Is This Band Good: Ben Folds Five
A monthly feature where we—using scientific, circumstantial, and anecdotal evidence—determine once and for all whether a band is good
Welcome to “Is This Band Good?”, a semi-regular feature where I, with the help of a knowledgeable and accomplished musician, try to determine—quantitatively—if certain bands are actually good.
THE DEFENDANT: BEN FOLDS FIVE
There’s really nothing more to say about “Brick.”
If you were alive and old enough to have emotions during the late ‘90s, there’s a good chance that you had A Moment soundtracked to Ben Folds Five’s harrowing ballad about a teenage abortion (HEY DID YOU KNOW IT’S ABOUT ABORTION?!).
“Brick” was everywhere: In the mall, on the radio, performed on the stages of every late night talk show. I remember it being played as a slow-dance song during middle school dances, which seems incredibly strange now because A) it’s not romantic and B) it’s not very danceable. Not that I was ever brave enough to ask any girls to dance in middle school, but I vividly remember the sight of awkward teens hug-swaying to “Brick” and thinking how beautiful it was.
But we must remember that this was the late ‘90s, a confusing time for the music industry, which sought to fill the hole left by grunge by throwing insane amounts of money at any act that showed promise. This was the era that gave us a swing revival and nu metal. We got a new wave of Brit pop. We also got “Brick.”
“Brick” hit the radio waves near the end of 1997, just in time for, you know, Christmas. (Merry Christmas, world). The song made Ben Folds Five a household name and blasted the album on which it appears—Forever and Ever Amen—to platinum status.
However, despite its popularity, “Brick” was an anomaly in Ben Folds Five’s catalog. Up until that point, the band specialized in anarchic, piano-driven rock. It was showy, loud, and wild—kind of like a gutter version of Elton John, or ‘70s bombast filtered through dirt. I imagine people who picked up Forever and Ever Amen hoping to hear more ballads were immediately put off by the glamdemonium of “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” and “Song For the Dumped” with its repeated line, “give me my money back, you bitch!”
Wait, this is the same sensitive guy who wrote “Brick”?
Well, yes. And that’s far from the most difficult reconciliations to consider when discussing Ben Folds (and his Five). After Whatever and Ever Amen, Ben Folds Five released The Unauthorized Autobiography of Reinhold Messner, a lush and pretentious album that sometimes feels like it’s aiming for Pet Sounds-esque grandiosity. The band broke up shortly after Unauthorized Biography, and Ben Folds embarked on a successful, prolific and varied solo career.
These wildly divergent musical styles paired with an insufferable penchant for “edgy” humor makes Ben Folds Five a very difficult band to pin down. Are they serious, or are they a novelty? And with so much variation in their catalog, how do you accurately describe their sound beyond “piano music”?
Considering all of that, we must ask ourselves the eternal question: is Ben Folds Five good?
Tony Gidlund: I’m Tony Gidlund from San Diego. I play bass in the math rock band Miss New Buddha and I play the character Shades McCool in the joke rock band Shades McCool & the Bold Flavors. I have also been in Fever Sleeves, Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place, and Goblin Cock. I recently put out an instrumental Shades EP called “Just Putting This Out There” and Miss New Buddha will be releasing “The Situation is Excellent” on vinyl LP soon through Halfway Home.
[Editor’s note: Shades McCool’s “San Diegan National Anthem” should be required listening for everyone who lives in this city]
Ryan Bradford: I’m the writer of this newsletter and you could say I’m a fan of music. Like, you know how some people “fucking” love science? I fucking love music.
TG: Ben Folds Five was my first favorite band. It wasn’t a choice or anything, it just happened. I saw the video for “The Battle Of Who Could Care Less” on MTV in 7th grade and was immediately enthralled, but I don’t know why. Then I saw the “One Angry Dwarf” video and I became obsessed. I bought the CD and listened to it constantly since I only owned four albums at the time (Beach Boys’ Endless Summer, Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day, and Ace of Base’s The Sign [on tape]). My child-brain thought it would be cool to stitch the words Ben Folds Five onto my backpack like they were the Dead Kennedys or something. Unfortunately upon arriving at school I was promptly informed that it was “fucking gay” but I still kept it on until the threads became illegible.
RB: There were two alternative radio stations in Utah in the mid-’90s: X96 and 107.5 “The End.” X96 was the bad boy of alt radio that played Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Primus and the like, and 107.5 was where you’d hear Collective Soul, REM and Vertical Horizon. I’ve always associated Ben Folds Five with 107.5 because, well, they played “Brick” all the time, and also because the band perfectly fit—almost defined—the station’s aesthetic: a safe kind of edgy. Because this was Salt Lake City, “Brick” became synonymous with riding around in my parents’ cars while it was snowing, and there are few other songs that quite capture that vibe for me.
