Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ben Folds Five

Among music fans who came of age during the '90s alternative/grunge movement – like myself – there's a few acts whose reunion would be much-anticipated (of course, acts like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Sublime, Blind Mellon will never be reformed, not without their frontman deceased). Many of us would like to see a return of the original, fierce, progressive lineup of the Smashing Pumpkins. Those with more indie sensibilities might pine for new material from Neutral Milk Hotel. But one of the few acts that never experienced a massive falling-out among members nor lost their standard-bearer who still maintained a healthy segment of their original audience is the Ben Folds Five, who've returned with The Sound of the Life of the Mind – their fourth full-length collection of new, original material after a 13-year hiatus – out September 18 on the group's ImaVeePee Records.

The key thing to note about the Ben Folds Five sound – which, despite its name, is actually a trio, comprised of the band's namesake frontman, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse – is that it's not driven by Folds' quirky and humorous lyrics, classically-trained piano talents or superb songwriting. No, that's what makes Ben Folds himself noteworthy as an artist, songwriter and performer. Rather, its the distinctive fuzz-bass approach of Sledge. It's that element of the three-piece band that adds edge from Folds' nerdy compositions and arrangements and connects Folds' hyperactive piano lines with Jesse's industrial-strength drumming.

Seeking to remind listeners' of the band's true core, they lay it on thick in the opening track, "Erase Me." The intro is a blast of Sledge-brand fuzz bass, along with pounding scales from Folds and baseline-setting percussion from Jesse. Even though the verses are mellow and jazzy – the introductory stanza referencing Radiohead's gravity always wins concept from "Fake Plastic Trees" – the choruses and bridge tack back to more potent territory and Folds' iconic and frequent falsetto. A bit of the snickering and snarky lyricism of the band's first incarnation pops up on the second chorus with a fun. (NMT, NMT)-like "what the fuck is this?" retort, while adding juvenile detail with "drawing moustaches on our wedding photos." 

That same clever but cheeky humor continues on "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later." Folds' sense of cunning narrative never left with the band's amicable demise, and this track is proof – which longtime fans could file neatly between "Steven's Last Night in Town" and "Not the Same" – as he notes the awkward encounters of former classmates at successive reunions in the Great Recession America on top of a punchy foundation. Quite the opposite is the tone of the succeeding restrained ballad, "Sky High," with lyrics penned by Jesse and featuring the same bowed upright bass from Sledge that strung together the group's 1997 breakout ballad, "Brick," but without the same soul-wrenching honesty of the latter number. 

From there, the 10-track record's standout offering is its title track, blending ambitious instrumentation with lyrics leftover from Folds' 2010 collaboration with British author Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue (NMT). The combination results in the type of complexity and heft found on "Narcolepsy" off the trio's previous offering, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – a record that led to the band's one-off reunion in 2008 to perform the record in its entirety – and serves as a solid bridge between where the group left off before and Folds' material in the meantime.

Later on, the album's leadoff single – the raucous "Do It Anyway," with its fantastically Fragilized video – is unnecessarily buried on the track list behind the tongue-in-cheek and lavishly-orchestrated Frank Sinatra devotional "On Being Frank" and the delightfully immature "Draw A Crowd." Even though "Do It Anyway" might seem a bit self-helpy at first blush, its galloping pace from Sledge and Jesse helps build the intensity across a short 3:06 to a fun romp by its end. Meanwhile, the latter might as well been strewn together by a gaggle of smirking adolescent boys, who would have provided the most obvious answer to what to draw on a wall if one can't draw a crowd.

The collection mellows-out across its trio of closing numbers. "Hold That Thought" features some of the witty but dour narratives that have popped up across Folds' solo work, leading off with, "she broke down and cried at the strip mall acupuncture / while the world went on outside / The Chinese doctor took her arm / gazed at the floor and read her wrist for the secrets in her mind. It's precisely the type of writing Folds is best known for, but the return of his original band also helps transform the piece with a carefree instrumental sensibility that similarly would often find their ways into some of Paul Simon's revealing commentaries. Similarly, Folds' closely-mic'd piano and sincerity in delivery on "Away When You Were Here" are not grand departures from his work on his own, but it a significant step from the band's earlier "Song for the Dumped" or even "Draw A Crowd" on this compilation. And, while lovely and heartfelt, I don't quite see the point of "Thank You for Breaking My Heart" in the Ben Folds Five catalog: its much more closely aligned with his solo material, and seems like a waste of the band's time. 

Come for: "Do It Anyway"
Stay for: "The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind"
You'll be surprised by: "Away When You Were Here"

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Sheepdogs (self-titled)

Around this time last year, we told you about the Canadian boogie rockers, The Sheepdogs (NMT). That review focused on their five-track EP, Five Easy Pieces, which marked their major-label debut on Atlantic Records, as well as some of their previous work. Now, the easy-going quartet has returned with its full-length addendum to that effort, the 14 cuts of the band's self-titled collection, out September 4th, again on Atlantic.

