I feel like a quote out of context, withholding the rest
So I can be for you what you want to see
I got the gesture and sounds, got the timing down
It's uncanny, yeah, you’d think it was me -- “Best Imitation of Myself” – Ben Folds Five
I am a skinny white guy. Well, I should say that I used to be skinny. Now, I'm borderline chubby - got a beer gut and everything. In high school, I was grunge – flannel and all (but as I’ve said here before, no Docs). My experience with grunge taught me that most grunge rockers are buff – not on a Lou Ferrigno scale, but they could definitely kick my butt. And while I can readily identify with the Bill Mallonees of the world, there is not a particularly large amount of guys like me in the rock and roll universe . . . Enter Ben Folds.
Ben Folds is a relatively small, skinny, white guy. He has an enviable amount of energy, and he is one hell of a piano player. Not exactly rock and roll in the traditional sense, Ben Folds Five (made up of three guys) turn a piano, bass, and drums into WMR (Weapons of Mass Rock – ok, ok, no more cheesy current event jokes).
Ben Folds Five is really unlike anybody else out there. The first record, self-titled, didn’t make much of a splash when it came out in 1995. They had a pretty big hit (“Brick”) off of Whatever & Ever, Amen, and, despite five more albums (Ben is solo now and Rockin’ the Suburbs is awesome) they haven’t had much success.
But, in my mind, the best record out of the BFF catalog is the first one. Self-titled, with a cheesy photo of a piano on the cover, released by Caroline (who?) Records, this album rocks. Ben Folds has the unique ability to be completely irreverent and remarkably poetic and profound in the same song.
One of the big things that Ben Folds has going for him is that he seems to be totally authentic. He has a definite “Everyman” quality. As opposed to every other rock star in the world, Ben seems like the guy that could be sitting next to you at the local tavern, downing Rolling Rock. When he’s singing about the underground alternative music scene (remember, this was the mid-90s), he’s believable. Plus, he ain’t pretty. You can only get so far in the music biz with a face like that.
The piano melodies can at times be sweet (the intro to “Philosophy”), stuff that would make Billy Joel jealous. Other times, he abuses the keys with such hardcore banging that it makes me wonder how many pianos have had to be put out of their misery at the hands of Mr. Folds. But he’s always on target.
Despite conflicting moods throughout, the album is strikingly cohesive. He can be unflinchingly honest about pop culture (“Video”), he can be philosophical (“Philosophy,” “Alice Childress”), he can be pissed off about how life has treated him (“Julianne”), it all works well together.
It’s also an astonishingly fun record. There is some seriousness, but he always tempers it with cleverness. Everytime he uses biting sarcasm (which is quite often), he makes us laugh at it, despite the obvious painful motive.
My favorite song on this album is “The Best Imitation of Myself.” A fantastic examination of personality at its most shallow – but it’s an examination that, I think, everyone of us does from time to time.
Although this record is a bit raw, although it has much less of a produced feel to it than the later albums, I think that’s a point in its favor. These guys do much better when they’re allowed to run rampant. The next two albums sound like they were recorded with a record executive in the room – the executives probably disavow this one’s existence.
Plus, how could anyone not like an album with lines like this: “I met this girl, she looked like Axl Rose/Got drunk and took her home, and we slept in our clothes”?
I don’t know if I’ve just been inspired by Nate-dogg’s excellent review of Willie’s Red Headed Stranger or what, but I’ve decided to attempt something pretty ambitious (by my standards, anyway). For the next 10 days (give or take), I’m going to review 10 albums that have affected me in some way.
First up: Strong Hand of Love: A Tribute to Mark Heard
The year was 1994. I was a junior in high school. I thought I was in love with Emily Brownlee (she broke my heart, by the way). I had, just scant months before, picked up a copy of a little album called Welcome to Struggleville by the Vigilantes of Love. I’m gonna talk some more about that record on a different day, but suffice to say that the day I bought WtS was the day music began to change for me.
Up to this point, my CD collection looked like it was lifted straight out of a Christian music store’s Bestseller list: DCTalk, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith. The most adventurous thing I owned was a Country album called Coyote Moon by a band called Mercy River (years later I would figure out that Mercy River was another love child of the Lost Dogs). But I digress.
