With a new full-length solo album on the way in early 2004 and buzz surrounding The Bens, a collaboration Ben Folds has recently contributed to (with fellow Bens Kweller and Lee), it seems a bit odd that Folds has gone the route of the EP trilogy for a few reasons. Firstly, the EPs are only contributing one song a piece to the future full-length, yet the songs chosen will likely be re-arranged and re-recorded in order to mask them more. The two EPs that have been released as of press, Speed Graphic and Sunny 16 feature minimal packaging and aren’t available in major retail/online stores. The only place to find them is through Folds’ online store, at his shows, and via Apple’s iTunes music store. For Christ’s sake, they’re not even on a record label.
On Speed Graphic, however, Folds atones for the boring, sappy orchestral pop Ben Folds Five found themselves falling into on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner and occasionally on Folds’ solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs. “Give Judy My Notice” and “Wandering” (the lost Folds/Jesse BFF collaboration) both sound downtrodden and defeated yet come away successful due to the earnest inflection in Folds’ voice and the straightforward playing of Folds’ backing band. The three other songs are the tightest pop songs Folds has written since the Five released Whatever in 1997.
Most of the spring in Ben Folds’ step on Speed Graphic can be attributed to his new band. Although Folds declared himself a very talented multi-instrumentalist on Rockin’ the Suburbs, there is a much looser chemistry here. Ben Folds isn’t so much contemplative singer-songwriter anymore as he is infector of pop energy, and you can’t help but embrace the old Folds with open arms.
Also, like Wilco and their free download-only More Like the Moon EP, it’s good to see someone doing something for the fans. By selling this online only, we’re spared the middlemen (middlemath) of the record industry and are left with five really good songs. All of this in anticipation of next year’s full-length with even more new material.
Ben Folds has always been one of the best songwriters to personify the everyday American. He’s also consistently released good music; even Messner and Suburbs spot occasional brilliance. There’s something to be said for going into something knowing what to expect, and on Speed Graphic Folds has given us more of the usual. I still find myself wishing for a Ben Folds Five reunion, but as long as Folds keeps delivering, I can’t complain.