Ben Folds Five – ‘Ben Folds Five: Round 37 – Rob’s choice

Ben Folds Five - Ben Folds FiveWe were set a theme for this evening’s assembly. “Guilty pleasures or something surprising” we were ordered. I shall pass little comment on how closely my fellow members cleaved to this instruction, other than to say that two of them completely ignored it and the third brought an album of mental calypso covers which were, by any definition, surprising.

I went for the guilty pleasures angle. To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, at least when it comes to art. You either get pleasure from it, or you don’t. But I understand the cultural concept and, if I’m really being perfectly honest, there are some songs and albums I love which give me pause to steel myself before I volunteer them in company.

I kicked off with ‘Ariel’ by Dean Friedman, the smart/stupid East Coast singer songwriter who, with this and his more notorious ‘Lucky Stars’, filled whole arteries of the radio network with cloying sugar syrup in the late 1970s. These singers and these songs (add to the list Neil Diamond, David Soul, Barry Manilow, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, David Essex, Gilbert O’Sullivan, The Carpenters, Abba…) entered my young head by osmosis as I grew up. They were the first songs I learned to reject when I began to form a musical sensibility of my own and, for the last 15 years or so, they have been the songs which most immediately transport me back to my childhood. They carry such a sweet, beautiful charge that I find them irresistible.

I chose ‘Ariel’ as it’s the closest of these oldies to Ben Folds Five, a band who I loved unironically and unequivocally when they emerged but who many found unacceptably dorky, old-fashioned, retrogressive and just plain annoying. For me the band and this first album in particular wedded the energy and melodic dynamism of some of my favourite punk and indie (Buzzcocks, XTC, Madness) with the unfettered optimism and gawky sunshine of late 70s piano pop. ‘Ben Folds Five’ is an unashamed and infectious pop album, delivered by three smart-ass North Carolinians who managed, for a short period – probably two albums – to maintain a dreamy, unimpeachable alchemy of past and present.

I guess this albums slots into many ‘guilty pleasures’ lists, partly because it so plainly references old records and artists we’re supposed to feel guilty about liking (see my previous list), but also because Ben Folds himself, by many accounts, having established himself as the cheeky ivory-hammering nerd du jour, took a right hand turn and became a bit of a dick. I don’t read interviews too much any more, so I don’t know what the guy has had to say for himself. I do think he suffered unfairly through over-simplified interpretations of some of his most bracing songs (‘One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces’, ‘Song for the Dumped’). It seems we spent the early 90s getting used to the fact West Coast rappers could speak in character and not expect to be censured for it and then withdrew the same privilege from specky college piano doofuses.

Whatever. ‘Ben Folds Five’, i’m not ashamed to admit, is possibly the record I’ve listened to most over the past 15 years. It’s a heady, funny, dynamic, moving whirlpool of wonder, to these 70s-grown ears at least. Pure innocent pleasure.

All of which leaves us to wonder, as all must at some stage, why on earth the piano never really caught on as a lead instrument? Too tough to play? Too expensive to buy? Too heavy to smash a drum-kit with? Who knows. I’m just glad Ben Folds managed it.

Nick listened: Sorry Rob, but I’m not buying this as a guilty pleasure, and it’s certainly not a surprising choice: you’ve mentioned before how much you love this record, and the whole idea of guilty pleasures is that you keep them hidden from public view!

That aside, it was great to listen to this: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the whole thing front-to-back before, but I certainly know Ben Folds Five as a group, recognised the singles, and felt comfortable and familiar with the whole aesthetic and approach.

It does raise a couple of interesting questions, though. Firstly, does the instrument you compose on affect your compositions? As a non-musician it strikes me that it must do with at least some songwriters – the chords that fingers naturally fall to on a piano are presumably different to those for a guitar, the ways you move from chord to chord and note to note must be different, and then, presumably, the tunes that come out at the end must be somehow quantifiably different as a result. Could you compose a tune like Underground, with its drama and dynamism and melodicism, on a guitar? I kind of suspect you couldn’t, or, at the least, that it wouldn’t be an obvious thing to do.

And I wonder if this (My-First-Marxist-Cultural-Theory) tools-of-production-affecting-resultant-cultural-product micro-thesis is part of the answer to the second question, about why BFF were received the way they were, the “dorky, old-fashioned, retrogressive and just plain annoying” accusations, the perception of them being somehow faux and unworthy that came from the (often ravenously passive-aggressive pastures) of post-grunge alt.rock, where miserable authenticity and guitars are good and major-key pianos bad.

I dunno, but it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Tom Listened: Since writing my blog on Swell, Rob and I have been debating ( not continuously admittedly but it has cropped up on a few occasions) as to whether my brother really was enamoured with Ben Folds Five or not. Well, on the night Rob brought this to record club I had that rarest of things…a slight admission that perhaps I was right all along. I’m glad about that because I needed something to explain my somewhat unreasonable dismissal of this album at its time of release. It’s great fun – a set of rollicking, barn storming pop songs that race by (in a bit of a blur if I’m honest) in an early Todd Rungren power pop kind of a way. My only criticism is the uniformity of the songs – I would have preferred a little more light and shade in the compositions although I guess this often reveals itself with familiarity but it was hard not to compare Ben Folds Five with Something Anything and when the vast scope of that album is considered, Ben Folds Five seems like a much more focussed/unambitious offering….and occasionally the piano playing reminded me of Jools Holland, a man who will continue to set my teeth on edge long after they have all fallen out!

But, those slight reservations aside, this was definitely not something to feel guilty about and therefore failed supremely in fulfilling tonight’s theme…leaving a clear winner….ME!

Graham Listened: After the last round I had the music and lyrics of ‘Kaleigh’ stuck firmly in my head for a week afterwards. Rob certainly exacted his revenge, as for the last week I have been plagued by http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_tW3vU3RyQ. I singularly made this leap to Carole Bayer Sager after hearing Dean Friedman for the first time in a while. I may now be stuck in a 70’s Radio 2 playlist, so its probably the Beach Boys up next.

This album was great fun, though some tracks went on a little too long with a bit too much Jools’ish “noodling” for my tastes. The humour and irony of some of the Broadway/Showtune flourishes  were probably lost on me a  little. As the parent of an 11 year old daughter I find that anything related to Glee/HSM/Kids from Fame etc.etc., is no laughing matter!

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