Ironic, heartfelt, melancholy, hopeful, and altogether unique: The music of Ben Folds Five truly is representative of its three (not five) members. All these traits and more shine through the Chapel Hill, NC-based band's new album and 550 Music label debut, Whatever and Ever Amen. In these twelve songs, Ben Folds Five reveals the maturity and insight earned through more than two years of steady touring -- without sacrificing the rough-and-ready energy which has always propelled their piano-based brand of rock and roll.
Whatever and Ever Amen was recorded in September-October, 1996 in the Chapel Hill house of pianist/vocalist Ben Folds - which was outfitted for the occasion with 16-track recording equipment, a Steinway baby grand piano, and extensive soundproofing. Ben's dad was overseeing the construction even as recording progressed. "We would just set up in the living room and play, with workers coming and going," Ben recalls. "That really took any 'professional' edge off and left us free to just make music." Keeping things within the BFF's musical family, Whatever and Ever Amen is produced by Caleb Southern, with whom the band worked on its self-titled 1995 debut; the first video, "Battle Of Who Could Care Less," is directed by another longtime Chapel Hill friend, Norwood Cheek. The album was mixed in New York by Andy Wallace, whose credits include Rage Against The Machine, Jeff Buckley, and Nirvana.
Ben Folds Five (released on Caroline Records) was the disc which introduced the guitar-less lineup of Ben Folds (lead vocals, piano), Darren Jessee drums), and Robert Sledge (bass) to the guitar-crazed world of alternative rock. That instrumentation, combined with Folds' highly personal and immensely catchy songs, insured the Five would stand out from the crowd. When the band first came together in 1993, Ben recalls, "We all agreed the songs would rock much better without guitars, so we just went with it."
In its album review, Rolling Stone wrote: "Folds is...a truly formidable talent, brimming over with melodic gifts, efficacious verbal command and protean musical instincts. His frenzied fingers and adroitly infectious songwriting lay the foundation for one of 1995's more delightful records - perhaps the debut of the year." And Spin praised the way Ben "drops Gershwin licks into his solos and weaves Fats Waller and baroque into a repertoire that merges the smarty-pants pop of Squeeze with the punctilious prog-R&B of Queen." Ben Folds Five hit the road, touring extensively throughout North America, Europe, and Japan. In England, the band's set was a highlight of the prestigious Reading Festival; back in the USA, Ben Folds Five opened for Neil Young and Heather Nova, performed on the second stage of Lollapalooza, and headlined their own club tours. Their album achieved gold sales in Japan, where national radio station J-Wave named Ben Folds Five its Best New Artist Of The Year. In England, their single "Underground" cracked the Top 40 and the band made the year-end Top Ten in nearly every major music publication.
In composing the songs for Whatever and Ever Amen, Ben explains, "I tried to be a lot less self-conscious. If I felt pensive or sad I could just express that, where before I might try to veil it in one way or another." John Mark Painter's string arrangements on "Evaporated" and "Selfless, Cold And Composed" and the concise, skillful playing of Darren and Robert lend these songs, in particular, a serene sadness which this band could never have achieved two years ago. In contrast, "Steven's Last Night In Town" is a satirical rocker flavored with the Eastern European tonalities of the Klezmatics and a bridge section straight out of the big-band Swing Era.
There are reminders throughout this record that we're not playing it safe," says Folds with a touch of justifiable pride. "We didn't want to pin ourselves down to one sound, or to be as predictable or consistent as the first album. And it all started with not hiring a big-name producer, a fancy studio, and a lot of expensive equipment."
Whatever and Ever Amen plays like a rock and roll opera, replete with satire, back stories, and a diverse range of characters and emotions. "I have a real English way of approaching songs, a straightforwardness and honesty that, for the first time, has gone unedited with this album," says Ben. "I mean, we're all moody people - that's just part of life - but this time I really let that show in the music."
What the music reveals, finally, is a band allowing itself to evolve organically through impeccable song-writing and superior musicianship. Today, Ben Folds Five sits in the only interesting place left in rock and roll: smack-dab in the center of contradiction. "I think the songs on Whatever and Ever Amen are a good representation of life, in all its absurdities, greatness, and just plain weirdness," says Ben Folds. "We're right where we want to be."
One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces
"This is basically a portrait of a guy that has to succeed so he can tell off everyone who used to pick on him. It's a revenge anthem."
"It's a 'dig-me-and-all-my-pain' type of song. Definitely for the self-destructive romantic person. It came from a newspaper article concerning a domestic dispute which wound up in a death."
"It's really self-explanatory."
Song For The Dumped
"Darren, our drummer, just got dumped and scratched out some angry lyrics and gave them to me. It was a joke, but it was coming from a real place. I put the music to it in minutes. It's a satire on the obtuse male anger of being dumped, but still caring about the girl who dumped you."
Selfless, Cold And Composed
"It's kind of about your average middle-class white guy ? the kind of guy that can't express his emotions and has a hard time caring about others. He's the antidote to the guy in Dumped.'"
"Really it's a song that's just cute and adoring. I felt it was time for a song like that from someone. from our generation. It's a crush song."
"I co-wrote this song with someone else, so I wouldn't want to speak for her, but what it means to me is that you can't escape from your memories or your past,"
"It's a weird vibe song."
Steven's Last Night In Town
"A guy came to visit us in North Carolina and he hung out for a while, but then he wouldn't leave. We must have thrown five or six going-away parties for him. So I wrote him this song and gave it to him."
Battle Of Who Could Care Less
"This is like the notion that the more you care about some thing your cat or whatever - the less they care about you. It's the same way in the world of rock 'n' roll a lot - I wanted to get that across."
Missing The War
"This is a song left over from the first album. It's really the sister song to 'Last Polka' on the first album."
"It's about loss."