Whatever And Ever Amen

Ben Folds Five

Sony Music, 1997


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


These guys have got balls. That's pretty much the first thing you have to concede about a rock trio with no guitar player.

Ben Folds Five makes it work surprisingly well, though, with a dynamic range of sounds -- alternately hyperactive and restrained piano melodies, layered, inventive vocal arrangements, jazzy drumming and an amped, often heavily fuzzed bass guitar that's sometimes playing rhythm and sometimes surging into the lead.

Ben Folds (lead vocals, piano), Robert Sledge (bass, background vocals) and Darren Jessee (drums, background vocals) are the three who make up the Five, an in-your-face pun that nicely sums up the band's sarcastic bravado. It's an attitude that weaves through this wildly varied set of sad, furious, blissed-out, and sometimes loopy tunes. Imagine a band that could channel Cole Porter, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Jackson and Paul McCartney on successive songs -- and sometimes all at once -- and you're in the neighborhood.

The North Carolina group's sophomore album, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Whatever And Ever Amen, has a loose sound that lets the often complex arrangements breathe and swing. "One Angry Dwarf And Two Hundred Solemn Faces" kicks things off with a cathartic explosion of pent-up anger from a former schoolyard victim. Here, as on each of the heavier tunes on the album, Folds pounds furiously on the ivories without ever losing his melodic train of thought.

"Fair," like "Kate" later on, prominently features Sledge's fuzz-tone bass, distorted to the point where late in the song it sounds almost like a tuba, beats functioning as musical exclamation points to Folds' ragtime-on-speed fingerwork on the keys. Third up is the single that broke the band, "Brick," a cool slice of melancholy from Folds that's rumored to be an autobiographical piece about a girlfriend's abortion and the shattering impact it had on their relationship. The song draws its considerable power from Folds' skillful lyric and simple, honest delivery. When he sings "She broke down / and I broke down / 'Cause I was tired of lying," the total absence of melodrama in his voice makes the emotional impact that much greater.

Just for the sake of brutal contrast, "Brick" segues right into the ranting "Song For The Dumped." A three-minute vent/spew that alternates the girl/dumper's series of limp break-up cliches with the narrator/dumpee's savage comebacks (this is NOT a G-rated album...), it's notable mostly for Folds' rollicking, barrelhouse piano-playing (although you've got to wonder if Jessee, who's credited with the lyric, really told her off like this or just slunk back to the studio and let it all out on paper).

There's much more, of course -- a faux-urbane blistering of sophisticated soullessness ("Selfless, Cold and Composed") that would be right at home on Joe Jackson's Night And Day album, a bubbly, frantic, power-poppish anthem to a woman so wonderful dandelions bloom in her footsteps ("Kate"), and the thundering return of Sledge's fuzz-tone bass in "Battle Of Who Could Care Less," maybe the sharpest verbal surgery ever performed on the tragically hip. ("Unearned unhappiness," indeed.)

The latter two songs are a perfect pair to represent the album's overall restless, moody feel. Folds is all over the map here -- from starry-eyed to disdainful, from single mikes to three-part harmonies. What holds the album together is his no-frills delivery and the essential rawness of the songs, whatever the emotion they're putting across. It's honest music, delivered with evident skill but virtually no pretension. In other words, ballsy to the core.

Rating: A-

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© 1998 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Sony Music, and is used for informational purposes only.