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A second look at Ben Folds Five's Reinhold Messner

Should you care about their final album now, even if you didn't back then?

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⇒ Read also: Our feature story on Ben Folds Five's return to Chapel Hill

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MySpace, which is presenting Ben Folds Five's one-off reunion performance of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner as part of its new "Front to Back" series, has billed the album as "the band's most critically acclaimed" work. Though she doesn't have a MySpace account (or at least I hope not), this reminds me of why I've always told my mom not to believe everything she reads on the Internet: At the time of its release, Reinhold Messner—11 largely interconnected songs stretched over 40 minutes—was panned by many critics.

Though it had yet to hit tastemaker status, a young Pitchfork Media gave Reinhold Messner a 3.3, while the earlier albums—the poppier and more accessible Ben Folds Five and Whatever and Ever Amen— scored a 9.6 and 7.6, respectively. Writer Brent DiCrescenzo directed much of his criticism at "Army," the album's first single, using it to highlight Folds' immaturity and cussing-disguised-as-cleverness routine. Strangely, his other critique was the album's lack of pop songs, especially relative to Ben Folds Five.

It's easy to stereotype the trio's first two efforts—chunky piano, fuzz bass, juvenile humor. Then again, that's reductive in a way that's, well, juvenile. There's variety in each, whether it be the klezmer inflection of "Steven's Last Night In Town" or the fragility of "Boxing." Less frequent on those albums were fully realized compositions, like Whatever's mature "Selfless, Cold & Composed."

But, for Reinhold Messner, the trio traded up from the constraints of DIY production and simple arrangements to rich studio embellishments and complex charts full of strings and horns. Where earlier albums opened with pounded piano chords, the dramatic, tempered swells of "Narcolepsy" start here. Refrains of "kiss my ass goodbye" and "give me my money back, you bitch" make way for growing-man ruminations on destiny or doubts about God, if there's a chorus at all.

Reinhold Messner reflects the messy lives of a worn-out band that'd been constantly on the run while its stock was on the rise, fueled in large part by "Brick." Though the album is filled with similar introspection, from the denial of "Hospital Song" to the resignation of "Don't Change Your Plans," the song structures weren't radio-friendly. Nothing approached the success of "Brick." "Army" peaked at a dismal No. 17 on the Modern Rock charts, and the record sold less than 300,000 copies.

But the song structures that made radio unkind to the individual tracks are what make the record brilliant as a whole. Much of the album was conceived as a single song that Folds wrote in the studio and later deconstructed into several songs with help from longtime friend and producer Caleb Southern. "Regrets," which reads like a clear-headed response to the teenage fuck-up of "Army," was originally imagined as that song's bridge. The former's opening line and a few notes come copped directly from the closing line of the latter, evidence of Folds' early singular-work idea. The loose swing of "Lullabye" contrasts with its spacey lyrics, and the full orchestration and vacillating messages of "Narcolepsy" and "Mess" make them album highlights. As a whole, the album is less sprawling than those numbers: "Hospital Song" is an atmospheric single verse, and "Your Most Valuable Possession" sets two minutes of father Dean Folds' half-awake musings to jazzy outtakes. It's full of variety, if not pop ditties.

Elsewhere, the band nods to influences: "Your Redneck Past" has all the quirky, joyful noisiness of The Flaming Lips. And it makes allusions to futures: the Darren Jessee-penned "Magic" (an early version of which appeared on a Yep Roc compilation) previews the moody, retro vibe of his Hotel Lights songwriting. The album pushes itself with new references and new ideas. Indeed, when Folds sings "I've gotta be where my heart says I oughta be" on "Don't Change Your Plans," you've got to believe that he meant it for the whole band: He was talking just as much about musical orientation as he was geographic location, even if—nine years ago—that was hard to understand or appreciate.

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