Also, I was supposed to see Ben Folds perform on September 29, 2001 as part of X96’s annual Big Ass Show but he cancelled because flying was still a scary thing for some people post-9/11. I don’t necessarily hold that against him, but he does mention in his memoir Dreams about Lighting Bugs that he’s only cancelled a few shows in his career, but sort of insinuates that he did play the Big Ass Show, and that’s just simply not true.
(But you know who did show up to that show? Future candidate for this column, Social Distortion).
RB: Honestly, I still don’t get Ben Folds.
After a month spent listening to him and reading his memoir, his schtick is as elusive as when I started. Perhaps even more so! It seems inconceivable that anyone could become a fan of Ben Folds Five in the year of our lord 2021. If I had to guess, I’d say that the majority of his fans have been following him since the ‘90s because, frankly, jumping into the Ben Folds pool uninitiated is fucking exhausting.
The challenge is that there’s a lot to admire about Ben Folds Five, but there are many aspects about them that are insufferable, and getting into the band is a two-step-forwards/one-step-back sort of ordeal.
That said, let’s get those cons out of the way.
First things first: the piano does not rock. Sorry. I’m not trying to be a vanguard of music genres or a constitutional literalist, but in my opinion piano just doesn’t belong at the top of the mix in a rock song. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a beautiful, essential instrument, and there are countless pop songs and ballads that would be dogshit without piano. But the instrument’s elegant capabilities just don’t mesh with the chaotic energy that Ben Folds Five was striving for. It’s the audio equivalent of someone bringing a scalpel to a sword fight.
Before all you piano rockers pound me like a high C in a Jerry Lee Lewis song, of course there are exceptions: Elton John has bangers (doi), Andrew WK injected classical piano into the metal realm, and I’ll even tip my hat to Meat Loaf. But when was the last time you heard a piano-driven song and said, “this rocks!”? Listening to Ben Folds Five for any extended amount of time begins to feel like being at a saloon or a vaudeville show or any situation where you’d expect to hear [cowboy voice] pianee— fun for a while, but ultimately grating. Also, what do you call this type of music? Sometimes it’s swing, sometimes it’s ragtime, sometimes it’s waltzy, and sometimes it’s punk. The only connective tissue is the piano. Thematically, it’s very confusing.
Contextually, it makes sense that Ben Folds—a super talented musician who can play every instrument (as he did on his 2001 solo debut Rockin’ the Suburbs)—chose to build a rock career with an unorthodox rock instrument. Because Ben Folds Five’s biggest pitfall is Ben Folds himself.
The dude’s a perpetual smart-ass who thinks he’s always the funniest guy in the room. He fucks with his listeners just because he can—a troll before the term ever became popularized online. I have no doubt that part of his insistence to fuse punk with piano was partly fueled by his desire just to push people’s buttons.
Given the vein of misogyny and political incorrectness that runs through their catalog, it’s likely that Ben Folds is just a secret jock who fancies himself a nerd. There are many examples of this in addition to “Song for the Dumped.” Check out the lyrics to “Bad Idea.” Or their hip-hop imitating “For Those of Ya’ll Who Wear Fanny Packs.” Or his big-oof cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” (I swear that dude loves the b-word more than anyone else on the planet).
It’s Ben Folds’ privileged self-sabotaging that ultimately undoes a lot of the band’s goodwill and forces us to question the sincerity of Ben Folds Five’s best songs. When you’re constantly pulling the rug out from under your audience, the emotion begins to feel like a ploy, and earnestness feels paradoxically insincere. Like, imagine any woman musician being afforded a fraction of the patience we’ve given to Ben Folds’ music career.
His memoir does not help this image, by the way. I highly recommend it if you want to read the most drama-free account of a guy who thinks his fame is inherently book-worthy, or if you’re in need of superficial life lessons like “creatively visualizing” your success (which is pretty much The Secret tbh). Rather, it’s a pretty bland portrait of a relentlessly ambitious workaholic who uses people for gain, steamrolls through personal relationships, and squanders a lot of opportunities with childish behavior, yet can turn anything into a brag about himself.
Okay, on to the good stuff:
When Ben Folds Five are on, they’re on. There’s an undeniable chemistry between Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee, and on songs like “Battle of Who Could Care Less” or “Kate,” their energy transcends the inherent silliness of their sound. Sledge’s bass —grimy and filtered through distortion—gives the music more of a welcome edge than any of their lyrical antics, and Jessee absolutely rips behind the drums, but has the rare ability (rare for drummers, that is) to show restraint. If anyone is really in control of Ben Folds Five’s ability to navigate the difficult transitions between balladry and chaos, I’d say it’s Jessee.
