Friday, September 28, 2012

The Return of Ben Folds Five and Aimee Mann

About five years ago, I realized I’d finally reached an age where I just wasn’t all that compelled to seek out new music anymore.
It makes sense.  I stopped listening to the radio years ago, with the exception of those two minutes in the morning when my alarm clock goes off. 
What this means is, I mostly only buy new stuff by people whose work I’ve liked in the past.  Or things that get so popular that they’re sort of inescapable.  In other words, the Adeles of the world.
(Or, you know, the popular stuff that hits Glee, and makes me seek out the originals.)
So in the way, it was kind of magical that I felt compelled to pick up two CDs (I know!  In 2012!) on the same day.
The first was Aimee Mann’s newest, Charmer.
Aimee was one of my last major discoveries.  Much like everyone else who wasn’t a music critic, I bumped into her wealth of material when I saw the movie Magnolia.  The movie was interesting, but I was more struck by the quality of the songs.  I not only bought the CD, but picked up the sheet music as well.
After that, I dove into her back catalogue.  I bought the previous releases.  I picked up Bachelor No 2, which was, at the time, her current album.  I even went back and got some of her work with Til Tuesday, which was equally great.
The thing of it is, if you like some of Aimee’s work, I can’t really see how you wouldn’t like all of it.  She isn’t the AC/DC of indie rock, putting out the exact same album each time, but she has a definite niche, it’s a small one, and she concentrates on hitting the exact same target every time.
And so it is with Charmer.  It’s mostly mid-tempo, just like her other work.  It contains bright melodies (for the most part) and charmingly sad lyrics (for the most part). 
And… well, it’s an Aimee Mann recording, pretty much like all the others.  It’s a little more keyboard-riffy, I suppose.  But otherwise, it’s sharp, and pleasant, and in general it’s fun to sing along to, loudly.  What more could you ask for?
On the same day, Ben Folds Five released their first album as a band in twelve or thirteen years, depending on how you look at it.
I was a fan of the group going back to Whatever and Ever Amen.  I still remember catching the back half of One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces on MTV, late at night, back in college.  Here were three insanely talented players who were really, really rocking out.  No guitar.  Just…
It kind of blew my mind.  So I bought Whatever, and then went back and picked up their self-titled CD, which was also pretty great.
Naked Baby Photos came out, and I sort of bought it reluctantly.  It was kind of fun to get the odd little drips and drabs and rare stuff, but it didn’t exactly feel essential. 
Not long after that, they put out The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, which was… odd.  There were songs on it, yes, but several of them were sort of strange and wander-y and experimental.  An I read somewhere that the album had been chopped and shuffled a bunch of times, turning an actual song sequence into something else entirely.
I liked it, but not as well as the previous work.  And then the band fell apart.
Ben himself went on to a nice little solo career, releasing albums that were sometimes more mature (Songs for Silverman) and some were kind of iffy (Way to Normal has some great songs, and some other stuff that’s just forgettable) and a strange little experiment where he put out three EPs, and then combined them into one record, only he dropped some songs and added a song from a soundtrack…
The thing of it is, I sort of forgot how much I really liked the guy until recently, when I picked up his Retrospective, and I ended up listening with a sense of awe at just how many great songs Ben had created over the course of a fairly short career.  I ended up rediscovering songs (You Don’t Know Me, Learn to Live with What You Are) that I didn’t remember, but which were minor masterpieces.
And then, of course Ben Folds Five got back together.  And they made The Sound of the Life of the Mind.
The thing of it is, I’m still a little torn up about the whole thing.  Ben Folds Five made beautiful music, and also snotty and bratty music, and while it’s fun to listen to the old CDs, there comes a time when you shouldn’t really be allowed to write songs like that anymore.
So what did we get out of this return to the group?
Well, we got the bass and drums back, and I have to admit I kind of forgot how much I missed it in this context.  These three guys are LOCKED into each other.  They are not a piano with some bass and some drums.  They’re a true trio, bouncing off of one another, and I dig it.  I dig it a lot.
And then there are the songs.  They always had ballads, whether it was Ben Alone (The Luckiest) or together (Boxing, Evaporated).  And the ballads are here too, and they’re just as pretty as ever.  So that’s all to the good.
There’s a leftover here, from Ben’s last solo excursion with Nick Horby, where Nick wrote all the words.  There’s an actual BFF collaboration song, and there aren’t a ton of those.
There’s a little experimentation (Erase Me, the opener, is a kind of cousin to The Unauthorized Biography, I think) and some semi-rock (Do It Anyway) and there’s some brattiness (Draw a Crowd) which feels like something they should have grown out of by now, but it fits, and it gives you a nice tinge of nostalgia.
I read a movie review once, wherein it was stated that the movie was funny, but in a way that made you smile the whole time, instead of laughing, and I think that’s what we’ve got here.  Ben and Aimee and crew are back again, and there isn’t much in the way of new tricks.  But the old ones are just as fun as ever.

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