Saturday, May 8, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 1997


In 1997, Of Montreal released their first album, Cherry Peel. Cherry Peel was a very acoustic, playful album. "Tim, I Wish You Were Born a Girl" is funny and catchy and I kind of used it as the basis for a story I started working on. Their first album set the tone for maybe the next two albums, after which point, the songs got more complex and singer/songwriter Kevin Barnes started switching up the genre of the entire band every couple of years. Cherry Peel is notable for these reasons. But it's not my favorite album of 1997.

That honor is reserved for Whatever and Ever Amen by The Ben Folds Five.

Rock trio (yes, trio) The Ben Folds Five formed in 1993. Their first, self-titled album was released in 1995. After mostly positive reviews, they were signed to Epic Records for their second album, the aforementioned Whatever and Ever Amen. The title of the album comes from the song "Battle of Who Could Care Less," a criticism of the slacker culture of the early '90s. Bassist Robert Sledge explained in an interview with the Sodajerker on Songwriting podcast that people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina acted "like it's a competition who can be cooler and more indifferent. That was definitely a shared frustration between the band because like for me, I'm always striving to play really well and expand myself, but that's just not cool, at all." There has always been some degree of being cool being equated to not caring, from the greasers of the '50s/'60s to the hipsters of the '00s. It's nice to hear someone treat the uncaring as the uncool ones for once. 

Whatever also brings us one of the band's best-known songs, "Brick." The chorus of "Brick," written by drummer Darren Jessee can be applied to multiple situations one might feel in a relationship. The verse however only has one true meaning, deeply personal for Folds. Folds states on Ben Folds Live: "People ask me what this song's about... I was asked about it a lot, and I didn't really wanna make a big hairy deal out of it, because I just wanted the song to speak for itself. But the song is about when I was in high school, me and my girlfriend had to get an abortion, and it was a very sad thing. And, I didn't really want to write this song from any kind of political standpoint, or make a statement. I just wanted to reflect what it feels like. So, anyone who's gone through that before, then you'll know what the song's about."

Another cultural juggernaut on the album is "Song for the Dumped." Frequently requested live and often found on breakup playlists, the song comes closer than any other song to evoking the attitude of Harry Nilsson's "You're Breaking My Heart." Sidenote: I would love to hear Ben Folds cover "You're Breaking My Heart" (potential I've Got This Covered?). An early version of "Song for the Dumped" was included on the 1996 soundtrack for Mr. Wrong, a box office flop starring Ellen Degeneres.

"Kate" is a track about putting a woman on a pedestal, obsession, and know that joke about admiring someone so much that you just want to be them? That. "Kate" was written by Jessee, Folds, and Folds' future ex-wife, Anna Goodman. 

Future Folds collaborator, author Nick Hornby wrote about the song "Smoke" in his 2003 book, 31 Songs (which I just ordered because I don't know how the heck that book slipped under my radar).

Look at how glamourous I was as a
snowflake in my 1997 Christmas pageant.
Behind me: my friend Meg.
My relationship with this album started- you'll never guess this- in college. I got into Folds' songwriting after watching Over the Hedge in high school. I thought his name was a joke but that his lyrics were incredibly clever, and his tunes catchy. I picked up a couple of his albums at Amoeba Records and after that, it was on. 

"Battle of Who Could Care Less" was my jam for a while, although I'd be lying if I said I never blasted "Song for the Dumped" after my breakup. I swear that someday before I die, I have to hear a Muppets chicken chorus sing the chorus of "Fair." Of course, even though "Brick" isn't something I can relate to on a personal level, the chorus is a perfect fit every time you feel your partner's sadness dragging you down.

This album is a great mix of fantastic songwriting, funny lyrics, emotional moments, playful moments, and still a coherent album. If you missed the Ben Folds Five train, it's never too late to climb on board!

Let's throw it up on the leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album of 1998.

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