By Jim Schutze
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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.
"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.