In the Barry Levinson film Diner, one of the characters insists that his fiancee pass a quiz on pro football before he'll marry her. If your thing is music rather than sports, Ben Folds Five might just be the band for a similar prenuptial litmus test, thanks to their wacky and meticulous substance-over-style credo.
On tour, the trio travels in a U-Haul truck because that's the easiest way to move bandleader Ben Folds's thousand-pound Baldwin baby grand; ask him about the convenience of synthesizers, and he'll only say he's heard of them. There is truth to the rumor, by the way, that Folds lent his voice to an episode of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. And yes, the band has recorded a version of one of rock's preeminent nerd anthems, the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star."
Then there's the fact that Ben Folds Five is a rock band without a guitar player. But before you start having Billy Joel flashbacks, try picturing Christie Brinkley's ex-squeeze singing -- as Folds does on last year's Whatever and Ever Amen CD -- "Give me my money back / You bitch." Other Whatever tracks reference the Rockford Files and dialogue between Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell, while on another, Folds admits he "was never cool in school / And now it's been ten years / Hand me my nose ring."
So no, this isn't the soppy piano pop of yore, nor the "alternative" rock of many a sound-alike guitar band one week away from hawking denim in a Gap television spot. Ben Folds Five is a whole lot better -- and weirder -- than that. Ben Folds owes more to Cole Porter than to, say, Elton John, but it's Porter by way of the Clash.
While the band has its occasional quiet and introspective moments, the majority of their songs rock out; as a live act, they're loud and raucous. Most of the band's cultural allusions date to the '70s, and they raid the decade's music as well. They manage to suggest influences from Jesus Christ Superstar to Queen to the Sex Pistols while not really sounding like any of them, as they look back with nostalgia and more than a little post-punk irony.
When they started out in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee couldn't get arrested. No one quite knew what to make of the Five who were always three; whose frontman liked to dive into his piano during shows; who never knew a Skynyrd tune they didn't like; whose backing vocals were cribbed from the Partridge Family. And yet, against all odds -- or at least the homogenizing trends of the music biz -- Ben Folds Five continues to move product.
After the warm critical reception bestowed on their self-titled 1995 debut, the Five left the independent Caroline label for broader commercial horizons on Sony/550. As of last week, the Whatever single "Brick" was number eight on the modern rock charts, its highest position since the disc was released in mid-'97. The just-released Naked Baby Photos -- consisting of outtakes, live tracks and demos -- has joined Whatever on the Billboard Top 100. Not bad for three geeks and one very heavy piano. Oh, and remember to grill your significant other after the show.
-- Seth Hurwitz
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Ben Folds Five performs Thursday, February 12, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. For info, call 629-3700.
Robbie Fulks -- There's nothing alternative about the country of Robbie Fulks. From Bakersfield twang to chiming, guitar-driven Southern rock to saucy Texas swing, Fulks demonstrates an uncluttered sensibility that's true to the humble roots of C&W. He uses tragedy and humor, honky-tonk and murder ballads to maximum effect, tracing the characters that occupy his latest release, South Mouth, with a fine line and few words. And he doesn't mince words. On "Fuck This Town," Fulks raves against the current state of affairs in Nashville as he relates his own unpleasant experiences there, cutting to the quick with lines like "Shook a lot of hands, ate a lot of lunch and wrote a lot of dumb-ass songs / But I couldn't get a break in Nashville, if I tried my whole life long." Judging by sentiments like that, it's safe to say Fulks is the future of country music. One can only wonder why the folks in Music City didn't see him coming. Opening for Ben Folds Five on Thursday, February 12, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. 629-3700. (Jim Caligiuri)
The Damned -- Because founding punk cohorts and master media manipulators the Sex Pistols got more publicity and -- to this day -- more name recognition, it's easy to forget that the Damned actually beat them to the punch on several fronts. That list includes first U.K. punk single (1976's "New Rose"), first record (1977's Damned, Damned, Damned), first chart appearance and first band to play New York's fabled CBGB's nightclub. In true punk fashion, the Damned didn't take long to self-destruct. Then they'd simply get back together and break up again, pretty much following that pattern for the next 20 years. And while the players came and went, original vocalist Dave Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible have hung in there through it all. Few artists age less gracefully than punks. So get those gobs of spit ready: Daddy's home, and he's still pissed off. On Tuesday, February 17, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $13. Tura Satana and Man Will Surrender open. 863-7173. (Bob Ruggiero