Ben Folds can also write one hell of a pretty song. There’ve been a few takes about “Brick” and whether a man singing about his girlfriend’s abortion is problematic or misogynous or appropriating or even his story to tell—which I think are all valid concerns—but I ultimately feel that Folds doesn’t cross any lines with telling his side of the story. He’s entitled to the heartbreak he felt that “day after Christmas.” It’s his story to tell. And according to his book, he did get permission from his partner to write the song. (However, the fact that “Brick” has since become somewhat of a punchline kinda tarnishes its legacy—like the scene in Netflix’s The Characters where Lauren Lapkus’ character strips to it, or Ben Folds’ cameo in You’re the Worst).
Lots of people fell off the Ben Folds Five train when they released The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, but it’s by far my favorite of their releases. It feels like the only time the band indulged in their ambition without tempering it with self-aware irony or jarring dynamic changes. The whole album is monumental, lush, and, most importantly, vulnerable.
While I don’t want to veer too much into Ben Folds’ solo career, I do think that Unauthorized Biography forced Ben Folds to realize his true talent was crafting beautiful pop songs. Rockin’ The Suburbs is full of gems including “Annie Waits,” the emotionally austere “The Luckiest”and my absolute favorite song he’s ever written, “Not The Same” (the live version where the audience sings the chorus never fails to give me chills).
That said, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” might be the worst song he’s ever written and, in fact, the worst song of the aughts.
TG: When I first heard Ben Folds Five, I didn’t yet play an instrument so I had no clue what was happening in the music. For a long time the only drum I could pick out was the snare and I didn’t really know what bass guitar sounded like. Since my appreciation was limited to what the vocals were doing I guess I just loved those melodies and lyrics. The bassist and drummer both sang so they’ve always had great three-part harmonies and two-part backups. There was also a lot of snot-nosed twenty-something immaturity on display in the form of bad words and their “punk rock for sissies” marketing tagline. I have a mental image of Ben picking up and throwing his piano stool (a drum throne actually) at the piano at the end of a song.
The other distinctive sonic aspect of this band to me is the fuzz bass. Robert Sledge’s use of the Big Muff pedal probably did more to shape my musical preferences than anything else in the band. I don’t think I’d ever heard distorted bass guitar before them and few of the bands I've loved since have used it so prominently. When that fuzz pedal was on it was the only time one could really consider them “rocking.”
After thoroughly living with Whatever And Ever Amen, I needed more material so I got the first album. I thought it was excellent. It sounded like what I imagined a bar would sound like (I was wrong). Seems like it would have been big on “college radio.”
The song “Underground” was a single and stuck out in my mind as being a different kind of song than I was used to from them. Like a lot of their more upbeat songs, this one finds the boys being a little silly and over-the-top with the vocals. It sounds more like something from a musical about a band than anything a band would actually come up with. The piece, for me, works more as a collection of memorable quirks than as a “song” song (I’m tempted to make a food analogy here [Chicago hot dog]). I like listening to it and the vocals are catchy but It’s not one I would want to cover. Lyrically it’s about being a dorky loser and then finding some sense of community in the underground music scenes.
Folds on “Underground” from Wikipedia: “It's just exercising artistic freedom to put some different things together that I think are funny. I think it's funny to make a very happy, cabaret-sounding song about the underground of the indie rock world. I think it's funny to take those people and make them dance around like puppets and sing Bee Gees. That's part of why you write. It's the freedom to do stuff like that.”
It’s funny now to imagine Folds being perhaps insecure in the North Carolina music scene surrounded by monsters of rock like Polvo and Archers Of Loaf, so he writes this little ditty about them. This guy always seems to have a chip on his shoulder. Listening as an adult it’s clear I almost never had any idea what Folds was singing about back when I was 14.
“One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” on the other hand, seems written specifically for a 14-year-old boy to enjoy. It’s the opening track of their major label record and he’s literally just saying “kiss my ass I’m famous now” to the people who wronged him. Finally, I had something to aspire to. I don’t really know anything about playing piano but I like whatever chords Ben Folds plays, and That opening riff just always got me going.
I truly still do not know why I latched onto this band so hard.
The third album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, is where they kind of lost me. Even the title seems designed to turn people off. I taped the lead single “Army” off the radio and was stoked to hear the album. The band was very much in “mature” songcraft mode on this one, and I don’t think I was ready for that. The songs are produced well and they clearly spent a lot of time and money working on it. They sounded wisened and professional. Maybe they were hanging out with Burt Bacharach too much.
Listening now I hear a bit of a late-era R.E.M. vibe. The rowdy joy of songs like “Kate” and “Underground” is gone and we’re left with a bunch of jazzy snoozers like “Jane.” At least Sledge is still fuzzing out that bass guitar. To put it in soda terms Whatever and Ever Amen is my Coke Classic, first album is an A&W cream soda, and Reinhold Messner is a Diet Coke.
