Culling The Herd: Ben Folds

See the original "Culling The Herd" post here.

I remember the first time I ever heard of Ben Folds.  It was a "Fresh Air" interview with Terry Gross, and the first thing they talked about was why he called his band the Ben Folds Five, even though it only had three pieces.  And no guitar.  I immediately decided that, while he was clearly a bright, funny, talented guy, I had no interest in his music.  It just seemed like he was...I don't know, making fun of me, or something.  A few years later, a colleague loaned me his copy of "Rockin' the Suburbs."

Ben Folds, "Rockin' the Suburbs" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

When I saw the cover, I thought "man, was I ever right about this guy.  Soulful black and white photo, v-neck t-shirt...OK, FINE, I'll listen to it."

And it grabbed me immediately.  "Annie Waits" is a perfect example - nice clean production, nice hook, and (most importantly) wonderful lyrics.  As I've listened to the record (yes, over and over and over), I can't help but think of Randy Newman.  He has an ability to adopt a persona ("Losing Lisa," "Carrying Cathy") and write completely convincing stories, just as Randy Newman does. Unlike Randy Newman, however, there isn't usually an undercurrent of cynicism and grumpiness;  on the contrary, his lyrics are often deeply, deeply affecting and emotional.

I used to work with a guy named Bill Kuiper.  Huge Michigan sports fan, wonderful golfer, funny as hell.  Probably the best friend I've ever had in the work world.  I was let go from that job a few years ago (now that is a story for another day, depending on whether I ever get the guts to do so), and we spent a couple 0f years emailing after every football game, sending along dirty jokes, the usual.  Then, as happens, we drifted apart for a while, before I sent him a cursory "hey how's it hanging" email.

His reply was a punch in the stomach.  He had been diagnosed with lung cancer, which he not surprisingly joked about.

We started emailing again, not about white blood cells or chemo but about who was going to take over after Lloyd left and whether we should go for a passing guy or a Michigan Man or whatever.  He thanked me, once, for not asking, and I never forgot that.

But it got bad.  We'd get the updates from his wife.  Bill was in the hospital for the weekend so they could drain his lungs.  Bill can't eat.  After a couple of years of this, Sondra emailed some of his friends and told us that, since their 25th anniversary was coming up, they were going to renew their vows at their family's cottage overlooking Lake Michigan.  We all knew it was going to be a going-away party - although he'd rallied a bit, it was still Not Good.

I hadn't seen him at all in the interim, and I was shocked.  He had lost a lot of weight, and his voice was ravaged by chemo.  But we still cracked each other up a couple of times, and the light was still in his eyes.  He offered me a beer, which I declined, and we had a talk about that.  The food was fantastic.  It was great.

As the sun began to set, we were called to the deck at the edge of the bluff.  Their pastor said a few things that I don't remember, the usual renewal-of-vows thing.  Then, one of their sons' friends stood up and sang "The Luckiest."
I don't get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot
Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls
Brought me here

And where was I before the day
That I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it everyday
And I know

That I am
I am
I am
The luckiest

whew.

Ben Folds, "Songs For Silverman" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

...in which Ben continues his Randy Newman theme of adopting a persona and writing from that perspective.  Another gem of a record, all the way through.  The centerpiece this time is "You To Thank":
By the time the buzz was wearing off
we were standing out on the sidewalk
with our tattoos that looked like rings
in the hot Nevada sun

Kids piled high, our moms and dads shook hands
in a party of Polaroid friends
rented a pool and hired a band
Maybe they knew more then we knew
cause they danced and drank
while we jumped off the deep end

Oh I've got you to thank
for this

It goes on from there.  Things don't go as planned, doubts are expressed, but in closing Folds returns to the opening scene, reusing the tattoo line "and they won't fade."  These are, first and foremost, adult songs.  They express thoughts that all of us (well, most of us) about our relationships, about parenting ("Gracie"), about lost friendships, about our jobs.  Just incredible writing.

In "Landed":
Till I opened my eyes and walked out the door
And the clouds came tumbling down
And it's bye-bye, goodbye, I tried
And I twisted it wrong just to make it right
Had to leave myself behind
I've been flying high all night
So come pick me up...I've landed

Whew.  As someone who has been asked to leave, let me tell you - that's perfect.

Ben Folds Five, "Whatever And Ever Amen" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

His second album, and the last one I bought.  It's terrific, but if "Rocking the Suburbs" and "Songs For Silverman" are 5 solid stars, this one might be 4.75, rounded up to 5.    It's less polished, certainly, and it rocks harder.  The lyrics are not quite to the level of my other two albums, although "Brick" is right in the vein of "You To Thank" and "Gracie," emotionally evocative and affecting.  It's a great record, but I don't seem to listen to it as much as the others.  Still highly, highly recommended.