Ben Folds Five - The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner Ben Folds Five
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner

Ben Folds is an unlikely candidate for Gen X rock star he's showing a bit of a bald spot, plays the piano instead of the grunge guitar, and has made fun of things like "mosh pits" and "nose rings" in his songs.

Yet, over the past couple years, Folds has scored big radio hits with a somber piano-based song about the emotions behind abortion ("Brick") and GenXers ("Battle of Who Could Care Less").

Those songs came from the band's second album (and major label debut) Whatever and Ever Amen, which listened a little quieter and more refined than their raucous 1995 self-titled debut. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner continues that trend, relying even more than ever on Folds' piano, some accompanying strings and themes of melancholy.

While the instrumental backgrounds are big and grand-sounding here (thanks to a big studio budget), missing on this album is Folds' quirky sense of humor. Maybe he spent it all last year on his side-project CD, Fear of Pop. Past Ben Folds Five high-energy, high-humor songs like "Song for the Dumped" "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Silent Faces"and "Underground" have been the band's biggest crowd-pleasers over the past couple years, as the audience demonstrated last week when Folds & co. played a sold-out show at Chicago's Park West.

The Unauthorized ... doesn't really include an addition to that piano-rock-humor category; with the exception of the ivory-pounding "The Army," (which has a fun "saloon" piano solo and '70s horn break), this is a jazzy, lounge-y listening album with songs like "Regrets" (which rests on a cheesy synth bassline), "The Hospital Song" (a downer that features a dirge piano) and "Narcolepsy" (the album's opener that has some of Folds' best piano work, but most annoying lyrics.)

There's also a track of Folds' father talking about preserving your brain in "Your Most Valuable Possession"(taken from an answering machine). Throw out those last four songs in favor of some upbeat material and Ben Folds Five would have had a start on a really great record. As it stands, this one goes by unevenly, with some fine moments, and some painfully slow ones.

"The Army" probably stands as the album's best number, but it's followed closely by the one non-Folds penned song, drummer Darren Jesse's "Magic," an "Auld Lang Syne" kind of contemplative piano ballad about those who have "passed on."

It's supported with strings and timpani and a deftly drawn chorus: "Saw you last night/dance by the light of the moon/stars in your eyes/free from the life that you knew."

Folds' "Mess" is another perfectly drawn melancholy ballad. It's sort of a love letter to a past flame, the singer admitting that he has made a mess of his life and must own up to that, rather than blaming God or love for his mistakes: "There are rooms in this house that I don't open anymore/dusty books of pictures on the floor/that she will never see/she'll never see that part of me/I want to be for her what I could never be for you."

There are Burt Bacharach-sounding horns (courtesy of the Squirrel Nut Zippers) in another "goodbye lover" song, "Don't Change Your Plans." This song features some heart-wrenching Folds falsetto parts and, as many of The Unauthorized...'s tracks do, includes violinist Lorenza Ponce (who released a gorgeous solo album a couple years back on the now-defunct Angel label) and cellist Jane Scarpantoni (who seems to turn up on every rock disc needing a cellist including the Top 40 hit song "Your Ghost" by Kristen Hersh/Michael Stipe of a few years ago).

The triptych of "Don't Change Your Plans," "Mess" and "Magic" is incredibly powerful and shows the depth and breadth this band is capable of. After this early album section, however, the Biography gets a bit hit-and-miss.

"Army" rocks well, "Your Redneck Past" has a fun synth-bass and crashing drums freedom to it; "Jane" is a nice, laid-back, jazzy number about being yourself instead of trying to be some media image (a theme echoed in "Your Redneck Past"). The album closes with another ballad as strong as "Magic" "Lullabye," which includes some Billy Joel-influenced piano moments as well as gospel hand clap-inducing flourishes. It closes the album with one of Folds' most poetic lyrics: "Goodnight, goodnight/let the moonlight take the lid off your dreams."

Ultimately, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner includes some of Folds' best and worst work to date. Buy it for the former and use your CD player to program out the latter.


The Cars
The Cars - Deluxe Edition

When The Cars' self-titled debut was originally released, it wasn't an immediate hit ... but when it was all said and done, this album ended up serving as the first unofficial "Cars Greatest Hits" album.

FM radio was at a crossroads in 1978-79, merging New Wave pop from acts like Blondie with classic rock from Foreigner and Styx with the remnants of disco.

Eventually DJs jumped all over The Cars' "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," "Just What I Needed," "You're All I've Got Tonight," "Bye Bye Love" and even, occasionally, "I'm In Touch With Your World" and "Moving In Stereo."

The Cars is one of those classic debut albums like Boston's Boston, where every track was perfectly formed and undeniably catchy.

Straddling the line between New Wave punkishness and classic rock, The Cars were the right band in the right place at the right time in 1978.

They would go on to have 18 hits before disbanding a decade later and would score higher charting hit singles with "Drive" and "Shake It Up" in the '80s. But The Cars may well be their best overall album, and certainly the one which shaped a whole new sound for pop radio.

This re-release is especially notable because of its second disc, a collection of rare demos from the period.

The first nine tracks are the demos of the songs that made the cut for The Cars (except for "Good Times Roll" which was recorded live after the album's release). These are the songs that got The Cars their record deal, and it's interesting to hear the subtle differences between the polished studio versions and the original demos mostly in the background vocals department. Two of these demos actually received substantial airplay in Boston which is what led to the band's record deal. There are also a handful of other demos recorded during this time that have remained previously unreleased that appeared as staples in early Cars' live performances.


3 Colours Red

It opens with a gentle guitar strum and plaintive croon ... but within a minute the chainsaw slam of angry guitars pounds away and the real spirit of 3 Colours Red reveals itself.

These guys rock sometimes abrasively but always with a strong sense of hook and harmony. If you miss the strong melodic sense of Seattle's The Posies, you need to hear this record.

"This Is My Time" opens the disc with warm guitar strums before rocking out; "Pirouette" follows, a perfect Q101 grinder; and then comes "Beautiful Day," which again shows this is a band that knows how to mix a soft touch with a hammer follow-through. "Beautiful Day" allows a contingent of strings in the back door to support a big rock ballad as they sing of longing: "I just want to spend some time with you ... on a beautiful day."

The disc stays strong throughout, but it's two-thirds of the way through that it delivers its best offering the bass and guitar riff-heavy "Paralyse" which features shouting background vocals and a fist-shaking depend-on-yourself chorus: "Lies that paralyse/Don't step on me man, look at your own skies ... add no surprise/I get the feeling that it's me and the sunrise."

Add this one to your "kick out the jams" play list.