By Mark Guarino
Here are words to describe seeing Ben Folds Five live: mayhem, destruction, complete jubilation.
Strange that they’re not far off from describing a litany of shock rockers, considering the North Carolina trio never upset parents, wore scary costumes or obligatory tipped its hat to the devil.
Instead, Ben Folds Five set ‘90s nerd angst to both the ‘70s piano pop of Elton John, Joe Jackson and arena rock pomposity of Queen, Wings and Supertramp. Every night, leader Ben Folds was guaranteed to pound his piano with his bar stool, scream into a microphone and lead a few thousand feverish kids into singing, “give me my money back!,” the chorus of “Song For The Dumped,” his cynical anthem for losers with a self-explanatory title.
Achieving that level of madness in a band with no guitar player (the line-up included drummer Darren Jesse and bassist Robert Sledge), was not just endearing, it was a feat of nature. No wonder there was a toll.
“It aged us all,” said Folds two weeks ago. “We were just (expletive) tired. It was 24 hours of doing that for six years. Maybe The Who gave it that much for longer, but one of them died though, you know?”
The band’s notorious live shows came to an end not long after the release of its third album in 1999. Folds, 35, explains it was a mutual decision. “We were the type of band that, if we weren’t feeling it, we felt we weren’t doing our job,” he said. “And we weren’t feeling it consistently. We were just over it.”
Right after the split, Folds moved to Australia where his wife is originally from (they have two-year old twins: a boy and girl). He also poured his energy into songs that became his first post-Five album, “Rockin’ The Suburbs” (Epic). It has the hallmarks of any album made fresh from a band break-up: Folds played every instrument himself and its more mature tone laments growing old.
But like his band’s last album, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner” (Epic), “Rockin’ The Suburbs” refutes Folds unfair reputation as simply a songwriter who is aiming for crowd-pleasing humor.
As much as he smirked through countless classic rock cliches in his live performances, Folds took on serious topics — alienation, regret, family chaos and on his breakthrough hit, “Brick,” facing an abortion — and punched them up with the sprawling pop conceits of Burt Bacharach or Brian Wilson. And as flamboyant as those songs got, they were always rooted in stinging street talk.
On the radio, that meant the smartly crafted and emotionally charged songs stood apart from by-the-numbers alternative rock.
“Which means it’s a harder sell,” Folds said. With “Reinhold Messner,” he admits he “took a bath.” “I think that if you’re firing on a lot of different levels with your music, then you can figure people are going to understand it for different reasons,” he said.
His new songs refine his songwriting even further. Just as the songs are heightened by the lush pop production, their emotional centers are considerably more somber due to the lyrics, which delve into the worlds of specific characters. “Fred Jones Part 2” follows a business drone on the last day of his job, “The Ascent of Stan,” an aging hippie who has become the establishment and “Carrying Cathy,” a sad-eyed dreamer who’s not understood by her family.
The reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger was an influence. His benchmark characters Franny and Zooey were archetypes for the Folds song, “Zak and Sara.”
Focusing on fictional characters was not just an artistic choice, it was a practical one, as well. “You can’t sit and talk about yourself for so long,” he said.
“I kind of like the mystery. I think American audiences listen so literally that it makes it harder to get your point across sometimes because people are suspicious that it’s not really you. People want to hear that the songwriter and the singer are the same person and it’s not always like that with me. But it’s all coming from a real place.”
The album’s centerpiece is less about a single person, than it is a single cultural phenomenon: angry white males and the music they make. Consider the title song David hurling a rock at the Goliath known as rap metal. To do so, a part of the song perfectly mimics a typical rant from Limp Bizkit, showing not only how ridiculous it sounds when performed by an outsider, but just how easy it is to create.
Folds said the late ‘90s phenomenon of bottom feeder bands like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Papa Roach is not a natural evolution.
“Teenagers buy angry music naturally and they figured out scientifically how to construct it so they can sell the most of it. Because these days, the louder it is, the more shelf space you get. But you can’t get away from it. I can’t walk outside without hearing some 35-year-old (expletive) white guy screaming about something. Some of it is great, but I just don’t think they need to dedicate 80 radio stations to it.”