Ben and I in love.
I was introduced to Ben Folds in a pretty normal way. I heard his song, "Battle of Who Could Care Less," on the radio in Ithaca, NY. I was working as a carpenter at the Hangar Theatre the summer after my freshman year of college, 1997. In the shop, we listened to all of our CDs quite a bit (the cd player was one of those 6 disc car changers so we would get bored of 6 albums at a time), but when the radio was on, it was tuned to the Ithaca College station, WICB 91.7fm. They played "Battle..." a lot that summer and I fell in love with the funny, anti-slacker lyrics. I thought Ben Folds was mocking my friends (I knew people who dressed like the Cure in high school) and that it was hilarious.
What does he sound like? The band was known for it's guitar-less lineup of piano, drums and bass. Ben's been called the American Elton John or the Billy Joel of our generation, but he's got too many roots in 80s hair metal for those comparisons. Most of the people who read this crazy thing prolly know already but for those of you who don't, the simplest way to describe Ben Folds is piano-driven pop rock.
On a whim at the indy record store in Ithaca, I acquired (that's a whole 'nother blog) Ben Folds Five's second record, Whatever and Ever Amen. It's a stellar album to this day. (Check out the newly released remastered version with some great bonus tracks.) The comical simplicity of tracks like "Song For The Dumped" and "Stephen's Last Night In Town" is deceptive. Ben's songwriting is unfettered with pretension, yet there is a lot of subtlety to it. It's hard to explain, but trust me, it rocks.
I introduced Whatever... to my blogmate, Ian, and he loved it so much that he got Ben Folds Five's self-titled disc, which came out in 1995. At first, I was skeptical of listening to another album. I loved Whatever... so much that I didn't want to spoil it with what the band did before. I needn't have worried, the record has so many gems on it that I actually like it better now. "Best Imitation of Myself" is pure genius, describing the posturing we go through in order to impress. And "Underground" is an anthem for all the kids who didn't like sports or pep rallies and found nose rings attractive (Even that's an over-simplification, because that song also satirizes those same people for their backwards pretension. See, I told you it was complicated.)
The music is also really fun to sing. I don't have a good voice, I'm pretty much tone-deaf, but I love to sing to music on the radio, especially in the car. Ben Fold's songs usually have lots of backing vocals (especially the 1st album) and a driving, almost Showtune-like, melody to the lyrics that you can't refuse to rock out to. And when you're going from Point A to Point B, nothing passes the time like an impromptu air piano session. My favorite air piano song is actually on the 3rd album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and is called "Narcolepsy," but "Philosophy" comes in a close second, if only for the Gershwin solo.
...Messner has one song that pretty much sums up my friendship with Ian. In 1999, he was moving to Vancouver to go to film school and we wouldn't see each other for over a year. The last day before he left, we were driving home from UConn and "Don't Change Your Plans" came on. The song describes a guy who is on the West Coast and is nostalgic for home ("The leaves are falling back East/That's where I'm gonna stay") and someone he left behind. I'm not sure exactly why, but the lyrics seemed to be about Ian and I, about a friend leaving but also knowing that the leaving needs to be done. We cried like idiots, driving on Rte. 395.
After that, I was hooked. I've bought (or acquired) nearly every recording that he's ever released. Mr. Folds parted peacefully with Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge in 2000, most probably because he was tired of explaining the numerical joke in the band's name. Ben Folds Five only had 3 members. His first solo record, Rockin' The Suburbs, is a more mature record, if that means anything. Somewhere in there, he got married and had kids (twins!) so the songs are more about growing up as opposed to idolizing youth. The thing with his writing is, even though he is over ten years older than me, I always feel that he is singing about how it feels to be me. "Still Fighting It" is ostensibly written for his son, but the line that most resonates with me is "Everybody knows/It's hurts to grow up." I am 26, soon to be 27, and I am still fighting it.
Ben rocking out with his new bassist, Jared Reynolds.
