Ben Folds: The up and coming hero of rock pianoBy Joel Rosenberg
Ben Folds makes Billy Joel look like a lounge act. With all of the gimmicks that bands go for these days, the guitarless piano-bass-drums trio Ben Folds Five (it sounds cooler than Ben Folds Three, according to the band) wins as the most original and most entertaining. You've never heard a piano sound like this, as Folds' drumming training comes through in the catchy tunes he bangs out on his baby grand.
Reminiscent of 80s pop, it has a definitely 90s feel and lyrics that should be official songs of MIT. The opening track "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" on their sophomore album, Whatever and Ever Amen, tells it all - "Now I'm big and important/One angry dwarf and 200 solemn faces are you/If you really want to see me check the papers and the TV/Looks who's telling who what to do/Kiss my ass, goodbye." As Folds says, "It's a revenge anthem." Perfect.
The whole album is great, and while not a complete departure from their self-titled first release, the songs are more introspective and restrained, telling stories of people you still don't know (much like the first album), but in a more subtle kind of way. The track "Brick" describes complications in a relationship in the style "that's what happened, and it sucks," instead of the more traditional "my life sucks because that's what happened." Right out of that relatively depressing song is some banter from the band and then a rock-and-rollesque screamed count-off leading to "Song for the Dumped," which turns slightly less touching as Ben screams, "Give me my money back, you bitch." Don't worry - Ben's luck has improved since he recently got married.
"Cigarette" is a great Folds solo number, and "Steven's Last Night in Town" features the Klezmatics (clarinets are all too rare on rock and roll albums), Ben on the melodica (like a harmonica except with a keyboard instead of lots of little holes), and another inexplicable plot without further explanation (easily found at http://www.bffweb.com).
As with their first album, they choose to open big and end mellow. "Evaporated" is "about loss" and leaves you waiting for their next record.
Putting out albums is only half the act, though, as they've been touring with Jewel, solo touring, and will be opening for Counting Crows for the next few weeks before hitting the clubs. There's no Boston date yet, but there will be if there's any justice in the world. The show is incredible, as Folds kicks the crap out of his piano by pounding it, jumping on it, walking over it, and generally abusing it while having a great time with the audience.
The band prides itself on not being cool. There are too many shiny bands out there, and their "matte finish" catches the ear just right. Ben's voice isn't perfect, either, and tends to be either "love it or hate it." In context, I don't think there's much question.
A year ago almost nobody had heard of Ben Folds Five. Today, still not many people have heard of Ben Folds Five. But that's about to change. Sony has gotten themselves a piece of the "next big thing" in a classic label bidding war, and hopefully they won't screw it up. If they let the boys keep doing what they've been doing, screwing up will be almost impossible.
Ben should be the posterchild for piano lessons. If you played once and quit, maybe you'll be inspired to try again. And if not, at least you can hear what rock piano is supposed to sound like.