Barenaked Ladies

Barenaked Ladies

“I’d love for people to hear this record clean,” says Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five’s new The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. “Like they never even heard of us before. If no one knew who we were and we put this record out, I think that would be terribly interesting.”


Sorry, Ben, but that ship has sailed. Ben Folds Five were among the most distinctive and inventive bands of the alternative era, beloved for their kinetic live shows and piano-powered popcraft. Now, more than a decade after the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based trio first said farewell, Ben Folds Five are back and clichés be damned, they’re better than ever. The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (ImaVeePee Records/Sony Music Entertainment) makes it plain that the years apart have only served to amplify the band’s already estimable gifts. Songs like the ebullient first single, “Do It Anyway,” or drummer Darren Jessee’s elegiac “Sky High” illustrate an increased subtlety as well as a soulfulness born of a truly inimitable group dynamic.


Folds, Jessee, and Robert Sledge first united in 1994, drawing immediate notice for their sardonic smarts, high-energy harmonies and unstoppable melodies. In 1995, the band’s self-titled debut was rightfully hailed as a guitar-free pop oasis amidst the grungy industrial wasteland that was mid-90s rock. 1997’s Whatever And Ever Amen proved the trio’s popular breakthrough, with the landmark single, “Brick,” fueling worldwide sales in excess of 2 million. Where many bands would’ve happily stuck to the formula, in 1999 BFF returned with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, an audacious and inventive collection that yielded still another milestone with the timeless “Army.”


Ben Folds Five amicably parted ways shortly after the 20th Century’s end, eager to explore fresh terrain after seven years of intense concentration on the band. Folds, of course, embarked on a storied solo career, replete with countless veers and variations spanning smash albums, experimental collaborations, production, philanthropy, extensive work and performances with symphony orchestras around the world and even a role as judge on the NBC a cappella singing competition, The Sing Off. An exceptional singer/songwriter in his own right, Jessee earned widespread acclaim and a fervent fan following with his eclectic pop combo, Hotel Lights. Sledge, a true master of the bass guitar, also worked producing, writing and performing regularly as a session bassist and solo artist. In 2008, MySpace reached out to Folds, wondering whether the Five might consider reuniting for their “Front To Back” concert series.


“Nobody had ever asked us if we’d do anything, because they’d made the assumption that we wouldn’t,” Folds says. “I called Robert and Darren and they said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ It went really well and it opened our minds to the possibility of recording.”


The hometown performance – which saw the band playing Reinhold Messner in its entirety – reopened lines of communication and it wasn’t long before they reassembled to record a trio of tracks for Ben’s 2011 career-spanning anthology, The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective.


“We very consciously decided to stick to the original blueprint,” Folds says of the sessions, “but what we found out was that we didn’t enjoy that as much as we did trying new ideas. We were so excited by the fragments that we had, we thought we should get together again and record.”


A full-on new album was approached with no little caution – “just to make sure this was something we all wanted to do,” says Folds – but the creative lure proved irresistible. In January 2012, Ben Folds Five assembled at Folds’ own Ben’s Studio (built in 1964 by Chet Atkins as the historic RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios). They adopted a simple and classic method of recording, with piano, bass, and drums all within 10 feet of each other in the legendary studio’s big room. To allow for complete focus on the music, the band enlisted co-producer Joe Pisapia (Guster, k.d. Lang), who teamed with Folds’ longtime studio collaborator, engineer/mixer Joe Costa, behind the board.


“The band does a lot of talking, a lot of throwing ideas around,” Jessee says, “so it was good to have someone there to keep an eye on the album, helping us pull it together. We spent weeks experimenting with chord changes and arrangements and different feels. We needed an extra set of ears to help weed it out a little.”


Armed with a cache of hooks, melodies, and other intriguing ideas, Ben Folds Five embraced a loose improvisational tack, letting nature and inspiration take its course. Songs like “Hold That Thought” or the complex, keys-pounding “Erase Me” capture the synergistic give and take amongst the players, a methodology that Folds says is akin to passing “a musical peace pipe.”


“In some ways, what we were experimenting with was finding our moments,” Jessee says. “The way we approach a song now, there aren’t strict guidelines going into it. It’s just a more open environment and I think there’s a lot more trust going on in the playing.”


“That comes from us challenging each other a little bit,” Sledge says. “Well, not just a little bit. I think we all go for this kind of virtuosity when we play with each other, because we know that these are the two other guys that can handle it. If you play something insanely hard, I’m gonna top that and play it right back to you. All three of us can do that to each other and that’s really uncommon.”


“I’ve played with really fantastic musicians over the last 12 years,” Folds says, “people who are at the top of their game. What Robert and Darren are are artists. They’re artists at their instruments. Plus, we grew up together, so there’s a chemistry and a focus that we have that I don’t think any of us have with anyone else.”


Folds’ lyrical acuity remains equally idiosyncratic, his trademark wisecrackery and wry character portrayals now edged with significantly more experience and insight. In the same spirit as the band’s intimate instrumental interplay, songs like the mordant “On Being Frank” or the rolling title track (penned with friend and collaborator, novelist Nick Hornby) see Folds exploring myriad themes of letting go, of shattering the boundaries between identity and environment.


“I was thinking a lot about loss of ego,” Folds says. “That’s a big part of your 40-something-year-old psychological development.”