Another more personal song of note on ...Suburbs is the last track, "The Luckiest." Mephistopholes and I have gone to see Ben in Central Park the last two years. The first time he played a double-bill with Aimee Mann and sang "The Luckiest" to us directly, or so it seemed. The song is an unsappy love song, Ben the songwriter is overly conscious of being cheesy and the result is a true representation of what it's like to be in love and want to grow old with someone. When I was getting married, I wasn't really nervous. Many grooms go through self-doubt or second-guessing but I knew exactly what I was doing and I was glad to commit to Mephistopholes forever. But I wanted to be nervous. I wanted to anticipate the day with a combination of fear and excitement. So I tried to learn how to sing, "The Luckiest." I'll repeat, I'm not a singer and it's very difficult for me to hold a note, but I rehearsed the song for weeks leading up to the big day. I just wanted it to be passable. When I took the mic at the reception and sang the first verse, there was not a dry eye in the house. People tell me it's because it was sweet, but I know it's really because the cracking voice hurt their ears so badly.
Anyway, after ...Suburbs, Ben came out with yet another grammatical joke with the live album, Ben Folds Live. It's just him with a piano playing his tunes solo. The most striking part is that there are so many fans who enjoy singing his music that he decides to capitalize on it. During "Not The Same," he splits the crowd into a 3 part harmony which sounds as good as a choir, and in "Army" he says, "This side's trumpets, this side's saxophones," and amazingly, that's what it sounds like. In the accompanying DVD, you can see him conduct the crowd like a maestro while standing on the piano.
This brings up a whole other quality to the Ben Folds catalog, his many side-projects and under-released recordings. From Naked Baby Photos, a collection of live and b-sides which came out just after Whatever..., to producing William Shatner's Has Been, Ben has quite a library built up after only 10 years. Shatner's album has some great guest stars like Aimee Mann and Henry Rollins and some intense songs about the tribulations of Captain Kirk, but the signature track is "Common People," a Pulp cover with a rocking chorus from Joe Jackson. More recently, Ben Folds collaborated on an EP with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller called The Bens. It's got four great songs but I am partial to the last track sung by Mr. Folds, "Bruised." My favorite nearly-unknown record is Fear of Pop, Vol. 1. It marks Ben's first collaboration with Shatner (other than during the priceline.com commercials) on "In Love," but I just love the overall sillyness and musical experimentation of tracks like "Root to This," which I think has vocals from his wife, Frally.
This past year, Ben did something a little different in the music world. He released 3 eps over the course of the year which were only available for purchase online. Each one (Speed Graphic, Sunny 16, and Super D) has five songs which are a mix of b-sides, live performances, covers or some new songs that he just felt like recording. He said it freed him from the music biz machinery of press and radio attention and let him just release the stuff that he's been working on lately. I love them. The cover of The Cure's "In Between Days" on Speed Graphic is uncomparable, "Rent a Cop" tells the story of a mildly pedophilic mall security guard, and "All You Can Eat" is Ben's self-described only political song about the Walmart-loving, bible-thumping heartland.
I always thought that his new record, Songs for Silverman, would be an amalgam of his EPs with some newer songs thrown in. In fact, the only song to make it was "Give Judy My Notice" and I frankly liked the version on Speed Graphic better. Overall, I'm not crazy about ...Silverman, there's too much slide-guitar and pedal steel for my taste, but it's got to be hard to keep blowing my mind with every recording. The single, "Landed," is a great song and I like the last track, "Prison Food." It's a rare jamming tune that feels more spontaneous than the rest of the album. Ben has kept up his rare release track record by simultaneously coming out with Songs for Goldfish, a mostly live album with one specifically hilarious track. Radio jingles for a Tokyo radio station, 76.1fm, "It's usually pretty good."
What brought all this on? How can I justify spending four hours on a blog post describing Ben Folds' entire musical catalog while getting paid to sit in my cubicle? I'll tell you.
I've spoken to Ben Folds twice now while getting autographs. On Tuesday, when I came in close proximity with him and observed his manner talking to his fans, his messy signature, I realized that he is very familiar to me. He is not a stranger, because I have been a witness to so much of his life through his music. But more than just his songs, I've been witnessing him, his change and growth as a songwriter as well as a man. And that means so much to me because I was changing and growing in similar ways. Or maybe he is a such a dorky-looking guy that I can see a part of myself in him. Could we be friends? Is this just a form of hero-worship? I don't know.
Feldman and Ben breaking up.
But when Feldman brought up his copy of Songs For Goldfish to be signed, Ben mentioned that the gem of a track on that disc was the Tokyo Radio Jingles. "That's something I totally forgot about. I just found it on my computer and thought it was too funny to keep to myself," he said. I'm paraphrasing but the point is, we both singled out those jingles as the track of note.
That means something, doesn't it?