*** Fear of Pop, "Volume I," 550 Music. Off on a tangent so soon? With two tasty albums of piano-driven, Rundgren-esque pure pop fronting Ben Folds Five, North Carolina resident Folds had won a fresh foothold for a sound too long buried.
Rather than resume showing that he's a better classic-pop torchbearer than, say, Barenaked Ladies, Folds has detoured with a one-man side project (in stores Tuesday) that shuns pop-rock classicism in favor of an offbeat collage of rock, funk and techno.
At first, the idiosyncrasy seems forced as Folds shrieks through the rock 'n' roll suicide leap of "Fear of Pop" and redoes "Shaft" for the gangsta era in "Kops." "In Love" is an heir to Barry White's sleek R&B make-out music, except that the effect here is farcical as special guest William Shatner delivers a stilted monologue about empty romance in the age of self-help and psychobabble.
The album's second half is a gem, starting with "Avery M. Powers Memorial Beltway," a tapestry of funk and Space Age lounge sounds knit together from bits that recall Earth, Wind & Fire, Stereolab and Forest for the Trees. Other cuts offer the best kind of musical satire as Folds pokes fun at genres while doing them justice. Soul Coughing hipsterism ("I Paid My Money"), soul divas and "Free Bird" (the bizarre "Rubber Sled") and British dance-rock attitudinizing ("Root to This") are both caricatured and fondly evoked to show their legitimate appeal.