ben_folds_five_-_ben_folds_fiveListen to this track by guitarless, and seemingly numerically-challenged, indie-pop trio Ben Folds Five. It’s “Alice Childress” as taken from their 1995 debut record, the self-titled Ben Folds Five, an album that does without many indie-pop conventions of the time, yet is packed with ironic humour, punk energy, and in this tune in particular, a profound sense of pathos, too.

The song, and the album off of which it comes pulls from sources well established in 70s AM pop radio, from The Stranger-era Billy Joel, to ELO, to Joe Jackson.  Yet, the band’s music, which is centered around Ben Folds’ sardonic lyrics and jazz-influenced piano, is infused with a sense of irony that undercuts the way it might be perceived on the first go-round as straight-ahead pop music.   As such, the trio wasn’t exactly the darling of North American radio at the time this record was released, even if they had a strong grass roots appeal on college radio.

Taking pot shots at big targets in US pop culture and subculture is  a big part of this record (see ‘Underground’, a poke at the very indie crowd of which they were ostensibly a part).  Luckily, the rest of the English-speaking world could appreciate Ben Folds’ propensity for taking the piss in his songs. Perhaps this is because the music could be more easily appreciated from a cultural distance.  As a result, the band was championed in the UK, and in Australia where Folds eventually came to live permanently for a time.

And whether or not this song preceded that move, there remains to be a sense of displacement that I think has an effect on this tune, co-written by Folds then-wife Anna Goodman. This song that seemingly name-checks American author and playwright Alice Childress is not actually a reference to her.  In actuality, it’s about a woman who Goodman was in charge of while working in a mental hospital with the same name.  While in an agitated state, the titular Alice threw water on Goodman, an experience which inspired Goodman to write a song in Ben Folds’ style.

Yet, something in the song inspired Ben Folds to re-work it.  And where the song was once centred around a specific experience, Folds took it to another plane, telling a tale of separation and alienation between two lovers who’ve come to grow in different directions, both geographically as well as emotionally.  There is a certain irony here, given Folds’ relationship with Goodman, which ended a few years before this song appeared on the band’s debut record.

Of course, a more overt version of this same story appears in the form of “Song For the Dumped” on the band’s 1997 follow-up LP Whatever and Ever Amen. That song that dispenses with the subtleties of break-ups altogether, and concentrates on the anger part – and the splitting up of the stuff.

For more information about Ben Folds, check out  And for real-time updates, follow Ben Folds on Twitter, too.


Ben Folds image courtesy of John Morrison.


One thought on “Ben Folds Five Play ‘Alice Childress’

What are your thoughts, Good People? Tell it to me straight.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.