A decade removed from the Five’s dissolution, front man Ben Folds remains a reliable purveyor of piano pop that’s equal parts acidulous and jocular. After a long solo jaunt, Folds sounds perfectly at ease reuniting with his old mates for The Sound of the Life of the Mind, a forward-looking effort that retains his trademark wit and jazzy melodic touch.
Folds, as always, is the wise one: The pianist believes we’re all sad saps in a rat race, too busy receiving strip-mall acupuncture (“Hold That Thought”) and living vicariously through others (“On Being Frank”) to realize we’re our own life’s punch line. He regularly drags listeners through the mud, but barbershop harmonies, pretty piano figures and a wink help temper the gloom: Over minor-chord staccato phrasing on “Erase Me,” the bespectacled pianist, four times married, puts himself in the crosshairs, drawing mustaches on old wedding photos; in “Michael Praytor” he encounters a run-down acquaintance, defeated by chemo and the shitty economy; and when life beats him down, dude stays amused, drawing dicks on the wall (“Draw A Crowd”). There is a Tony-Robbin quality to some of Folds’s lyrics that feel forced, but the bravado of his old band help him bust through the bull. Call them a motivator’s motivator.