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July 8, 2002

Ben Folds coming dangerously close to irrelevance

Not popular enough to be a bona fide star, yet too popular to be a cult figure, Ben Folds has always been something of a conundrum. He's plainly uninterested in Top-40 success: he hasn't disowned his one modest hit—"Brick," a single from his days fronting Ben Folds Five—but he buries it at the end of his live sets and all but apologizes before playing it. Superficially, he's equally disinterested in nurturing a passionate following of record geeks. Not only did he mock them in "Underground," an early Ben Folds Five single, he'll freely admit his affinity for embarrassing '80s pop acts (he mentioned on stage at last Friday's Vic Theatre concert that Wham! is currently in his CD player) and he mimics the preening antics of arena rockers a little too closely for the comfort of most indie kids. While his anti-underground affectations are really just rib-poking admonishments of the most egregious hipster pretensions, they have nevertheless attracted a growing audience that thinks that here, finally, is someone to make respectable music accessible to the masses: his lyrics are perfect for this task—smart but not too smart. They're clever, certainly, but not likely to make anyone forget Stuart Murdoch or Travis Morrison, and just dispensable enough to drift away in the breeze blowing through a car window. As Folds has mellowed in his old age, moreover, he's not likely to call out audience members for wearing Greek letter ball-caps or making drunken, middle-aged spectacles of themselves. While laudable in theory, this tolerant streak has only worsened Folds' artistic confusion.

Folds is all too aware of the expectations of his new audience, and he's happy to oblige. In a two hour set last Friday night at the Vic Theatre, he performed his most popular material—"Army," "Brick," "Jackson Cannery," and "Zak and Sara"—with no wasted energy. There were no added instrumental parts, no backing band (save the addition of opening act Neil Hammond on "Mess") and only a single new song. He was willing not only to put up with the incessant sing-alongs from the kids at the front of the theatre, he actually coordinated audience response on "Army." Folds's stage banter—a constant highlight of his live shows—was his saving grace. The show was stopped on several occasions due to technical problems, giving him time to chat, pontificate, and digress as he pleased. If the targets of his jokes were obvious—the cameras on stage and whining nu-metal millionaires (though he did not play last year's "Rockin' the Suburbs") were both skewered—they were at least funny. Last Friday's show was the kind that would normally deserve acclaim for its restraint, with the hits played quickly and recognizably. But something was simply wrong. There was no edge—no sense of improvisation, no sense that we can expect anything new or challenging from him in the long run. It was as though Folds had transformed himself into a jukebox, cranking out audience-pleasing numbers with no concern for his own his own wishes.

It was not always thus. Ben Folds is capable of being a voice for common sense and honesty in today's pretension-strewn music. He can also write good music. A number of his songs—"Song for the Dumped," from Whatever and Ever, Amen and "Gone" from Rockin' the Suburbs among them—are very good and very catchy pop songs, and his concert are at least entertaining. But Folds is too often the musical equivalent of David McCullough's bestselling biography of John Adams: a popular work watering down the content while claiming only to avoid professional excesses. Everything Ben Folds does now resembles "Brick" a little too closely, even if his own feelings on the song are mixed. I don't mean that it all sounds like "Brick," but that song was a change of pace—a pretty, straight-ahead ballad—for a band known for pithy, sarcastic songs sung in Folds's reedy, almost whiny voice. Now those kind of ballads end up Folds's set list all the time. The unfortunate result of "Brick"'s popularity was that all manner of bandwagon crashers demanded simple stuff with which they could sing along. Folds has been happy to accommodate them until now. Of course, it's extraordinarily difficult to keep bandwagon-crashers entertained over the course of an entire career. They will jump off as soon as someone even more popular, say, Dido or David Gray, rolls into town. If the center is going to hold, Ben Folds needs to get his edge back, and quick.