Re-Introduce Yourself (Right On)
Reinventing Ben Folds, BT, Prince and Mark Eitzel

I had a frustrating week.

I got into it with a girl at work. Twice. And by “got into it,” I mean full-out yelling matches, complete with flailing hand gestures and (on her part) the brandishing of weapons. It’s my fault – I have a personality flaw that makes it virtually impossible for me to let small-minded, bigoted hatred just roll off my back, even when it’s not aimed at me. The first fight centered around my suggestion that perhaps gay people aren’t soulless, evil things that will burn in hell for all eternity. She didn’t take that well – “It’s wrong! God says it’s wrong! And they die of AIDS, you know!” The second argument erupted over her insistence on calling a visiting Chrysler exec who just happened to be Indian a “fucking dothead.”

I’ve honestly never encountered this level of irrational, bile-spitting hatred before. But I know what I’m going to say next time. This girl has a 10-year-old son, so next time she spouts off about how the “fucking a-rabs” get all the good jobs, I’m going to quietly ask, “Did Social Services take your kid away yet?” When she responds with confusion, I’ll sarcastically point out that all single mothers are lazy welfare recipients who don’t deserve to be parents, sluts who got themselves knocked up and now expect the state to pay for them. “Didn’t you know that? Everyone knows that,” I’ll say, hopefully proving my point – that prejudice of any stripe is ill-informed, stupid and useless.

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Several previous columns have been all about artists using the internet to connect with fans in new ways, and looking back, I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned Ben Folds yet.

Regular readers undoubtedly know how much I revere Folds by now. Suffice it to say that I think he’s the new savior of pop music, one of the best songwriters we have. He came out of nowhere (well, North Carolina) in the mid-’90s with a fully formed sound – jaw-dropping piano-pounding technique, classic melodic songcraft, and a penchant for glorious harmonies. With the Ben Folds Five (drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge, which, yes, adds up to three) he made a trilogy of superb pop records, and scored a huge, unlikely hit with “Brick,” a song about a couple struggling with the decision to have an abortion.

He split from the Five three years ago, and then made an album called Rockin’ the Suburbs that sounds pretty much the same. That’s not a complaint – Folds’ music is filled to overflowing with all the qualities most sorely missing from that of his modern counterparts, including the knack for sketching detailed characters and telling moving stories in his lyrics. Folds remembers when Elton John was good, when literate pop music ruled the airwaves, and he wears his influences like a badge.

So it’s gratifying that an artist so steeped in decades gone by has embraced the ‘net so completely. Folds is currently recording his second solo album with John Mark Painter (of Fleming and John, and where the hell is their new album?), but while he’s doing that, he’s also decided to make a trilogy of EPs, all new recordings that will only be available online and at gigs. Here’s part of his statement on these recordings: “Quietly releasing my music as EP’s allow me to get it out there as I finish it. With a minimum of hype. It’s for people who buy my music anyway. It won’t be sold in the big-ass chains, because that puts the price up and starts the big-ass machinery – press, radio etc. Then I have to pose naked at the piano, and really, I’m not a piece of meat, you know.”

Folds clearly has his eye on the time when the big-ass machinery will be unnecessary, when an artist is able to sustain a career and a livelihood merely by maintaining contact with fans through alternative means. This is most definitely the trial run, a chance to see if record company distribution and promotion can be bypassed. As such, it’s right in line with the revolutionary steps being taken by the likes of Mike Peters and Marillion. Folds knows the revolution will not be available in chain stores.

But enough about the format, what about the music? The first in the series, Speed Graphic, has now arrived, and you’d be forgiven for expecting a project like this to sound tossed-off and slight. You’d be wrong. These five songs are as fully realized and beautifully performed as any on his previous albums, despite having been recorded in a week and mixed in an afternoon. Speed Graphic kicks off with a nifty cover of the Cure’s “In Between Days,” Folds’ piano masterfully aping Robert Smith’s glossy guitar lines. Hearing this song in a much different context highlights what a pure pop joy it is, with Folds finding the exuberance bubbling beneath the surface.

