The Battle For Everything

Five For Fighting

Aware Records, 2004

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


One of my more mercurial colleagues at my day job is fond of declaring "I feel strongly both ways" (he actually had a t-shirt made…). After giving this album room in my CD changer for a few weeks, I have a much keener understanding of where he's coming from.

Five For Fighting more or less is John Ondrasik, singer, songwriter, piano and guitar player and all-around wunderkind. And The Battle For Everything is Five For Fighting's long-awaited follow-up to 2000's America Town, the disc that catapulted Ondrasik into the spotlight courtesy of "Superman (It's Not Easy)," an out-of-the-blue hit whose wistful/vulnerable tone seemed to touch a nerve in post-9/11 America.

There is much to love about this album. Ondrasik has a great feel for arrangements, stacking harmonies and filling out his rolling piano and rhythmic acoustic guitar playing with big, bold soundscapes of strings and echo and electric guitar and his own swerving-in-and-out-of-falsetto vocals. Tracks like "NYC Weather Report," "The Devil In The Wishing Well" and "One More For Love" shake and shimmer with an energy and innate sense of drama that takes you back to the best work of '70s piano men like Billy Joel and Elton John.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

As "Superman" showed, Ondrasik has a gift for crafting memorable melodies. And indeed, last time I looked, this album's first single "100 Years" was still perched at the top of the adult contemporary charts. It's a standout cut that waxes philosophical about how fast time goes by and how we struggle -- or should struggle -- to grasp every moment. I still get a wave of nostalgia every time after dozens of listens to this track.

To his credit, Ondrasik and his FFF colleagues Curt Schneider (bass) and Andrew Williams (guitars) mix things up in the middle section of the disc, trying out a little roots-funk with "Angels & Girlfriends" and "Infidel," and going heavier on "The Taste." The production -- by Bill Bottrell on all but two tracks helmed by Gregg Wattenberg -- is clean and spacious throughout, lending the songs the panoramic scope Ondrasik's approach demands.

Still, something bothered me about this album listen after listen. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I was listening to something else entirely -- "The Luckiest," an amazing piano ballad off Ben Folds' Rockin' The Suburbs disc. "The Luckiest" is simple, raw and utterly beautiful in a way that Five For Fighting seems incapable of duplicating.

Here's the problem: from all appearances, Ondrasik is a wunderkind who knows he's a wunderkind. No matter how much deadly earnest sincerity he pours into these tracks, he's so self-consciously determined to WRITE GREAT BIG MEANINGFUL SONGS that much of his material comes out sounding not grand, but grandiose.

The pinnacle of Ondrasik's self-admiration is "If God Made You," where he somehow thinks the poetic license of an airy love song will allow the line "If God made you, he's in love with me" not to make the listener gag. Uh, wrong. And then there's "Maybe I," a song in which -- according to the lyric sheet -- he sings the word "I" at least 41 times in four-plus minutes, without a hint of embarrassment.

He also manages to get through a song all about Disneyland with a straight face, even the part where he's dreaming that he's Peter Pan flying over Neverland, where "the crocs sing 'Superman' till we can't take it." Yeah, um, nice song and all, John, but I think it's a touch early to be treating it like an ageless standard.

So there you have it. There's a lot to love here, and more than a little to raise the eyebrows. It's true: I feel strongly both ways. Maybe you will, too.

Rating: B

User Rating: B



© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Aware Records, and is used for informational purposes only.