Blogging is one of those things that cuts both ways.
On the one hand, you can write as long or as short as you want to. On the other, you can write as long or as short as you want to.
I mention this because I just finished listening to Ben Folds Five Live for the second time, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to talk about it, and there isn’t a good one.
At first, I kind of hated it. This shocked me, because I love BFF. I mean, really, it’s right there in the acronym. I’ve been a fan since I heard the last two minutes of Battle of Who Could Care Less on MTV in the middle of the night, and knew, right then and there, that I MUST own a record by a rock trio with a piano where the guitar should be.
It was the rock band I had always wanted to create, but didn’t know such a thing was possible.
And of course, Ben Folds himself has had a pretty impressive career, spanning 15 studio and live albums, including solo records, BFF records, and other weird little avenues. And his last album with BFF charted higher than every other album before it, which is a small miracle when you consider the fact that he’s coming up on 20 years of making records.
And I’ve been hanging out and listening to him since Whatever and Ever Amen. And I’ve loved most of it and at least liked the rest of it.
And then there’s this. The first Ben Folds Five live album, and I’m not tripping over myself to love on it.
I’ve been trying to figure out why that is exactly, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m just not a live album guy.
This is probably mostly the fault of the live album in general. Usually, it’s not there to give you a new experience. Much of the time, the live record consists of the band throwing some tracks together to fulfill a record contract. “You need a record? Here’s a record! Now leave us alone!”
Some live albums are basically a document for the people who were there. “Did you go to these concerts? Did you have fun? Here’s the experience again, more or less, in audio form!”
And then there are live records by guys like The Dave Matthews band or Phish, wherein the object is mostly to document every single great show so you can hear how each little guitar solo sounded, even if only five notes were different between Monday and Tuesday. “You want it all? You GOT it all!”
Frankly, I’m amazed bands like that haven’t just set up some kind of kiosk that allows you to buy the show you went to online the minute it is mixed and mastered. Maybe there isn’t enough money in it…
So, back to Ben Folds Five Live. It’s billed as the first live album by the group, which is technically true. However, there have been multiple live recordings of the group put out before, a track or two at a time. There were some on Naked Baby Photos and some of the Ben Folds retrospective. So I guess that makes it about half-true.
Man, I’m really struggling with this.
So, all right, let’s talk about the things that bothered me on the recording, shall we?
I wasn’t a huge fan of the sound quality on some of the tracks. It might have been my method of listening (the car) or maybe I didn’t have things balanced in the best possible way, but the recording lacked oomph, to my ears. It didn’t sound like everything was carefully mic’ed and prepped to preserve an experience. It felt like they just grabbed whatever equipment they had, and figured the performances would carry the day.
Which leads me to the second issue with the recording. The performances aren’t bad, per se, but they rarely felt “special” to my ears. I could understand this if they had taken one show and released it, but they pulled recordings from multiple venues, which means we shouldn’t just have a solid version of Jackson Cannery, we should have the BEST version of Jackson Cannery. Because honestly, I would accept “eh” sound for an amazing version of Jackson Cannery.
Instead, we get Jackson Cannery with just-okay sound and ambient crowd noise.
Third, it occurred to me when they performed a Ben Folds song (as opposed to a Ben Folds Five song) that they don’t exactly have a ton of material to pull from. They only have four full album of material, and one album of castoffs.
Here’s where it gets weird: the castoffs record and one of their other records (The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner) get one song each here.
This strikes me as especially odd because Unauthorized is well loved by the band, to the point where they’ve performed the whole thing live, back to front.
Even Ben Folds, back on his solo Ben Folds Live album, pulled more than one song from that record.
So, all right, let’s go back to the idea of live albums, and me not being a big fan, and let’s talk about why.
Because this is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought now, and what I’ve been trying to determine is, “If this album is just okay, what makes for a great live album?”
And immediately, I thought of Frank Zappa, and I pretty much had my answer.
Zappa had a myriad of live albums, to the point that I suspect he may have more live albums now than he ever got around to making in the studio. But all of them are at least worth a listen, because they represented a lot of really unique takes on the material presented, even when the material had already appeared (sometimes multiple times) on other records.
How did he do this? Different bands, altered arrangements, unique solos, turning instrumentals to vocal songs and vocal songs to instrumentals. When he made true live recordings, he worked to preserve the banter between the songs, which was sometimes dirty and sometimes funny and sometimes both at once.
Which brings me back to my favorite parts of BFF Live – the points where, even for a moment, they were off script, or even when they were on script and it was a new script.
Partway through the album, we get our first real change-up, wherein Ben and Company start jamming on a Blues chord. It’s silly, it doesn’t go much of anywhere, but it’s at least different and fun and not previously available.
Later on, they toss a little Jesus Christ Superstar into, much to my surprise, the middle of Do It Anyway, which is such a new song I wouldn’t have thought they’d be tired of it and want to mess around with it. But again, unique.
Finally, there’s the aforementioned song from Unauthorized, which appears here in a nine-minute version, tacking a nearly four-minute set of solos onto the back of the song proper. It’s fun, it’s surprising, and it might be my favorite part of the record, three really, really talented guys just flat-out playing off each other, instead of rotely recreating the recordings fans have listened to for twenty years.
And I think that might be the thing that’s really bugging me, summed up in a single word: Rote.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of Ben Folds Live, there was at least a sort of high-wire act to keep it interesting: Ben trying to recreate songs from his band as a one man band.
And maybe I would have loved this a little more if they’d created their own high wire. Why not tackle a cover or two? Why not take some Ben Folds solo songs and show the world what they would have looked like if the Five had stuck together through those years?
And yes, they pulled some deep cuts (though Tom and Mary was an unfortunate choice, I thought, as it was the one song from Naked Baby Photos that Ben said he didn’t like very much…) but why not take a few more? Why not more B sides? Since they pulled from multiple concerts, maybe a couple more random jams? Or weren’t there any?
And maybe that’s it. Maybe what we’ve got is a just-okay document of something that was really great if you were there on the day.
Maybe it’s just me.