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The notorious thing about the "college rock" I grew up on, over a decade ago, the same time Ben Folds was gestating in the university nexus of Chapel Hill, was that college kids by and large hated it. Too willfully marginal: too drop-out. Ben Folds Five, like Chapel Hill's Squirrel Nut Zippers, and not like Chapel Hill's Superchunk or Archers of Loaf, is rock for the real college audience, plus or minus a few years. Meaning fun to the point of corny, clever without requiring that its audience be hipsters, admittedly on the make and willing to pay later. Also meaning record sales. Ritually mocking the clichés of subculture, as on "Underground," or "Battle of Who Could Care Less," or now "Your Redneck Past," has long been Folds's stock-in-trade.
That's because he acts out a different position on the social map, not one of the arty rebels but the clown who breaks from the margins by making everyone like him (as in his new song "Regrets"), and then isn't sure what he stands for. The worst case I ever saw was Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies, who'd call himself a pathetic runt in concert, get everyone singing "Fuck-ing shit-ty" to the tune of "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," and even rag on his own testicles. There's rarely that level of self-deprecation about Folds, though he did write "One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces" about getting beat up after class. His payback fantasy isn't Littleton, it's living large and in charge: the dwarf song's chorus goes "If you really want to see me/Check your papers and the T.V./Look who's tellin who what to do." In the poignant moments he regularly and more surprisingly achieves, his failure fantasy surrenders that control, as in the institutionalized "Eddie Walker" or "Boxing," where Muhammad Ali tells Howard Cosell about losing his greatness. On 1997's Whatever and Ever Amen, Folds, emotionally strip-mined by his girlfriend's abortion in "Brick," next cut hurls out "Song for the Dumped": "Give me my money back/You bitch." Such a crowd pleaser.
I giggled too, for a while, at Irving Plaza last Wednesday. A novelty trio Folds on baby grand piano and melodica; Robert Sledge on fuzz bass and f/x keyboard; Darren Jessee's drum kit more like a playpen, with tympani and orchestra gong BF5 sell their good times with a frothiness that borders on the maniacal. Folds pounds boogie barrelhouse standing up and makes faces; Sledge and Jessee play equally heavy, deliberately like an overripe metal band. Plus more backing oh-ohs and ah-ahs than any group I can remember this minute. The audience, committed cultists, made two-handed Ws to cue "Who Could Care Less" 's "whatever and ever amen" part. "Underground" kicks off with arch vocals by Jessee and then Sledge, who lies on the piano making eyes at Folds. Bits, they got bits! Not as good as Barenaked Ladies bits, but slightly better songs! Still, by the time the overlong "Fair" came up 10 songs in, I was ready for something besides another cup of bug juice made from sugary concentrate.
Folds is way ahead of me. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, released last week, mostly throws out the showboating, or at least finds new forms for it. "Narcolepsy" is a tightly composed piano piece that explodes at intervals in a perfect fusion of classical and rock conventions; "Hospital Song" attempts the rare gesture of setting up a scenario lyrically and then, instead of resolving it with another verse, letting a musical passage do that work. "Don't Change Your Plans" pays homage to Burt Bacharach with a muted horn section, inspired by the group's role as representative of the younger generation on the Bacharach TV tribute last year. But the song wears its period clothing to reinforce the mood of emotional numbness, with hearty strokes of dated lyricism like the way Folds croons "The leaves are falling back east." The confidence and pleasurability here must stem from his being a keyboardist: between Tori Amos, Quasi, and Sarah Dougher's work with Cadallaca it's the only instrument anyone in rock seems to enjoy playing lately. Maybe that's because it's not so tapped out: Folds draws rock conclusions from classical, from waltzing rhythms, and from the piano-saturated schlock-pop songbook. As Imperial Teen say with different intent, he's a fan of Liberace too.
Reinhold Messner's concept album grandeur doesn't give BF5 and fans much to drool over, save for "Your Redneck Past" and the first single, "Army," which begins "Well I thought about the army/Dad said 'son you're fucking high' " and gets more demented from there. Ben Folds Five played it on Letterman with a middle-aged horn section chosen for goofy looks; Folds rewrote the ending to go "I thought about your mommy." Ever the clown, but that's all right: he's too intricate in his words and orchestrations to be dismissed, too serious about his manner of not taking himself seriously. At 32 he's got two ex-wives and he's still rooted in the under-21 set (Reinhold Messner was a name Jessee used ages ago for his fake ID), such a cheesehead he couldn't resist getting William Shatner to sing on his solo album last year, but now he tells the world with utter conviction on "Mess" that he doesn't believe in God. There's a lot of pride in that mewl of his, and the funniest thing is, there should be.