Freedom of choice

Ben Folds Five: a revolution in genre-bending

"I was really nervous that we'd made way too dark a record," Sledge recalls. "I didn't leave the session thinking that any of the songs were singles, and 'Brick' I definitely didn't think was a single," he laughs.

But time would prove him wrong--"Brick"'s pretty tune and sad story currently rest at No. 6 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart. The band prefers that listeners decide for themselves whether the song is about a clandestine abortion, and fans relentlessly debate that topic and many others on Web pages like "Helmet Heads" and an electronic mailing list called "The Magical Armchair."

Many of the numerous Web pages devoted to the band are filled with heartfelt tributes like "I felt so connected to them, like they were singing to me personally," and "If I had a soundtrack to my life, it would be them." This kind of devotion has helped the band keep Whatever and Ever Amen, their '97 release, on the Billboard top 200 album chart for the last 17 weeks; it has also helped them elude the critical backlash and collective yawn many strong rookie bands hear right before the public moves on to the next buzz band or wicked trend.

Of course, the band's strong dynamics, pounding piano, thrashing drums, and gymnastic melodies have a little to do with their success too. Sledge maintains that this very physical sound has always been as much a product of discussion as rehearsal. "We did a whole lot of talking and a whole lot of playing to get that sound," he explains with a laugh. "Ben writes about things that have happened to him and people he knows really well. It seems like what he's saying is the same stuff that people in the folk world say, but we've got this rock band that's doing it, so we're trying to have a few different levels to the music, where one thing could pull your attention at any given time."

Sledge says the sound gets even more extemporaneous as the road becomes longer and rehearsal time is less available. "We play live so much that most of the stuff we do is stuff we talked about during the afternoon; it's not even rehearsed or really tried before we do it," he admits. "We just talk each other's ears off. A really small amount of it's actual playing together."

Conversation as a central element in their creativity makes sense, given how much of Ben Folds Five's spark comes from the deft way their style conveys to the audience the band's own enthusiasm as music listeners. Each of the three members dumps widely varying influences into the kitty, sometimes creating a whirlwind effect within the confines of a song like "Julienne," which jumps from sultry samba to crashing train wreck in the span of three minutes.

"There's a couple of common threads, but we all kinda come from different backgrounds, which is cool," Sledge explains. "You can learn a lot from other people if they know a lot about their subject and are sincerely committed to their style."

As Folds' taste for jazz and Broadway nuances overlap drummer Jessee's Elvis Costello influence--and both occasionally submit to Sledge's taste for all things metallic--it becomes apparent that they're better for incorporating each other's knowledge. The band may indeed be as musically talkative as the Attractions and as punishing as Slayer, but it's Folds' showboating ethic--borne of the great white way--that truly sets them apart, despite the unpleasant "nerd rock" tag implied in some circles. The band embraces every bit of its lineage, however, and Sledge says they have accomplished something most bands don't: They found a niche to fill.

"We were kinda like the wussy rock of Chapel Hill, but people really liked it," he laughs. "You get a piano and your 'ooh la la la' and 'ahs' in the background vocals, and [you're] arranging, really thinking about what notes fall in what place and the lyrical quality of a bass riff. I thought it was just great to do it like that. You can be really dramatic."

When Folds' piano becomes both a conduit of his deep thoughts and a weapon of mass destruction, Sledge's bass percolates and sighs with the shifting landscapes. Jessee's drumming conducts an ongoing conversation with the melody through bold, jazzy strokes, ardent pounding, and intricate shading--and there is definitely drama to spare. But it is ultimately the listener who invests Ben Folds Five's music with its real power. Each stirring, lonely ballad--every wacky, free-wheeling rocker--and all the fire-breathing, sarcastic rants are a hymn to the common geek in us all, and a declaration of musical freedom: to like what we choose and choose what we like.

Ben Folds Five plays Deep Ellum Live Wednesday, February 11. Robbie Fulks opens.

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