Freedom of choice

Ben Folds Five: a revolution in genre-bending

In the business of alternative music--where the clock is always ticking on a band's continued relevance and getting to the point is considered bad taste--Ben Folds Five is an unlikely success story. Any other focused, passionate, guitarless band that writes show tunes for headbangers would have easily been branded a novelty act by now and punted off of radio's short mortal coil. But when pianist Ben Folds (31), bassist Robert Sledge (29), and drummer Darren Jessee (26) get a groove on, they crash, growl, and emote with the intensity of Henry Rollins, sans the muzzled-marine visage or tattooed-poet trappings. By contrast, theirs is the kind of confessional punk burlesque you can sing along to, mixing the '70s' singer-songwriter legacy with the '90s' appetite for spin-cycle blending of beats and genres.

Their free-range approach to music yields a potent mix of bone-baring confessionals, hard-charging rock songs, big-band- and Latin-flavored stomps, and cheeky pop confections; they don't apologize for shunning a genre-specific identifier and blending it all to their own taste. The band doesn't have a specific message, either, aside from the facts that they don't bother to feign indie-cred coolness, they don't brag about being big in Europe and Japan (although they are revered in both places), and they don't care whether people understand why they are called Five but are in fact three (the alliteration sounded cool, says Folds). They just keep squeezing out dynamic four-minute character studies with whiplash ferocity and making catcalls from the peanut gallery of life--where the target might be a saint, a creep, a turncoat friend, an annoying scenester, a snotty child, the object of a desperate crush, or a cold lover who smiles like a bank teller during their big breakup scene.

The band's third album, Naked Baby Photos, is a collection of some of Ben Folds Five's best in a scrapbook of live shots, inspired improvs, and songs cut from other releases, and it both glorifies and tweaks the band at various stages of its career. The performances are universally passionate and funny, and the consistently fine sound quality makes one forget that these are odds and ends.

"We've recorded every show, and we've done a lot of really stupid things in radio stations that have been recorded," says Robert Sledge on the phone from the band's hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "There were a few stock jokes I think that needed to be put out there that people liked and wanted to hear, so it was good fun."

Included in the divine comedy Sledge alludes to is the death-metal gospel tune "Satan Is My Master," as well as the band's impression of a neutered Iron Maiden in "The Ultimate Sacrifice." There's the hilarious extended sound check jam "For Those of Y'all Who Wear Fanny Packs," a cut that made it to the record by the grace of a technician who happened to leave the tape recorder running while he took a break.

Concert recordings of "Underground" and "Song For The Dumped" showcase the band's keen ability to take quirky, funky songs and beat them senseless in front of an audience. Great numbers like "Tom & Mary" and "Emaline" finally see the light of day after being cut from the band's 1995 debut. Naked Baby Photos also resurrects "Eddie Walker" and "Jackson Cannery" from the band's first independent 7" single, and it's an amazingly prescient blast of the wit, presence, and bravura musicianship that would quickly become their hallmark.

The group's piano-based power-trio style was formed in 1994 when Folds returned to Chapel Hill after stints doing musical theater in New York and toiling in the Miami lounge scene. Folds' brother introduced him to Sledge, and with the addition of Jessee, the three decided to let the air out of the supposition that literate songwriting and lovely melodies belong in the top-40 trash heap.

They went forward with the inspired idea that Nirvana, The Clash, and Cole Porter could have made a great record together, and used a couple of demo tapes Folds had recorded in Nashville as the blueprint to the new band's sound. After just three months of tinkering and fine-tuning, they recorded the "Eddie Walker" b/w "Jackson Cannery" for the 7-inch single that caught the attention of Caroline Records, who went on to release the band's self-titled debut the following year. By the end of 1996, that album's raucous, eloquently barbed first single, "Underground," ruled the country's hippest airwaves, and the band was hailed as the new saviors of pop music, their success confirming that the public's appetite for grunge and slacker anthems was waning. Next came the proverbial major-label bidding war, won by Sony with a sweet deal that included a hefty advance and true creative control. "When [the labels] came to us, we kinda figured out early on, there's only really three people who know what we're doing, and that's us," Sledge says.

This confident stance allowed the band to grab their recording budget, record their sophomore effort themselves at Folds' small brick house, and tell the record company, "We'll talk about it after it's done." Whatever and Ever Amen vindicated the group and their hands-off insistence; the record's darker, more personal tone and stellar songwriting proved that the band was more than just happy cynics of the clever, jaded gen-X variety.

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