20 Years Ago: Ben Folds Five Break Through with ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’
With their 1995 self-titled debut, Ben Folds Five earned a cult following and a shot at mainstream stardom — an opportunity they made the most of with their sophomore outing, 1997's Whatever and Ever Amen.
During any other decade, the indie pop piano trio's major-label signing would have been promptly followed by efforts to hook the band up with a big-name producer, add some Top 40 shine to their sound and knock a few hits out of the multi-platinum park. But Folds, drummer Darren Jessee, and bassist Robert Sledge found their moment in the mid-'90s, when lo-fi was a badge of honor and pop radio still had some room for left-field quirk. The company signing the checks changed, but when the Five entered the studio in the fall of 1996 to record their Epic debut, they hewed fairly closely to the fuzzy, melody-first aesthetic of its predecessor.
This was partly accomplished by sticking close to home — literally. Instead of decamping to a big-budget studio in Los Angeles or New York, the band stayed in Chapel Hill, N.C., opting to convert Folds' house into a home studio and track the album there. "It just felt right to do it at home," Folds told Drop D. "You aren't aware of the rules you're breaking at home. You turn the recorders and mikes on and just start playing. We didn't want to approach the album like, 'We're on a major label now, so let's make a lobotomized, hugely blown-up version of our first record that would sound good on modern rock radio.' We wanted to make a record that sounded good to us."
Sharing the boards with local producer Caleb Southern, the band set about filling that brief by assembling a dozen-song set that ran the gamut presented on the Ben Folds Five LP while going a step further. The Five's sound remained substantially the same at its core, with Folds' vocals and piano leading Jessee and Sledge's rhythm section, but they'd undeniably matured between releases. At home with a profanity-laced uptempo track or a tender ballad, the group sharpened its compositional weapons, juggling irony and honesty with equal aplomb.
After toying with a handful of potential names for the new record, the band settled on a title that perfectly summed up the half-shrug, half-hug of its musical outlook: Whatever and Ever Amen. Released March 18, 1997, Whatever showed off the Five's growth with its opening four tracks, jumping from the percussive snark of opener "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" to the lilting post-breakup lament of "Fair" and the heavy regret of "Brick" — then right back around to the proudly immature jilted lover's anthem "Song for the Dumped."
All in all, it wasn't the most commercial album Epic released in 1997, but the Ben Folds Five's tunefully left-of-center sound was right for the time. Folds' sweet vocals and hummable tunes hooked listeners disaffected by the grunge wave earlier in the decade, and the lack of affectation in the band's sound fit in with a younger generation of emerging rock acts. After Whatever scored a few modest modern rock hits, "Brick" gave them their first — and, to date, last — Top 40 hit on the way to spurring a million in sales.
In the late '90s, a platinum record wasn't necessarily the huge deal it is in today's diminished music industry, but the breakthrough the Ben Folds Five experienced with Whatever and Ever Amen was still enough to nudge the fledgling group off its axis. Emboldened by its success to branch out creatively, they further tested their boundaries with the follow-up effort, 1999's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner — and when that album failed to match the sales or radio success of its predecessor, the band splintered before finishing their fourth LP.
Still, even as Folds went on to an eclectic and periodically acclaimed solo career, the alchemy he'd created with Jessee and Sledge remained a touchstone for a generation of fans, and calls for a reunion never really went away. After roughly a decade apart, they finally managed to find their way back together for a tour and a new album, 2012's Top 10 The Sound of the Life of the Mind. While they drifted back into hiatus after wrapping up their promotional obligations for that LP, that belated second act proved their bond remained strong — as did the sonic template they explored with Whatever and Ever Amen.
"We were doing something that no one else was doing," Folds reflected years later in conversation with Paste. "I’m moving a baby grand piano around in a van. Someone had to step up and take a real piano into punk rock clubs. There’s always a rocker on the piano every decade. There was nobody doing it at the time. So that was us. We did it."
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