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And a Grand Piano Shall Lead Them

Ben Folds Five
Three Into Five: From left, Robert Sledge, Ben Folds and Darren Jessee of the teasingly off-kilter trio Ben Folds Five.

Ben Folds Five doesn't need guitars to plunk out a fresh new rock sound on 'Whatever and Ever Amen'

By Gina Arnold

IN THE PLETHORA of year-end retrospectives that plague the universe, 1997 is clearly going to be dubbed the Year of the Grand Piano. If Shine's success at the Oscars hadn't already assured us of that, the sight of not one, but two grand pianos on the stage at the Counting Crows show at the Greek Theater the other night should have been the final indicator.

One of the pianos--the one belonging to the Counting Crows--took center stage, although it was used infrequently in the set. The other piano belonged to opening act Ben Folds Five, and it played a far larger role in the band's repertoire. In fact, singer/songwriter Ben Folds leads his band from the instrument, replacing the more traditional guitar with the unwieldy two-ton beast.

Ben Folds Five hails from North Carolina and is actually a trio. The band's second album, Whatever and Ever Amen (550 Music), has just scored a surprise hit with the song called "Battle of Who Could Care Less," and no wonder. Being guitarless, Ben Folds Five is one of the very few outfits around today with a unique sound on the radio.

OK, so "unique" might not be quite the right term, since Ben Folds Five sounds like plenty of other bands you may have heard--Hall and Oates, for instance. But for all that, Ben Folds himself is truly the anti-Korn, a man whose music is unmarred by the taint of Sonic Youth. He disdains groovy influences such as the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, turning instead to Elton John, Carole King and Todd Rundgren for inspiration.

Musically, these virtuosos are his forebears, but lyrically, Folds lives in Elvis Costello (even Billy Joel) land. Thus, Whatever and Ever Amen is full of the minutest narrative detail: a girl who watches The Rockford Files and used to look like Robert Smith of the Cure; another who smokes pot and wears the same clothes every day; and a long song about being in second grade and mad as hell at those around you ("One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces," which begins with the wonderful couplet "September '75/I was 47 inches high").


The official site for the band.

More than you could ever want to know about Ben Folds Five.


ALL THESE NUMBERS, remember, are played furiously on the grand piano a la Scott Joplin or Cole Porter, only with a more traditional rock bass and drums bottom. Fooling with the traditional rock format (the Beatles' classic two guitars, a bass and a drumset) is always tricky, but Folds does it on his head--and always has.

His first album, 1995's Ben Folds Five (Caroline), was also full of wonderful songs: "Philosophy" and "Where's Summer B.?" Live, he transforms the usually stodgy piano into a rockin' good time in the manner of Jerry Lee Lewis, kicking it, standing on it and just generally having a ball.

If Folds has a drawback, it is the mean personality he exhibits in some of his songs. He has talent oozing out of every pore, but--like so many guys his age--little to say about life.

Also, he's a bit of a misogynist. When in love, he calls the object of his affection "a brick" ("and I'm drowning slowly"). And on "Song for the Dumped," he shrieks "Give me my money back, you bitch!" at the woman who's given him the heave-ho right after--the nerve of her!--he paid for dinner.

And occasionally, his songs degenerate into glib patter from Friends, as on "Steven's Last Night in Town," when he sings that a friend "lost points with the ladies / for saying he could never love a woman with cellulite."

All this is nit-picking, however. For sheer catchiness and hooks, Ben Folds is unsurpassed--the year's best new artist so far. One can only hope his success indicates the start of a whole new generation of rock stars.

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From the April 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro

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