According to Folds, the rest of Speed Graphic consists of older, unrecorded gems, with the exception of the heartbreaking “Give Judy My Notice,” written specifically for this EP. That song exemplifies what’s great about Ben Folds – even his unabashedly emotional pieces are intelligently crafted, and this one is wrapped in a melody that sends goose bumps. There’s simply no way to remain unmoved by this song. In a close second, however, is “Wandering,” a “lost” collaboration with Darren Jessee that concludes the EP on a graceful bed of harmonies.

Sandwiched between the tearjerkers is a pair of footstompers that showcase Folds’ Tin Pan Alley style piano work. “Dog,” especially, crashes in on a super-cool riff that surges forward relentlessly. All told, there’s not a single weak moment here. It’s uncertain how many of these things are left – Speed Graphic is a small, one-time pressing that comes in a fairly nondescript cardboard sleeve, belying the quality of the music within. Needless to say, I suggest you all get yourselves over to and pick one up. Should the record company machine grind to a halt in the next few years, it’s comforting to know that at least Ben Folds won’t go away with it.

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From classic, organic pop to that which leaps ahead of its time at lightspeed. There’s no question that Brian Transeau, better known simply as BT, is one of the most intriguing artists to arise from the techno landscape. His debut album, Ima, stretched to more than two hours of blissful trance, including a 45-minute remix of the entire album seamlessly integrated into the whole. It also featured a collaboration with Tori Amos that, sadly, stands head and shoulders above most of her recent output.

But nothing prepared BT’s fans for Movement in Still Life, his 2000 album that beautifully blended techno, trance, pop and rap into a new hybrid. The standout track, “Never Gonna Come Back Down,” featured wondrously nonsensical vocals from Soul Coughing’s M. Doughty, who should really do a whole album of surging techno tunes. What some may have missed is Transeau’s own vocal debut, on “Shame” – he has a pleasant, surprisingly emotional voice that compliments his warm, fluttering arrangements well.

And just as Movement seemed to come out of nowhere, so does BT’s new one, Emotional Technology. Simply put, this is an unabashed pop record. Transeau has made the often disastrous decision to step out from behind the mixing board and reinvent himself as a lead vocalist on nearly every track. All the songs (save the quick instrumental opening) have vocals, and most have deep, penetrating melodies. This is a project quite unlike any I’ve heard – it’s not arranged like a techno record, with endless stretches of beats and loops bookended by vocals, but neither is it a pop album with techno flourishes, like Madonna’s recent work. This is something new.

First off, Transeau has not abandoned his twittering, hyperkinetic production technique in the slightest. Emotional Technology may, in fact, be his most ear-catching record yet, flitting as it does from explosive beat-heavy choruses to lovely ambient passages and back again. The whole thing is exquisitely crafted, and like all his works, it flows together seamlessly. Transeau is not afraid of guitars, both acoustic and electric, and in fact plays most of them himself. He breaks a hundred silly rules at once in order to arrive at his sound, and God bless him for doing so in a field of music where every little variation in technique seems to garner its own sub-genre.

But these songs have verses, and choruses, and bridges, and breakdowns. These are pop songs, absolutely, even when they’re not arranged as such. “Paris,” for example, begins with two minutes of crazy beats interspersed with scatting and spoken word by reggae man Hutchy, then morphs into a techno-acoustic dance tune with a killer, hummable chorus, sung by Transeau. The real advantage of Transeau’s production decision here is drama – these songs move, collide and explode in ways that make most “dramatic” radio pop sound like Barry Manilow.

More surprising is the parade of guest vocalists here. Guru lends his rap skills to “Knowledge of Self,” one of the weaker tracks, while Rose McGowan – that’s right, the former Mrs. Marilyn Manson – sings the verses on “Somnambulist.” Cellist and vocalist Caroline Lavelle (she’s worked with Radiohead, Peter Gabriel and Massive Attack, among many others) takes “The Great Escape” to stunning new heights, both vocally and musically. Her cello breakdown in the middle section stands as the most sonically delightful moment of the album.

