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Carolina Dreaming

Ben Folds Five has a brand-new album in the stores, but Darren Jessee doesn't sound too thrilled about it.

The drummer for the quirky North Carolina pop trio is hanging out at his Chapel Hill home, taking a brief respite from the band's arduous, yearlong series of road excursions. Buoyed by relentless live support and a surprising amount of recent airplay for the single "Brick," the group's second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, has not only gathered a second wind, but actually hit a new peak at No. 42 on last week's Billboard chart, nearly a year after the album's release. In recent weeks, the band has elevated its profile considerably with performances on both Saturday Night Live and The Late Show With David Letterman.

But right at the point when public consciousness is firmly focused on Whatever and Ever, a fly has nose-dived directly into the broth, in the form of a contractual-obligation compilation CD called Naked Baby Photos. The band's initial label, Caroline Records, decided to milk the Folds phenomenon for one more album, whether Folds and his mates liked it or not. Quite simply, the band had a choice: Do we sit back and let Caroline put out a shoddy piece of crap, or do we cooperate and make something semi-worthwhile out of it?

"They were gonna put it out whether or not we helped, so we decided to get involved and make it as good a record as it could be," Jessee says. "They put it out now because they wanted to. I think they should have waited a while. It would have been more interesting. But it's not gonna hurt us."

Whatever Folds' misgivings about Naked Baby Photos, he and his bandmates threw themselves into the task of evaluating the band's learning-to-crawl phase. The chore required thorough listening to the band's vast catalogue of rough soundboard concert tapes. Though the band members tried to make the best possible selections, Jessee concedes that they faced some serious technical obstacles. "We didn't really record any of these shows professionally," he says, "so it was hard to get one that sounded halfway decent."

What Naked Baby Photos proves beyond any doubt is that by the time Folds assembled this band, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish musically. In an odd way, the band's virtuosity and clarity of vision undermine the compilation's intentions.

After all, the whole point of a retrospective like Naked Baby Photos is to document the inevitably embarrassing pangs of growth that all bands experience on their way to a fully realized sound. But this band is a mutant being. It came out of the womb wearing a suit and tie and speaking three languages. So, if it seems a bit premature to assemble a retrospective on the formative phase of a band that's only four years old, it seems doubly odd when that band's earliest recordings vary little from the sound that eventually emerged on its albums.

For example, the compilation begins with "Eddie Walker," a song that Folds describes as "the first song to click in rehearsal." All of the trademark Folds elements are there: the warm, rich piano chording, the extravagant melodic sense, and the band's seemingly effortless flair for vocal harmonies and dramatic dynamics. Naked Baby Photos also includes the band's first-ever recording, "Jackson Cannery," a Folds classic that juxtaposes frilly musicianship with a no-nonsense tale of working-class dilemmas. Jessee confirms what the recordings suggest, that this band was unusually focused from the git-go.

"It happened real quick," he says. "It happened within a month, basically. We had a goal. We knew what we were shooting for."

Folds was shooting for a fresh sound that eschewed guitar, rock's signature instrument since Chuck Berry kicked off "Maybelline" with a bent-string riff. The danger of forming a piano-based pop trio in 1994 was that the band might end up serving warmed-over Elton John or Billy Joel to a new generation. But Folds' sharp instincts and the post-punk influences his band has absorbed ensured that this sound would not be bland piano-man fare. He calls this music Punk Rock for Sissies, and repeatedly backs it up by using the sweet medicine of the piano to ram some acerbic messages down listeners' throats.

A favorite Folds target has been the pretentious, willfully cynical slacker who's more obsessed with maintaining indie cred than actually amounting to anything useful. The first single off Whatever and Ever Amen, "Battle of Who Could Care Less," lampooned a hipper-than-thou type whose old driver's-license photo reveals a secret Cure phase.

The best-known track from the band's 1995 debut album, "Underground," viciously mocks the accouterments of modern hipdom, with the band's asides to "bring me my nose ring" and "show me the mosh pit." The song sounds like such a time-capsule encapsulation of '90s conceits that it's fairly shocking to read in Folds' Naked Baby Photos sleeve notes that the song was written a full 10 years ago. So Folds carried a growing collection of songs around as he moved from North Carolina to New York to Miami, and eventually Nashville. When he made little musical headway in Nashville, he headed back to Chapel Hill, and the pieces fell together with amazing ease.