Classics Revisited: Where’s the Guitar?

benfoldsI grew up during the 90’s. Coming of age during this decade is incredibly “in” right now, as there is an entire cottage industry based entirely on blind nostalgia for the Clinton era. Every show gets a multi-set DVD release, no matter how small the actual audience. Every band gets back together, even if they had one negligible hit (still waiting on my Dishwalla presale tickets) and the general result is that it’s become more or less impossible to discern what is actually worth remembering from this decade. Do I actually like Foo Fighters, or do they just represent some sort of safe space and consistency for me?  Can’t it be both?

Ben Folds Five sucked up a lot of the zeitgeist in 1997 with their ubiquitous hit song “Brick.” It simply has to be the only modern rock song that is obviously about an abortion. There are a few that touch on the subject (“A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Hot Blooded,” and “D’yer Maker”) *, but the sense of chilly loss and numbness is so explicit in “Brick” that it feels almost like eavesdropping when you listen to the track, like watching the personal home movies of someone you will never get to know.

And for a lot of people, Ben Folds Five was the band that sang “Brick.” They had their few minutes, got a few bucks out of it, and then quickly went the way of Seven Mary Three and Silverchair.

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This is a shame, because over the course of their original three-album run, Ben Folds Five ran the gamut from punk to lounge pop, all without the aid of a proper guitar.

Let’s start at the beginning: Ben Folds Five was formed in Chapel Hill, NC in 1993. The core membership (three people) consisted of Ben Folds (vocals, piano), Darren Jessee (drums, percussion) and Robert Sledge (bass). It’s essentially your classic jazz trio combination. And the group certainly had the chops to tackle unorthodox chord changes and time signatures. But more on that later, because ultimately, BFF arose from a proletariat punk sensibility. Check out the dystopian working-class sketch of “Jackson Cannery” or the scene-destroying “Underground” on their self-titled 1995 debut. How about the white-trash fling of “Julianne”? Though Ben Folds Five lacked the typical distorted guitar of punk/hardcore, and owed debts more to Elton John and Harry Nilsson than the Sex Pistols, the underlying ethos was there. Compare Ben Folds Five to Blink 182’s Enema of the State, which was released within the same 4-year period. Though, at least superficially, Blink sounds more like “punk,” it can hardly be said that Enema was a “punk” album. Sure it was loud and fast, but (in this writer’s opinion), something was lost in the translation. Blink 182 photocopies punk music and attempts to recreate it note-for-note, while a band like Ben Folds Five captures the spirit of punk (a free-floating phantasm, in “Ghostbusters” parlance) simply by breaking new ground. It’s ballsy to attempt to “rock” in the traditional sense without a guitar. Even when BFF was young and snotty, they’d still drop a pretty ballad like “Alice Childress” in the middle of things. Not rocking when you’re expected to do so? Nothing more punk than that.

It was this constant evolution, this reluctance to settle and become complacent in one particular genre, that animated Ben Folds Five during their heyday. This trend would continue with their most successful (and arguably best) record, 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen. Though “Brick” is definitely the most well-known song on the record (and still, in spite of everything, a pretty good track), to stop there is to sell this album incredibly short.

But let’s talk about “Brick” for a minute. So many things set it apart from the other crop of 1997 hits (remember, we were dealing with Third Eye Blind and the nascent swing revival):

If nothing else, the subject matter, lack of guitar and presence of acoustic double bass are noteworthy. There is a thick air of melancholy that permeates this entire record, manifesting itself first in the form of spite (“One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” “Song for the Dumped,”) and finally transforming into numbness and tacit acceptance (“The Battle of Who Could Care Less,” “Selfless, Cold and Composed”). The anger and shit-stirring of their first album remains, it’s just funneled into more diverse outlets.

BFF’s final album was 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. In a way, the obscure and impossible to remember title predicts the frustrating nature of this record. Reinhold is probably BFF’s weakest studio album, but it is also the group’s most polished and adult. Though there are a few larks here and there (such as minor hit “Army,”) the album reads like a breakup album (both for romantic relationships and the band itself). Songs like “Don’t Change Your Plans” are cautiously optimistic about the future, though still recognizing the necessity for growth and finality. The sparkling production (a little much at times, if you ask me) brings to mind the jazzy pop of Burt Bacharach, and Ben Folds Five effectively shrugs off their youthful jesses just in time to completely implode. I’ll be honest. Though all three of their studio albums are excellent, Reinhold is not usually the one I’m listening to at any given time.

All their output, however, is worth checking out, even their reunion album (2012’s The Sound of the Life of the Mind). To give this group a chance beyond “Brick” is to allow one of the more unique pop acts of the past 20 years to work their magic on you. Despite the lack of guitar walls, Ben Folds Five have moments of pure power and energy that put louder and more traditionally “hardcore” groups to shame. It is BFF’s fluid versatility between styles and tones that elevate them high above the rest of the 90’s mucky muck.


*Not one of these songs is about an abortion.

Photo credit: By Michael Nutt ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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