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Review: Ben Folds, “Ben Folds Fifty-Five Vault”

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When “Brick” ascended the Billboard Hot 200 to a No. 17 peak in 1998, it seemed possible that Ben Folds Five would join the ranks of Chumbawamba, Semisonic and Marcy Playground in the annals of the nineties one-hit wonder.  But the band’s charismatic frontman envisioned a different path.  Witness some of the other artists who only scored one Top 40 hit: Janis Joplin (“Me and Bobby McGee”), Jimi Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower”), Frank Zappa (“Valley Girl”), The Grateful Dead (“Touch of Grey”) and Randy Newman (“Short People”).  Although Joplin and Hendrix were gone too soon, those other artists became some of the most legendary in rock music, building and maintaining large, loyal fan bases as well as rich catalogues.  Though Folds is too modest to confirm any legendary aspirations, it’s not hard to draw a line from Newman’s razor-sharp wit and knack for a melody to Folds’, nor from Zappa’s frequently off-color lyrics and sophisticated musicianship to Folds’ own.

And Folds shares another trait with that of Mr. Zappa: the man is outrageously prolific, and never seems far away from a recording console.  Three discs of his oeuvre, both solo and with Ben Folds Five, have just been released as the 3-CD The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective.  It’s tidily assembled into a “best of” and two discs of odds and ends, one in the studio and one on the concert stage.  But even that set’s prodigious 61 tracks couldn’t contain everything the artist had earmarked for release.  The digital-only Ben Folds Fifty-Five Vault resulted from this overflow.  It’s a fresh, largely unprecedented concept, compiling an online-only treasure trove to complement the box.  As Folds told me last month, “It’s a natural place to put the more obscure, rare third-tier stuff.”  He knew that a digital component to the box set would be welcomed by his fan base: “The fans can get it that way and my fans are mostly, have been Internet-based, savvy folks, since 2000, really.  2000 was the first year I recall signing more burned CDs than purchased CDs and I still think there are artists who can’t claim that.  Anyway, the only way to placate everyone on our kind of curation team…was saying, ‘Okay, gets into the vault!’  ‘Alright, into the vault!’  I wanted to figure out how to put it on [a duet by The Divine Comedy’s] Neil Hannon and me…I had to go, okay, that goes into the vault.  And that way it’s still out there. And what we did talk about was that none of the stuff in that 55 or 50 song collection in the vault could be sub-par shit.  We weren’t going to do it.  It turned out we had plenty.  We still have stuff on deck.”

Has Folds lived up to his promise of no “sub-par shit” in the Fifty-Five Vault?  Hit the jump to find out!

With 34 of its 56 tracks (one presumes the same math that allowed three band members to form Ben Folds Five yielded 56 tracks in the Fifty-Five Vault!) previously unreleased, there’s a true wealth of material here for collectors.  Each song is available for individual download or as a complete package, and although the set is a supplement to Best Imitation of Myself, it’s also that set’s antithesis.  That collection is a thoughtfully-assembled, artfully-sequenced tour through the many facets of the artist as singer, songwriter and bandleader.  By its nature, The Fifty-Five Vault is unwieldy and designed for the possibility of shuffle.  One almost wishes the Super Deluxe bug had bit Mr. Folds (as it previously did with 2008’s Way to Normal), as a six-disc physical package with all of the material from both Best Imitation and The Vault would have been something to behold.  As a digital release alone, the vast array of material – drawn from B-sides, demos, outtakes, live versions, covers and soundtrack songs – lacks any context via illuminating liner notes or chronological sequencing.  With polished studio outings largely given the short shrift in The Vault, the arc is that of a musical vagabond, restlessly travelling through different styles and settings.  Though all sides of the artist are, indeed, on full display here, slight emphasis seems to have been given to the sardonic jokester.  One’s mileage will vary depending on his appreciation of that aspect of Folds’ musical persona.  On many tracks, he’s joined by his Ben Folds Five bandmates Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums).  The trio brought the sheer energy of punk to their blistering live shows, and a number of those performances are captured here.

