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Iconoclastic Folds moves back into mainstream

Pianist-songwriter releases first full-length album in 4 years
/ Source: Reuters

If there’s one thing pianist-singer Ben Folds detests, it’s poseurs in the music industry who care more about how they look on TV than about honing their craft.

“I hate a performance that is about the performer,” said Folds, who was a rising star in the 1990s and often compared to Elton John and Billy Joel. “I think it’s a disease of my generation — it’s all about the cameras.”

“I’m a stickler for technique and craft and that’s been my rebellion, to a certain extent, against the other people in my generation,” he said.

Ironically, the iconoclastic Folds rocketed to fame in the mid-’90s through appearances on that bastion of pop music establishment, MTV, with his humorous anthem “Underground,” which poked fun at the punk/alternative scene.

And after touring with Dave Matthews Band and 1997’s critically acclaimed album “Whatever and Ever Amen,” Folds was one of the hottest rock acts in America.

But in 2001, after four albums — three as Ben Folds Five and one solo — he dropped out, stepping back from a music world where intelligent piano licks and incisive commentary are barely heard above the rappers, heavy rock or teen queens.

Image over substanceAs a thoughtful musician who cares about his art, he had become cynical about a music industry that increasingly places more value on image over substance.

After his 2001 album “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Folds was content to make discs for the Internet only. He was happy to top the download charts “to make myself right with the music gods,” touring in a van and playing small gigs.

“No offense to the business, publicity and stuff, but I realized when you take that out of the equation and go back to when I was 9 years old and music was my discipline ... I just had a great four years,” he told Reuters.

But, at the age of 38 and the father of twins, he realized he had to come back. “It was necessary for me to jump back on the horse again and put a full-length album out,” he said. That album is “Songs for Silverman”, which came out last month and features Folds’ voice and piano with just bass and drums — yes, no guitar!

The song “Landed” is about a friend landing back in life after an unsatisfying relationship and in the haunting “Late,” Folds mourns singer-songwriter Elliot Smith, with whom he had toured. Smith died of a self-inflicted knife wound in 2003.

In “Bastard,” Folds bemoans the generation gap, telling young people, “It’s OK if you don’t know everything.” And “Jesusland,” a sharp view of how Jesus would feel seeing what is done in his name, talks of a modern-day American landscape with its “beautiful McMansions on a hill.”

Piano manFolds, who hails from North Carolina, but lived for some time in Adelaide, Australia, is the latest in a line of rock’s piano men. He has the pop sensibilities and musical hooks of John, the lyrical wit of Joel, the jazzy feel of Bruce Hornsby and the attitude of Joe Jackson.

“Some people probably think I haven’t been doing anything for four years, if they watch MTV or listen to the radio or read Rolling Stone,” he said, with no trace of irony.

But taking time off the commercial roundabout brought Folds back to his roots and the piano, “the reason I wrote the songs in the first place, very simple communication of a song with an audience and no pretentious posing.

“Nobody is out to save the music industry, but if you do have some integrity about what you do, you should put it out there in the music industry proper,” he said. “I don’t go on the television talk shows and play sterile performances or stand with toy pianos in front of a camera.”

Elvis a true professionalHis new album was recorded at the old RCA studios in Nashville, where Elvis Presley recorded and Elvis pervades Folds’ conversation about professionalism.

“If you see him on any live television show of that era, (he was) absolutely, completely in tune, completely on, no mistakes.

“For anyone who thinks it’s not in their power to go on the (David) Letterman show and do something meaningful, just watch Elvis on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’ It’s chilling, it’s so good.”

Folds acknowledges he’s at a crossroads in his career and talks about a movie score he is working on. He won’t name it, but assures it will not be like his only previous soundtrack, for “Not Another Teen Movie,” which sank without trace.

“Right now I’m swinging by the pop music rope and trying to find a place where I can let that go and grab the next phase.

“But I can’t let go of that career financially until I establish myself in the new phase.”