Ben Folds Five

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published June 1, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Ben Folds Five in New York? There's something not right about that. Here's New York: You're going someplace really swell, so you get all dressed up and leave with plenty of time to spare. A big accident on the bridge ties you up for a while, then some crucial avenue is blocked off for no reason. You're an hour late. Finally, you park. Illegally. All parking spots in New York are illegal. When you finally arrive at that really swell place you were going to, the building is in flames. All your friends were inside, and now they're dead. Your car goes rattling past with its side window broken, dragged by a tow truck. A pack of wild dogs encircles you, and you notice your zipper's been open the whole time.

Everything that ever happens in downtown New York is like that. If you're going out to a Motvrhead show, or a particularly lurid production of the Nibelungen, the local ambiance can even bolster the experience. But when it's Ben Folds Five on the menu, the effect is a little more complex -- more like, say, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" broadcast over a prison security-cam.

Ben Folds would be Schroeder, all hunchbacked over his little piano with a mild grimace on his face. But he could also be Joe Jackson without the spiv style, or Elton John without the brassiness. He's ... well, he's something of a harmless sort: a collegiate collared-shirt kinda guy with a short, $50 haircut and a bald patch starting in back. In short, the Five don't have much in the way of street-cred -- they're provincial music-major types with innocent, friendly faces.

But they're also tremendously talented and well rehearsed. "Missing The War," the set's opener, had the sort of rich, layered arrangements that rock bands haven't been capable of since the late '70s -- and even then, only rarely with just a three-piece lineup. "Steven's Last Night In Town" showed that they can swing a jazz riff like crazy, and "Kate" slapped down a close-harmonied Roy Thomas Baker vibe thicker than anything in recent memory. The point was drilled even closer home a bit later, when the band spiraled into a free-form noise jam. At the final punch, Ben leaped up and bashed his stool onto the keyboard -- while sneaking his foot down onto the mute pedal to dampen the sound on cue.

Impressive stuff. But no big surprise, given that the new album, "Whatever And Ever Amen," is such an impressive disc. Ben Folds Five have a fresh, distinctive rock sound that marks them as a bit of a rarity in today's post-grunge, allegedly pre-electronica music scene. Trouble is, live they fall smack into both of the traps that yawn open for piano-based bands: The pianist is forced to overplay and the front man is always sitting down. All of the recent piano greats (Elton John, Joe Jackson, Billy Joel) have wound up, at some career juncture or another, stalking the stage while a henchman handles the keys. But when Ben Folds goes stage center (as he did once or twice) he doesn't carry much magnetism with him. Like Schroeder, he's only rarely seen away from his instrument, and then, somehow, his character is missing. Still -- and especially if you're already a fan -- their musicianship alone is reason enough to go see them. Although perhaps not in New York.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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