What will you discover in Ben’s vault?  Hit the jump!

While the set is geared towards collectors, the casual fan will certainly find more here than Geraldo Rivera found in Al Capone’s vault!  Folds’ radical re-interpretations of other artists’ songs, many with Ben Folds Five, run the gamut.  He jokes his way through an unintelligible if rollicking “All Shook Up” in the manner of a severely slurring Elvis, and applies a country twang to Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova.”  On the other end of the spectrum, a 2001 take on “Golden Slumbers” is both lovely and reverential, and a run through “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is similarly straightforward.  The band brings punk energy to an alternate take of Carl Perkins’ rockabilly “Honey Don’t” (their original appeared on the 2002 Sun tribute Good Rockin’ Tonight) and a sense of fun to the Buggles’ MTV landmark “Video Killed the Radio Star.” 

Best of all may be Folds’ sensitive solo reading of Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes” from 2010, and what might be the set’s most offbeat track, “She Don’t Use Jelly” from the 1996 Lounge-A-Palooza compilation.  For that project, the Five and frequent collaborator/arranger John Mark Painter crafted a space-age groovy pop confection for an album on which they were surrounded by Glen Campbell and Michelle Shocked doing “Wichita Lineman” and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme reinventing “Black Hole Sun.”  The Flaming Lips cover is treated affectionately but satirically, and the horns, strings and backing vocals are all perfectly on the nose.  It’s too bad that Ben Folds Five’s reverent but rocking take on Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” from 1998’s Burt Bacharach: One Amazing Night didn’t make the cut.  The traditional Irish folk melody “Wild Mountain Thyme” (recorded for the David Lynch Foundation earlier this year) is beautifully recorded, and shows off Folds’ sweetest vocals, those same pipes that lend such ironic bite to his more abrasive songs.

Of the soundtrack material, there are five bright, brassy and ebullient songs from the animated film Over the Hedge, including the film reworking of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and a previously unissued instrumental “Prologue.”  (The film’s “Still,” of which its composer/singer remains justifiably proud today, is included on The Best Imitation of Myself.)  The most striking soundtrack item, though, is the majestic Ben Folds Five song “Air,” which conclusively proves that something good came from the 1998 remake of Godzilla!  The studio version of “Theme from ‘Dr. Pyser’” is present; even though Folds and co. had to imagine a film in which to score, the track is squarely in the action-packed territory of John Barry and Lalo Schifrin. “For All the Pretty People” (the B-side of “Kate”) is another mainly instrumental cut but its false starts indulge Folds’ penchant for jokey flipsides.  “Make Me Mommy,” the B-side of “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” is a loud, not-too-subtle punk attack.  “One Down” is another B-side to “Rockin’” but it’s both honest and funny, as well as disarming and frank in its language: “People tell me, ‘Ben just make up junk and turn it in’/But I never could quite bring myself/To write a bunch of shit/I don’t like wasting time on music/That won’t make me proud /But now I’ve found a reason/To sit right down and shit some out.”  He also has some ironic fun: “I’m really not complaining/I realize it’s just a job/And I hate hearing bellyaching rock stars whine and sob/’cause I could be bussing tables/I could well be pumping gas/Yeah but I get paid much finer/for playing piano and kissing ass.”  As a great lyricist once opined, art isn’t easy!

