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Twenty Years Young: 'Whatever and Ever, Amen'

Ben Folds Five, the Beginning

The 90s in it's natural habitat. Who's got a pencil? Got to wind this back in, mate.

The year is 1998. I have just come back from New York visiting my brother, and am so incredibly proud of scoring an autograph from two of the Spice Girls and am spending sunny and hazy days listening to cassettes of "Spice Up Your Life", shouting “GIRL POWER” at every boy who passed me and kicking them with my Doc Martins on the football pitch. But incidentally, this was also the very year I started to take piano lessons.

I didn’t know it, but I was mentally preparing for the 16 year wait to listen to Ben Folds Five’s second album Whatever And Ever Amen.

This jazz/pop/rock/punk/metal/Glenn Miller/Gershwin flavoured three piece (yes, three: Ben Folds thought it would be 'hilarious' to leave people always wondering where the other two band members were) formed in ’94 in Capitol Hill North Carolina, had already tasted moderate success from their self-titled first album and gained a reputation for snowflake-like performances – no two the same, though you could bet that the lead Piano Man, Ben Folds would either dive or kick his kicks directly into piano keys: here was Pete Townsend’s guitar windmill reborn right at the end of the 20th Century. The idea of eradicating the metal/lead guitar and using piano licks from the likes of Ray Charles, Billy Joel and Gershwin, given a modern edge from the always solid and musically erudite company of drummer Darren Jesse and bassist Robert Sledge makes for a uniquely and truly musical sound – with not a drum machine or synthesiser in sight. On top of this, the boys used to delight in dragging a grand piano into bars in the south, and plying them with Broadway style melodies and upbeat three part harmonies. Emboldened with a lack of fear and a charm all their own, they brought their laid-back, slacker style crashing into the late nineties like a piano stool into middle C (an end to a gig Mr Folds particularly favoured)

The important thing to note, and a reason deserving of the Best Album Ever label is the pure reason that I could sit down after this Christmas just gone and listen to an album that came out some sixteen years earlier and upon first impressions, and all impressions thereafter, deem it better than anything floating around the charts right now. The imagination, skill and literacy (yes, the lyrics have a short story quality and often smack of character study) point to a legacy that has lasted. Even the track listing is like an acrostic in parts and some titles are drily funny.

The Track listing too is an inside joke —when Track 6: Kate goes into track 7: Smoke and into Track 8: Cigarette is a personal favourite. Again with the benefits of distance and some decades elapsed from the original we see that this is some long-ass album listing—oh but how necessary. And what ass (sorry. I don’t know entirely what I mean by that -let’s move on). The mark of a truly visionary and zeitgeist-maintaining band is to apply a winning formula (trills on the keys, runs on the bass and punk on the drums) and make a song infinitely better than its original incarnation— this is one of the marks Ben Folds Five possess. "Video Killed The Radio Star" as a nineties indie hit that came out 38 years ago this year, given a blazing, youthful new lease of life with grungy bass still maintains the bands’ infectious humour and joyful sound—these guys are the best kind of morons—oxymorons.

They can also encapsulate any genre they choose to tackle in what Americans call, I believe, a touchdown. "Steven’s Last Night In Town" is an obvious example. Darren’s Miller-style bongo drums, Irving Berlin’s piano— soaring clarinet and sleazy trombone come 9th in the track listing by which point you’re ready for the magic—and not expecting it to sound like this. It also has hints of Jewish Klezmer music with minor melodies and clarinet. With these boys, you learn to expect nothing. As with all Ben Folds Five output, the accompanying music may be rocking a 30s, 50s or 70s vibe but the lyrics maintain their dry, witty and modern edge:

Well, we thought he was gone,

but he’s come back again

last week it was funny

now the joke’s wearing thin.

This was apparently based on a real bloke from Liverpool, their sound engineer to be precise, who had many a story to tell, about Linda McCartney, ad infinite, quietly terrorising the band and their group of friends by requesting a raucous going away party every night for two weeks—this stuff just seems to go down in Chapel Hill. And the autobiography winds it’s way through the tracks: "Kate" is an old friend/ex wife of Folds (he has a lot of them), "Selfless, Cold and Composed" is an old girlfriend who remained an Ice Queen despite Folds best efforts to get a reaction out of her after the split and at the other end of the scale, drummer Darren Jesse wrote a beat poem about being dumped that Folds adapted to one of their biggest anthems—"Song For The Dumped"—the anarchic and yet pathetic anger set against real Nashville, Jerry Lee Lewis piano chord progressions remaining irresistible to crowds the world over to sing at three men on a stage. "Give me my money back, give me my money back/ you bitch" has never sounded charming and non-threatening, even shouted by the entire audience at the Hammersmith Apollo in London on their recent, all too brief reunion gigs. 

And they thrive live, even now: the band know their instruments and back catalogue to produce no two performances of the song the same—from even the early days in the dive bars Folds might suddenly find himself partial to Beethoven or ragtime. So in tune are the band that they recover quickly to put in their two cents worth that is usually, actually worth a lot more than that. There is a sense that this whole recording of Whatever and Ever, Amen is taken from many takes in the studio, messing around, enforcing their own belief that they are a "live" band—and that’s what makes the album so sublime,- it’s raw, it’s spontaneous, it’s angry but it knows what it’s doing and you’re just along for the ride.

Every member of the band brings something to the table to make this album work so well: Robert Sledge can produce a baseline that really shouldn’t be necessary with a grand piano yet finds an big area to sit in and can ace a change from samba to grunge in a blink. His naturally high voice means that he usually harmonises with Ben bringing a full sound. He has songwriting chops too and is the solid underpin of the whole arrangement. Darren on the drums similarly can rock an Andy Williams flirty rhythm or Sex Pistols gunshot-style as well as being a talented songwriter in his own right. He also adds a full bodied voice to bring to the mix. And Ben. Well—original front man, piano extraordinare that surely is on another plane—he must see melody, or at least eat it for breakfast (I don’t know, some synesthesia analogy, this isn’t NME) and sports a very American, sometimes Southern intonation that makes no promises but delivers a lot—the fact that all three come from the same area adds to their often psycho-geographical tunes and makes them often sound of one, brilliant voice.

The reasons I believe this is a culturally important album that is able to encapsulate a decade as wide-ranging and vibrant as the 90s is that it brought previously inaccessible genres to the fore: jazz, punk, rock, klezmer, country, name it! Disposing of the lead guitar made this album an important historical point for the legacy of piano: up there with Glenn Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dave Brubeck, Nat King Cole, Nina Simone, Elton John and Billy Joel. Yes, you can hear their influences but I doubt any of their discographies boasted lyrics such as: "If you really wanna see me/ Check the papers and the TV/ Look who’s telling who what to do/ Kiss my ass."

Seriously, this guided tour of genres, of the trio as a musical entity, of Folds, Sledge and Jesse’s town, of them in general adds up to make an extremely important album. It certainly is to me, and my iTunes play count will embarrassingly attest: as well as the fact that I nearly have two songs down from the piano book I’ve been labouring over. The musicianship, talent and wit are all so downplayed but undeniable: the sound is defined so much it becomes a safe, but one in which any number of combinations can open: a minor here, a bass lead played through the strings, it's a seven course meal for musicophiles. Any music nerds out there—represent—and always keep this album full of heartbreak, irreverence, impossible musicality, humour and musicianship in your back pocket. It kind of belongs on a Walkman, if you have one. 

It’ll help you through that breakup. Thank you boys.

Whatever and Ever, Amen.

Signed, a fan.

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