From the Archive — Ben Folds Five


The airing of the Kennedy Center Honors this week kicked up all sorts of online enthusiasm for Adam Lambert singing Cher’s “Believe” and Kelly Clarkson paying tribute to Reba McEntire by belting out “Fancy” (which strikes me as more of a honoring of Bobbie Gentry, the original songwriter and performer of the song, but what do I know?). I’m far more intrigued by St. Vincent bringing her otherworldly guitar mastery to a Philip Glass composition, but it’s a performance that I don’t believe made the broadcast which presumably hold the most weight with my immediate friend circle: Ben Folds and Regina Spektor performing a number from Hamilton. (Truthfully, it’s not even clear to me that the performance is part of the official Kennedy Center Honors event, but the institution itself hashtagged it as if it is.) And that’s prompt enough to dust off this piece of writing, originally published as part of the Flashback Fridays feature at my former online home.

1995: Ben Folds Five is released

Ben Folds Five formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an especially nurturing area for bands. There were a lot of intriguing angles to the group that undoubtedly helped garner them attention. The Five, for one thing, was a misnomer since the total population of the band numbered three. Then there was a complete absence of a guitar in the band’s line-up, a fairly brave move given the time they launched.

Ben Folds Five was a lovely island of melodic musicianship in the murky seas of the Great Grunge Flood of the nineteen-nineties. After the success of Nirvana and, probably more influentially, Pearl Jam, any band that could make their wall of guitars sound a little like a dirt avalanche could get precious airplay on the “new rock alternative” stations that sprung up across the country like an inflammation of teenage acne. Stalwarts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sonic Youth, and The Jesus and Mary Chain released records in 1995 that only got the most cursory attention, but a band like Silverchair could ape Pearl Jam so effectively that it almost sounded like the start of “Weird Al” Yankovic parody record and receive saturation airplay for the effort. I was working in commercial radio at the time, so I was busy being not part of the solution and dutifully following our computer-generated playlists, therefore spending an awful lot of time listening to five different charting songs from Bush’s affront on respectable music taste Sixteen Stone. I didn’t get to play it much on air, but the self-titled album from Ben Folds Five was a blessing.

I read about the album in the review section of CMJ New Music Monthly, itself a vital lifeline to the varied land of college radio that I left behind. The publication came with a CD every month, and the disc affixed to that issue included the song “Underground,” which managed to sound wonderfully, wildly different from everything else at time while also brilliantly mocking the angry self-importance that saturated the music scene. With little other prompting, I visited my friendly neighborhood record store and sacrificed some food money to get the CD.

The album was everything I wanted and needed it to be. It was  funny without degenerating into unbearable joke rock, moving in surprising ways, tinged with a melancholy I could relate to and even occasionally veered towards sentiments that could have been transcribed directly into my own autobiographical confessions. I was working a ludicrous number of hours across four different jobs at that point in my life, and every free moment was a blessed moment. I spent a lot of those alone in my upstairs bedroom, soaking in every note of this album, letting it wash away the residue of bad Collective Soul and Filter songs.

There were also plentiful raves about the quality of the band’s live show, so I made a point of seeing them when they played locally at Club de Wash. But that’s another story.

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