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The Boston Phoenix The "Naked" Truth

Early snapshots of Ben Folds Five.

By Douglas Wolk

JANUARY 12, 1998:  There's a certain kind of album that screams "contractual obligation." It usually appears at the end of a band's term with a label, or after they've already put out a successful disc on a bigger label; it's usually a live quickie, or a second visit to already recorded material, or the dreaded rarities compilation. But its essence is that it's not too relevant to anyone but the band's more dedicated fans. Ben Folds Five's star is in the ascendant at the moment, what with the mathematically challenged piano-bass-drums alterna-trio appearing repeatedly on TV and "Brick" being a kinda-sorta modern-rock hit. So along comes the new Naked Baby Photos (in stores this Tuesday) -- on their old label, Caroline, not their new one, Sony 550, and with lots of B-sides and alternate versions on it. That should be your tipoff.

If you possess the complete Ben Folds Five discography up to this point, almost nothing here will be new to you. A bunch of tracks are alternate or live versions of songs from BFF's homonymous first album, and there's a live version of "Song for the Dumped" from last year's Whatever and Ever Amen. Then there's the B-side ("Eddie Walker") of the first single, several outtakes from the first album, various fucking-around-while-the-tape-was-rolling artifacts (including an excruciating, interminable fake-funk jam, "For Those of Ya'll Who Wear Fannie Packs," inconveniently stuck in the middle of the disc), a live cover of a Built To Spill song ("Twin Falls"), and a demo of "Bad Idea," a swell little rocker they did for the soundtrack of The Truth About Cats & Dogs.

The point of this is getting another album in the catalogue as fast as possible. Naked Baby Photos doesn't flow like the studio albums, and the band don't exactly reinvent their songs on stage. The live stuff makes for nice B-sides (which is where some of the live tracks here appeared), but there's no compelling artistic reason to document it on album.

That doesn't mean the new release isn't fun on a song-by-song basis. The Five are pepped up and totally on -- check out the way Folds bangs away at his piano with his fists at the beginning of "Song for the Dumped," or his effervescent momentary imitation of Cameo's Larry Blackmon in "Tom and Mary." And if some of his jokes don't work at all, like the fake-metal one-two of "The Ultimate Sacrifice" and "Satan Is My Master," others do, particularly the merciless "Underground" -- which turns out to have been written in 1988, before the alternative nation was a gleam in David Geffen's eye.

What, in fact, is so "underground" about Ben Folds Five? That they came out of the indie circuit (their first single was on the teensy label D-Tox)? That they've covered songs by Built To Spill and Liz Phair? That they play energetically and don't have three professional back-up singers swaying by the side of the stage? That they're a rock band who don't rely on guitars? Does nobody remember "Bennie and the Jets"? This is not a new thing.

In fact, Folds is a pretty straight-up classic-rock guy who just came to the party 25 years late. That's not a dis -- he's very good at what he does. But people tend to miscategorize his band. His songwriting and playing owe less to the Richard Davies from the Moles than to the one from Supertramp. It's not just that his songs suggest many hours spent listening to Squeeze and Elton John and early Bruce Springsteen (the intro to "Philosophy" would fit perfectly on Greetings from Asbury Park). It's that for all the nasty, reflexive edge of his sarcasm -- rarely has anyone sung a line as double-barbed as "Give me my money back/Give me my money back, you bitch/And don't forget to give me back my black T-shirt" -- he's an old softie at heart. From "Alice Childress" and "Boxing" (both live versions of tunes from BFF's debut) to "Emaline" (a previously unreleased outtake), not to mention "Brick," an awful lot of his songs are overtly sentimental. Which is nearly anathema to the 120 Minutes tradition.

What the band do offer jaded youth is that nobody else is doing what they're doing -- these days, anyway. The virtues of Ben Folds Five aren't at all new, but they're nearly forgotten among younger bands: '70s-FM-radio songcraft, ivory-bashing rock-and-roll piano, even the on-stage tomfoolery that's made them tape traders' favorites despite almost invariant performances of the familiar songs. They don't carry with them the conceptual baggage of the bands they take after -- the aging hippies in the audience, the unending reprises of played-to-death hits. Folds is a Billy Joel without "Piano Man," an Elton John without "Candle in the Wind." But give him a while. And let him write some new songs, instead of sticking the same old ones on an album again.


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