The Story of Ben Folds Five’s Self-Titled Debut
By the summer of 1995, pop had officially begun to eat itself.
It had been four years since the great grunge flood had washed away the musical sins of the ‘80s, but there were already signs that the flannel-fueled creative renaissance was at its end. Kurt Cobain died the year before and the alternative radio waves that once provided a home to landmark releases from the likes of Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins were gradually infiltrated by the innocuous corporate rock of Goo Goo Dolls, Collective Soul and Better Than Ezra.
Although scattered acts like Weezer, Soul Coughing and Beck had surfaced during the interim with the promise of brave new music, they were also largely written off as novelties. After all, rock music (especially alternative rock) was serious business – it required a certain level of angst and a massive amount of distorted guitar. There was room for a semblance of humor and self-referentiality, but that was largely counter to the popular approach at the time.
Ben Folds, however, has never seen a trend he couldn’t completely ignore.
In August 1995, he and Ben Folds Five (which was always just three guys) released their self-titled debut, and while the band wouldn’t reach the mainstream for two more years, it played an important role in the redefinition of alternative music. Not only were there no guitars in sight, but it made music that couldn’t possibly be cool sound cool.
Folds – who started playing piano when he was 9 – grew up in North Carolina and dropped out of the University of Miami one credit shy of a diploma. Although he attended school on a percussion scholarship, his attention eventually returned to piano, and he spent a few years bouncing around as a musician from Nashville to New York. But he eventually returned home, enlisted bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee and recorded a single that caught the attention of Virgin/EMI subsidiary Caroline Records. That led to their self-titled full-length, produced by Caleb Southern (Archers of Loaf, Zen Frisbee).
From the first few seconds of album opener “Jackson Cannery,” it’s overwhelmingly apparent that Ben Folds Five were completely unlike anyone else – anyone not from the ‘70s, at least. Like the other 11 songs on the album, it revels in the influence of early Billy Joel and Elton John – two of the least “indie” or “alternative” artists of the 20th century – with a massive amount of Todd Rundgren power pop. But Folds and the gang come at the material with such renewed vigor that it all somehow feels completely fresh despite its heavily recycled nature.
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Laced with Folds’ acerbic wit and a cabaret-style approach to songwriting, the band’s debut fires just enough nostalgia synapses to provide a familiar comfortability, but it also stood in direct opposition to the testosterone-heavy modern rock landscape of the time. Featuring blunt, blue-collar lyricism and a distinct “everyman” aesthetic, there’s angst running throughout the album, but in a way that’s incredibly self-aware, a little antagonistic and – more than anything – like an inside joke between Folds and his audience.
He once described the band’s music as “punk rock for sissies” and that’s just about perfect. After all, what could’ve been more “punk” in 1995 than seamlessly transitioning into George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” like Folds does in the ultra-coy “Philosophy”? It’s a reference only band geeks, nerds and theatre buffs would get, essentially putting any jocks or meatheads on the outside looking in.
That sentiment is the literal thesis of the album’s biggest single, “Underground.” The song starts out like an off-Broadway musical about coming to age in suburbia as the members sing-speak, “I was never cool in school / I’m sure you don’t remember me / And now it’s been 10 years / I’m still wondering who to be.” But the song isn’t just an anthem for the disenfranchised – it’s also a self-deprecating jab at everyone in underground music scenes everywhere. It’s a call for anyone who takes themselves too seriously – especially those defined by their facial piercings and mohawks – to take a step back and lighten up.
Listen to “Underground”
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Although the music has an inherent ’70s campiness, it works mostly thanks to Folds’ impeccable songwriting and self-referential showmanship. While he approaches most songs with a kind of shameless self-analysis, he also embraces a Randy Newman-type storyteller role. On “Where’s Summer B.?,” he places himself in the point of view of a friend of the titular character as he explains the various mundane things that went on in her hometown while she was away. On “Boxing,” he writes from the perspective of Muhammad Ali giving a monologue to Howard Cosell about whether or not he’s retiring. Both songs, however, are still personal to Folds. “Summer B.” is a reference to a friend of the band while “Boxing” was inspired by his father’s love of the sport.
Ben Folds Five was largely acclaimed by critics when it was released and, although it failed to chart, it prompted a fierce major label bidding war that took the band to Sony’s 550 Music for their breakthrough, 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen, and the follow-up, 1999’s criminally underrated The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. The band amicably parted ways in 2000 but reunited for a fourth album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, in 2012. In the interim, however, Folds released a steady stream of solo albums and offbeat collaborations including 2008’s Way to Normal – which became Folds’ highest-charting album. But it all began two decades ago with little more than a piano, a significant amount of snark and a dozen nearly perfect pop ditties.
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