To subsidize the project, Ben Folds Five teamed with Pledge Music for a direct-to-fans campaign, devoting a substantial portion of all funds raised to support music education and music therapy programs, a charitable cause near and dear to the band’s hearts. Thanks to their loyal audience, the effort proved wildly successful.


“There was officially no commercial pressure the morning after we put the album up on PledgeMusic,” Folds says. “We put it up at midnight and by morning, the album was paid for.”


“It feels like we’re directly connected to the fans,” says Sledge, “the way we would if we were just playing clubs and building the band up from the grassroots.”


A series of summer festival performances kicked off in June at upstate New York’s Mountain Jam 2012, setting the stage for an epic 2012/2013 world tour. What’s more, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind burst into the top 10 of the SoundScan/Billboard 200 upon its September release – the band’s highest ever chart debut. All three members see Ben Folds Five carrying on for the foreseeable future, the band now part of a bigger picture and not the be-all and end-all of their youth. Jessee is currently penning a new cycle of songs, while Sledge is and remains an in-demand session player. For his part, Folds has already penciled in a 2014 symphony orchestra tour, at which point, he notes, Ben Folds Five “turns into a pumpkin.”


“Like everything else, we’re just gonna play it by ear, see what happens,” Sledge says. “But I don’t think the word ‘break-up’ will happen again.”


Certainly among the most accomplished and enthusiastic records of their brilliant career, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind makes it crystal clear: the return of Ben Folds Five is most assuredly not an exercise in Nineties nostalgia. Rather, this dazzling collection stands as testament to a classic band’s revived – and enduring – creative partnership.


“It’s kind of demystified,” Jessee says. “We had all that stuff happen when we were younger and now it’s more about making ourselves happy with what we’re doing. Hopefully that carries over to our fans who have been waiting for this record.”


“For all of us, the only way it could work is if we dropped the egos,” Folds says. “I believe really strongly that the record we made is not a record we could’ve made had we just continued as a band.”

“I told Swift that our last two records took a year each to make,” laughs Guster’s Ryan Miller. “He told me he’d never spent more than nine days on an album.” The band and producer got together anyway and the result is Evermotion, an album of raw acid-soaked chamber pop, and a stylistic departure that no one saw coming.

Guster sought out Shins keyboardist/Black Keys bassist Richard Swift based on his work with Damien Jurado and Foxygen, giving themselves over to the full experience of recording at Swift’s Cottage Grove, Oregon studio for three weeks in January 2014.

“It wasn’t hard to figure out where we overlapped with Swift,” adds percussionist/drummer Brian Rosenworcel. “It was just a matter of trusting ourselves to go big and commit. Richard is the type of artist that’s always standing back and taking in the whole canvas.”

With a new looseness and swagger, Guster pushes the acoustic guitars into the background, instead exploring deeper drum grooves, keyboard textures and atmospheric noise -- a language they shared easily with Swift. The band that emerged from this session sounds like one that is no longer evolving, but has evolved into something else entirely.

"Richard helped us figure out what was important about recording," says guitarist Adam Gardner. "We had just one microphone over the drum kit, used whole takes, didn't obsess over vocals or really edit things at all -- it's a raw version of our band, mistakes and all, that feels more relevant. He helped us tremendously with the big picture."

Evermotion’s first single, the infectious “Simple Machine,” has been hailed by TIME magazine for its “frantic beats and crawling synthesizers.” The chiming lullaby of “Long Night” with its aching Ryan Miller falsetto, the shimmering “Endlessly,” the distorted steel drums and Bacharach melody of “Doin’ It by Myself,” the a cappella Beach Boys harmonies in the gently breezy “Lazy Love,” the dream-pop of “Expectation,” the British Invasion beat of “Gangway,” the woozy trombones and whistling of “Never Coming Down” and the Beatle-esque psychedelia of “It Is Just What It Is” shows Guster is still learning new tricks.

Since forming at Tufts University in 1992, Guster has become one of the leading indie/alternative bands, releasing seven critically acclaimed albums in 20 years, starting with Parachute in 1995. Evermotion (to be released on their own Ocho Mule label through Nettwerk Records) is the follow-up to 2010’s Easy Wonderful, which earned the band its highest-ever chart debut on the Billboard 200 at #22, while reaching #2 on both the SoundScan Alternative and iTunes charts.

On Evermotion, Guster’s acoustic roots are buried deep beneath the surface, almost impossible to detect, even though every song has, at its heart, an indelible melody and more than its share of tight, lethal hooks that catch and hold.

The 2010 addition of multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds to the core group of founding members Miller, Gardner and Rosenworcel, added immeasurably to Guster’s expanding musical palette. Evermotion marks the first time that Reynolds joined for the preproduction and writing process, which took place in Rosenworcel's Brooklyn basement over 2012 and 2013. Reynolds' stamp is clear and his passion is all over the record, from his guitar melodies on "Lazy Love" to his fuzz bass on "Doin' It By Myself."

Guster’s songs remain packed with hummable choruses and dense lyrical detail amid the muscular guitar riffs, clanging percussion and deceptively dark lyrics. The new album features adventurous turns on slide guitars, brassy trumpets and even a glockenspiel, with sax and trombone accompaniment by Jon Natchez, whose stints with the War on Drugs, Beirut, Passion Pit and others have led NPR to call him “indie rock’s most valuable sideman.”

From the start of the album, it's clear that this is a renewed band with a bolstered purpose, a band on their own vector. Evermotion introduces you to a Guster that is free, not calculated, seasoned but loose, confident in re-shaping their legacy.

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