Ben Folds Five
Whatever and Ever Amen

If there's a reason Morphine and the Presidents of the United States of America sound so tiresome on their latest efforts, it's that clever instrumentation has a short shelf life. For the record, it took the Presidents just two CDs, and Morphine four, to reach the point of self-parody. Ben Folds is following a Presidential path; on his second CD, he's nearly there.

With Whatever and Ever Amen, Folds has recorded a minor variant on his self-titled 1995 debut, which was a charming introduction to the guitarless trio concept. It was easy to argue that the first CD's piano-bass-drums shtick entitled Folds to more than a "new Billy Joel" tag. But as Whatever unfolds, it's easy to see Folds conceding defeat, nervously overcompensating for the six-string void by hitting his keys harder and harder, playing more forgettable fills than virile leads.

Luckily for Folds, he's occasionally capable of staving off the musical misgivings with clever songwriting. Unfortunately, on Whatever, Folds's best moments of wit ("Kate," "Battle of Who Could Care Less") too quickly expose themselves as breezy kitsch. Folds fares best on the near-metallic "Song for the Dumped," telling a former lover to "give me the money back, you bitch." But could that also be what CD buyers are going to be telling Folds a year and a half from now when he tries to pass this record off a third time? (** 1/2)

-- Andy Langer

The Ben Folds Five performs Wednesday, April 16, at the Urban Art Bar.

Candy Butchers
Live at La Bonbonniere
Blue Thumb/GRP

Leave it to a band with a name such as the Candy Butchers to manufacture pathos that's as palatable and silky smooth going down as an egg cream. This New York City duo weds Squeeze's effortless, harmony-laden Lennon/ McCartney stance circa East Side Story with the barbed wit of that disc's producer, Elvis Costello.

But even Costello at his most ill-tempered might be taken aback by the way the Candy Butchers have done up their brash cynicism as pretty, immensely addictive acoustic pop. On the five-song Live at La Bonbonniere, the Butchers' Mike Viola (guitars, lead vocals) and Todd Foulsham (drums, vocals) revel in sinister deception. "Bells on a Leper" sports a title that pretty much speaks for itself. "California Girl" skips along on a breezy progression of chords worthy of Marshall Crenshaw. But this supposed sympathy song is actually a thinly masked putdown, as Viola snips, "California girl, the sun and surf are laughing at you."

It gets uglier from there. "I'll exhume your body and tear the frame from your rotten flesh / And take them to mommy," coos Viola in "Cupid Complained to Venus." "Out of your bones, we'll pick seven / And build a wind chime that sings to heaven." An unfortunate loser murdered by his lover in "Till You Die" vows to return from the dead and "do you like you did me." On the Squeeze-able finale, "Canned Hunt," our wounded narrator confesses, "If cowardice is blind / I only see the strong surviving with needles in their eyes." And there's more where that came from: Look for the Butchers' full-length debut any day now. Bet you can hardly wait. (****)

-- Hobart Rowland

Gene Watson
The Good Ole Days
Step One Records

From '75 to '85, Gene Watson was as successful on the country charts as any singer going, a particularly impressive feat given that his singles were unabashed honky-tonk in a period when country-pop was giving way to country-rock. During his good old days, traditionalist Watson dropped just enough contemporary touches into his music to remain vital in increasingly untraditional times. Always an accomplished singer with an achingly earnest tenor, he outdid even himself on his finest moment of all, 1977's Farewell Party, where his voice soared with an anguish as exquisite as any in all of country music.

Watson hasn't been so lucky in the days of Garth Brooks & Dunn, so in keeping with the title of his latest album, he's chosen to rerecord a few of his earlier hits. The results are mixed. On "Love in the Hot Afternoon" and "I Don't Need a Thing at All," both top ten hits in the mid-'70s, Watson recreates the original versions so exactingly that the differences seem irrelevant. On the other hand, "Speak Softly (You're Talking to My Heart)," a 1982 hit, has been recast altogether. The hot picking and front-porch groove of the original have been traded in for the big drums and barrelhouse piano of Hot New Country. Behind Watson's great voice, these changes create a moment far superior to what typically passes for "hot" these days. One new cut, "The Man That Broke Your Heart," pulls off the same trick: If Alan Jackson recorded the same song in the same rocking arrangement, he'd have himself another chart-topper. Too bad then that Watson, at 53 years of age, has about as much chance of cracking today's young country formats as does Grandpa Jones.

But Watson doesn't need to relive past triumphs or update his sound to create great music. His voice and phrasing on a trio of fine Western swing numbers here are impeccable, diminished only by horn arrangements nearer to Doc Severinsen than to Bob Wills. The steel guitar-fueled "Getting Over You Again" is simply flawless honky-tonk and, best of all, the desperate "Change Your Mind" has Watson begging Jesus to turn the heart of a departed lover in a performance that's nearly the equal of "Farewell Party." On these cuts, Watson proves that what he sings in the title track is dead on: "The good ole days are right now." (*** 1/2)

-- David Cantwell

Erykah Badu
Kedar Entertainment/Universal

Singing and scatting in an intimate, softly cackling voice, 25-year-old Dallas-born Erykah Badu cleverly brings a Prohibition-era sound to the modern-day urban revelries of R&B on her glorious debut album Baduizm. At first listen, Badu sounds like a Billie Holiday (and critics have already gone gaga over the idea that she's the second coming of Lady Day) with the socio-sexual stance of Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello. Prismatic tracks such as "Otherside of the Game," produced by hip-hopper Roots, and "Drama" convey the cultural perspectives of black women, while quiet-storm soul such as "Sometimes" and "No Love" reveal an erotically tense self-consciousness that tests the difference between an old soul and a dark spirit. The jazzy, lounge-flow version of "Certainly" also exhibits a take-charge subtlety.

There are a couple of tunes that, although Badu injects them with soulful ease, are merely pop pap (the useless love-triangle ode "Next Lifetime" is her "You, Me and He"), but that's the exception. The class Erykah Badu brings to her music on Baduizm is something hard to match, and something not to be taken lightly. (*** 1/2) -- Craig D. Lindsey

Erykah Badu performs Saturday afternoon, April 12, at the Enron Earth Day Festival, and that evening at Rockefeller's.

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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David Cantwell
Andy Langer
Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey
Hobart Rowland