Ben Folds, Divine Comedy

March 11

Green Day and blink-182--who next month begin a joint U.S. tour that will take them into the middle of June--make a good pair onstage in front of screaming fans: Both bands boast three relatively amiable dudes with knacks for three-chord pop-punk more gooey than it seems and soft spots for jokes they should've left in the high school treehouse. And in terms of cross-promotion, of course, synergy doesn't get any more effective than with two strains of the same virus--which means double the T-shirt sales and double the TRL requests with the throw of one stone (and the services of one catering crew).

But what of the pair hitting Deep Ellum Live on Tuesday night? One's a witty, gently sarcastic everyman who writes songs about being older than you thought you were, and one's a clever pop sophisticate attracted to the crevices between living and loving. Yet which is which? On the surface Ben Folds and the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon don't share much; dig a little deeper and you discover that their differences are about as great as those between the two record store owners at the center of High Fidelity: the British chap in Nick Hornby's book and John Cusack's American guy in Stephen Frears' movie. Like that lovable loser, both Folds and Hannon make use of a deep understanding of and appreciation for the pop conventions of the past century, folding into their totally modern songs bits and pieces of music-hall pomp, cabaret class, Tin Pan Alley stardust and Brill Building bounce, so that their records resemble little style galleries in which the listener can recognize and become familiar with a whole spectrum of music "pop" radio wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole and a prescription for Cipro.

Oh, and each singer just fired his band.

"Yeah, they're going back out on the road as Ben Folds Five with another piano player," Folds deadpans of his ex-bandmates when asked what went wrong with the Five, who toiled in student-union obscurity for years before actually touching pop radio with their not-as-gooey-as-it-seems 1997 hit "Brick." "They've hired a bunch of college kids to play horns and sequencers, and they're going out with the same name, playing Holiday Inns and stuff. We're in court right now over it." He stops not laughing. "No, it just ran its course, you know? We played for six years, and that was it. I remember reading something from the guy in Yes, and he said that if a band has been together for more than five or six years that they're in it for the money. I agree with that. It just didn't feel right anymore. It wasn't fun."

Playing right into his British-High Fidelity-guy role, Hannon is less sanguine when talking about the erosion of the Divine Comedy from a mini-orchestra-sized ensemble to the pared-down trio that will take the stage on this tour. "The basic shape of it is that there is no band, effectively; I just kind of disbanded it," he explains. "The reasons behind that were just that I got a sudden panic that it was all getting a little stale and a little too easy and that I wasn't really being tested. It was a bit of a road-to-Damascus-type affair. I hope it doesn't happen too often."

If each man has cast off his baggage (sorry, guys) in an attempt to stay vital, they've only seen their work pick up weight with the transition. The latest Divine Comedy record, Regeneration, might be a career high for Hannon: Largely eschewing the symphonic flourishes that have marked earlier efforts, the front man hired Radiohead button-pusher Nigel Godrich to helm the recording sessions, resulting in a tastefully spaced-out suite of dense pop songs equally full of Thom Yorke dizziness, Brian Wilson lilt and Jacques Brel finesse.

Folds' recent solo disc, Rockin' the Suburbs, on the other hand, finds him mostly indulging his taste for elaborate, highly arranged piano pop. It's a natural fit for Folds, who long ago mastered his Todd Rundgren-style sense of craft and now seems to get a jolt from spiraling off into Queen-sized fits of grandeur. When he's not flirting with rap-metal on the goofy (but still painfully out-of-touch) title track, it's almost the sound of a lifelong music geek wrapping himself up in his record collection--just like Cusack on the floor of his apartment after his girlfriend gets tired of competing for his attention with those mountains of immaculately preserved old vinyl.

Hannon, who seems as though he'd bristle at the thought of such a display, admits that for all he and Folds share, there might still be obstacles to their capturing a totally sympathetic audience--for starters, Hannon will have no stray "Brick" requests to bat away. "Well, yeah," he chuckles of the matching, "but in many other ways, I don't know who else we'd pair up with."

 
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