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Category Archives: Powerpop

Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind

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Genre: Powerpop, Bad Music


I’m warning you: this is not a positive, glowing review of a postive, glowing comeback album from one of the best bands of the 90s. Nor is it a completely indifferent opinion from a part-time fan.

I love Ben Folds Five. Whatever And Ever Amen still stands as one of the most important, defining albums of powerpop music. But, right now, the only thing more negative than my current thoughts about The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind are my current thoughts about Amanda Palmer’s whiny, pretentious kickstarter campaign, the dumb bitch.

If you’ve never heard this band (and I assume, then, that you’ve been living under the largest rock on the planet, or you’re 2 years old and deaf) then please close this page, sit back and listen to The Last Polka, Kate, Song For The Dumped, or any of the perfect songs they created.

Okay. Here we go.

The scary thing is, when Ben Folds Five announced they were reforming after a near-12-year break, no one seemed anxious. I’m not sure if it was because no one cared, or because everyone just assumed they could get back together in a room and write Underground Pt 2. No one seemed anxious that for 12 years every member has veered off the powerpop road and into other territories; Darren Jessee formed the ultra-hipster-indie-folk Hotel Lights, whose effect was more dimming than bright. Robert Sledge disappeared altogether, and Ben Folds… well, surprisingly no one seemed anxious that, you know, Ben Folds’ solo career hasn’t exactly produced the joyful, jump-around-the-room-and-smash-everything stuff you’d have expected. His talent has always been in writing simple pop songs in the way that only he can do, like The Replacements without the tattoos. But lately, things have started to soften up and get a little too quiet and Elton John-y (much like Elton’s last 500 albums, ironically). Songs for Silverman, especially, was the sound of an aging songwriter stretching hard to appeal to his aging audience – who, unlike himself, weren’t yet middle-aged. Are you falling asleep yet? (That is harsh, I know, because, amongst the romantic ballads and the ballads and the ballads about his children, some tracks like Bitch Went Nuts and Saskia Hamilton did appear. Occasionally. Never.)

Maybe i’m being hopeful, but call me hopeful for expecting a new Ben Folds Five album to be exciting and catchy and anthemic. “Punk Rock for sissies.” The early signs weren’t so endearing though.

The album title alone is fucking terrible. The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind? I mean, that sure makes you want to hear it, what with the sounds and the life and the mind and all that cool stuff. Oh wow, I am so intrigued. “Hey, bro, have you heard the new Five album, THESOUNDSOFTHELIFEOFTHEMIND?”

But I digress.

Above anything else, this album was ALWAYS going to be a matter of which Ben Folds Five turned up – was it going to be the one that made a dent in the Billboard Charts with its impressive way of appealing to both the mass market and music fans, or the band that released Reinhold Messner in 1999, by which time the magic had already disappeared?

So you press play, it’s all or nothing now. And the opener, Erase Me, makes you wish you had the flu today and didn’t have the strength to have pressed play.

Erase Me is lifted straight from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. It labors on for five fucking minutes with no real hooks or memorability or anything other than casting a magic spell on you to hit the skip button. “Eeee-rase me.” No problem, Ben. Honestly, the first chorus of the album sums up the next 9 tracks in a way that I never could – “what the fuck is this?”

What the fuck IS this? It’s a great start.

And then… then, Michael Praytor, Five Years Later reels you in like a blind fish and gives you false promises because it’s, somehow, awesome. I think my actual words upon hearing this fine slice of sweet Ben Folds Five cake were “YES. FINALLY.” All the things that made this band classic are here – the bouncing piano, the distorted bass, the JELLYFISH HARMONIES ARE EVEN HERE.

And that’s the end. False promises. Like a child molester hiding in a clown suit luring kids to his ice cream van. If this record was just simply Michael Praytor repeated 10 times, it would get 5 stars. Unfortunately, someone told Ben Folds that he is 46 years old.

Sky High, On Being Frank, the title track… do you hear that?

That is the sound of Ben Folds getting old.

It’s all a bit squeeky clean. It’s all a bit too nice. Man, the best thing about this band used to be was that they sounded like they were playing right in front of you, bashing the shit out of that piano together and making your eardrums bleed. Playing Ben Folds Five at low volume used to be illegal in Europe because it only works when the band are loud.

They’re “nice” tracks, sure. There’s nothing wrong with them; they’re absolutely average. I feel nothing towards them, nothing at all, which is the only real trophy The Sounds Of The Life Of The Mind can win. A dull, lifeless medal made from Alanis Morissette’s dull lifeless lifelessness.

If you’ve heard Ben Folds’ last solo release, Lonely Avenue, you know exactly what to expect here. But I can’t really sit and complain: i’m the stupid fucker who bought Lonely Avenue on cd and vinyl and the goddamn handwritten autographed manuscript too before even hearing it. And that’s when everything clicks, and you realize…

THIS IS NOT BEN FOLDS FIVE, THIS IS JUST ANOTHER BEN FOLDS SOLO ALBUM.

Draw A Crowd may be the worst song you’ll hear this year. No joke. It’s even worse than that warbling St Vincent song where she turns on the octaver and makes it sound like a cat. Oh wait, that’s all of them. But back to Draw A Crowd – what the fuck is this shit?

I’m putting the video at the bottom so you can hear it for yourself. Click it right now and behold the marvelous beauty of Draw A Crowd.

Okay. Is he…

Is he…

Is he trying to rap? Is he trying to talk? Has someone broken into the studio while they were recording vocals and told him his car has been stolen? Has covering Bitches Ain’t Shit turned Ben Folds into a kind of psuedo-50 Cent? In the UK, I wouldn’t even give him the merit of 1 pence for that attempt.

