I feel like Ben Folds Five’ 1999 album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is unfairly overlooked.
For being the follow-up record to surprise hit Whatever & Ever Amen (which housed the ubiquitous single “Brick”), and their last studio album for 13 years, Reinhold Messner is a hidden gem of sorts.
As I’ve documented previously, I discovered Ben Folds Five thanks to late night television and bought Whatever on one of those hokey 11 CDs for $8 or whatever the catch was. Since then, I’ve been a fan of Ben Folds’ solo work, and even drove 3 hours back to my hometown to see him live once (but that was because he never comes to Florida).
And while I don’t have a sentimental or bemusing anecdote like I did with Whatever, I was quite upset when the band announced this would be their last album before dissolving. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that their reunion show in 2008 was now a full half decade ago.
The show I am referring to was documented by Myspace.com (yes, that Myspace) as part of their ill-begotten “Front to Back” startup. The concept was simple: track down bands who had broken up a long time ago, throw a bunch of money at them, have them play an entire album, cover-to-cover, at a show in or near their hometown.
For Ben, Robert and Darren, that town happened to be in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a gorgeous area of the country and notable for their University (and its inherent rivalry with cross-town rivals Duke).
When the show was released on Myspace, I recall the chills sent up my spine from the opening fuzz of “Narcolepsy.” The whole show is available online here, so you can judge for yourself.
Couple of items notable about this album: foremost, from the onset of the first track, is the attention paid to the role of Robert Sledge’s bass guitar. Man, does he make that thing sing. It’s used as something of a rhythm guitar rather than as part of the rhythm sections, even a lead guitar at times. Takes a special musician to be able to pull that off, though.
And, as it turns out, there is an actual Reinhold Messner!
Look at that sexy beardly man. Unbeknownst to the band, Reinhold Messner was the first man to ascend Mt. Everest without oxygen . Showoff.
Drummer Darren Jessee used what he think was the fictitious name on fake IDs as a teenager. Just when you think it’s safe to make up a name… already somebody remotely famous by that same name. SMALL WORLD, GUYS.
Reinhold Messner, the musical version, is a jam. I loathe the “piano rock” tag, and not just on principle. It’s wretched. But if a band looks like a piano rock band, and smells like a piano rock band, and asks on their rider for you not to look them in the eye if you see them backstage*… you get the idea.
While I was bumming about the band’s breakup after this record, the legend lives on! The Sound of the Life of the Mind was released last year, the band’s first record in well over a decade. It’s good, but for me, it’s neither this album or Whatever.
From The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, here’s Ben Folds Five with “Army” –
Standout tracks: “Your Redneck Past” and “Narcolepsy” – and “Mess” is so sad but beautiful.
Weakest track: “Hospital Song” or “Lullabye”
RIYL: Jukebox the Ghost. Piano rock. Blah. Piano-infused indie rock. That’s better.
*actual, specific/insane Ben Folds request. Not a joke.