Ben Folds Five
Naked Baby Photos
(Caroline Records)

In these days of instant nostalgia, we often want our memories before we've even compiled the necessary experiences. Of course, this also extends to music. These days, bands will put together career-spanning retrospectives even before they've bothered to muster a career.

At least Ben Folds has a sense of humor about his own premature nostalgia. In the liner notes for his band's new odds-and-sods anthology, Naked Baby Photos, Folds wryly offers his thanks "to anyone who was there early (before we were so fucking huge)."

Basically, this album is Ben Folds Five's Incesticide--or, if you prefer, Dead Letter Office--a mixed bag of early recordings, live performances, sound-check indulgences, uncollected singles and outtakes. The problem with a collection like this is that it's neither here nor there. It demands to be seen as more than a retrospective or rehash, while shying away from any expectations that it's a genuine "new" album. One can only wonder: Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping?

While Naked Baby Photos generally sheds little new light on Folds' quirky piano pop, a few scattershot insights emerge. The inclusion of the band's earliest stabs at getting its sound on tape--"Jackson Cannery" and "Eddie Walker"--proves that this trio came out of the womb fully formed, with bratty wit and harmonic ingenuity there before the umbilical cord was cut. It also confirms that this is one great live band--the concert versions of "Underground" and "Julianne" are precise and casually powerful, and Folds pours his heart into the Built to Spill classic "Twin Falls."

More than anything, though, this album suggests that the occasionally obnoxious humor that always threatens to mar Folds' finely honed melodicism is actually a vital part of the package with this band. The hip-hop goof "For Those of Ya'll Who Wear Fannie Packs" may be impromptu nonsense, but it's also a pretty hot jam that never would have seen the light of day if not for this release. Even the willfully stupid heavy-metal anthem "The Ultimate Sacrifice" (with Folds unleashing an absurdly wimpy, pseudo-Satanic falsetto) is so God-awful it's sorta divine. As a great philosopher once said, there's a fine line between stupid and clever, and with Ben Folds Five, it's always hard to tell which is which.

--Gilbert Garcia

Sixteen Deluxe
Emits Showers of Sparks
(Warner Bros. Records)

Often lauded as the international capital of live music, Austin, Texas, has actually produced surprisingly little rock music of lasting value through the years. When people praise the Austin scene, they usually end up invoking the names of country mavericks like the Bad Livers or rootsy veterans like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, or Alejandro Escovedo, people who actually made their impact on the Austin scene ages ago.

It's a dirty little secret that most of the rock music that Austin has produced--the Butthole Surfers excepted--has been bland, flavor-of-the-month college rock. Quick, see if you can recall a single song from any of these Austin-defining acts: the Reivers, Wild Seeds, Poi Dog Pondering, or Spoon. Not so easy, huh?

Perhaps it's appropriate that Sixteen Deluxe's debut album is produced by ex-Reiver John Croslin. Sixteen Deluxe, like the Reivers, falls squarely into that timeworn alterna-rock mold which arouses neither love nor hate, but merely apathy. On this album, the band vainly searches for an identity. "Let It Go" has the languid country lilt of a Mazzy Star outtake, while the insistently rocking "Purple" offers one of the album's few solid hooks, in the form of the mindless refrain, "I don't know anything at all."

If anything, Sixteen Deluxe knows too much. It knows how to sound like everyone else in the college-rock idiom, and it knows how to pass off tedium as hipness.

--Gilbert Garcia

Various artists
Jackie Brown:
Music From the Miramax Motion Picture
(Maverick/A Band Apart Records)

Among the many tricks Quentin Tarantino has learned from Martin Scorsese, none is more obvious than his sense of how to connect music with film. Alone among Scorsese's spiritual children, Tarantino seems to understand not only that music can take film narrative into emotional places which no screenplay can probe, but that the converse is also true: Film can permanently alter our understanding of familiar music. The sight of John Travolta twisting to "You Never Can Tell" in Pulp Fiction cracked the shell of his tough-guy pose better than any amount of dialogue could ever achieve. And "Stuck in the Middle With You" never meant quite the same thing after accompanying the ear-lopping orgy of blood in Reservoir Dogs.

In the same way that Jackie Brown trades the thrill-ride rush of Pulp Fiction for a nostalgic homage to blaxploitation cinema, its soundtrack consciously drops the surf-guitar locomotion of its predecessor in favor of lush, romantic '70s soul. As always, Tarantino chooses his material with great care. The Brothers Johnson's "Strawberry Letter 23," one of the great, underrated R&B hits of the Me Decade, works particularly well as an ironic commentary on the cinematic violence that it follows. And the Delfonics' "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" comes to define the film's unlikely love story.

Tarantino also excavates Bobby Womack's string-laden chronicle of ghetto life "Across 110th Street," the title song from an obscure 1972 Yaphet Kotto film. Released at a time when R&B was assuming a new social consciousness, this song stands as Womack's answer to "What's Going On," a symphony of grim reality and stubborn determination that defines the character of Jackie Brown.

The most striking example of the Tarantino touch, however, actually comes with one of the album's lesser tracks. Jackie Brown star Pam Grier sings the jailhouse lament "Long Time Woman," from her 1971 breakthrough film The Big Doll House. With this gritty track, Tarantino indulges his passion for cinematic myth-mongering, and subliminally reminds us of the long journey Grier took from rebellious kid to the world-weary icon we see in Jackie Brown.

--Gilbert Garcia


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