Music of Bens recalls what has been and what will always be

Ben Folds Five
Whatever and Ever Amen
(550 Music/Caroline)


"Got nowhere but home to go/
got Ben Folds on my radio right now"
—Counting Crows, "Monkey"

It's not unusual for artists to immortalize each other in song. But usually, the artist honored is someone that has been around long enough to be household names. Probably most of the listeners who've bought Counting Crows' current LP don't have a clue who Ben Folds is or why he would be on Adam Duritz's radio. But they should. Whatever and Ever Amen is a CD well worth seeking out.

It takes guts to lead off an album with a song called "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces." It also takes a kind of bravery to place a piano as the leading edge of your rock band. But Ben Folds and the Ben Folds Five — of which there are actually only three — pull off both of those things and more on their major label debut (they've released music independently and been an underground buzz for a couple years now, hence Counting Crows' reference).

Whatever and Ever Amen is a rich, often unpolished, rock record with spunk, style and heart. It's a disc with one foot planted firmly in the '70s (lots of falsetto backup vocals) while the other is on the cutting edge of '90s independent, do-it-yourself alternative rock. Ben Folds Five use the studio as an instrument, much as Jellyfish did, to meld various vocal tricks and instruments together into cohesive patterns of beautiful noise.

As a singer, Folds falls somewhere in the smooth, trembly tenor range of bands like Bad Examples, Squeeze and Jellyfish. And he's equally poetic as a lyricist, tossing off lines like "she's a brick and I'm drowning slowly/off the coast and I'm headed nowhere" in the emotional piano ballad "Brick." He also has a great sense of humor, as in the opening tale of a dwarf who finally gets the upper hand over his lifelong taunters or in "Song for the Dumped" about a guy who gets told by his girlfriend after dinner that she wants to "take a break/slow it down some and have some space." His response: "I want my money back/and don't forget to give me back my black t-shirt."

Folds et al move easily through drum-pounding, horn-punctuated jazz "Stevens Last Night in Town" to contemplative lounge trio material like "Selfless, Cold and Composed," which features light-brushed symbols and strings. They also know how to craft perfect singalong pop-rock; halfway through the disc the band offers its best song, the chorus-chanting "Kate" about a girl who "never gets wet/she smiles and it's a rainbow...she's everything I want/she's everything I'm not." Mixing 1960's era "oooh-la-la"'s, falsettos and classy piano riffs with a grooving bassline, "Kate" rates as one of the catchiest tracks released so far this year.

Whatever and Ever Amen loses points for occasionally descending into songs that ramble on, but more often then not, this is an album of right-on rock that mixes the sounds of something old, something new, some jazz borrowed and some sung blue.

 

Ben Vaughn
Rambler 65
(Rhino)
½


Ben Vaughn deserves points on this album simply for the recording concept: Rambler 65 was created on an 8-track recorder inside Vaughn's (yep) 1965 AMC Rambler. Naturally this made for a more "low-fi" feel, but Vaughn capitalized on the concept and the recording environment by choosing 10 original "throwback" songs to record there; tunes that would have sounded right at home on the airwaves in the year his "recording studio" was manufactured. Vaughn, by the way, does the theme music for TV's "Third Rock From The Sun" and "Men Behaving Badly," so this sort of musical eccentricity should probably be expected.

The first track is also Rambler 65's best: "7 Days Without Love" is an infectious, toe-tapping Dave Edmunds kind of rockabilly tune, heavy on processed vocals and walking basslines. That's followed by "Levitation,"which features a sitar solo (the only instrument Vaughn didn't play himself on the record). Things go off the beam a bit here with "Song For You," backed by a cheesy synthesized drum and revolving around a sentiment that Elton John expressed more melodically a couple decades ago. "Heavy Machinery" gets old quick too as it uses the engine sound of the Rambler and repetitive "factory-like" percussion to back up an otherwise static song ("I'm talking heavy machinery, baby, when it comes to my love," he sings over and over).

Things shift back into forward (albeit retro) gear on "Boomerang," which boasts a rollerskating rink cha-cha-cha-ing organ and an authentic early '60s kind of lyric:

"You hit me with a loving that was oh so strong
there was nothing else that I could do
boomerang, you send your love to me
and I send it right back to you."

Another "classic" sounding organ backs up the jangling guitars of "Rock is Dead," a prophetic musical celebration of rock's demise which supports this frightening scenario: "now that rock is dead...there's just a blank space on your TV where the music channel used to be/the writers and critics all agree/we'll never make it to the 21st century."

Not only is rock still alive and well, but Ben Vaughn is busy resurrecting the ghost of rock's early years to boot.