Playing the piano should be cooler.
It?s a remarkable technological achievement, a breakthrough that unlocked waves of new compositional dynamics, birthing works that could evoke human emotion with a previously implausible depth. The piano has shaped the course of contemporary music for centuries.
It?s probably this very notoriety that?s to blame for the countless (fruitless) cat-piss-perfumed piano lessons you endured as a child, sequestered in some matronly woman?s front room. For every John Legend in this life, there are a few small nations? worth of folks like me: a joke of a musician who learned how to play a single part of that one Billy Joel song once. At social gatherings featuring both alcohol and a piano, you?ll often find assholes like me smashing away in unapologetic ham-fisted oblivion, grinning like the deranged star of a musical Of Mice And Men tribute act.
Unless you?re willing to invest a ridiculous amount of time into practicing something that weighs half a ton and needs it?s own room, you probably don?t make the piano look all that cool.
Somewhere between Lennie and John Legend however, lies Ben Folds.
In the mid-1990’s, Ben Folds and two other North Carolina musicians formed the infuriatingly undermanned Ben Folds Five. They?d release an eponymous debut album on Passenger Records: a small subsidiary of the already small anyway independent label, Caroline.
Fig. 1: Like, where these guys would land if you plotted them on an axis and the criteria were musical acumen and successful rabbit handling.
The twentieth anniversary of that release was this past summer, and since I feel that Ben Folds would chart way closer to John Legend than Lennie Small were you plot the three of them on an axis, I hereby present what I feel to be the ten best songs recorded by the group for which he was the principal singer and songwriter during his creative peak (sorry).
10. Kate Ben Folds Five
This is the song that made me look up what the Bhagavad Gita is, as well as helping 17 year-old me realize I thought hippie girls were really attractive. I always imagined the girl he was singing about was a white girl with dreadlocks that wore a poncho that reeked of weed and liked showing her butt to people. I wanted to lose my virginity to her. That hasn?t changed.
Here?s hoping for 2016.
9. Emaline Naked Baby Photos
A song meant to be included on their self-titled debut, and one Ben envisioned as the lead single. But it had a prominent acoustic guitar line and their label was high on selling them as ?the piano band without a guitar?, so this one fell to an odds and sods collection put out by Caroline Records once they made the leap to Sony. It?s a gem of a song though, and has one of my favorite lyrics in the group?s catalogue: ?When money talks/I hate to listen/but lately it?s been screaming in my ear?
8. Mess The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
This song sounded really sophisticated to my teenaged ears, and yeah ?sad man writes sad song about his sad life.? But what a good sad song this is. ?All the untested virtue/the things I said I?d never do/least of all to you?. Ben got divorced three times, which is ridiculous (stop getting married) but if it produces a song like ?Mess? then I hope his life falls apart again soon.
7. Jane The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
The closest they ever came to outright Burt Bacharach idolatry, ?Jane? doesn?t cover all that much ground in it?s brief runtime but the keyboard arpeggio that plays the second time through the chorus still makes me very happy. The idea of being yourself, rather than doing a bland imitation of what you think is most palatable, is a theme Ben returns to time and again. It?s original iteration?
6. Best Imitation Of Myself Ben Folds Five
?I feel like a quote out of context/withholding the rest/so I can be for you what you want to see/I?ve got the gestures and sounds/got the timing down/it?s uncanny, yeah you?d think it was me?
That?s such a cool thing to hear when you?re a teenager! That everyone?s personality is a performance to some degree and the further you commit to it, the further you get from yourself. And your happiness. Additionally, this is perhaps the best song to ever emerge from a horrendous demo recording. What were we going for with the falsetto solo at the 1:30 mark, bruvs?
5. Evaporated Whatever and Ever, Amen
This is the one that deserved to be the famous ballad, not Brick. Same album, similar execution, but much more poignant with a lot less treacle. One of the first times I can remember being moved to tears by music is when I read the lyrics in the CD booklet as my dude sang ?I poured my heart out/it evaporated/..see?? Again ? I was a teenager. But I?d had my first couple tastes of heartbreak, despite my best efforts to avoid it, and fuck if I didn?t understand where he was in that moment.
4. Philosophy Ben Folds Five
Maybe his most impressive piano performance, and one of the best examples of why he should?ve let Darren and Robert in on more chorus sing-alongs. The saloon rag of the bridge, the fuzzed out bass, and the Gershwin-cribbing outro all work for me. I don?t think the group ever made another song with this particular blueprint, and I?m not sure I?ve heard another like it since, anywhere.
3. The Last Polka Ben Folds Five
There are a lot of breakup songs that don?t sound like breakups. ?The Last Polka? sounds like a breakup. It?s loud then soft, plodding and then breakneck, over the course of 20 seconds. Once I actually went through a breakup, this song made even more sense. The final lines of what I presume to be their final argument sound exactly right. ?You?ve been pushing me like I was a sore tooth/You can?t respect me ?cause I?ve done so much for you/He said ?Well I hate that it?s come to this/but baby I was doin? fine/how do you think that I survived the other 25 before you?? There?s no coming back from that, and the song torturously plods to it?s conclusion.
2. Army The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
Objectively this probably isn?t one of the Top 3 songs these guys produced, but it?s inextricably linked to my memories of the old internet. 1999 was a great time to have a computer with a CD-ROM drive and this was one of the first ?enhanced? CDs I ever owned. I played this album on repeat while I poked around AOL between hours long Slingo sessions. When I was home alone, I would blast the dueling brass bridge and psych myself up to start belting ?In this time of introspection/on the eve of my election/I say to my reflection/GOD PLEASE SPARE ME MORE REJECTION!?
A couple of years later, he?d play a solo charity show in the wake of the September 11th attacks. When he performed ?Army?, he asked the crowd to split in half and each sing one of the horn parts. It was amazing, and it worked, and he went on a massive solo tour soon after.
- One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces Whatever and Ever, Amen
It?s the first song on your major label debut. What kind of statement do you want to make? If you?re like Ben Folds (or me) you tell every person that ever doubted you to kiss your tight little ass. My dude even goes after the little girl in second grade who said she?d rather die than kiss him. Not that he still holds a grudge or anything.
The track exudes the joy, confidence, and relief of ?making it? while still sounding like it could break apart at any minute. That?s a pretty good representation of what success is like. Even before I?d made a goddamn thing, I knew I wanted to feel like that one day.
Look who?s telling who what to do. Kiss my ass. Goodbye.
Billy Keenly is a host, producer, and comedian from New York.