And then there’s JC Chasez, whose appearance makes Emotional Technology easily the best project to ever feature a member of ‘NSync. To both of their credits, Chasez is not here to add star power to a potential hit machine. Rather, he sings “The Force of Gravity,” an eight-minute trance-ambient pop song that ebbs and flows in ways that would drive any radio station program director insane. The chorus, which doesn’t appear until nearly four minutes in, is huge and powerful, dripping with resonance. Those adjectives, by the way, would never be used to describe Chasez’ main gig, so good on him for doing this.

The big prize, though, goes to Transeau himself, who concludes Emotional Technology with his best and most human vocal, on “The Only Constant is Change.” It’s almost his motto – who knows where Transeau will go from here, but this striking, warm album feels like a destination point for him. He proves here that machines don’t have to be cold, emotions don’t have to be sappy and simpering, and humanity doesn’t have to be a liability, as many techno artists apparently believe. Transeau is in a class by himself with this record, his personal best work and one of the best of the year overall.

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Of course, the problem with reinventing yourself all the time is that after a while, only the diehards care anymore. Statistically, there are very few of us willing to follow an artist from style to style over decades of recorded work – most are comfortable taking the one or two songs they first fell in love with and leaving the artist behind. Nothing alienates an audience quicker than not giving them what they want, and if you don’t believe me, just ask Prince.

The Artist Formerly Known as an International Superstar made his name with minimalist pop-funk in the ’80s, but even then, his restless nature manifested itself. Why else would he follow his biggest smash, Purple Rain, with the ’60s-inflected hippie-pop of Around the World in a Day? Why else would he come off of Sign O’ the Times and make the intricate, funky, audence-eroding (if he had released it in 1988 as planned) Black Album? Prince has always taken the path of most resistance, especially musically, and it seems we’re heading into an era in which that’s never been more true.

In the years since his abortive comeback record Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, Prince has taken the reins of his career completely and is letting the muse guide him where it may. He assembled the best band he’s ever had for his Jehovah’s Witness concept album The Rainbow Children, one of his finest works, despite the silly narration. He then took that band on tour and documented it with a three-CD set called One Nite Alone… Live. Rather than use this set as a way to bring old fans back into the fold, however, he relegated pretty much all the hits to a piano-vocal medley on disc two and gave the rest over to some amazing (repeat: amazing) funk jams and throwdowns.

And now he’s followed up those projects with his most idiosyncratic release ever. That’s right – ever. It’s called News, and it’s an hour of instrumental jams with his excellent band, divided into four pieces, each named after one of the points of the compass. (“North,” “East,” “West,” “South” – News, get it?) I feel sorry for anyone picking this up because they used to like “Raspberry Beret” – this album is loose, bizarre and a little bit impenetrable if you haven’t been following Prince’s recent work. Hell, even if you have, this album is something else.

While Prince and the band have been engaging in thudding, neck-breaking funk in concert, the jams on News are breezier and slighter. Each builds and progresses slowly, leaving room for thematic development amongst the solos. “East,” for example, cascades from a nearly chaotic guitar-sitar duet into a series of tasty guitar and piano licks, and then devolves into airy bass over marching-beat drums. It’s obvious these are not true improvs – the songs are composed, however loosely, much like Miles Davis’ 1970s work. Prince clearly enjoys his role as bandleader, a shift he’s been working towards since forming this group.

And did I mention the band? Prince has never had a more talented group at his disposal. The core of the ensemble is undeniably drummer John Blackwell, who amazed on The Rainbow Children and hasn’t stopped since. He’s seriously everything that anyone could want anchoring a rhythm section. At least half this band’s funk is attributable to him. Bassist Rhonda Smith is right there with him, telepathically linked – just check them out jamming beneath Renato Neto’s great piano work and Eric Leeds’ dynamic sax solo on “West.” And of course, there’s the man himself, directing the festivities with his guitar. Prince has always been underrated as a guitarist, and here he smokes like Hendrix’s much funkier younger brother.

