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Ben Folds Five - Whatever and Ever Amen

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 11 / 6 / 2003

Ben Folds Five - Whatever and Ever Amen
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Ben Howarth writes about Ben Folds Five's album from 2000 'Whatever and Ever Amen', which has recently been going through a period of rediscovery after Nick Hornby wrote about one of its tracks, 'Smoke', in his book, '31 Songs'

Ben Folds Five were a five piece that took their name from their main songwriter Ben Folds. Simple. Except that by the time they came to record their eponymous debut album they were down to three members! They were a band that had little edge. Never massive, they were nevertheless not an underground band. They are the kind of band whose legacy is easily forgotten. You seem to need a "story" to go down in (picture the change of tone into a phoney yank accent here, if you will) "rock history". Ben Folds is pretty normal, or at least that’s his image. He just happened to be able to write amazing songs. This was the band’s second album. It’s a fantastic piece of work, not far short of being the perfect album. The trio features piano-bass-drums, and has a very distinctive style. Ben Folds is an immensely talented pianist (and in all honesty, the piano is a much more complex instrument to master than the guitar) and there is also some gorgeous fuzzy bass playing on this record. It’s nice to be able to admire technical skill in a band, but its much nicer in my opinion to be able to admire it whilst listening to catchy, pretty pop songs. Why the hell should I have to work in order to like a record ? Shouldn’t that actually be the job of the band?! Put this disc into your stereo. It’s evening, but it’s sunny and there’s a cool breeze blowing through an open window. Make yourself a coffee (fair trade variety, of course!) Sit back, relax and enjoy. The first track has breezy piano, and the drummer crashing away. It’s called 'One Angry Dwarf And 2000 Solemn Faces'. Nod your head for a bit, it’s a great little tune. Then Ben lets it rip on the piano, with amazing jazzy type stuff. Wow, is all I think. This is about the perfect listening experience. The next song, 'Fair' is a bit less uptempo. Folds is basically a storyteller lyricist. He has a dark side, but this song is not too depressing. And it has a great, catchy chorus – “ba ba ba, ba ba ba”. The message of the song, “All is fair in love”, is vaguely ironic however! The band shift tempos, throw down some funky bass lines and some stunning harmonies, before giving the main tune another go. The tunes reel you in, but Fold’s witty, imaginative but perfectly simple lyrics keep you coming back for more. Great as the first two tracks are, they can’t prepare you for 'Brick', one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It’s built around a repetitive piano line that is simply the most gorgeous collection of notes imaginable. The lyric is deeply sad, the tale of taking a girlfriend to have an abortion. It’s times like these that you realise, as much as I dig the music of Dylan and company, that extravagant imagery is sometimes best left alone, and that when someone produces a lyric in plain language that is genuinely moving, it’s far more impressive than coded "poetry". We’re back to pop next. 'Song For The Dumped' is a rocking little number. It’s my least favourite, but it’s a nice laid-back antidote to the tension of ‘Brick’ and has some great piano playing all the same. With its hookline of “Give me my money back you Bitch” it is, however, basically a joke song, and its not really my cup of tea. (I should, of course, mention the long forgotten Midget who did a rather cool cover version of this song for a B-Side once. Their ability to rock this up with big ole Punk Rock guitars is a testament to Fold’s quality songwriting skills). 'Selfless, Cold and Composed' is another ballad. It’s one of the less immediate tracks on the album, but it’s gradually wedged itself in as a personal favourite. It really benefits from a great string arrangement, subtle but still integral to the song. Fold’s vocals are particularly lovely on this one; it is perhaps his finest performance. It’s one of the songs from the record that is most likely to make it’s way onto a mix tape of mine. I probably should also give credit to some amazing drum work at the end of the track. It’s quite odd to hear, in such a mellow track, a huge rolling drum part that seems to fit so well. 'Kate' is back in the witty pop mould. It’s got less depth than his ballads, but shows off the other side of Fold’s lyrics. Lines like “Her mix tapes a masterpiece”, “Everyday she wears the same thing, I think she smokes pot, she’s everything I want, she’s everything I’m not”. Again, Folds’ songwriting is masterful, this is really really catchy, but you never tire of it. Only the very best songwriters avoid being trite when being as downright poppy as this. Track seven, we’re past half way is 'Smoke'. This branches itself out musically. It was one of the ones I skipped to a lot when I first bought the album, but for some reason it’s not as much of a favourite anymore. Regardless, it’s a lovely song, with clever lyrics and a great chorus depicting the death of a relationship (that old chestnut!). Track eight, 'Cigarette', is a very short, piano-vocals song but it is about as pretty as anything on the record. It’s another with a delightful piano part and some stunning vocals. It reminds me a little of Tom Wait’s song 'I’m Still Here', which has a very similar structure and style. Both songs could conceivably have come from a stage show. 'Stevens Last Night In Town' is a big old jazzy party tune, a real grower. At first, I thought it was too trite but the lyrics are hilarious, about a guy whose party trick is to pretend this is his last night in town. “We thought he was gone, But now he’s come back again, Last week it was funny, but now the joke’s wearing thin.” They still love him really though, he “won us over with stories about Linda McCartney, though lost points with the ladies by saying he couldn’t love a woman with cellulite”. This track is a total blast, a real classic pop tune! The band's big hit follows, 'Battle Of Who Could Care Less'. You probably know this, I guess, but of course it’s real catchy and very funny, though I have to say that there are a lot of better songs on the record. Yet put this sort of song on the radio and of course it’ll shine above most of the dross. It’s got a good example of Ben Fold’s catchy songwriting, piano playing and of the bands arrangement skills and knack for amazing harmonies! 'Missing The War' is perhaps the definitive Ben Folds Five song. It’s just got a lovely melody, arrangement and great harmonies. It’s another ballad, but has a great sing along chorus. The final track is another classic, 'Evaporated', another ballad and another moment of heartfelt beauty. Recently, this is the one I’ve had lodged in my head the most. It has a unique structure compared to the rest record; it starts of very gently, and builds right up to a big chorus and then further to a huge climax. The perfect way to end a great album! 'Whatever And Ever Amen' is not cool. It’s not hip. It’s not underground, or obscure. But it is one of those CDs that I will automatically copy for you if you haven’t got it (I won’t lend it to you though, because I just like hearing it far, far too much). Every song is memorable, every song is catchy, most of them are really pretty and several are just outrageously funny. I just love, love, love this CD. I can stick it on, anytime and just drift off into the amazing world of Ben Folds. They might sound old fashioned, but they are one of the best bands of all time. You just have to hear this album. You just have to. Ps. I bought this album because of Nick Hornby’s writing about the song 'Smoke' in his '31 Songs' or, if you happen to live in America, 'Songbook'. He writes about one of the songs that I ended up liking the least, ha, but he did so in such a way that I had to go out and get the record. I suppose Nick Hornby is about the only person in the world who could get away with writing a book about his fave records. But, even if he may be being self indulgent, he brings up an awful lot of damned interesting points and this is certainly one of the best pieces of music writing I’ve ever seen. I recommend it, not because I think Hornby needs any more money (though he has a hard life, a son with autism is not something I would wish on anyone, and deserves his success) but I think you need to read the book. That is all.

Track Listing:-

Picture Gallery:-
Ben Folds Five - Whatever and Ever Amen

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