Ben Folds Five
The Sound of the Life of the Mind
Though it marks a homecoming of sorts, Ben Folds' reunion with his Ben Folds Five is hardly a course reversal. In the 13 years since the trio disbanded shortly after 1999's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Folds has continued recording alternatingly wistful and mischievous piano-rock in the style of his old band. Over time, though, the restlessness that inspired Reinhold's sprawling sonic panorama has faded, and Folds' solo albums have become increasingly predicable sets of light pop and weepy ballads, occasionally interrupted by fits of snickering juvenilia. This is Folds' comfort zone now, and apparently it'll take more than the return of two former bandmates to pry him from it.
That's not to say bassist Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee don't do their best working with what they're given on The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Their playing is lovely throughout, and they bring some jazzy, rhythmic complexity to the softer songs that make up the bulk of the record, but they're rarely given a chance to cut loose. Though the breakup tantrum “Erase Me” opens the album on a note of thunder and menace, and the scuttling “Do It Anyway” lets Folds give out a cathartic bellow, most of the record finds the pianist in the mellow and misty-eyed mindset of 2005's Songs for Silverman. That doesn't leave his band much to work with, and on ballads like “Sky High” and “Away When You Were Here,” Sledge and Jessee fade into the background, eclipsed by maudlin, adult-contemporary string arrangements. By the time the wispy torch song “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” closes Sound of the Life with a protracted sigh, it's easy to forget they were ever there.