Ben Folds is a strangely divisive performer—it seems people either love or hate him. His particular brand of geek-rock can be grating to naysayers, but his supporters are positively devoted to his pop craftsmanship in the tradition of early Elton John and Billy Joel through Joe Jackson and even Todd Rundgren.
He first got notice as the leader of the Ben Folds Five, a trio consisting of simply piano, distorted bass and drums with vocals and killer harmonies. (The joke in the band name was enough to either pull in or repel the curious.) Those who delved into their eponymous debut found a stellar pop gem with more hooks than your grandfather’s tackle box.
“Jackson Cannery” leads the pounding charge through a few dynamic changes to show the band’s chops, taken to an even higher level on “Philosophy”. The headbanging “Julianne” is one of the funnier songs to namecheck Axl Rose, nicely punctuated by flying dishes. “Where’s Summer B?” and “Alice Childress” are vivid portraits of the people in your neighborhood, particularly if you’re a twentysomething. His trademark sarcasm and skewering of pop culture first rears its head on “Underground”, which predicted the emo scene by about five years. At the same time, hearing “Video” today only shows how much MTV has changed.
Further eccentric characters emerge on “Sports & Wine” and particularly “Uncle Walter”; surely everybody knows an old codger who holds forth from the comfort of his easy chair? The best song on the album is “Best Imitation Of Myself”, with its poetic lyric and fantastic arrangement, and its sentiment is taken to a nastier level on “The Last Polka”, a blistering look at the end of a relationship, soon to be another Ben Folds trademark. But the most surprising moment is saved for last. It’s not until the repeat of the chorus of “Boxing” that the song is revealed to be an imaginary conversation between a former pugilist and Howard Cosell, and with the simple statement “boxing’s been good to me, Howard”, it’s not difficult to think of the shell of Muhammed Ali.
Ben Folds Five was released on an offshoot of the “indie” Caroline label, and it got enough attention to leapfrog them to a major label. But they were already paying their dues on the road, whipping sparse audiences into laughter while throwing piano stools at the keys.
Ben Folds Five Ben Folds Five (1995)—4