And then comes the chorus- NO, WHY. WHY WHY WHY DID YOU HAVE TO DO THIS BEN FOLDS? “Chorus”. I say chorus loosely because it sounds more like the kind of song your boyfriend writes for you to make you kiss him, but instead of being sombre and romantic it arrives in the same style as his punk rock band (who are more of a metal band because the guitarist is actually a Maiden fan, bro, and that’s just the way this shit goes.)

Actual chorus lyrics: “If you’re feeling small and you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”

Ladies & Gentleman, cover your ears. That is the work of Ben Folds, a 46 year old manchild. If you can’t write a chorus, write about dicks. I’m shocked that he hasn’t tried to fit a rhyme of “fire” and “desire” in there. I don’t even hate the song, that’s the annoying thing. It grows on you (HAHAHA PENIS JOKE) but is this Ben Folds Five or is it a boring band who’d fade into the mist of whocares if they weren’t already famous?

Do It Anyway follows, and it is actually pretty goo- nope, it’s pretty bad, like the rest. But here’s where the funny stuff comes in. Hold That Thought. That’s the title of the song, at least so they tell us, but i’ve given up believing anything these guys tell us. “Ben Folds Five have reformed to make music that sounds like Ben Folds Five“. pff.

What it really is, is a cover song.

Hold That Thought is The Lion Sleeps Tonight under another song title. No, seriously. Do you know that song? IN DA JUNGLE DA MIGHTY JUNGLE. Yeah. Well, this chorus is IT. awoooooooooooooooo. That alone should make this song exempt from rational opinion, so it shall be.

Away When You Were Here is bad too, not just bad in terms of its place on this album, it’s bad because it’s a Ben Folds-solo-ballad that isn’t really a ballad. It’s like a sorrowful, hurting, aching ballad that’s been sped up and now sits somewhere between the Wacky Races and sheer human confusion. And then, finally, we’re at the last track. Except, it’s not really the last track on a Ben Folds Five album. It’s the last track on Songs For Silverman Pt 2. And it’s called…

Thank You For Breaking My Heart.

Ben Folds, thank you for breaking my heart with a solo album that proves one thing:

Reunions never work.

For fans of: Ben Folds

Released 18th September

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Zeus – Busting Visions

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Genre: Powerpop


Holy moly. Holy Supertramp.

It’s easy to forgot that Powerpop was once a chart-dominating, money-making blockbuster genre of screaming fangirls and tight jeans with its own significant place in the history of music. Of course, if you’re a fan, it’s also far too easy to get caught up in the romanticist memory of Apple Records and Badfinger and The Raspberries and Big Star et al.

And after Queen saturated the market with their own prolific output, and after Jeff Lynne threw the kitchen sink into his productions, the reaction to Kurt Cobain in the 1990s left us with 3 categorically perfect powerpop albums; Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk, Weezer’s Pinkerton, and Ben Folds Five’s Whatever & Ever Amen. Since then, many have tried, and all have stuttered far from the finish line.

But it’s still nice to still get powerpop releases. After all, what could be more enjoyable?

On Busting Visions, the 2nd album from Canada’s Zeus, there’s a fine line driven between happy pop tunes and retro throwback. The record is completely bubblegum, completely lightweight, and, more importantly, a hell of a lot of fun. It’s inoffensive and catchy; the kind of album you could take home to meet your parents. But it’s also an ambitious little fucker, piling absolutely everything into the production like Roy Thomas Baker on a cocaine bender, along with the expected thousands upon thousands of vocal harmonies filling every free space. Stop The Train channels Zeus’s inner Electric Light Orchestra rather incredibly, while Love In A Game is the best song Steely Dan haven’t written this year. It’s all cut straight from a particularly British cloth though, coming out like the secret adopted triplet of Wings’ Venus & Mars, Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack and George Harrison’s Dark Horse (his most criminally underappreciated album, certainly when compared to the tedious and overpraised ones ruined by Phil Spector.) Unsurprisingly, the members of Zeus have a more sustainable day job – that is, they act as the backing band to Jason Collett, frontman of Broken Social Scene, which this record sounds nothing like.

With Eyes Closed is one of the best here, a semi-dark folk rocker that owes more than a little to The Hollies during their Evolution/Butterfly psych-pop phase, Graham Nash’s last years with the band before forming CS&N. The highest compliment that can be paid to the authenticity is that it doesn’t sound retro so much as it sounds like something from 1978. Opener Are You Gonna Waste My Time? even manages to hike itself into Joe Walsh territory for its few short minutes – though it’s also one of the longer songs here…

…at a marathon 3 minutes 49 seconds. Zeus may need to consider changing their name to Dream Theater.

However, Cool Blue, the most Beatlesque thing on here, is where all the bad things about Busting Visions collide into themselves and, ultimately, it’s also where the album’s wheels fall off and it spirals towards its untimely death. Amongst the lazy songwriting (Hello Tender Love) and the downright awful (Messenger’s Way) there is some awful, truly awful, amateur guitar work with drifts away into endless, cheap noodling constantly. It doesn’t fit anywhere and it catapults the mood of Busting Visions from playful fun to reaching for the skip button.

The intentions of the band to create such un-cool music are commendable, and it clearly comes from the right kind of passionate place; but you can’t help but feel it’s all just a little TOO ambitious for Zeus right now.

Essentially, what Busting Visions gives is a second rate version of fellow Canadian powerpoppers Sloan. And why listen to Zeus when you can drag out Sloan’s Parallel Play or Never Hear The End Of It to hear how retro albums can be done flawlessly?

But hey, it took Sloan five lp’s before they became a great band. Maybe Zeus are the same.

Not for everyone, but a primarily enjoyable listen.

For fans of: Josh Fix, Sloan, Supertramp

Released August 6th/Mar 27th