we just made fun / Of those who had the guts to try and fail."

Just about every song on this disc offers a piercing lyric or killer keyboard tone or exotic percussion run or thundering bass line or whacked-out time signature that flat-out startles you with its inventiveness and brilliant incorporation into the rest of the tune. It's such blindingly original music that you almost lose track of the bare fact that, despite its complexity, it is completely guitarless and almost completely acoustic. Even Folds' own tongue-in-cheek label for the band's genre -- "punk for sissies" -- is deceptively limiting. No category can hold these guys, or would dare try.

Our story ends with your scribe scribbling the above paragraph furiously on the bag that had earlier contained his lunch as he inches down the rush-hour-clogged freeway toward home, navigating by peripheral vision, using the steering wheel as his desktop, stopping between words to shift gears, energized by the realization that he's crafted the guts of a full-blown 1,000-word review in a handful of stolen moments over the first 24 hours he's owned the disc… only to realize all at once what the drivers around him must be seeing: a dangerously obsessive-compulsive writer-geek incapable of turning off the voices in his head long enough to get himself home in one piece.

I may just have to change my name to Reinhold Messner.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 1999 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 550 Music, and is used for informational purposes only.