It’s always a treat to hear alternate versions of familiar songs, and the many demos here fit the bill.  “Evaporated” (1992) is one of the earliest tracks in the vault, and shows the songwriter’s knack for a ballad already fully-formed.  “Silver Street” (1994) in demo form is bluesy uptown soul, while the rawness of the “Song for the Dumped” demo (1996) works in its favor.  As in the song “Kate” (heard on Best Imitation), “Dumped” expresses every adolescent male’s fantasy of getting back at the one that got away: “Give me my money back, you bitch!”  Folds tapped into the young adult zeitgeist with these angry yet melodic songs demonstrating the innermost thoughts of the sensitive guy done wrong.  Folds’ glam-influenced ode to outcasts, “Underground” (1992), remains poignant and refreshing.  “Steven’s Last Night in Town” (1996) features a spoken interlude not on the finished track.  “In Love,” recorded by Folds and William Shatner for the Star Trek star’s Has Been, is ethereal in Folds’ 1998 demo, with a metallic Magnetic Fields feeling.  “Protection,” first aired on the Speed Graphic EP, is present in its 1992 demo, with a kiss-off that might make the young Bob Dylan proud: “I don’t give a shit about you!” A previously-unreleased live version of “Bitch Went Nutz” from 2008 is also coarse and angry, sung and even rapped in character.  The pointed, caustic song is accompanied by boogie-woogie piano and a riff that owes a little to “You Can’t Hurry Love.”  (Among Folds’ “bitch” canon, however, the prize for Most Creative goes to his MOR reworking of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” anthologized for posterity on Best Imitation.)

The aforementioned Neil Hannon duet, from 2007 on the song “Mess,” is one of the greatest finds of the set.  The Divine Comedy singer anchors the haunting, mature song with his harmony vocal.  A live acoustic “Brick,” performed with The Bens (Kweller and Lee) in 2003, is another exciting discovery.  There’s an alternate mix of “Side of the Road” from the limited edition Songs for Goldfish, this time with a cello part; it’s an all-too-unknown song that also shines here.   There are two versions of “Jesusland,” a “straight” performance from Jakarta in 2011, and a London “Stadium Version” with the singer adopting a breathy voice for a tongue-in-cheek, up-tempo “hit” re-arrangement.  The most recent track in the vault is a new mix of “House,” the 2011 Ben Folds Five reunion track that actually premiered on Best Imitation of Myself!

Despite all this good stuff, the main attraction might be the wholly unheard songs.  “I Knew That Cha Could” (2000) is a New Wave-style offering (with the title basically forming the entire lyric) with a bit of Rundgren-esque “Bang on the Drum All Day” in the arrangement for good measure.  “Lonely” comes from 1996, and two songs have been excavated from the aborted 2000 sessions with producer Mitch Easter (R.E.M.).  Of these, “It’s All Right With God,” shows Folds, Jessee and Sledge exploring a very different direction with this 8-minute jam, basically instrumental with some profane mutterings.  “Prince Charming” is the stronger but more traditional piece, a solid ballad penned by Robert Sledge.  One can’t help but wonder what path Easter was encouraging the band to take.

Five of the 56 tracks are offered free to purchasers of The Best Imitation of Myself as the Free Folds Five digital EP:  the cacophonous “Dr. Yang” from Belgium, 2008, a live Ben Folds Five take of the stately “Narcolepsy,” and the demos of “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” “Song for the Dumped” and “Underground.”  The complete 56 tracks of The Fifty-Five Vault are currently for sale at as 320 kbps MP3s, available individually or as a whole set.  Yet whether it’s the irreverent Folds you’re looking for (who else would take on Santa Claus in a barrage of four-letter words in “Bizarre Christmas Incident”?) or the quirky and sophisticated singer/songwriter, it’s likely that you won’t demand “Give me my money back!” after digging into The Fifty-Five Vault.

Written by Joe Marchese

October 18, 2011 at 13:06

4 Responses

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  1. Any word on whether FFV will be issued as lossless (flac/wav/whatever) as well?


    Scott A.
    Watertown NY


    October 18, 2011 at 13:32

  2. Scott…unlikely.

    MusicTAP (@MusicTAP)

    October 18, 2011 at 15:42

  3. Just as I like how there are 56 tracks in the Fifty-Five Vault, I’m impressed that he released them in alphabetical order.


    October 18, 2011 at 19:10

  4. Yeah, a better format would have been very nice. Or even better, a super box set with everything. Sigh.

    Charles Sawyers

    October 18, 2011 at 22:31

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