It’s Littlejen’s birthday today. Happy birthday, small lady! To celebrate, we’re going to see Ben Folds Five at the Brixton Academy tonight. Before that, though, here is a brief, five-minute post on the great man.
Some think of Ben as either a late ’90s indie-pop merchant or a piano balladeer. Each is a valid, if partial, view. I think it’s truer to say that he’s from the same unique strain of American music that has produced Sparks, Todd Rundgren and Randy Newman – idiosyncratic, sometimes downright wayward, but always intensely melodic and musically literate. His songs are often good stories, too.
At this point I, as a fan, should ask you to listen to a track in an attempt to win over the doubters and the curious. Instead, I would ask you not to listen too closely to the following song itself, but the audience’s reactions to it.
One Down is about writing songs to a schedule: one down, only 3.6 to go before he fulfills the quota set down by his publisher. It’s a fairly obscure track, and most of the audience would probably be hearing it for the first time. But they react in all the right places: laughing at the self-deprecation and absurdity of the situation described in the song, silent for the romantic interlude in the middle eight then applauding at the end of it, surprised and delighted by its incongruity.
Judges on TV singing competitions have popularised the phrase “connecting with your audience”, which sometimes is simply code for performing in a way that keeps a crowd from getting bored. On One Down, a genuine emotional connection takes place, and you can actually hear it happening. I think that makes it an extraordinary recording, and qualifies Ben as one of the world’s great songwriters. And who knows – we might even get a moment as unique as this one tonight…