The eponymous debut by Ben Folds Five turns 25
Today, Ben Folds stands as one of the most beloved, successful, and characteristic singer/songwriters of the last few decades.
Over the past twenty-five years, he’s amassed a superb catalog of material both heartbreaking and hilarious (often at the same time) that never fails to display his knack for engaging melodies and dexterous musicianship. As a result, many of his albums—namely, Whatever and Ever Amen, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Rockin’ the Suburbs, and Songs for Silverman—have become classics of the form. Of course, none of that would’ve happened without the groundwork laid out by 1995’s debut LP, Ben Folds Five.
It’s the first of a three albums recorded by Folds, bassist/backing vocalist Robert Sledge, and drummer/backing vocalist Darren Jessee (who undoubtedly made for one of the best trios in 1990s popular music, which is why their late 2000 break-up was so tragic and their 2008 reunion so joyous). They got together after several years of individually moving around the country and/or playing with worthwhile but much less successful bands, such as Lexx Luthor, Majosha, The Semantics, and Pots and Pans. (Folds even spent time in Nashville, TN as a session musician.)
From the onset, their sometimes sophomoric, sometimes wise and wistful formula was as fetching as it was atypical (given the prevalence of more aggressive, guitar-driven alternative rock and post-grunge that flooded radio airways at the time). Folds once called their stuff “punk rock for sissies,” and while that kind of makes sense, it’s also knowingly reductive and tongue-in-cheek. Either way, that first album is likely the best representation of the sentiment.
As for the making of Ben Folds Five, it’s a pretty straightforward and unglamorous story. They recorded it in February ’95 at Wave Castle in North Carolina; had Caleb Southern (whom Folds later deemed the “fourth member” of the group) produce it; and played everything on it (well, with some help from violinist/violist Ted Ehrhard and cellist Chris Eubank on “Boxing”). Although it wasn’t nearly as successful as their subsequent breakout album, Whatever and Ever Amen, it garnered an impressive amount of word of mouth excitement and positive critical reception (from outlets like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly).
Interestingly, Folds told Vice in September 2015 that he sees Ben Folds Five as the favorite of his albums, adding, “[T]here’s nothing like it. . . . There’s no over-thinking of anything or what I would call missteps. There are loads of mistakes. There’s all kinds of stuff technically wrong with it, but to me, it’s exactly as it should be.” In the same conversation, he notes that they’d initially “made the same record with almost all [their] budget once before and . . . canned it because it was too produced.” As a result, they had only a few thousand dollars and a few more days to try again and nail it, which they certainly did.
He continues, “We knew the first record had to be good. I was 27, I’d been writing the songs since I was 17. All those things came into play and the record is very special. . . . It requires attention. I think it’s very bratty sounding. . . . We were just feeling, doing, reacting. And we were cocky as shit. There’s a feeling of that and I think people identify with that. That’s what makes it a great record. It sounds like shit. I’m out of tune, the piano’s out of tune, we’re rushing, it’s incredibly immature.”
That’s actually a surprisingly earnest and accurate assessment of Ben Folds Five, a very enjoyable, promising, and admirable first effort that—at least for me—automatically ranks at the bottom of Folds’ discography simply because everything he did afterward—however uneven at times—is superior.
On the plus side, “Philosophy” justly remains a fan favorite because it showcases Folds’ lead playing (including a closing nod to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”), not to mention his skill at crafting empowering, lively, and relatable hooks. Of course, Sledge and Jessee provide perfect accompaniment, including charming harmonies that instantly reveal why they were indispensable in making their method so unique and unified. Likewise, opener “Jackson Cannery” kicks ass, plain and simple, with Sledge’s trademark buzzing bass lines serving as the highlight. Later, the “cabaret-sounding” (as Folds describes it) “Underground” is easily the most atypical piece here, as the threesome take turns declaring and then embracing their individual statuses as social outcasts. Actually, it peaked at #37 on the UK Singles Chart, and its celebration of the maligned culture is emblematic of how Folds always tied to connect with his devotees. Elsewhere, “Where’s Summer B?” sounds like a peppy yet somber predecessor to Amen’s “Kate,” while “Sports & Wine” is a quick and sly dismissal of stereotypical masculinity (a topic Folds often broaches) that’s equal parts fun and clever. (Its concluding jam showcases their faultless chemistry as instrumentalists, too.) Lastly, the penultimate “The Last Polka” has palpable tension, playfulness, and compositional adroitness to endure twenty-five years on.
VIDEO: Ben Folds performs “Boxing” at The Chapel
While the rest of the LP is by no means bad, it is too similar and less interesting. Closer “Boxing”—which concerns Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell—deserves credit for its symphonic edge, but it’s just not that compelling. Similarly, “Julianne” hasn’t aged well simply because of how pedestrian it sounds compared to all of the better songs about women (both embittered and enraptured) Folds has written. The harmonies on “Alice Childress” are lovely, but it’s rather meandering otherwise, and the consecutive trio of “Uncle Walter,” “Best Imitation of Myself,” and “Video” are all kind of bland, albeit performed expertly. Again, even the weakest songs on here are almost objectively good; it’s just that in hindsight, they come off as more lifeless and baseline than not only the standouts around them, but the myriad wonderful tunes Folds has created since.
In that same interview, Folds concludes: “The thing about it though is that it’s not the most listenable one. I don’t find this one to be the one I ever want to hear.” That, too, is an apt way to look at it. As a debut collection, it’s very impressive and prophetic; yet, it’s a bit hard to go back to it now since the trio’s vastly superior follow-ups—as well as Folds’ exceptional solo cache—are right there, too.
Nevertheless, what he, Jessee, and Sledge had was immediately special, and the fact that they could produce something like this at a relatively young age is a testament to that singularity.