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Ben Folds decided to get the band back together and it rocks. "The Sound of the Life of the Mind," is the first album released since Ben Folds Five split up 12 years ago. Featuring the multi-instrumented artists Ben Folds chiefly on piano, Robert Sledge on bass and synthesizer and Darren Jessee on percussion, the ironically named trio has only improved since reaching commercial acclaim in 1997 with "Brick," which I guarantee is the most popular song you've ever heard about a high school kid taking his girlfriend to an abortion cli"The Sound of the Life of the Mind" allows Folds, who is the principal songwriter for the band, to completely concentrate on songwriting and piano arrangements.
It is not the songwriting that is refreshing on this album, it is the overall sound that reminds me the first time I heard "Underground," from the band's self-titled debut album released in 1995. I didn't catch on to the greatness of Folds, both with the Five and his solo work, until nearly a decade later. Folds obviously was having great fun with his solo career (except when he smashed his head in Japan resulting in one of his best songs, "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)". He has also had some great collaborations with artists like Regina Spektor and author Nick Hornby. This latest project stands apart from the others as it features an obvious fullness that was lacking on albums since Ben Folds Five released "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner" in 1999.
Even Folds' signature humor is on point on this album; just listen to the chorus to "Draw a Crowd." There is also a return to the familiar subject matter for Folds with numerous references to weddings, relationships and where they went wrong. Not to mention the poignant profanity that is weaved around piano notes.
The opening track, "Erase Me" is typical of the weird alternative rock I love about Ben Folds Five. With its heavy bass lines and rhythmic piano the song features a chanting bridge halfway through and ends with a rollicking piano solo where Folds seemingly releases more than a decade of musical tension.
"Michael Praytor, Five Years Later," uses falsetto and harmonies to describe the randomness of Folds' seeing his old friend who is the subject of the tune. The distorted guitar that made appearances on Folds’ solo work, such as “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is revisited here and is incredibly effective in creating emotional cues throughout the album.
From the weird to the outright beautiful, Ben Folds knows how to hit an emotional chord in his listeners. At times I have to remind myself that the same guy wrote about his desire to unload his disgust with popular culture on "All U Can Eat," also wrote the incredibly touching tribute to Elliott Smith in "Late." (Also, check out Folds covering Smith’s “Say Yes.”
This album utilizes a variety of styles that have been heard on albums by both the Five and on Folds' solo work.
"Sky High," is a quiet ballad featuring background vocals fading in and out behind Folds' voice, a piano and drums.
The title track is full of youthful angst and stream of conscience lyrics fronting one of the best instrumental arrangements on the album.
Every time I listen to "On Being Frank," I consider it as my favorite songs on the album and not just for the reference to New Jersey. It is either incredibly honest or very creative in its description of the singer's quest to better himself through the image of his idol Frank Sinatra. The song also has a very catchy chorus that carries the song between verses.
It cannot be overlooked that Folds downright rocks the hell out of the piano on this album. I suggest the energy of his band mates has propelled Folds to explore the piano parts on each track.
The spoken word refrain of “Do It Anyway” embraces the singer’s inner geek. The song is incredibly fun and so is the video featuring the characters from Fraggle Rock who join the band on the song.
The album closes far differently than it began. It quiets with “Hold That Thought,” a song that has a sound very similar to some of Folds’ best arrangements in the past.
The retrospective “Away When You Were Here,” is a continuation of subject of relationships; particularly when they go wrong. The song bookends well with “Landed,” released on Folds’ 2005 solo album “Songs for Silverman.”
The closing track “Thank You for Breaking my Heart,” sounds similar to Elvis Costello songs; especially those from the last decade. Simple, haunting with little percussion, the song is very lyrical and personal.
As a fan of Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five, I believe each album released surpasses its predecessor. “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” is no different. Just as “Way to Normal,” and “Songs of Silverman,” before it, I know that I will enjoy “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” for many years to come.
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"The Sound of the Life of the Mind" on iTunes.
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