It came as some surprise when Ben Folds' latest, Way to Normal, debuted last October at No. 11 on the Billboard charts, a career best. It may not count as a second act per se -- Folds has been simmering on the cusp between cult familiarity and mainstream stardom for over a decade -- but it's representative of his uncommon position in contemporary pop music. He's not quite a one-hit-wonder, though his old band did reach the mainstream in earnest only once (with, bemusingly, a downtempo number based on Folds' experience taking his girlfriend to get an abortion). He's not an indie darling either -- his records continue on a path too transparent and, well, pop-oriented to garner indie-critical acclaim.
Folds simply persists in writing honest, often startlingly literal songs with clever hooks and themes just as often funny as somber, and though it's cliché at this point to compare Folds to Elton John, it seems ridiculous not to. Folds recognizes the lineage in Way to Normal's lead track, "Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head)," a choppy "live" track that's both an homage to his predecessor and a simple, literal recounting of a dive he took onstage in Japan.
Way to Normal exhibits just the sort of material that turns off the indie press but at the same time makes Folds an invaluable player in the larger world of popular music. Folds is funny, irreverent and self-referential. He posits his songs in conversation with one another: "You Don't Know Me," a duet with Regina Spektor, sees the singer comparing himself to an "errant dog"; later in the album he devotes an entire novelty track to the phrase. Other songs are conversations with the outside world, such as "Brainwascht" which showcases in great detail a cryptic beef with another songwriter, yet unnamed.
If Folds' whiny angst turns some off -- and Way to Normal contains its share, and sometimes more -- it's also exactly that which has endeared him to his fan base. And what can be said for Folds that can't be said for many more recent arrivals to the world of angsty pop is that he doesn't take himself too seriously; when his anger about having been done wrong is showing most fiercely, you can be sure a novelty tune based on word-play humor isn't far off. It's a combination that today is not so prevalent in the pop palette, and one that has allowed Folds to establish and maintain his niche for more than a decade.
Ben Folds with Miniature Tigers. 7 p.m. Mon. Feb. 16 (doors at 6 p.m.). Club Zoo. 1630 Smallman St., Strip District. $25. All ages. 412-201-1100 or www.clubzoo.net
- B-B-B-Benny: Ben Folds