Once again, the boys from Saskatoon are bound and determined to convince everyone it's still the mid-70s and classic rock will never die. And even though their latest output isn't too far afield of the bulk of material from that era, nor does it make great strides from their previous work, it doesn't matter: there's just too few acts like this producing stuff like this anymore, and it's quite welcome.

The ease-in effortlessly with the aptly-named, "Laid Back." The carefree grove laid down by lead guitarist Leot Hanson sets a comfortable stage for frontman Ewan Currie's no-worries vocals. The crisp but unassuming pace set by bassist Ryan Gullen and drummer Sam Corbett is just as unforced as the more upfront vocals and guitar parts. Likewise, an unassuming piano line (the band doesn't credit its piano, keyboard and organ parts) rolls around like it also nowhere in particular, and that's not a problem. The chorus could be tighter – it's just a touch too frat-boy sing-along – but hardly a fatal flaw.

The dirtier follow-up, "Feeling Good," clicks up the volume a notch – largely through Hanson's fuzzy lead guitar – without sacrificing much of the good-natured vibe. Much like Five Easy Pieces, hints of Steely Dan emerge alongside thicker-cut slices of Grand Funk Railroad and The Allman Brothers Band. Its short 3:09 run time only reinforces the band's talent for not trying to do too much, and letting the concept flow naturally. That's augmented with Currie's airy acoustic guitar on "Alright OK," and the persistent but not obtrusive shaker percussion from Corbett. I'm not wild about Hanson's reverbed lead part here or the slightly distorted chorus vocals, but, again, it's not distracting enough to divert attention from the main body of the number.

Behind the nobs on this one is another fine crafter for the group's throwback sound, with The Black Keys' (NMT) Patrick Carney taking over from The Fountains of Wayne's (NMT) Chris Collingswood, who was at the helm of Five Easy Pieces. Carney's influence enhances the band's natural instincts with the retro production tools his own band has employed to propel them to arena rock status. That's evident on "Never Gonna Get My Love," which transitions from a George Harrison "Something"-style intro to a more Zeppelin-infused blues plodder.

Much like "The Middle Road" of their previous release, the band colors its blues-based boogie rock with tinges of the mellow jazz-rock of Steely Dan on "Ewan's Blues." The sliding pitch step of the combination organ used here is a nice reflection of Donald Fagan's similar parts on his group's standout tracks like "Do It Again" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," with a little added chugging guitar as the number builds. Meanwhile, "The Way It Is" offers a touch of The Doors' fusion of psychedelic blues and free-form rock, but doesn't try to be as much of a carbon copy that doomed their earlier nod to Jim Morrison and company on "Learn and Burn," which is a credit to their maturing talent.

The even looser "Javelina!" instrumental folds The Doors' style from its predecessor into Carlos Santana territory, with its wavy guitar licks and overlapping rhythms. It sounds much longer than its 2:38 play time by avoiding run-on jams and focusing instead on the latent melody, and surviving a murky mid-song deconstruction. If only more jam bands could be as efficient.

The group returns the boogie on "I Need Help," with a easy-spinning groove from Gullen and Corbett, paired with guitar harmonies from Currie and Hanson. When combined with organic-sounding chorus harmonies and another brisk run time, it lands squarely in the band's wheelhouse. The same is true for the following "Is Your Dream Worth Dying For," with brisk and wistful acoustic guitar foundations for the intro and chorus, but a stiffer backbone in the verses and a neatly-pegged electric solo from Hanson at the bridge. Much like the core of John Fogerty's catalog for Credence Clearwater Revival, their songwriting is best deployed in short, smart doses, and this collection takes that credo to heart, with no track running longer than "Alright OK's" 4:15.

After a reprise performance of Five Easy Pieces signature "How Late, How Long," the initially grainy and sparse "Sharp Sounds" is a little too unfocused to measure fully against the earlier cuts, but the wafting Hammond organ and another Hanson solo largely help redeem the number. "In My Mind" is slow and measured – a hallmark of late-appearing tracks – but "While We're Young" is fun and rollicking as the penultimate selection, smearing a swath of The Who's twitchy energy with some more carefree blues rock. Closing things out, the aptly-titled "It Ain't Easy To Go" is pure southern rock cooking, Currie's vocals filtered through a gentle haze and complimented with a sing-along chorus. Again, it's the last thing you'd expect from some good guys from Saskatoon, but they do it pretty darn well for a bunch of Canucks.

Come for: "Feeling Good"
Stay for: "Alright OK"
You'll be surprised by: "Javelina!"

P.S. – The record's deluxe version includes stripped-down, front-porch acoustic renditions of both "Alright OK" and "The Way It Is," along with a similarly reformatted of Five Easy Pieces opener, "Who," dropping much of the hard rock crunch and substituting a swinging blues motif as "WHOCOUSTIC." It might be even better than their first go at it.