By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Fear of Pop
Ben Folds' low-fi-avant-pop-dance-etc. side project won't much impress the faithful who adore Folds or sway the non-believers who find him a bit twee and insincere. It's too slick for the basement-tapes crowd, too eclectic for the audience that considers Folds the Elton John of alternarock. But the disc isn't entirely unlistenable either (cf. "Avery M. Powers Memorial Beltway" or the very white funk of "I Paid My Money"), if only because Folds knows how self-serving the disc really is--the sort of thing labels indulge their platinum-sellers with. Call it tax-write-off-rock.
Assisted by Fleming & John and BF5 producer Caleb Southern, Folds keeps the disc light enough to let you know he's in on the joke too. Light, meaning his idea of "rock legend" (so he says in the bio) is William Shatner; light, meaning he does away with the might-be-might-not-be sexist lyrics heard on his "real" records and lets the theremin and chamberlain and trombone and other assorted exotica instruments fill in the hefty blanks. Light, meaning the hard-core fetishists will buy the record, play it once, and never again bother with it. Unless it's to hear Captain Kirk sing...speak...his way through...some of...the most laughable...lyrics...ever written. Shatner's "In Love," and still a riot. But only twice--third time's a smarm.
Vic Chesnutt's wry, beautiful, desperate concept album is ostensibly told through the voice of a salesman as he makes his way up and down the rails, but the salesman is inevitably Chesnutt himself, who's been selling himself for years and was eventually sold out by his label weeks before The Salesman's release (Capitol dropped him two months before it was originally due in stores). The album cover reassures you this is fiction, but Chesnutt's not fooling anyone: He's been writing sad and slow for so long that no one much buys the disclaimer anymore. You can't make music this despondent without feeling it deep in your bones--hell, the guy barely sings above a mumble half the time, as though it just hurts too much to get the words out. "I was shivering, I'll admit it," Chesnutt sings early on; later, at album's end, he sees his "old hotel down amongst the smells." Even when the record picks up, sounding like street-corner Stax/Volt on "Until the Led," it's only a brief respite from the melancholy of a song like "Woodrow Wilson," featuring Emmylou Harris as a ghostly duet partner. Sometimes, it feels good to feel this bad; sometimes, it just feels bad.
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