Brian Troutman Land

Alice Childress – Ben Folds Five

by on Nov.01, 2004, under The Greatest

Ben Folds Five

In the mid 1990s, a trio from Chapel Hill, North Carolina emerged from the local NC indie-rock scene to national prominence. Interestingly enough, Ben Folds Five was set apart from other groups by what it lacked: a guitar player. Instead, the band’s high-powered tunes were fueled by the masterwork of namesake pianist Ben Folds, a master at the ivories who could probably one-up the likes of Elton John and Billy Joel in the realm of pop piano.

The group’s self-titled 1995 debut album features a dozen tightly crafted songs, most with a comically impish streak. The antics are partially (and I should stress not fully) balanced by a couple of more sedate and serious numbers, including the contemplative “Alice Childress.”

Much of the song’s greatness stems from the bold yet somewhat muted construction of its fairly simple and straightforward instrumentation. The listener is drawn into the crescendo of the piano as it swells in a musical statement to a conclusion and is encapsulated as gentile waves of cymbals crest and recede into silence.

As the instrumental element goes a long way toward creating an atmosphere, the vocals give a face to the nearly intangible sentiments behind the music. The recurring refrain, “try not to think about it, Alice Childress; try not to think about it anymore” admits the difficulties that life presents, but implores the listener not to dwell upon them. The lyrics consider dilemmas from inconsequential thoughts (“I think about my friends; sometimes I wish they lived out here, but they wouldn’t dig this town”) to serious incidents (“some dude just knocked me cold and left me on the sidewalk, took everything I had.”)

Some solutions are proposed (“you can blow it off and say there’s good in nearly everyone,”) but the realization is clear: trouble is inherent in life, and no one can possibly understand why everything happens. Nobody can know why tragedy strikes decent people; it just does. But somehow, understanding that you are not alone brings a sort of melancholy comfort, even in the midst of tribulation.

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