Then it hit me: no guitar. No friggin' guitar. No wall of sound. No grind of death. No phallic whomp-whomp-a-grunge-boom. In its stead we get the thumping rhythm section of bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse and the frisky piano riffs of Folds himself. Other than an occasional organ fill or string arrangement, that's it. Indeed, the joy of listening to Folds's infectious pop songs unfold in this stripped-down setting is the melodic purity that comes with ditching the electric guitar. This purity is nothing new to old fans, who embraced BFF's eponymous 1995 debut as a welcome respite from the onslaught of grunge. This dazzling sophomore effort makes another.

From the joyous opening strains of "One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces" to the melancholy tinkling of "Fair," the Chapel Hill trio keeps the pace varied and the approach fresh. "Brick," a breathtaking ballad that poetically chronicles the tolls of abortion, gives way to the stomping chords and hilarious ranting of "Song for the Dumped." Without reducing the proceedings to camp, Folds sounds positively show-tunish on "Steven's Last Night in Town," which features soaring harmonies (à la vintage Queen) and cameos by three members of the Klezmatics. Producer Andy Wallace (Nirvana) employs strings in sparing doses, using a cello and violins to flesh out the mournful minor-key closer "Evaporated." At the heart of the operation is Folds's own virtuoso tickling, which ranges from jazzy noodlings to sweeping arpeggios to boogie-woogie banging, with the occasional Gershwin riff thrown in for good measure.

By eschewing guitars, Folds also makes room for his own reedy tenor, an instrument whose quiet, quirky charms might otherwise be lost. Likewise, the band's decision to record the album in live takes allows them to capitalize on the spontaneity and honed chops that come only after years on the road.

-- Steven Almond

Various Artists
Kerouac -- kicks joy darkness

The day I received this CD in the mail, I learned that Allen Ginsberg had died. I recalled that in a college oral interpretation course I'd once chosen to recite Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl" because it gave me a legitimate excuse to stand in front of the class and say dirty words.

That satisfying sense of rebellion is what has drawn young people to both rock and roll and Beat poetry for the last four decades, so it's not surprising that Beat icon Jack Kerouac tends to be revered among musicians. Kerouac -- kicks joy darkness, a 25-track tribute disc that effectively melds music with spoken word, features contributions from a number of music-industry giants. Though Ginsberg gives an expressive reading and several other Kerouac contemporaries show up, the reality is that you're going to buy this CD to hear the rock stars.

And most manage not to embarrass themselves. Patti Smith gives the Patti Smith treatment to "The Last Hotel," backed by Thurston Moore and Lenny Kaye. Eddie Vedder drones "Hymn" amid a whining guitar that circles like a pesky insect. Maggie Estep spews "Skid Row Wine" with punk venom, while John Cale reads "The Moon" with such reserve that it's almost buried under his somber, moving synthesizer score. Michael Stipe matter-of-factly reads "My Gang" and accompanies himself on organ with endearing ineptitude. Julianna Hatfield's perkiness, so grating in her music, is perfect here as she reads the storybook verse of "Silly Goofball Pomes." Other performers include Warren Zevon, Steven Tyler, Morphine, and Lee Ranaldo, who co-produced the album with Jim Sampras.

In concept, execution, and packaging, Kerouac is clearly a labor of love, a project that its honoree would have appreciated. It reminds us that poetry is actually a form of music, with rhythm and meter and tone. Truth is, this album makes pretty good background noise even if you aren't listening to the words. (Sorry, Jack).

-- Debbie Gilbert

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