I bought Strong Hand of Love: A Tribute to Mark Heard for one reason: The Vigilantes of Love were on it. I had never heard of Mark Heard. I was a stupid, stupid kid. There were a few other names I recognized on the disc – I knew Rich Mullins well, Kevin Smith from DCTalk, Phil Keaggy. But I had no idea who the rest of these people were – Buddy and Julie Miller? Bruce Cockburn? Chagall Guevara? Pierce Pettis?
This album was an instant education for me. The idea that music could be so dead-on Christian, so powerful in its explanation of who and what God is, so eloquent and detailed in its exposition of the human condition, all without talking directly about God was completely foreign to me.
Mark Heard wrote about things that no other “Christian” artist would go near. The fleeting, artificial nature of our everyday lives (“Nod Over Coffee”), the constant failings that we endure (“I Always Do”), the esoteric, evasive aspects of God (“Tip of My Tongue”), and the fact that we tend to get too big for our britches (“We Know Too Much”) are so masterfully communicated that even without understanding, we understand. His writing about the beauty of nature, juxtaposed against the technological invasion of people (“Satellite Sky”, “Another Day in Limbo”) still strikes me as ahead of its time.
The performances here are all great. Steve Taylor and Chagall Guevara flip out on “Treasure of the Broken Land”. Pierce Pettis’ version of “Nod Over Coffee” is darn near as good as Heard’s, and Bruce Cockburn’s title track has just the right amount of sweetness, with a bit of reprimand in the background. Tonio K never did anything as good as his cover of “Another Day in Limbo.” And, of course, Bill and the Vigilantes of Love just tear up “Freight Train to Nowhere”. It’s (predictably) one of my favorites. Plus, it blew my mind when Bill says “She can’t give a damn on cue”. I always prayed that the store would never listen to that song – the record would get pulled off the shelf. But, for me, the best track is Buddy and Julie Miller covering “Orphans of God.” It is some of Mark’s best songwriting on display, and the Millers treat it reverentially. The stark imagery and seeming hopelessness of “We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod/We will always be remembered as the orphans of God” along with Julie’s quiet, sweet voice and Buddy’s strength and twang put this over the top.
But, for me, the lasting impact of this record has more to do with the doors that were opened to me as a result. Do you remember the scene in Almost Famous when a very young William Miller is given all of those records by his big sister and his life is instantly different? Strong Hand of Love was like that leather satchel for me. Not only was I exposed to the breathtaking melodies and poetic songwriting of Mark Heard, but, all of a sudden, there were all of these wonderful artists that were brand new to me. If it were not for this album, I would have never found Julie Miller’s Blue Pony. I’d still probably not know who The Rolling Creekdippers are.
There are always turning points. Strong Hand of Love was one for me. This record changed music for me and I still listen to it regularly – almost 10 years later.
I left out a part of the car accident saga from a couple of weeks ago. Somewhere between the time that may car was towed from the parking spot in front of my house, until the time a few days later that I went to the shop to check on it, somebody stole the faceplate from my CD player. Not the CD player, mind you, just the faceplate. And, being in the poorhouse, I have yet to get a replacement. So I am now driving to and from work every day in silence. No Vigilantes of Love, no Sean Hannity.
You might say, "John, this should give you plenty of time to think - maybe even improve on your prayer life a bit." To that, I reply thusly, "HAHAHAHAHAHA!"
The truth is that I tend to get caught up in Walter Mitty-esque daydreams during my 50 cumulative minutes of driving daily. Today's episode: John sues the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Department in small claims court for harassing his family with daily phone calls asking him to donate $20 to their cause, even after John has asked to be taken off the list. Not content to do things the normal way, John decides that the best vehicle for handling this problem is not only to go to small claims court, but to go on Texas Justice, with Judge Larry Joe Doherty. In court, John, who has seen countless hours of Texas Justice, is eloquent and elegant. He gets on Judge Larry Joe's good side by not interrupting the defendant. He has meticulous evidence of the harassment. And, predictably, John is awarded the full amount by Judge Larry Joe, as well as an extra thousand dollars in punitive damages, just because the defendant is such a jerk.
Then, I pulled into the parking lot and went to work.