Ben Folds Five
Ben’s Biography leaves you wanting moreBy Daniel J. Katz
Every Ben Folds Five album proves a point. Their self-titled debut album demonstrated that you could make rock music with piano, bass and drums. Their sophomore effort, Whatever and Ever Amen, proved that their music to be introspective and emotional. And now that the band (which incidentally, consists of three, not five members) has proved themselves with their minimalist equipment and broken through to the mainstream via the incessant airplay of “Brick,” they’ve released their newest album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. It’s a worthy forty minutes of new material which illustrate their ability to develop and make dramatic changes to their sound.
To the die-hard Ben Folds Five fan, “drastic changes” sounds like a bad idea. In reality, some of the experimental aspects of this album work and some don’t. To the average music fan, “forty minutes” sounds like a bad thing... and it is. While the mood of the album thrashes around and leaps from style to style, it’s all over far too quickly. We are given ten songs and a music-backed answering machine message, which, the truth told, is mildly inspiring, but not as much fun as the one on the hidden track of Placebo’s Without You I’m Nothing.
The only real vestige of the band’s popular fast-paced piano-slamming “punk rock for geeks” is the current single, “Army,” which is backed by a screamingly powerful arrangement of vicious bass and brassy horns. the horn section, by the way, makes a number of appearances on this album, and it includes John Mark Pinter of Fleming and John and several members of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Besides “Army,” half of Messner is made up of drifting, jazzy numbers in the style of “Fair” and “Selfless, Cold, and Composed” from the last album. “Mess” is a moving combination of honkytonk and strings that perfectly captures the image of a lonely cowboy. “Hospital Song” sounds like a swirling keyboard rendition of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” “Magic,” written by promising songwriter and drummer Darren Jessee, uses tumbling arpeggios and dynamic contrasts in the vein of Tori Amos.
The remainder of the album is a showcase for new tricks from the trio, including synthesized organs (“Jane”) and drum ‘n’ bassy breakbeats (lounge-into-rock opera “Regrets.”) The opening track, “Narcolepsy” has a tremendous identity crisis. It begins as a peaceful classical piano instrumental, until the bass, strings, and drums enter and all hell breaks loose. The most uncharacteristic song is among the catchiest: “Your Redneck Past” is an anthem for rednecks that replaces Sledge’s bass with a synthesizer that bends and scrambles bass notes into oblivion, producing an unnatural but interesting sound as a result. This track is an excellent example of the album’s “new sound,” which seems awkward and frustrating until you get used to it, after which it starts to sound rather innovative.
It’s strange, but while The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is an excellent album, it still leaves you unsatisfied. Perhaps it’s the short length, of which too much time goes to wastes of time like the gospel-like closer, “Lullabye,” and the long instrumental jaunts at the end of some of the songs. Maybe it’s the lack of the energetic rock that we expected after hearing the band’s earlier albums. Perhaps it’s the various extensions into new genres that just don’t seem to go all the way.
Still, for whatever reason the album seems incomplete, it’s got some unforgettable songs and in its entirety it is a pleasant listen. I do recommend it, but be aware that it’s like chinese food -- soon you’ll be hungry for seconds.