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Back in the Folds

[whitespace] Ben Folds Five
More Than the Sum of the Parts: It takes a trio (from left, Robert Sledge, Ben Folds and Darren Jessee) to make Ben Folds Five.

Ben Folds Five evokes a soul-free era

By Gina Arnold

BEN FOLDS IS THE KIND of guy who wears Henry Fonda cardigan sweaters and listens to a lot of lounge music. He's hardly hit 30, but he probably drives a car with a bench front seat. It's a pose, of course--but both the man's music and his physical self make him seem as if he grew old before his time.

Pianist Folds, who heads the trio Ben Folds Five, must be secretly longing for the days before baggy pants and hip-hop took over the universe. Unfortunately, as simple and as appealing as those times--and, by analogy, Folds' music--seem in retrospect, they had their downside as well. It was a time, for example, when white men ruled both the world and the airwaves. The subtext of Ben Folds Five's jazzy, piano-laden modern-rock evocation of the Elton John-Billy Joel-Neil Diamond-Carole King era of music is reminiscent of those soul-free vanilla times.

It's pretty soft stuff--which is not a criticism so much as a mere comment on the type of musical sensibility that will enjoy it. Anyone who likes early Todd Rundgren, Firefall or even John Tesh will like Ben Folds Five.

Folds' beautiful, ultrawordy songs are, however, far less romantic than those of his musical forebears, and that's what puts him in the modern-rock bin at the record store. Indeed, he is very much a post-baby boom kind of guy, and as befits a child of the '90s, he speaks in his songs of everyday things like watching reruns of Rockford Files, scoring some pot and taking his girlfriend to the clinic for an abortion. It's not exactly Billy Joel territory, but it's what makes Ben Folds Five's music more interesting than its sources.

At least it used to. Perhaps deliberately, the group's latest album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (550 Music), stays away from the '90s-loaded topics of the EP Brick and song "The Battle of Who Could Care Less," but the result is not very inspired.

In the record company-provided background notes, Folds admits that he wrote much of the material in the studio. Sadly, it sounds that way. (At one point in these notes, he even says, "I was sitting around the house freaking out because I don't have any songs, and we had spent something like $250,000 in the studio already.") That Folds has pulled together as much good stuff as he has on the album is a tribute to his talent as a musician, but Reinhold Messner can't be called his finest moment.

THERE ARE SOME highlights. "Don't Change Your Plans" is a nice ballad, and so is the heavily produced "Mess," on which Folds daringly admits, Folds-like, "I don't believe in God." But the best things about Ben Folds Five are definitely musical, not lyrical.

The wonderful first full minute of the record, the instrumental introduction to the otherwise tired song "Narcolepsy," makes that abundantly clear. As a pure musician, Folds beats hell out of almost everyone, but his personal sensibility is a big downer--and never more so than on this album. He truly seems to have nothing to say, a creative void that could be the inevitable result of being in a highly successful rock band that's always on tour.

"Hospital Song" offers some slow and uninteresting musings on being in the hospital. Along with "Regrets," it pretty much mocks bad jazz (which doesn't really need mocking). "Magic" is an easy-listening song that could easily belong in the Seals and Crofts back catalog.

Only when Folds drops into the vernacular--as on "Your Redneck Past" and "Army"--does he escape the curse of KLOK. Elsewhere, the banality of his thoughts mars an otherwise accomplished work. On those two songs, however, Folds writes the kind of stream-of-conscious narrative that filled his wonderful first record, Whatever and Ever Amen.

"Your Redneck Past" tells a tale about beating your background ("Who do you want to be?" he asks, rhetorically, "Billy Idol or Kool Moe Dee?"), while "Army" equates joining the Army with joining a band and is full of the subjunctive mood and idiomatic phrases before it degenerates in a less than exciting chorus. Sadly, the two songs, which are the best lyrically, aren't the best musically.

The whole record is riddled with masses of harmonies and horns--borrowed from Chapel Hill peers the Squirrel Nut Zippers--and they're almost always a bit obtrusive. All too soon the record devolves into filler--including an unfortunate track that uses a message from Folds' father, which he lifted one morning from his answering machine. No doubt Folds loves his father dearly, but this isn't really something we should be asked to listen to along with him.

Folds is also an inveterate lick-lifter, although it's often hard to pinpoint his exact sources. The beginning of "Don't Change Your Plans" sounds uncannily like "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (of all things), and the horn break is from Burt Bacharach. Everything else vaguely recalls various familiar moments straight out of one's parents' record collection.

Reinhold Messner can't be called a bad record, because Ben Folds himself is too talented to really put out crap, but at best it serves as a holding pattern. It is also an acquired taste--interesting only to fans of soft classic-rock hits, '40s vocal jazz greats and possibly even fans of musical comedy.

Incidentally, the name of the record refers to a famous mountaineer, although Ben Folds and his bandmates, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge, claim they didn't know this until they named the record: they were referring instead to an "anonymous" name much used on fake IDs in their hometown. Like much of Folds' work, this little detail is intimate and obscure but, finally, somewhat baffling. It demonstrates an innate carelessness that may explain the band's inability to carve out its very own unassailable place in modern rock.

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From the May 6-12, 1999 issue of Metro.

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