Ben Folds Five

Covered: “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

I spent the majority of this past weekend binging on movies, including at one point watching the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  If you’re like me and were born well after its initial release, the thing that is most memorable about the movie was the number of questions that Trivial Pursuit devoted to the film.    Along those lines, trivia buffs should be well aware that despite seeming to be an incongruous pairing, one of the Academy Awards given to the movie was for Best Song, for the Burt Bacharach-penned “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”.  Academy members didn’t seem to be bothered with the anachronistic placement of such a song in a film about the Old West, probably because of how sweet the scene with Paul Newman doing bicycle tricks for Katherine Ross was, and let’s face it, it’s just a perfectly pleasant tune.  Who could possibly hate its beautiful melody, or its lyrics filled with a sunny optimism?

[I’m going to be honest when I say that it wasn’t until this weekend that Spy Hard was parodying this exact scene–I just thought it was a funny, goofy interlude as a kid]

For years, the version of “Raindrops” that I listened to the most was this cover by Ben Folds Five.  I got it back in the early days of Napster, so for years I had no idea that the guy doing the intro for the band was Burt Bacharach himself, but such is the wonder of YouTube.  On its face, the pairing makes perfect sense–with the prominence of piano in the Ben Folds Five sound, they’re somewhat forced to acknowledge the big pop hits that feature the instrument.  And while Ben and his piano do a great job in capturing the spirit of the original, it’s the performance of the other two oft-overlooked members of the group, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse, that draw me in the most.  Jesse does a great job of keeping a great jazzy fill throughout and matching each change in dynamics, but its Sledge’s explosive fuzz bass bursts that set this version apart from the original.  Sledge adds inventive new melodies and provides a nice blast of edginess, helping to enliven the climax and also making the originally tacked-on coda sound like a vital part of the song.

Both Sledge and Jesse are excellent musicians, which is why I always cool on following Ben through his solo career; while I appreciated the approach that Folds brought to the instrument as a fellow piano player and appreciated his biting and sardonic lyrics, the musical parts that most impressed me throughout their career were the bass and drums.  Go back and listen to Whatever and Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner with fresh ears, and make a concerted effort to pick out their contributions.  It will give the songs a whole new meaning, and that much more enjoyable on playback.