Ben Folds Five
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
(550 Music)

It's a strange paradox of the music industry that a recording artist's most common response to success is a case of melancholia. The cutout bins are overloaded with self-pitying follow-ups that lament the emptiness of fame and the tedium of life on the road.

Ben Folds Five bring some of that platinum-hangover vibe to their new release, their first collection of new songs since the unlikely success of 1997's Whatever and Ever Amen, but with a characteristically offbeat twist. This loosely conceptual record (which takes its protagonist's name from that of a famous mountain climber) seems less a downbeat response to fame than a somber treatise on the life Folds might have lived if his musical career hadn't taken off.

In that way, it echoes Paul Simon's flawed 1980 film One Trick Pony, which focused on a character much like Simon himself, except that this guy's career had gone south after one hit single in the mid-'60s.

The album's defining track is "Regrets," a thumbnail sketch of an ailing failure's childhood plans gone awry: "I thought about the hours wasted/Watching TV, drinking beer/I thought about the things I thought about/Until immobilized with fear."

Like much of this album, "Regrets" can be a bit of a tough slog for those accustomed to Folds the hooky smartass, the postmodern piano man who made his first two albums such tuneful romps. Beginning with the alternately delicate and bombastic "Narcolepsy," the album often feels like a series of hospital reports set to music. Most disturbing is "Hospital Song," which starkly conveys the horrifying moment when a patient is informed that he has a terminal disease.

Amid such bleak fare, a few flashes of the old Folds wit emerge. "Army," the disc's first single, deftly balances the album's serious themes with a hilarious tale of suburban ineptitude: "Got a job at Chick-Fil-A/Citing artistic differences, the band broke up in May/And in June re-formed without me."

Folds also carries traces of his ambient side project, Fear of Pop, into this album, most notably on the oddball "Your Most Valuable Possession." The track features discreet music beneath an answering-machine message from Folds' father, advising his son--"Mr. Ben"--to look after his most valuable possession: his brain.

If such indulgences occasionally slow the album's momentum, the sheer emotional generosity and melodic beauty of a song like "Jane" make up for it. A song of reassurance to a friend who doubts her own worth, "Jane" is a reminder that for all his smirking cockiness, Folds is able to mine emotional depths that few contemporary songwriters are even willing to explore.

If Reinhold Messner is a departure for Folds, it should actually be less jarring to the bandwagon jumpers who caught the "Brick" video on MTV than to the dedicated who've supported this band from the beginning. At the time, "Brick" seemed uncharacteristically mournful, but it now looks more like a clue to Folds' future as a songwriter.

--Gilbert Garcia

Lee Hazlewood with the Al Casey Combo
Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! and me
(Smells Like Records)

Lee Hazlewood
Cowboy in Sweden
(Smells Like Records)

Lee Hazlewood is hardly your archetypal postmodern rock hero. Well into his 60s, the veteran producer is best known for producing Nancy Sinatra's string of campy '60s pop anthems, most notably "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."

Of course, Valleyites prefer to remember the Hazlewood who helped put Phoenix on the map in the '50s by cutting classic sides with Sanford Clark and Duane Eddy, among others. Local aficionados remember Hazlewood the studio visionary, a maverick reel-to-reel gunslinger who spoke softly and wielded a big pistol.

Maybe that sense of implied rebellion is what drew Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley to release these two CDs on his Smells Like Records imprint, or what appealed to Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson when he recently raved in Rolling Stone about Cowboy in Sweden.

In any event, any superficial trend-hoppers who come to Hazlewood because of such name-checks might be in for a surprise with these releases. Hazlewood is always stubbornly Hazlewood, and in the case of Farmisht, that means he lends his rough, smoky baritone to a clutch of timeless pop standards, from "Ain't Misbehavin'," "The Very Thought of You" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The tracks--with immaculate backing from the talented Al Casey and his band--are lovingly rendered, and Hazlewood's roughhewn integrity makes up for any vocal inadequacies, in somewhat the same way that Willie Nelson was able to pull off the Stardust album.

Cowboy in Sweden, recorded in 1970 for a Swedish TV film of the same name, but never released in America until now, is a different kettle of fish altogether. It's a surreal collection that's so dated, so obviously coated in the cosmopolitan folk-pop aura of the late '60s and early '70s (it occasionally recalls the Bacharach-David score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as sung by the members of Abba), that it approaches a transcendent timelessness. Hearing it nearly three decades after the fact is a bit like discovering a previously unreleased Sergio Leone Western from his late-'60s heyday. It's a feeling of nostalgia for a world that was purely conjured in some madman's imagination.

A little of this CD goes a long way, but two kitschy Hazlewood duets with Swedish star Nina Lizell ("Leather & Lace" and "Hey Cowboy") more than justify the project. My favorite moment comes right after the grizzled Hazlewood sings: "I may be small but I know I'm right for you/No big cowboy can do the little things I do." Hazlewood follows the boast by asking, "Did ya get that straight, little Swedish girl?" In her best sex-kitten voice, Lizell purrs back, "Uh huh."

Maybe it's true that a cowboy's work is never done, but, at least on this track, Hazlewood sounds like his mission has been accomplished.

--Gilbert Garcia


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