September 18th, 2012 1:00am

A Pattern In The Tiles

Ben Folds Five “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”

You would think that there wouldn’t be a lot of difference between Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five; that it’d just be the same songwriter writing the same sort of songs no matter what, and on some level, you’d be right. But in terms of execution, it’s a huge difference. Left on his own, Folds settles too comfortably into his quirks and excesses, and his solo catalog is clogged with songs that are either too sappy or too self-consciously dorky. The other two guys in BFF – drummer Darren Jesse and bassist Robert Sledge – give his songs weight and dynamics. The first BFF album in particular thrives on Folds’ realization that it was necessary to temper his clever quasi-show tune piano shtick with a major jolt of rock and roll. At the time, this was something of a survival mechanism – they were playing to often hostile mid-90s alt-rock fans – but it made them a better band. They needed that tension and energy; it elevated Folds’ craft and improved on songs that could’ve been fine if played entirely straight.

The first Ben Folds Five record since 1999 isn’t on the same level of quality as the three that preceded it in the 90s, but it’s a big improvement over what Folds has been up to in the meantime. The songs make a compromise of Folds’ present inclination with the familiar dynamics of the old band, and it mostly ends up sounding like a pumped-up version of Folds in Bacharach mode. “Michael Prayor, Five Years Later” is the best of these songs; they pull off a fine balance of elegance and urgency. The lyrics are good too, with a riff on running into a dude every few years into something that can be taken as a meta-commentary on periodically reuniting with these two musicians.

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