Monday, April 8, 2013

Album Review: Ben Folds Five Sound of the Life of the Mind

I'm finally getting around to reviewing Ben Folds Five reunion album Sound of the Life of the Mind. Although I've never counted myself a Ben Folds fan, I've had friends who were, and a few years ago I got a used copy of Whatever and Ever Amen for cheap and liked most tracks. I felt a little more invested since I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the band got its start.* You gotta hand it to a group who believed in acoustic piano rock enough that they used to personally haul a grand piano around to all their gigs (not to mention the drum kit). Not many proponents of that genre out there anymore.

Overall, I think the album was worth listening to. The music is, for the most part, inspired, exciting, and memorable. It's different than most contemporary pop and varied within the album. Folds' music improves with the contributions his old bandmates. One musical complaint: though I enjoyed the power sound, sometimes the group concentrated too much on trying to make a big sound with just three people (lots of quickly repeated, loud piano chords, bass distortion, and cymbal overdrive), as if they felt they had to prove themselves. All the extra white, unpitched noise obscures the words at the wrong moments.

Then again, the words aren't really something that redeems this album. There's often a mismatch between grand music and trivial lyrics. "Draw a Crowd" is an example of where the music is strong and catchy but the lyrics just don't live up to the music. I'm left feeling guilty for liking the music (though this track isn't exempt from the previously-mentioned noise-overload, either). It's like they're saying "If I shout and play loud, I'll make it important."

Their shouting and fist-shaking was important to their original college-band ethos, a point discussed in this intriguing essay on Buzzfeed: "Ben Folds Five Reunited and I Broke Up with Them" by Rachael Maddux. Maddux tells her story of how the group (and their fans) haven't really changed since they broke up, except everyone is older now; and that's a bad thing: "They’re as sturdy and stubborn as they’ve always been. They never changed. I did." Listening to the album, I think Maddux has a point: the group's lyric focus is still "me, me, me," when maybe I hoped that the group would have matured a bit as they aged.

The highlight of the album is "Being Frank," sung from the point of view of Frank Sinatra at the end of his life; the lyrics and music unite to tell the story, a story deeper than mid-20s angst from middle-aged men. They aren't trying to wow us, and the music doesn't stay loud and big for too long. "Hold That Thought" also comes close to this ideal, too. "Thank You for Breaking My Heart" works too, though still a little too "this is about me and not you" in the same way as their most famous hit, "Brick."

In conclusion, Sound of the Life of the Mind is worth a listen, especially for Ben Folds fans. You might also consider just (legally) downloading a few of the better tracks.

Vocab: distortion, unpitched

*A new music video with Fraggles didn't hurt, either.


  1. So . . . which tracks do you consider the better ones? And thank you for the Maddux article; this pretty much summarizes my relationship with BF5 over the years. She likes the same obscure b-side tracks I do!

    Still trying to brace myself to listen to the new album, though. This band was a very, very big phenomenon with my family. Recently my sister-in-law noticed that all of my siblings have each named at least one child in partial tribute to a BF5 song. Me: Kate, my brother: Emmeline, my sister: Zak & Sarah. (Although my brother is the only one who cites the song as the chief inspiration for the name!)

    1. Lots riding on a reunion album! If you are looking for the loud-and-mad, "Why did this happen to me?" Ben Folds Five, I'd go with "Erase Me," and for the (I think better for this album) more speculative, I'd go with "On Being Frank" or "Hold that Thought."