By Georgina Cardenas

Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five

In the great tradition of the rock guitar hero comes Ben Folds, pianist-singer for a guitarless trio from North Carolina called the Ben Folds Five. Like the best fiery ax men, Folds commands and fuels his small, tightly wound ensemble with an authoritative, nearly virtuosic style that borrows from everywhere but lends new inspiration to -- and insight into -- his instrument's possibilities: He's the Jimi Hendrix of the baby grand. Folds's frenetic keyboarding eclipses old-time styles (from honky-tonk to Jerry Lee Lewis rag), and he outplinks contemporary megastars such as Elton John and Billy Joel while sifting them both through the mondo hammerings of classic pop-loving alternative 'boardmen such as Todd Rundgren and Squeeze's Jools Holland.

To complement Folds-the-pianist's clean and bright ivory tinkerings, Folds-the-singer's clear and dynamic tenor swirls through Folds-the-songwriter's capably crafted sugar-pop gems. "Philosophy" starts with a rolling Joel-like intro before slipping into a Rundgren-ish verse and chorus -- complete with the perfect Beatles-esque harmonies of bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee -- then breaks out in an overdriven piano quote from Gershwin in the climactic solo. "Underground" Sgt. Peppers us with faux theatrics, then plunges into a soul-gospel groove about the joys of the alternative rock scene. "Uncle Walter" is a character sketch the Kinks' Ray Davies wishes he'd written but couldn't; "Boxing" is an imagined confab between Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell that Tom Waits wishes he'd written but wouldn't. The rest of Ben Folds Five's debut does what any timeless summer record should: Makes you feel sunny enough inside to last all through the year.

By Roni Sarig

Merle Haggard
A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or My Salute to Bob Wills)

When Merle Haggard made this record 25 long years ago -- though in country-music terms it might as well have been made in another century -- he was struggling to reconcile his hippie-hating persona with his leftist, Woody Guthrie leanings. Haggard was the first real Seventies country outlaw, an Okie from Muskogee who waved a flag in one hand and his parole notice in the other. But straight down the middle, Haggard was (still is, for that matter) a man for whom history was something of the present. Because he was an anachronism himself, when Haggard rounded up a heap of players from Bob Wills's old band, the Texas Playboys (including Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Eldon Shamblin on guitar), to cut a tribute to Wills, it was less an exercise in nostalgia (Wills was still alive at that point) than it was an affectionate inevitability.

Available for the first time on CD, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World is an amazing, reverent combination of Haggard and Wills. The band sounds much as it did throughout the 1930s and 1940s, swinging its way through "San Antonio Rose" and "Stay a Little Longer" and "Corrina Corrina," but in front of them is a singer with a softer touch and a gentler voice. Haggard captures what was essential about Wills's music -- a big-band sound that could fill a honky-tonk, polish and shine revealed underneath sawdust and horseshit -- and without changing it a bit. Even when he leaves the original arrangements intact, he somehow makes it all his own.

By Robert Wilonsky

Teenage Fanclub
Grand Prix
Alaska Days

Like their stylistic forebears (Raspberries, Big Star) and contemporaries (Pooh Sticks, Velvet Crush), Scotland's Teenage Fanclub obsesses about the twin concerns of pure pop love and pure pop music. Not quite fan boys and not quite ironists, they chew on both subjects with a slightly distanced deliberation, the honest heart side by side with the jaundiced eye. On their fourth full-length album, Grand Prix, they couch these meditations in simple, elegant midtempo verse-verse-chorus (or chorus-chorus-verse) settings that feature their trademark spoken-sung vocals and their signature scrum of slashing, ringing guitar chords. For a band with three distinct songwriters (guitarist Norman Blake, bassist Gerard Love, and guitarist Raymond McGinley, all of whom sing their respective compositions), Teenage Fanclub sounds remarkably of a whole, and not solely because the trio's voices easily can be mistaken for one another. Blake weighs in with a passel of songs about the vicissitudes of love ("Mellow Doubt," "Neil Jung," "I'll Make It Clear," and the ballad portion of "Hardcore/Ballad"); Love effortlessly rolls out the hooks-aplenty pop-rock on "Sparky's Dream" and "Discolite"; and McGinley deftly encapsulates the band's world-view on "Verisimilitude" with the telling couplet "I only hope the verse is good/I hate verisimilitude." Their smart-ass rock literateness peeks through on "Neil Jung" (which, during its outro, alludes to N. Young's guitar work without quoting it directly) and the lives-up-to-its-title twofer "Hardcore/Ballad." As has frequently been the band's custom in the past, on "Discolite" they exhibit an uncanny ability to kick a song into the sonic stratosphere during its final fifteen seconds. This monkey's gone to heaven.

Similarly, Northern Virginia's Poole seamlessly zips through strummy ultrapop, although in their case the foursome takes pains to check any drollery at the door. To the sounds of chiming, buzzing guitars, airy, clear vocals, and propulsive melodies, they fashion bright, tuneful songs laced with charming puppy-love lyrics that range from romance's delirious peaks to its dispiriting valleys, not forgetting that vast bittersweet middle ground. If you were to stretch the Dentists and the Connells taffylike in opposite directions around the globe until they met up again, that rendezvous point would be Poolesville. Relentlessly fetching. (P.O. Box 1798, NYC, NY 10156-1798)

By Michael Yocke

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