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"