You get the feeling that ben Folds, the pianist, vocalist and songwriter who leads the trio known as Ben Folds Five, just can't help himself sometimes. A student of Brian Wilson, the Beatles and Todd Rundgren, he wants every minute of his music to be irresistible. His eponymous 1995 debut was almost an endurance test: How many giddy hooks and candy-coated refrains and bursts of pianistic fury could one song stand?
If "Kate" and the other slices of perfection on the follow-up Whatever and Ever Amen are any indication, Folds, now 30, hasn't exactly mellowed. An "Ob-La-Di"-style circus march, "Kate" rhapsodizes over a girl who "plays 'Wipeout' on the drums" and is so magical that "you can see daisies in her footsteps." The chorus "I wanna be Kate," shouted with aerobics-class zeal is followed by a schmaltzy interlude that's either good Liberace or bad Gershwin. Just when it seems that Folds has fallen headfirst into rococoland, along comes redemption in the form of a Beatlesque "oh-la-la" vocal chorale. By the time it's over, "Kate" isn't about a girl, it's a shrine to all the pop classics ever inspired by a girl.
That's what makes Folds so interesting: He can serve the history straight or give it a postmodern double-meaning twist, devote himself to pathos-filled Rachmaninoff arpeggios or crank up a sassy "Honky Cat" boogaloo without sounding like he's reaching. The fast-maturing Folds has written another batch of sweet songs and supports each with disciplined, downright patient arrangements. After a while, it's easy to hear why Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, in a rare endorsement, sings about having "Ben Folds on my radio." This is about as close to bliss as the radio gets. (RS 758)
(Posted: Mar 17, 1997)
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