Music CD Spotlight 

Folds 'n' fluff

Ben Folds' best and worst trait has always been his smart-alecky streak.

On the downside, it tends to reveal what a smug, revenge-of-the-nerds jerk he can be, as on 1997's "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," in which he giddily urged his chldhood tormenters to kiss his ass because he was now a famous guy who appeared on TV. On the other hand, Folds' sense of the absurd has often been the only factor separating him from the pantheon of earnest piano men who came before him. His very willingess to mock rock's underground (in the song "Underground") made him look like a credible - if inevitably wimpy - member of it.

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With his second studio solo album, Songs For Silverman, Folds rarely provides evidence of that old sardonicism. A 38-year-old happily married father of two, Folds sounds like someone who's so content and self-assured that he doesn't care how unhip he may appear. When Randy Newman wrote about fatherhood, he gave us the brilliantly ambivalent "Memo To My Son," in which he brooded over his baby's clumsiness and lack of esteem for him. In contrast, Folds goes so unabashedly sappy with "Gracie" that it's hard not to be moved by his artless candor. His tribute to former tour-mate Elliott Smith on "Late" is similarly well-intentioned, but hopelessly mired in rock-eulogy cliches: "Elliott, man you played a fine guitar/and some dirty basketball/the songs you wrote got me through a lot, just want to tell you that."

Songs For Silverman
Ben Folds
(Epic)
While Folds' worldview has softened around the middle, his flair for lush, sophisticated pop has reached a new peak. The single "Landed" is musically gorgeous, and "Give Judy My Notice" finds him approaching Brian Wilson levels of contrapuntal vocal grandeur over a bed of Nashville pedal steel.

In some ways, the most durable song on the album is "Sentimental Guy," a charmingly tossed off echo of Harry Nilsson, with a luscious, jazzy piano riff at the end of each verse. "I used to be a sentimental guy," Folds sadly contends in this song. The irony may be lost on him, but anyone familiar with his work recognizes that a sentimental guy is not what Folds used to be, it's what he has become.

By Gilbert Garcia


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