Formed in 1994 in the keyboard-unfriendly environs of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Ben Folds Five started out with one big advantage over rival piano-led rock quintents; there were only three of them. Inspired by Nirvana's sinewy example ("They were great! It was like having The Who or someone around again"), this was a power trio with not an ounce of spare fat.
Already lean and hungry from making repayments on Ben Fold's baby grand piano: Folds, bass-player Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee grew ever leaner and hungrier from carrying it up and down the stairs into smokey after-hours juke-joints. Not since Jimi Hendrix' Band of Gypsies had a three piece sounded so sweet. And they proved it with a barnstorming live cover of 'Crosstown Traffic' - in the long and proud tradition of piano-led Hendrix covers, this one stood alone.
Signed to Caroline records, the Fives first single - the sublimely sarcastic anti-underground piano anthem 'Underground' - broke into the UK top 40 in late summer 1996. Even the enthusiastic patronage of Chris Evans' Radio One Breakfast Show could not diminish this songs toxic allure. All of a sudden Alice in Chains and Shed Seven were no longer hip - Billy Joel and Steven Sondheim were the new names to drop. And with the release of Ben Folds Fives irresistable eponymous debut album, a generation too young to know the joy of Elton John's 'Captain Fantastic' was soon learning to play the air piano.
Before you could say "Jools Holland is Satan's envoy," Ben Folds Five were massive in Japan. Returning to Europe in triumph in the summer of '96, the band ripped up the Reading Festival and signed to Sony. But anyone afraid that success and a second marriage might have diluted Ben Folds' acidic wit will take comfort from some of the titles on their second album 'Whatever and Ever Amen.'
'One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,' 'Missing the War,' 'Song for the Dumped' - is this more of the delightfully acerbic story - telling that made Ben Folds Five a set text for GCSE Bitter and Twisted. "There's a little more 'I' going on in the new songs probably" Folds explains. "It was good to get a feeling of a story, but people weren't understanding how personal it was. And I wanted to prove that I could still be a valid songwriter without having to be so fucking clever all the time."
"It's pretty ambitious musically as well" he continues. "One song will have fuzz-bass and a polka band, the next will have a string section, and then there'll be one with our band as it normally is - just the basic piano, bass and drums."
The magnificently petty 'Song for the Dumped' and the anti-cool 'Battle of Who Could Care Less' pick up where 'Where's Summer B?' and 'Underground' left off, but the parts of 'Whatever and Ever Amen' that Folds is happiest with are the ones where his band go places their debut couldn't reach. Songs like 'Brick' and 'Evaporated' are so personal that their author "prefers not to be in the same room when people are listening to them."
Isn' that going to make them playing them live a bit of a problem? "In a funny way, when you're playing live, you aren't in the same room." The six months this man once spent playing every instrument in the Broadway production of 'Buddy' were not wasted, because this album is one addictive pleasure you don't have to feel guilty about.
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