The Sound of the Life of the Mind
By Al Kaufman
It’s been 13 years since the last Ben Folds Five album, The rather lackluster The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. In the intervening years, Folds has cobbled together a rather successful solo career, including the brilliant Lonely Avenue, a collaboration with author Nick Hornby. He produced Amanda Palmer’s first solo CD, the delicious Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, and, of course, he seemed to truly enjoy his gig as judge on NBC’s foray into talent shows, The Sing-Off. Drummer Darren Jessee started the under-appreciated band, Hotel Lights, in which he also serves as chief songwriter. And bassist Robert Sledge formed the creatively named Bob Sledge Band. The band reunited in 2011 for a few new songs in the Folds retrospective, The Best Imitation of Myself, and it felt good enough to keep on going.
Ben Folds (with or without The Five) has always been a bit of an acquired taste. His rock songs are either clever and riotous or smarmy, arrogant, and pubescent. His ballads are either emotionally raw or maudlin. For those who love him, and have cringed as his solo work began to slip into boring adult contemporary, there is a lot to revere in The Sounds of the Life of the Mind.
“Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” is typical Folds; a bouncy piano line, great harmonies, and a story of seeing a friend you thought you’d never see again who had not come close to living up to his potential, or, as Folds puts it, “It was the opposite of ‘Fire and Rain.'” “Draw a Crowd” offers up the potent advice for people trying to make it big: “If you’re feeling small and you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.” It is a refrain so damn catchy you’ll find yourself singing it in many an inappropriate place.
“Do It Anyway” is a whirling dervish of a melody in which Folds encourages you to follow your dreams, regardless of what those around you think, and “On Being Frank” is a pretty ballad about an assistant to Mr. Sinatra who has felt lost since Francis Albert died.
But the two greatest things on this album (which, yes, does include a few middle of the road snoozers) are “Erase Me” and the title track. “Erase Me” opens the CD. With its discordant keys and tempo changes, the song is full of piss and vinegar as Folds spits venom at yet another woman who has dumped him. Call it “Song for the Dumped Part II,” but just as good. “The Sound of the Life of Your Mind” is a Folds/Hornby collaboration that never made it on Lonely Avenue. Folds was smart enough to realize that it needed to be released. It’s a delicate story of a girl who realizes her vacuous friends don’t satisfy her. While her friends go to the mall and watch boys fight, she is afraid to introduce them to poetry from Keats and Frost. Her character is lovingly penned by Hornby and the music compliments the story warmly and earnestly.
Folds plans to tour with the trio through 2013, then record a classical album and tour with symphonies in 2014, so he does not expect to release another Ben Folds Five album until at least 2015. As long as they continue to be this good, they are worth the wait. See them tomorrow night, Tuesday, September 18th, at The Tabernacle.