Music Review: Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind (Sony, CD)

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Ben Folds Five The Sound of the Life of the Mind CD

The kings of hipster snark—or, as they describe their work, “punk rock for sissies”—are back. And unlike with some disappointing reunions of classic bands, Ben Folds Five have come back with an excellent CD that’s so strong, so assured, so together—that is seems like they never stopped—even though this is their first album together since 1999’s ambitious The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

BF5 (actually a trio) virtually invented their own genre—a piano/bass/drums trio where the distorted bass often took the role of lead guitar—topped by the trio’s polished harmony vocals. As likely to veer into punky chaos as they were to break your heart with a ballad like the hit “Brick”, BF5 burned brightly on three albums and then split.

Pianist/lead singer Ben Folds has had a prolific solo career since then (as well as his presence as a judge on the NBC TV show “The Sing Off”), but it’s telling that his own albums resumed the trio format of the Five. I guess Folds realized that if he was going to work in that style again, why not work with the guys who created it?

The Five have cooked up some delicious new songs for the celebration. Lead-off track “Erase Me” starts like a crazy punk bash and then switches gears to a jazzy verse before its piano-pounding chorus. “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” is catchy as all hell, a perfect reminder of everything that made BF5 great in the first place. “Sky High” is a more delicate ballad with some ethereal vocal backgrounds. “Draw a Crowd” is a bouncy pop nugget with a hilarious chorus I can’t repeat here. “Do It Anyway” is a goofy little inspirational rouser (check out the video on YouTube, which features The Muppets from “Fraggle Rock”).

There’s really not a clinker in the bunch. Yeah, the lyrics are typically pretty snarky and negative—that’s the band’s style. Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee fit each other like a glove, playing with tightness and the comfort of a band that’s put in a lot of miles together.

Wisely, the production of this comeback CD mostly avoids the ambitious production of Reinhold Messner—there’s very little in the way of outside instrumentation, just a piano, bass (fuzzy and not), drums, and three voices—all this very special band ever needed.

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