Ben Folds Five

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
May 4, 1999

Ben Folds Five plays “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.”

Sounds like some weird concept piece at an arthouse, right? But it was actually a sold-out rock ‘n’ roll show Monday night at the Park West.

You wouldn’t know it from “Brick” – the band’s breakthrough, bittersweet single in which Folds sang about an abortion his high school girlfriend had – but the group has a wry sense of humor.

For instance, there’s the matter of the band name: There are just three members in Ben Folds Five.

Also, the album title refers to the pseudonym the musicians used on their fake IDs when they were underage. Nevermind that Messner is a real-life explorer whose achievements include climbing Mt. Everest without the aid of an oxygen mask.

Most important, there are the songs, which on the surface sound sweet and loving. Then singer-pianist Folds kicks into the sarcastic, sometimes vindictive chorus – the most famous being: “Give me my money back, you bitch!”

Sitting at his piano wearing a striped shirt, Folds resembled Schroeder from the Peanuts cartoon strip more than a rock star. But when he played, the energy he poured into his music was as real and as vibrant as any guitar god.

While he is quite adept shrieking out a menacing line or two, Folds is at his best when he sings tender sentiments, as he does in the otherwise unnoteworthy “Magic”:  “Saw you last night/Dance by the light of the moon/Stars in your eyes/Free from the life that you knew.”

Besides Folds, the trio also includes bassist-keyboardist Robert Sledge and drummer Darrenn Jessee, who each took a turn singing a couple of verses of a raveup.

Poking fun at their non-image, Jessee sang, “I was never cool in school/I’m sure you don’t remember me.”

Oddly enough, the lack of a guitarist doesn’t deter from this band’s style. Sledge is an energetic, melodic player. And when he and Jessee team up to harmonize, their power pop vocals create a perfect blend that is more lead than backing vocals.

Folds’ playing veers from simple and elegant to cacophonous banging that fits in with the Who’s music. While it is the centerpiece for their music, the dominant sound at times overpowers even his vocals.

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