Some months, life is just unbearable, an endless trudge from one day to the next. But some months, life goes so well that it’s almost hard to believe.
I’m having one of the good kind. As many of you know, I took a new job two months ago, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Last week, my first press release came out – I wrote the announcement of first light for the Dark Energy Camera, the most powerful digital camera ever built. Constructed at Fermilab, the camera is now mounted on a telescope in Chile, and will be used to map part of the sky in ridiculous detail. Here, read all about it. And look at the pretty pictures.
Well, that release caught fire. It was reported in more than 200 publications in 36 countries. We were in Wired, Scientific American, Popular Science, National Geographic, the works. Best of all, as far as I’m concerned, Jay Leno made a joke about the Dark Energy Camera on the Tonight Show last week. Check it out, about six minutes in. I nearly fell off my chair.
So, job is going well, life is going well. And music? Holy hell, September was a great month for music. At the bottom of this column, you’ll find my Third Quarter Report, essentially an early draft of my top 10 list. Three of the 10 you’ll see there were released this month. Plus, three of my very favorite artists hit me with new records this month. I had to do a double-take when I saw the schedule. Yes, Marillion, Aimee Mann and the reunited Ben Folds Five would all be releasing albums in September. Insane.
This week, I’ll be talking about the latter two. Both are songwriters I hold in very high esteem, and both have returned to an earlier sound on their new records. Let’s find out how that decision worked for them.
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I remember when I first heard Ben Folds Five.
My friend Chris had recommended them, saying they reminded him of Jellyfish. That was all I needed to check out the band’s self-titled album, and while I could see the comparison, BFF struck me in a completely different way. Brilliant pop songs, played with a jazz trio lineup and the energy of a teenage punk band, but with enough sense of history and melody to slow down and be graceful when the tunes called for it. I listened to that thing again and again, reviewing it twice for my local music magazine, and I practiced endlessly until I could play a passable version of “Philosophy” on the piano.
I’ve stuck with Folds ever since, and he’s rarely let me down. In fact, only once, on his tossed-off 2008 effort Way to Normal, and that still had a few good songs on it. I’ve read a lot about diminishing returns when it comes to Folds’ solo career, and I’m just not hearing it. Rockin’ the Suburbs, Songs for Silverman, all his terrific EPs, even 2010’s marvelous collaboration with Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue – I think he’s been remarkably consistent, all told.
So I greeted the news of a Ben Folds Five reunion with tempered joy, because I knew some would see it as a desperate attempt to return to the glory days. I would never suggest that those heady late ‘90s days weren’t glorious – Whatever and Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner remain two of my most treasured records. I just think the man’s been damn good since then, too. He doesn’t need this reunion, so to my mind, it’s something he wants to do.
And I expect that’s because he hears what I hear in the collaboration between himself, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee. On his solo records, Folds is undeniably in charge, and the other musicians fall in line. But Ben Folds Five is a band, and their interplay, their energy, their ability to slip perfectly into the spaces between one another, is unbeatable. It’s been 15 years since these three guys have played together, so in that sense, the reunion would be a treat regardless.
But as my friend Nate said, nothing would have been worse than a half-assed reunion record. And believe me, the just-released The Sound of the Life of the Mind is not half-assed. It is a full-fledged Ben Folds Five album, wiser and more mature, but still musically astonishing, clever, moving and fun. I was afraid it would be a joke, a quick-and-dirty throwdown like Way to Normal. But instead, it’s a remarkably well-considered affair, a fine reminder not only of how good the Five can be, but how solid Folds has always been.
The first thing you hear on The Sound is Robert Effing Sledge, cranked up to 15 and all but drowning out Folds on the herky-jerky intro to “Erase Me.” It’s your first signal that this is a Five album, and everyone’s going to get equal time to shine. But then “Erase Me” morphs into an off-kilter showtune, halting and lumbering forward, Folds showing off his undimmed falsetto. (And yes, the almost-but-not-quite Ben Folds Five harmonies are back in full force, and I missed them.) It’s the strangest opening track Folds has written since “Narcolepsy,” a tour de force that defies your expectations for lightning-fast power pop.
The record stays on a chilled-out vibe – the only real workout is the finger-blistering anthem “Do It Anyway,” an instant knockout. Both the delightfully profane “Draw a Crowd” and the witty “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” glide along on mid-tempo grooves. Everything else is comparatively relaxed, which is something of a surprise, until you remember that half of Whatever and Ever Amen was also comprised of ballads. The Five has always sounded like this – for every “Julianne” a “Boxing,” for every “Kate” an “Evaporated.”
And the slower songs here are simply gorgeous. The title track sports wonderful lyrics by Hornby, and a Foldsian epic sweep, cresting and falling back. Jessee takes flight on this one, supporting the whole thing with rolling toms. “On Being Frank” is ready for its close-up – it’s a lovely, jazzy pastiche, sung from the point of view of Frank Sinatra’s butler. It’s sad and witty and thoroughly hummable, a Folds classic in the making.
