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QUICK SPINS: Beth Orton, Ben Folds Five

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 22, 2012 7:00PM

Ben Folds Five
The Sound of the Life of the Mind

bff_chic_922.jpg Among the slew of reunions or un-hiatusing of '90s alt-rock and indie bands over the past few years, Ben Folds Five initially didn’t generate near the excitement of others (for example, Pavement or Superchunk). A little too mainstream for “indie” and just a little too weird for full mainstream cross-over, the band also had a small output of just three albums over four years. And lead singer Ben Folds has already released more albums on his own, either as a solo artist or via a collaboration with someone outside the band. But buzz around the band’s new album The Sound of the Life of the Mind, its first in 13 years, is steadily growing.

For the most part, the album sounds like, well, Ben Folds Five with a dash of the more textured pop Folds embraced as a solo act. In fact, much of the album sounds like it could have easily been released 10 years ago and that’s not a bad thing. Thundering lead single, “Do It Anyway” could easily stand alongside previous BFF standouts like “One Angry Dwarf…” or “Sports and Wine.” But where that 13-year gap is evident is in the lyrics, the character sketches that occupy Folds’ songs more grounded and more in touch with their advancing age. The immaturity from previous songs has been replaced by a more subtle - and suitable - gravity, like on “Away When You Were Here” in which the narrator comes to terms with his dead father. While “Erase Me’ has echoes of the bitterness of “Song For The Dumped,” it thankfully lacks “Dumped’s” immaturity and misogyny.

Musically, there are moments where Folds’ evolution as a solo artist bleed over, like the layers of strings on “Being Frank” and the synth textures of “Sky High.” But they don’t detract from the music as a product of the trio. It’s been over a decade since the band put out a proper LP but on Sound, it sounds like the band hasn’t missed a beat.

Ben Folds Five plays the Chicago Theater on Sunday, September 30

Beth Orton
Sugaring Season

orton_chic_922.jpg While some of Beth Orton’s earliest noted work were more electronic in spirit, collaborations with William Orbital and the Chemical Brothers, the waifish singer-songwriter has since carved out quite a pleasant and popular niche as a folk singer. And Orton’s latest, Sugaring Season, pushes her as far into that territory as ever as her music takes on a dusty twang. That’s largely due to Orton bringing on Tucker Martine to produce; Martine has generated that same sublime sound in work with a range of artists from The Decemberists, R.E.M., and Laura Veirs. But the sound fits so well with Orton’s lilt, particularly on the lead single “Magpie,” a haunting song that grows in volume and depth as layers are heaped on top of Orton’s ghostly vocals and guitar. The shuffling “State of Grace” and “Call Me The Breeze” weaves these vocals into the woozy tapestry while on the ballad “Last Leaves of Autumn,” it’s Orton front and center over a soft piano and strings. Either way, Orton’s voice is utilized as a perfect instrument of its own and the end result is her strongest effort since 1999’s Central Reservation.

Beth Orton plays the Athaeneum Theater on Monday, September 24.