Ben Folds Five

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published January 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The CD had been spinning in the deck for days, and I was just sitting down to write a glowing review of it when my cat pushed open the door and jumped up onto the desk. I could see that he was trying to speak. He doesn't do it often, but when he does it's generally over something important. "Thiiiis," he labored. "Thiiiisss seeee-deee ..." "Yes, Jupiter?" I said. "What is it ... Is somebody in trouble?" He blinked, pasted his ears back, and crooned, "This CD bloooows!" And he threw up on the floor and galloped scowling out of the room.

But he's only 3 years old, and just a cat anyway. It's not really fair to expect him to know much about music. This is, after all, the same cat who got all excited about the last Cornershop album ("Grooovy Beeeeats! Goood pressss!") and who bought the new Superchunk CD with his own money because it "showed promise for the band's embarking on a new, mature stage of their career." He catches a lot of mice around here; that's good enough for me.

But then I got to thinking: Ben Folds Five really are a bit dire in certain respects. That doesn't eclipse their merits: They're a fun, exciting band by any measure -- and more fun still because there are so few exceptional straight-ahead rock acts around today. Their musical technique is ace. They've got great songs. All that. But there's something ... not right about them. The smug white-guy schtick that they do has become so overplayed in recent years (having been the collegiate-rock default style since about 1988) that no degree of technique or songwriting can rescue it completely from coming off as hollow, conservative and annoying. More than that, in combination with their highly trained musicianship and pat, snap-tight songwriting style, the Five's smirking can come off as more challenging than playful -- as superior rather than inclusive. They're always charismatic and generally appealing, but not always totally likable.

"Naked Baby Photos" is a collection of early tracks, B-sides and live workouts that shows off all the band's strengths even while putting a fairly thick frame around their weaknesses. "Eddie Walker" is a first-class ballad from the band's infancy, while the 7-inch version of "Jackson Cannery" presents the solid piano-romper in near-polished form. "Alice Childress" is from the band's first live radio performance (on Los Angeles' KCRW), and might as well have been a studio recording. All three tracks show that the Five had great chops and full-bore songwriting from the beginning. Two songs that were left off their first album, "Emaline" and "Tom & Mary," would've been perfectly good album cuts, which shows the consistency of the band's output. Impressive stuff all around -- if a bit samey, especially considering that their first-ever recording (the above "Jackson Cannery") could've been slipped onto their last album with hardly any seams showing.

The live recordings are also impressive, but it's there that things start to get off-puttingly arch. There are two heavy metal parodies, "The Ultimate Sacrifice" and "Satan Is My Master." Either one would've made the point on its own. And anyway, what's so hugely engaging about scoffing at dinosaur metal in this day and age? What separates the hero from the bully, it's said, is the strength of his adversary -- and doing this kind of lampoon in 1997 is something like parodying urban dance music in 1987: It's launching an attack against a defenseless, vanquished enemy. It's no big deal for all of that. But then, they also parody urban dance music. "For Those of Y'all Who Wear Fannie Packs" is an extemporaneous comedy jam that shows the Five doing a dialect routine with black accents. It's riotously funny, but somehow not funny at all. It's a bit too much like an Amos 'n' Andy routine to go down as lighthearted wise-assery. Which isn't to accuse the Five of prejudice, or anything as offensive as that. Rather, it's to accuse them of being excessively and reflexively cavalier -- which isn't offensive so much as it's just plain unengaging and dull.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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