[Subjectivity reminder: After another listen through the first three albums I think I underrated Reinhold. It’s good and there are interesting choices. I’d often take naps with it after high school so I associate it with sleepiness. There just wasn’t any anger in the music anymore and I was mostly listening to punk at that point.]
After their big sophomore breakthrough they did a decent b-sides album to tide me over but their best non-album stuff from that period didn’t appear until the deluxe reissue years later. “Air” from Godzilla the Album, a great big band cover of “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and “Theme From Dr. Pyser” which I think they wrote just to play on The Larry Sanders Show. There’s a pretty rough cover of “Video Killed The Radio Star” on there too.
After Ben Folds’ lucrative solo career, Ben Folds Five reconvened and did a reunion album in 2012, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. I listened to it once and did not enjoy it at all. It was like drinking a liquor you thought was good in high school (Captain Morgan for me).
So I'm probably biased by nostalgia but I loved those first two records and the third one is a nice big swing so they're a good band in my eyes. In the interest of objectively ranking, I’ll use the system the podcast Doughboys uses where they judge chain restaurants on the basis of "does this place succeed at what they are trying to do" and Ben Folds Five really nails that whimsical North Carolina piano rock trio thing they're going for. They have a fairly distinct sound and vibe, their voices are great together, and they were able to evolve a bit over three albums. There are goofy cringey parts for sure but that's just who they are as people. I'd rather listen to what those three young tar heels came up with in the practice space in the mid-90’s than whatever is happening on The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. Who knows how I'd feel about them (and myself) if I didn't hear them at such a formative time and instead became obsessed with Cake or Soul Coughing or the Beef-52s.
I do not have a take on their biggest hit the abortion ballad "Brick." It's fine.
Ben Folds Five are good, but just barely. It’d be a lot better, Mr. Folds, if you stopped trying to be funny.
A week or so ago, I posted an excerpt from A Dream About Lightning Bugs on Twitter where Ben Folds talks about Cake (the first entry in “Is This Band Good?”), and my friend Stephanie Perry immediately guessed the author. So, as the band’s undisputed expert and number one fan, Steph gets the final word:
When I correctly guessed the next ITBG subject as Ben Folds (with or without the Five) I believe my exact words were "I fucking love Whatever and Ever Amen." It is, however, the only full album of Ben's I know, and I was 15 years old when it came out. A nerdy young man playing the piano while throwing around a few swears here and there checked all my boxes. I imagined I could bring this guy home to my quite-religious-but-still-accepting parents and they'd be so happy I found such a nice, talented man. He'd play them a Beatles song or two on our baby grand piano and then after a perfectly pleasant meal, Ben and I would skedaddle and share a bottle of peach Arbor Mist (I was 15, remember) and talk about how high school's pointless and I should join him on tour.
Now, if someone were to introduce me to Ben Folds Five today I would very likely give it a hard pass. Just thinking about the track "Song for the Dumped" in particular... oh man, I know breakups are tough but whoever she is she doesn't deserve to be called “bitch” over and over again, and she can keep that black tee shirt if she wants. She just said she wanted to slow it down and his response is "Fuck you too"? I am so glad that woman got out.
But is Ben Folds good? I'm going to agree with my parents in my imaginary teenaged scenario and say there's undeniable talent there. And still to this day I feel like there are very few songs about abortion, let alone any as lovely as "Brick" so that's worth something. And while writing this I'm reminded of the song "Annie Waits" off Ben's first solo record which I refuse to name because, blech, I just can't... but should it be my first karaoke song whenever it's safe to karaoke again?! There are claps AND a-whoa-ohs!
I think just because our music tastes evolve over time doesn't mean that what we no longer listen to is bad. It's good for that time and that time made us who we are today. So I say Ben Folds Five IS good.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
Listen to this
There are very few bands that can match Silent’s intensity. The Mexicali group makes music fit for ritual possessions—a frightening, post-punk brew that sounds a little like Savages, Refused and Bauhaus (thanks to singer Jung Sing’s operatic, Peter Murphy-esque vocals). Their new album Modern Hate (which came out last Friday) has been one of my most-anticipated, and it does not disappoint. I’m sure any crucifixes in the vicinity will flip upside down upon exposure to this record. Check out their video for “A New Slave”—which is as appropriately intense as the music—and then go buy their album.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about cannabis-infused drinks for PACIFIC Magazine—because, you know, 420. And because I was probably still high from testing all of them, I forgot to link the story in this newsletter, so you should go read it because it’s, like, pretty funny, maaaaan.
It’s been a little while since San Diego’s dumbest politician Carl DeMaio got a good dragging, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I read this Voice of San Diego article. It’s like oxygen in my blood. The gist of the article is—surprise!—DeMaio is a liar, but you should read it just to see all the contemptuous things people in his own party say about him. Ahh, good times.
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Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.