If you haven't had a chance to catch the live nightclub theatrics of Chapel Hill's Ben Folds Five (whch culminate with Ben himself disassembling his baby grand on stage -- not actually part of the stage act, but fascinating nonetheless), their self-titled debut is a great introduction to the band's light-hearted yet dramatic, Badfinger-meets-the-Beatles [I believe they've met -- ed.] sound. The Ben Folds Five, with its piano/bass/drums lineup, doesn't exactly conform to Chapel Hill scene's traditions. In fact, the BFF calls to mind the great early '80s pop sounds of Joe Jackson or Jools Holland-era Squeeze. Like them, Ben's approach to the piano is not limited to traditional rock chords: There are references to Gershwin as well as the basic exercises everyone's mother made them do for early piano lessons. What is also strikingly different is that Ben Folds has a classic pop crooner voice, and the two backing vocalists harmonize perfectly -- there are no flat notes here. What the band lacks in guitarage it more than makes up with intensity. The lyrics to "Underground" are even snide enough to skirt the fringes of punk territory, never mind the fact that the sometimes pretentious and cliquish nature of the indie movement itself is the subject under attack here ("Officer Friendly's little boy's got a mohawk," "It's industrial/work it underground"). "Where's Summer B.?," with its tambourine-backed beat and clean backup vocals, calls to mind psychedelic-era Beach Boys, as does the more orchestrated and happy-go-lucky "Philosophy." The Ben Folds Five stands poised to be a significant player in the revival of the piano as a legitimate rock 'n' roll instrument, and pop as a smart-alecky indie art form.
BEN FOLDS FIVE refers to its sound as "punk rock for sissies." The Chapel Hill trio is completely guitarless, but makes up for the lack of strings with plenty of ivory: Frontman Ben Folds plays a killer baby grand. For more 88-key kicks, tune into the group's self-titled debut (Passenger-Caroline). Anything but sissified, "Underground" is a biting look at the exploitation of the alternative music scene.