Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ben Folds 12: The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

It remains to be explained what exactly differentiates a Ben Folds Five album from a Ben Folds solo album, other than the rhythm section. Each of his “solo” albums has been based around the piano with snarky lyrics, snappy drums, distorto bass and harmonies aplenty. So perhaps it’s a good thing that The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is not a complete retread back to the juvenile wisecracks that irritated haters so much about the Five. This album is slightly more contemplative—dare we say “mature”—to match the growth over the last decade (Way To Normal notwithstanding). Every now and then he leaps on the opportunity to use a naughty word, but it’s more of a rarity than a rule.
The album was initially funded via crowdsourcing; hence the packaging includes two booklets full of the names of everyone who apparently helped contribute to the cause. These take the place of lyrics, forcing the listener to decipher the lyrics without prompting. That’s not always easy to do, since not everything is as blatant as “Erase Me”, which blasts out of the speakers with full power, and uses some clever metaphors to describe a breakup, which should be fairly familiar ground for the guy by now. “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” would appear to be one of those direct-hit character assassinations, but unlike earlier exercises, it doesn’t seem like the subject is meant to be ridiculed. The first great song comes from drummer Darren Jessee; “Sky High” wafts in on a layer of wordless harmonies, and is a perfect example of their softer side. The title track is a leftover from the project Ben did with novelist Nick Hornby, and it sounds like that album (even if it is a portrait of writer and occasional voice artists Sarah Vowell). It gets a big heavy attack of an arrangement, balanced by the monologue by Frank Sinatra’s valet in “On Being Frank” (we hear a few hints of “Wandering”, from those EPs and one Kevin Smith movie).
“Draw A Crowd” sums up his career somewhat (“if you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”) in an acknowledgement that his talent is often heard or ignored through his cleverness. For the most annoying track on the album, “Do It Anyway” is something of a motivational speech about personal choice, and how it changes over time. “Hold That Thought” presents another relationship in doubt, nicely colored by an organ at all the right moments. What sounds like a frank admission of disappointment in dead parent in “Away When You Were Here” is tempered by the fact that Ben’s dad is still alive, but it only shows his capabilities at crafting characters. “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” is predominantly quiet piano, with a couple of well-timed bursts of rhythm, but it mostly presents a haunting melody only a few steps away from “Still” from the Over The Hedge soundtrack. It does fill a similar role to the closers of previous BFF albums, so there’s that.
The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind doesn’t so much pick up where The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner left off as it continues the Ben Folds story in general. If the other two guys are happy to follow the guy whose name is in the title, maybe this won’t be the last we hear from the Five. Considering that every other rhythm section he’s had has done what they did, what’s the problem?

Ben Folds Five The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (2012)—3

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