Friday, April 22, 2011

April 22: Ben Folds Five, "Jackson Cannery"

Artist: Ben Folds Five
Song: "Jackson Cannery"
Album: Ben Folds Five
Year: 1995

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Those who choose to go completely against the mainstream sound at any point in history are relegated to only one of two possible fates.  In most cases, the band goes nowhere, as their inability to pull fans from the popular sound eventually leads to artistic frustration.  However, there are a few bands that are so brilliantly unique and present such a fresh, unignorable style, that they have little choice but to become the leaders of an alternative music scene.  With this in mind, one can easily see over the course of history that whenever any certain sound becomes overwhelmingly dominant, those who sound different rise far more quickly as "anti-heroes," and this was perhaps no more obvious than when one looks at the overall music scene during the mid-1990's.  In a world that had been dominated for a few years by overly aggressive hip-hop and loud, distorted punk rock that was being called "grunge," it seemed that the music scene had lost its sense of humor and quest for more melodic works.  Then, in 1995, the self-titled debut from Ben Folds Five was released, and an entirely new underground music movement was born.  Quickly proving that a piano-led outfit could bring just as much energy and emotion as a more traditional lineup, nearly twenty years later, the album remains fresh and exciting.  Though each track is superb in its own way, there are few songs that better define everything that makes Ben Folds Five so uniquely fantastic than what one can experience on their 1995 song, "Jackson Cannery."

Marking both the first song the band ever recorded, as well as the lead track on Ben Folds Five, "Jackson Cannery" sets the bar for excellence quite high, as in every aspect, the song overflows with musical brilliance.  From the first notes that come charging out of Ben Folds' piano, it is quite clear that the band not only has "something to say," but they have no intention of creating music simply for the sake of selling records.  There is an aggression within Folds' playing that is reminiscent of the attack and spirit that was first recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, as there are moments where it seems that Folds is bent of breaking the keys if at all possible.  Yet he never sacrifices the beautiful melody for the sake of this fury, and "Jackson Cannery" is clearly where piano "meets" rock.  This energy and mood are deepened by the bass of Robert Sledge, and it is his performance that lends the song an almost nervous feel, as if the band might explode at any moment.  Drummer Darren Jesse highlights this feeling, as the pounding of his kick-drum has a maniacal, unwavering tone that persists throughout the entire song.  The fact that the trio are able to create such sound and mood without needing to be overly loud or disordered is a testament to their determination to stay true to their own sound, and it is much the reason that so many music fans turned to the band as a "way out" from the often obnoxious sound and image of a majority of "popular" bands at the time.

As the bands' namesake, Ben Folds not only delivers a fantastic piano performance on "Jackson Cannery," but he also establishes himself as one of the most unmistakable vocalists and sharpest lyricists of his generation.  Throughout the song, Folds works the entire vocal range, from the deepest notes, all the way into perfectly executed falsetto, and this alone places him into a category all his own.  Yet it is also the spirit in his voice that makes him so unique, as he has the talent for delivering absolutely brutal words, yet singing them in such a way that they somehow come off as jovial or somehow positive.  Even after countless times of hearing the song, the sheer joy of singing that can be heard in Folds voice never fails to pull the listener in, and in many ways, it is this fact that gained him the dedicated following that he retains to this day.  However, Folds uncanny talent for turning a phrase is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his music, and "Jackson Cannery" takes the listener through a wide-range of emotions.  From funk to soul to deep blues, in both his delivery style, as well as the content of his words, Ben Folds shows his mastery as a lyricist, and the song is one which every listener likely has a different "favorite" line.  The entire song seems to speak to those trying to "find themselves," and this is one of the other reasons why "Jackson Cannery" quickly caught on with so many youth who could relate to the content and emotion found within Ben Folds' perfect musical execution.

The fact that a piano-led group was able to find such wide-ranging and long lasting success in an era dominated by mostly mindless, overly macho music is proof that there is always a large group of people who are looking for something different, if not "better" than what the mainstream has to offer.  It also supports the idea that in such situations, purposeful defiance of musical norms can lead to far superior results, especially when there is an overwhelming amount of talent within the band in question.  Throughout all of their debut record, Ben Folds Five offer a fresh, exciting, and uniquely rebellious group of songs, and well over a decade after their release, the songs easily retain these qualities.  Granted, there were other songs on Ben Folds Five that became staples of the bands' live shows, yet no other brings the "rock" feel quite like one finds on "Jackson Cannery," and it is also the most brilliant display of the entire range of Folds' vocal abilities, as well as his uncanny ability to craft cryptic, yet easily relatable lyrics.  Truth be told, there is simply no other artist or band in the entire history of music that has been able to create music quite like Ben Folds Five, and while one can pick out their influences, to find a similar band is simply no possible.  Perfectly fusing soaring melodies, aggressive vocals, and some of the most irresistible energy ever captured on record, there are few songs that are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the magnificent 1995 song from Ben Folds Five, "Jackson Cannery."

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