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ON THE RECORD

Folds gets back to the pointed

The singer-songwriter isn't about to rein in the biting wit on his third solo release, 'Way to Normal.'

October 05, 2008|Charlie Amter | Times Staff Writer

If RAP music is black America's CNN, as Public Enemy's Chuck D once said, then Ben Folds is white America's NPR.

On his recently released third studio solo record, "Way to Normal," the 42-year-old pianist-singer-songwriter proves he is still an adept chronicler of the trials, tribulations and failing relationships happening inside middle America's exurbs.

In "The Frown Song," he sings, "Tread slowly from the car to the spa / Like a weary war-torn refugee / Crossing the border with your starving child / It's a struggle just to get to shiatsu / Present the waitress with your allergy card / Tell her all your problems / And leave no tip at all."

"That song is about that culture of having struck it rich, and now they're going out and exercising their gold card," Folds explains. "But there is an added hypocrisy that goes along with that and that involves yoga, relaxation and self-help. I always thought that was funny how the newly rich [and suddenly spiritual] are so rude when it comes to how they treat people."

Not that "Way to Normal" dwells excessively on class issues. The 12-song set, which Folds recorded in Nashville with Modest Mouse producer Dennis Herring, injects attitude and a healthy dose of levity into Folds' oeuvre.

"This is something you can play on a porch," he says of the album.

Folds certainly is having fun on "Way to Normal's" first single, "You Don't Know Me," which features Regina Spektor. The tune's crisp production gives a nod to contemporary pop or even commercial rap -- not unlike ELO with backing beats provided by Dr. Dre.

His trademark biting wit is untamed. Folds' lyrics for "Brainwascht," a response of sorts to a song written about him by former friends, might even make him seem bitter -- though the rolling, percussive music is upbeat and relentlessly melodic, with a syncopated, disco feel.

"Randy Newman said he'd run over his grandmother for a song," Folds says. "Well, it's there. ['Brainwascht'] is definitely pointed. . . . It's barbed, but I feel like I'm making light of the situation at the same time."

The album's opener, "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)" riffs on the performer's actual fall from a stage in Japan during a concert. "I had to get my brain scanned in Tokyo" after the fall, he says.

The lighthearted song recounts the episode, down to Folds seeing "blood on the keyboard." The most striking aspect of "Hiroshima," however, is not the subject matter but the musical similarities to Elton John's classic "Bennie and the Jets."

"The 'Bennie and the Jets' groove is an institution," Folds says. "I spent the first half of my career trying to carve out my own niche, and I didn't care to be compared to Elton John, because when you're younger, that's who you don't want to be compared to. But after a while, it's only right to tip the hat. . . . I wanted to show my appreciation to who came before me."

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charlie.amter@latimes.com

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