In this series of blogs, I will document a selection of albums that were pivotal in shaping my musical journey. I will focus on what made these albums special to me, as opposed to what makes them special in music, cultural or any other terms. Of course, every album I discuss can be considered as recommended listening, however, please keep in mind that whilst these albums are special to me, that doesn't mean they're particularly special and/or unique in their own right (although in most cases, I would argue that they are!).
Artist: Ben Folds Five
Album: Whatever And Ever Amen
Genre: Alternative Rock
Ben Folds - Piano, lead vocals, electric piano, melodica
Darren Jessee - Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Robert Sledge - Bass guitar, double bass, backing vocals
John Catchings - Cello on 5 and 12
Alicia Svigals - Violin on 9
Matt Darriau - Clarinet on 9
Frank London - Trumpet on 9
Caleb Southern - Hammond organ on 3
Norwood Cheek - Synthesiser space sound on 1
Caleb Southern - Producer, Engineer
Ben Folds - Producer, Engineer
Andy Wallace - Mixing
Steve Sisco - Mixing Assistant
Howie Weinberg - Mastering
John Mark Painter - String arrangements
Leigh Smiler - Cover Design
Chris Stamey - Pro-Tools
The Klezmatics - Special Contributor
As mentioned in my previous Albums That Made Me article, when it came to music, I was somewhat of a loner in my teens. My musical interests were very far removed from anything my friends and peers were listening to, and Ben Folds Five was a major part of that!
As an aspiring pianist and songwriter, I felt adrift in a world of gangster rap, euro-house and indie-rock. Therefore, discovering Ben Folds Five at the age of 15 was somewhat of a watershed moment as, for the first time, I'd found a contemporary band, full of teenage, punky angst and attitude, that I could properly relate to.
I tend to describe Ben Folds Five as 90s indie punk rock with piano instead of guitar. They're not really punky in a musical sense, however when it comes to the punk sentiment of "zero f***'s given", they definitely meet the requirements.
Ben Fold Five were completely different to anything else at the time; so different that it would be easier to list what they had in common with their peers, as opposed to how they differed from them. In some ways they embody the sass of a good jazz trio. They can be small, intimate, inviting, yet also enormous, devastating, instrumentally-virtuoso monsters. One moment they'll be rocking hard, with distorted, overdriven bass, thrashing drums and super aggressive hammering on the piano, and the next moment, they'll break into a jazzy 5/4 swing, or a sweetly melancholic passage of music with a string quartet. This diversity and broad scope of arrangement coupled with (often humorous) song lyrics that were very story-orientated really captured my imagination.
Initially, I was struck by the energy, enthusiasm and flashy piano playing (as an aspiring pianist). I went hard on transcribing and learning to play all the solos. I wanted to play as fast, as hard and as flashy as Ben Folds. But as time went by, I started looking passed the obvious flash-points and noticing just how tightly and richly arranged things were.
The interplay between Darren Jessee on drums and Robert Sledge on bass is simply fantastic. They're a prime example of a locked-in, rock rhythm section. The backing vocals are very lush, with traces of The Beach Boys in their use of close harmonies and key-modulations (semi-tonal stuff, diminished chords and so on). Additional instrumentation, although sparingly used, is very effective, such as the fun, almost cheeky clarinet on Steven's Last Night In Town, and the emotive strings on the slower ballads. There are many more wonderful aspects of the arrangements and diversity on this album, and I could write for hours about every detail, but the proof is in the listening, so just give it a listen!
This album showed me that learning the piano in the 90s wasn't completely out of touch with modern music (which, honestly, it often felt like it was, as everyone I knew wanted to be a DJ, rapper or guitarist). In this album, I could hear the lineage of things like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but also hear contemporary attitudes and sentiments, which, for the teenager that I was in the 90s, brought with it a strong sense of validation.
In a musical way, this album helped me re-contextualise some of the jazz I'd been studying, and deepened my understanding of chord extensions and inversions. It switched me on to the familiar pianist notion that, just because the lead sheet says C, or G, or whatever, there's nothing to stop the pianist from sticking some 2s, 4s, 6s, 7s, 9s, 11s, 13s, etc, in to the voicing. Lastly, it taught me that it was possible to be cool and rock hard without guitars!
I quickly became a Ben Folds Five super-fan, collecting all of their releases and to this day, I still keep a close eye on their output, both as the band and their individual solo projects. In a world awash with indie rock bands that share very similar stylings and tropes, Ben Folds Five remain (for me) one of the most interesting, unique and distinctive three-piece rock bands out there.