..not an ideal place to start for people who are unfamiliar with their music. Start with either the self titled album, or "Whatever and Ever Amen" - both are equally as accessible.
On "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner", Ben Folds Five shows a vast amount of maturation, both musically (bringing in a multitude of different instruments, and more complex arrangements) and lyrically (the topic of death comes up quite a bit). There are a couple of tracks on here that have that classic, lighthearted BFF feel, but most of it covers new ground. It's kind of a shame that the band split after this (although Ben Folds' solo album, "Rockin the Suburbs", is just as good if not better than this, so it's okay). It is a concept album of sorts, but not nearly as conceptual as something like "The Wall" or "The Final Cut", both by Pink Floyd.
A BFF classic, right off the bat. It's 5+ minutes, and features a number of different tempo changes. The intro is a long, breathtaking wall of sweeping strings, heavy percussion, and [obviously] piano. The bridge slowly builds up, featuring incredible vocals from Ben..it seems like a perfect ending - but it's not. Another slow building verse in which Ben repeatedly sings "I'm not tired", until the music stops, and a blast of heavily amplified bass hits you like a train for the outro. The soft/loud dynamics are unpredictable, but perfectly timed, and give the song an epic, almost progressive-rock feel.
2. Don't Change Your Plans
And another 5+ minute classic. This one is an absolutely beautiful piece of Burt Bacharach-esque chamber pop, right down to the fluegelhorn laced bridge. The majestic music overshadows the lyrics - the song is essentially a suicide note (it fits in the whole Reinhold Messner concept though..it's not Ben Folds speaking for himself, so don't worry).
A definite "Pet Sounds" influenced song - the harpsichord, the unusual percussion effects in the background, the strings. Like another reviewer said, it has a Western/Classical feel. One of BFF's most mature compositions.
A hauntingly beautiful ballad, composed by bassist Darren Jesse (but still sung by Ben). The verses and pre-chorus are all piano, building up to a timpani crash for the chorus. The instrumental bridge has a nice string section, keeping in the tradition of the previous three songs.
5. Hospital Song
A very short (2 minutes), almost segue-piece. There's not really a chorus - it's pretty much one [not very] long verse. It has a jazz/lounge music feel to it, with a laid back 6/8 rhythm. Works perfectly to give the album a different feel from other BFF albums (as if it already wasn't different enough!).
This is vintage BFF: it's catchy, upbeat, and full of odd & amusing lyrics. They do cover some new ground by using a brass section (trumpets) throughout. It's pretty funny that they took the only radio friendly song on the album, and blatantly laced it with an F-bomb right at the beginning (although I think they released a radio edit that seamlessly replaced "F'n high" with "must be high"). But anyway, great song.
7. Your Redneck Past
Another lighthearted song with playful, amusing lyrics ("Desole, je suis Americain..please cook my steak again"). The instrumentation is unusual, too. It's based around a somewhat jerky, stacatto rhythm. Overall, it seems a little out of place, but it's still good.
8. Your Most Valuable Possession
Like "Hospital Song", another 2 minute segue piece. But this doesn't even have singing - it's an answering machine message (from Ben's father) set to a jazzy/loungey piano backdrop. Even though it's not really a song, it gives the album a cool feel.
Another one of my favorites from the album; I'm surprised at the amount of people who have referred to it as "dull". The main melody is comprised of lots of rich major ninth chords, giving it a laid back, very jazzy feel, despite it's hypnotic, somewhat fast paced tempo (think "Steppin' Out" by Joe Jackson, but not as upbeat). About 3 minutes in, the song switches into an orchestrated outro in 6/4 time, with some thick bass, and nice vocal harmonies. I also must note that I love how the opening three words ("I thought about") exactly mimic the end of "Army" ("I thought about..the army") - right down to the piano chord (E flat minor 9, IIRC) that backs them. It may be totally coincidentally, but it's cool nonetheless, especially when the songs are played back-to-back.
A ballad that keeps in with the jazzy/lounge feel that devoloped over the second half of the album. It's somewhat brief (about 2:30), but it's effective, and one of the best songs on the album.
A wonderful song to close the album, with an old timey feel. It has some great lyrics, along with some bizarre lyrics (James Earl Jones is name dropped at one point).
Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, "..Messner" is a rather short album, but it still has an epic feel to it. It's very dense, lush, and layered, with lots of orchestration, as I mentioned. And with the exception of a couple songs, the material is much more downbeat and introspective than what is typically expected for BFF. In other words, if you're expecting an albums worth of "Song for the Dumped", "Underground", or "Kate", you may be a tad bit disappointed. On the other hand, if you're looking for an artistic maturation in BFF's music, you'll love this album.
On a sidenote, I need to start reviewing some albums that aren't favorites of mine, or people are gonna think I throw out 5 Star Ratings to everything. ;-)
Best Songs: Narcolepsy, Don't Change Your Plans, Mess, Jane, Regrets.