1995, Music

Ben Folds Five (1995)

At some point during the last 30 or so years before this album’s release, the piano stopped being a rock instrument. That’s particularly weird given its primary in the creation of rock and roll, as it was piano and saxophone, before electric guitar, that helped create what became rock and roll (in part because they were just louder than other instruments).

But it does make sense: pianos are huge, unwieldy things that are hard to tour with. And if you use the venue piano, you are risking some poor sound. So it makes sense that pianos were replaced by guitars and portable electric/electronic keyboards, to a degree.

But it’s kind of remarkable how little piano was in rock music for the three decades before this album came out. (I am excepting syrupy piano ballads here.) You could probably list all the prominent “rock” songs built around a piano riff (or featuring an acoustic piano solo) on your hands and feet. (I exaggerate slightly. But even so-called “piano rockers” often resorted to keyboards in the ’70s and ’80s.)

I mention all of this because I think this context is extremely important in understanding just how left-field a piano-rock indie pop album was in 1995, especially one without electric guitar. (The album features only piano, bass, drums and vocals except on one track, where there is a string quartet.) Part of this album’s big appeal for me is just the gall of releasing an album like this, at the height of “alternative”, a genre which called into question the existence of pianos (or, least acoustic ones that weren’t treated in some way). Folds’ piano-based contemporaries (all women, if memory serves) couldn’t resist including guitar on their albums, even if it was somewhat sparingly. But not Folds. (At least, not on this record.)

It helps that Folds is already a distinct songwriter on his debut. His songs might be a little uneven from one to the next but they sound unmistakably like his songs. (So much so, one of them started off as a parody of his songwriting style by his ex-wife…) It’s a pretty big accomplishment to have figured out your songwriting style on your debut album. Plenty of songwriters cannot say that.

The sound is good, all these years later. A lot of that comes from the sparseness of the band – it’s hard to fuck that up too much when you don’t have too much to mix and the instruments are reasonably “organic”.

All in all, an incredibly impressive debut from a precocious new songwriter who is completely determined to sound nothing like his contemporaries.


PS Of course, the band name is great.

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