But for my money, the grand prize this time out goes to “Hold That Thought,” the first of a delicate trilogy that ends this record. It’s as specific as the best Folds story songs: “She broke down and cried at the strip mall acupuncturist while the world went on outside…” And it sports the most lovely simple melody on the album, a soaring wordless falsetto over gently flowing piano, gliding into a terrific back half with Sledge and Folds darting off each other. It’s practically perfect.
“There’ll be times you’ll like the cover and that’s precisely why you’ll love the book,” Folds sings in “Do It Anyway,” and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect summation of this record. If you’re excited by the words Ben Folds Five on the cover, you’ll love this book. The Sound of the Life of the Mind is even better than I hoped it would be. It’s the sound of three simpatico musicians reuniting as older men, but still finding that youthful joy that exists between them. Here’s hoping this is just the first chapter in a long second life.
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Aimee Mann is another songwriter without a fallow period to apologize for. She has weaker records, but no weak ones, if that makes sense, and when it comes to her brand of darkly sentimental pop, she’s practically in a class of one. In some ways, you know what you’re going to get with a Mann album – a collection of traditional-minded pop tunes with splendid melodies and well-crafted lyrics. She never really changes as a songwriter, but she doesn’t have to. She’s a master.
So the only differences between one swell Mann album and another are the sonic touches. And lately, she’s been embracing the sorta-cheesy keyboard sounds with which she first made her name. Everyone remembers Mann’s first hit with Til Tuesday, “Voices Carry,” but fewer stuck around to hear her final record with that band, the terrific Everything’s Different Now. That one was an even mix of the synthy sounds that Til Tuesday trafficked in, and the more folksy pop Mann would go on to create.
As it turns out, late-period Til Tuesday is the perfect touchstone for Mann’s new solo record, Charmer. It could be the son of that album, in fact – the keyboard sounds are everywhere, but the songs are just as literate and folksy as they’ve been for 25 years. It amazed me how often I was transported back to 1988 while listening to Charmer. It’s almost like time travel, like Mann, all of 52, took a trip back to make a record with her 27-year-old self.
And for that, it’s enjoyable. I’m just not sure this is Mann’s strongest set of songs. Numbers like “Labrador” make their way with simple, overused chords, and some songs, like “Disappeared,” fail to get off the ground at all. She strikes gold more than once – the title track is terrific, zipping along on a wavery keyboard line, and “Soon Enough” is a devilishly clever mid-tempo glide. “Crazytown” is the most fun you’ll have on this record, Mann lamenting a friend’s choice of paramour over a bouncy bed of keys and tremolo-laden guitar. “You’re out there trying to flag a cab, and for who? A girl who lives in Crazytown, where craziness gets handed down…”
I’m also quite fond of “Living a Lie,” a duet with James Mercer that sounds more like a great Shins song than just about anything on Port of Morrow. “Slip and Roll” makes me grin as well – it’s classic Mann, a slowed-down folk tune in 6/8 with a twisty chorus. But past that, this record leaves less of an impact. There’s nothing quite wrong with the four songs that close out the surprisingly brief Charmer, but there’s nothing outstanding about them either. Cautionary tale “Gumby” ambles along pleasantly, “Gamma Ray” brings the rock but fails the memory test, and closer “Red Flag Diver” is too short to really grab hold of its promising melody.
Charmer is growing on me with each listen, but it’s the first Aimee Mann album in… well, ever, that’s needed time to sink in. It isn’t the sound – I think Mann makes superb use of her array of synthesizers, and adds a flavor that’s both nostalgic and new. It surprises me to say that this set of songs just isn’t her best, and if Charmer has a weakness, it’s in the lightweight tunes she’s hung everything else on. It’s been a long time since I’ve had any complaints about an Aimee Mann album, and it’s an interesting feeling. I’m going to keep on listening and see if I can make that feeling go away.
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I’ve talked a lot about fan-funded albums recently, so I’ve avoided mentioning until the end here that both the Folds and Mann albums were released on the artists’ own labels, and Folds paid for his through PledgeMusic, a Kickstarter-esque site. We’re getting to the point where the labels will only be necessary to build up the audience for new artists. Once they’re established, the tools are in place for a band to take off on their own. Be interesting to see how many do.
OK, as promised, here is my Third Quarter Report. This is how my top 10 list stands right now. I don’t expect that the final list will look like this, but it may be close. I have high hopes for the Muse, Beth Orton, Hammock, Ben Gibbard and Bat for Lashes albums, but barring any surprises, those are the big ones before the end of the year. I have a hard time believing the top three or four, at least, will change at this point. Anyway, the list:
#10: Shawn Colvin, All Fall Down.
#9: Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel.
#8: Amanda Palmer, Theatre is Evil.
#7: Rufus Wainwright, Out of the Game.
#6: Shearwater, Animal Joy.
#5: Ben Folds Five, The Sound of the Life of the Mind.
#4: Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now.
#3: Bryan Scary, Daffy’s Elixir.
#2: Marillion, Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
#1: Lost in the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs.
Despite a strong showing from Marillion (which may fade with time, we shall see), Lost in the Trees is still holding on to that top spot. I haven’t heard a richer or more emotionally devastating work this year, and I don’t expect to.
All right, next week, more high-profile releases with Green Day, Mumford and Sons, and Muse. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.