It’s hard to believe it’s been 22 years to the day since Ben Folds released his debut album on August 8, 1995. I got my first glimpse into his genius with the release of the lead single, “Underground,” and the spoken opening lines, “I was never cool at school / You probably don’t remember me…” immediately struck a chord.
But it was the music as much as the angry, clever, bitter, cynical, funny lyrics that roped me in. Twenty years later, the music industry structuralism has broken down and anyone can hear anything at any time and nonconventional band lineups are thrust into the viral spotlight on a nearly weekly basis. In 1995, however, a trio calling themselves Ben Folds Five and made up of a drummer, bassist, and pianist/vocalist was really something out of the ordinary.
And the way this trio rocked! The pounding piano and harsh fuzz-bass on “Philosophy,” the bass scale and drum fills on “Jackson Cannery.” This was a debut album that came out of nowhere (it actually came out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina). Loud, raucous, biting, and melodic, every song is outstanding.
“Underground” finds Folds delving into his autobiography to mine material, a trick he’d repeat on future singles “Army,” and “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces.” The song is a major key pop masterpiece with a shout-along chorus and barroom piano. Folds repurposes mainstay pop lyrics, referencing “…slamming the pit fantastic…” at one point. As a career debut single, it’s tough to top. It still stands out as one of the best things he ever recorded.
“Uncle Walter” is Ben Folds at his funniest and most caustic, recounting being abandoned to the company of the drunk and curmudgeonly title character, having to listen to war stories, conspiracy theories, and “…everything he would do if he was president.” Band interviews have intimated that the song was actually written about a woman, but it’s funnier and less tragic as a tale about a 50 year-old man.
This record, while written almost entirely by Ben Folds (with a couple of co-writing credits on the album) is very much a band effort. His piano is no more prominent than the massive presence of Robert Sledge‘s crushing bass or Darren Jessee‘s character driven drumming and Sledge and Jesse provide all of the backing vocals as well as serving as the call-and-response team on some of the numbers.
Though I’ve avidly followed Ben Folds’s career and have continue to buy and enjoy all of his releases, it’s his three Ben Folds Five albums that will always be my favorites, none more so than his self-titled debut. It’s not even his best album – it’s a trio of smart-ass kids, what the Beastie Boys might have sounded like as rock-and-roll rednecks instead of nice Jewish Boys from New York – but it was my introduction, my first impression, and it has stuck with me through the years.