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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ben Folds Five: Whatever And Ever Amen

BEN FOLDS FIVE: WHATEVER AND EVER AMEN (1997)

1) One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces; 2) Fair; 3) Brick; 4) Song For The Dumped; 5) Selfless, Cold, And Composed; 6) Kate; 7) Smoke; 8) Cigarette; 9) Steven's Last Night In Town; 10) Battle Of Who Could Care Less; 11) Missing The War; 12) Evaporated.

Ben Folds Five's second album does not do much except tightening the screws on an already well-built formula, but who's complaining? The songs make a little more sense, the choruses are a little catchier, the atmosphere occasionally gets a little wilder, and, above everything else, the first album never contained any hidden promises of future self-reinvention. As long as Ben Folds can come up with another bunch of lightly melancholic or lightly humorous vignettes and keep on recombining those music hall and rock'n'roll chords, he should be okay by any standards.

The fourth single from the album (ʽBrickʼ) actually caused some controversy: it broke the band into the charts, getting plenty of airplay and almost elevating them to «mainstream» status, which naturally upset their «underground» fanbase, jealous of losing the monopoly on the merry piano man and his companions. The fanbase had its own truth, of course, since ʽBrickʼ is really one of the weakest numbers on here — its piano melody is scattered and generic, its mood predictably sentimental, and only the vocal structure of the chorus merits special attention. But, as Ben said himself, it is an honest, well-meaning song (about waiting for his girlfriend while she is having an abortion), and the honesty, along with its mass-audience-palatable «alt-pop» arrangement, helped sell the song and gain the band some extra notability.

The real meat'n'potatoes of the record are the fast-moving numbers, regardless of whether they are based on pre-war dance rhythms (ʽSteve's Last Night In Townʼ), post-war jazz grooves (ʽOne Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Facesʼ), or rock'n'roll variations (ʽKateʼ, which borrows its rhyth­mic skeleton from Bo Diddley's ʽRoadrunnerʼ). This stuff is expectedly eccentric, hilarious, and exciting — ʽOne Angry Dwarfʼ is a frenetic psychodrama where Ben's piano parts, mostly jazz chords played with punkish energy, accompany a bitter story of one man's petty revenge against his childhood traumas (loosely referring to an artistic career but could just as easily be applied to some political figures we know all too well); ʽKateʼ is the only love song I know where the pro­tagonist wants to become his love interest rather than mate with her, and setting this idea to the formerly ultra-macho melody of ʽRoadrunnerʼ is a super-ironic gesture; and ʽSteven's Last Night In Townʼ simply has a great clarinet part, giving it some nice hot speakeasy attitude as Ben pokes friendly fun at one of his friends for excessive socializing.

It helps to pay attention to the lyrics, because the average Ben Folds song is almost always a little concrete vignette, not exactly or necessarily plot-oriented, but representing a particular point of view or recounting a particular moment of experience — ʽMissing The Warʼ, which is not about a real war but rather about a turbulent relationship; ʽCigaretteʼ, a brief chamber-pop piece on a guy divorcing his wife because she had cancer; ʽSong For The Dumpedʼ, where the protagonist rails at his ex for leaving him penniless, etc. etc. It's not as if the album provides any radically new in­sights into the human relations area, but Ben has a modestly good way with words and always finds the right music to go along with them.

There are occasional dubious decisions — for instance, continuous bass feedback on the first half of ʽFairʼ that gives me a headache and frankly does not do much good to the unfurling of the story, before it finally gets some rhythm and becomes a straightforward catchy power pop tune. ʽSelfless, Cold And Composedʼ is a moody old-style jazz waltz that is a bit offset with some off­key singing and runs about two minutes longer than it should. The silly parody on the «hidden track» gimmick is also... silly. But worth waiting for just once, just to see how silly one can get. Anyway, it's all just minor nitpicking. A major nitpick is that there may be a slight overdose of ballads — and it's not just about ʽBrickʼ, it's about the fact that Ben has a bit of a trouble with his «heartbroken» avatar, so that a potentially beautiful chorus like the one on ʽEvaporatedʼ comes out shakey, and a potentially devastating "God, what have I done!.." generates some tepid sym­pathy and that's about it. Subjective judgement, of course, but there is no denying that Ben's voice simply does not live up to the demands of the tricky vocal melodies he comes up with. Although the same cannot be said about the trio's vocal harmonies — on ʽFairʼ, for instance, they revel in falsetto like the next incarnation of classic ELO.

On the whole, though, the record is an unquestionable success: no doubts about a thumbs up, and a big load of exuberant enjoyment is freely guaranteed. The special CD edition adds a bunch of bonus tracks, including clever reinventions of the Buggles' ʽVideo Killed The Radio Starʼ and the Flaming Lips' ʽShe Don't Use Jellyʼ, and is also recommendable.

Check "Whatever And Ever Amen" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Whatever And Ever Amen" (MP3) on Amazon

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