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Third Time not a charm for Ben Folds

Julie Bender | Thursday, October 7, 2004

No matter how the music scene changes, Ben Folds continues to remain a presence just below the surface of mainstream popularity. His brand of piano pop combined with witty lyrics never fails to charm, and his stage presence is akin to what a Bruce Springsteen live show would be on piano. His energy and stamina ignite his piano, and the audience falls right in step with Folds until he finally packs it in and leaves the stage.We haven’t seen a full-length release from Folds since 2002’s “Ben Folds Live” – 17 tracks of Folds and his traveling piano. 2003 brought us two five-song EPs, “Sunny 16” and “Speed Graphic,” neither of which is his best work, but both have superb moments of Folds’ trademark balladeering. These two EPs continued Folds’ musical theme used on the tour from which “Ben Folds Live” was recorded – no other instrumentation beyond vocals and piano. Speaking on his Web site about his decision to release his latest music via the Internet and on five-song EPs, Folds said, “Part of me thinks I’m an idiot for ‘wasting’ this recording on limited release [EP’s], but I’m really into this method of recording and releasing quickly and making it all about music.” Folds has certainly proved he’s “all about music” by continuing to tour and release songs just below the radar of radio and MTV. And now Folds has done it yet again with the third and final release in his EP trilogy, “Super D.” Unlike the other EPs’ “strictly piano” sound, “Super D” ventures into a new musical arena. Piano still remains at the forefront, but Folds includes drums, horns and even strings on many of the tracks. Despite these additions, however, the ending result is not up to the quality of work most fans are used to with Folds. The first song on the EP is a cover of The Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman.” Folds slips into an angry falsetto during the chorus of this song, singing with venom not heard since “Song for the Dumped,” released when Folds was still with his trio, Ben Folds Five. The song is “heavy metal on piano,” as Folds describes it on his Web site, and the result is a somewhat startling rejection of his former piano pop sound, but will make a great live tune for shows. “Kalamazoo” and “Adelaide” are two of the weakest songs on the EP. “Kalamazoo” is a song Folds formerly used on demo tapes. Here it is reworked in what starts as a meandering lounge number that slowly increases tempo, adding drums, bass and strings. “Adelaide” uses spinning piano and a thumping beat that stay in sync with the vocal track. Despite the catchiness of the chorus, the song fails to make an impression.”Rent a Cop” is the one song on the album where Folds showcases the wit and talent that mark his previous albums. Proving no one is safe from Folds’ sharp scrutiny, the song humorously thumps along to a supposedly true story of a greasy mall security guard: “I’ll be hanging at the check out / Checking out your girlfriend / Figure out how she’s going to fit all of that / Butt into that underwear – yeah,” sings Folds, tongue in cheek, of course. The closing song on the EP is a tribute to the late Ray Charles. In an effort to “tip the hat to the man,” Folds covers Charles’ song, “Them That Got.” Romping piano marks the charming little number recorded live in a performance from two years ago. “I don’t know the whole thing, but I like it,” says Folds as the final chord trails off amidst cheering.Although Folds has good moments on Super D – especially with the last two tracks – overall, the EP does not live up to expectations created from other work in his musical repertoire. Nonetheless, it’s a nice complement to the other EPs in the trilogy, and reveals the direction Folds may be heading with his next full-length album, due out in 2005.