Still, I can’t help but wonder who Prince imagines is the audience for this record. The diehards will, of course, pick it up, but they already got their copies months ago through the NPG Music Club. Those into the funk would be better off trying One Nite Alone, or even the Black Album, as News shies away from the truly energetic skull-smackers on those discs. News is a grower, and while it’s certainly worth picking up, it’s not the best place for a new fan to begin, or a lapsed fan to return. Prince is branching out in new directions, and he doesn’t care if he leaves everyone behind. That’s perhaps not the safest attitude for a formerly famous musician, but it speaks volumes about his value as an artist, and about why he’s always been worth following.

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Saving the best for last once again, but staying on the topic of personal reinvention, we have the inimitable Mark Eitzel, also known as the saddest man in rock. The former American Music Club singer has been undergoing a fascinating identity crisis lately, producing first the Pro-Tools ambient computer-pop of The Invisible Man and then the keyboard-populated covers album Music for Courage and Confidence. Covers albums often give you a good sense of where an artist’s head is during the sessions, and Eitzel paid tribute to Bill Withers, Phil Ochs and Boy George – a sure sign of a guy who doesn’t quite know who he is anymore.

The crisis proceeds apace on The Ugly American, an album that probably wouldn’t exist under normal conditions. To which I say, thank God for identity issues. The title is a reference to a song on 60 Watt Silver Lining, but also a commentary on the album’s production. Eitzel recently visited Athens, and while he was there, he hit it off with some of the locals and booked a few sessions with them. The result is this head-clearing collection of older Eitzel songs given a complete reconstruction. The surprise is that the songs, with no exceptions, sound reborn, as does Eitzel himself, who turns in his best vocal performance since leaving AMC. It’s shocking, but what appears on the surface to be a throwaway project between albums turns out to be Eitzel’s most rewarding solo record to date.

Half the tracks are American Music Club numbers, and even if you’re still in love with the originals, you’ll be impressed with these new arrangements. The Greek musicians clearly love these songs, and their delicate flourishes are perfectly timed and modulated. Manolis Karantinis elevates “Nightwatchman” with his rolling mandolin, supporting Kiriakos Gouventas’ lovely violin work. Manos Ahalinopoulos impresses throughout with his pipes and clarinet lines. The tones are undoubtedly Mediterranean, but there’s enough guitar, both acoustic and electric, to ground these arrangements.

Of particular interest to Eitzel fans, however, will be the inclusion of three gorgeous rarities. Why he has never recorded “Jenny” formally (it appeared on Songs of Love Live) is a mystery – it’s glorious here, deep and melancholy. “Take Courage,” also from Songs of Love, rises and falls on Karantinis’ mandolin, and it’s sprightly and upbeat here. Best of all, though, is a powerful rendering of “What Good is Love,” which has only ever appeared on Lover’s Leap USA, only sold at gigs until its one printing of 500 ran out. This is one of Eitzel’s best songs, and the Greek band finds the song’s depressing heart and squeezes gently. It’s good to have a full studio version of this, and especially one this magical.

Eitzel has, naturally, removed himself from the running for the Top 10 List here – the only song that hasn’t appeared before is a cover of bandleader Manolis Famellos’ “Love’s Humming.” It’s depressing, more so than his sad voice and lyrics, because The Ugly American is a shoo-in. It’s delicate and beautiful, a genuine treasure masquerading as a toss-off. Just dig the Cretan lyra on “Will You Find Me,” with an arrangement that knocks the socks off the one on AMC’s Mercury. Ironic, too, because Eitzel seems to have been asking himself that very question for years now, and with this album, he sounds like he’s found the answer.

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Next week, we say goodbye to Warren Zevon, whose final album, The Wind, hits stores. Not sure I’m quite ready for that yet. We’ll see.

Just want to put one more plug in – I picked up the DVD of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine this week, and it hasn’t lost an ounce of its power. As I said before, every American should watch this film. It’s sharp, insightful, harrowing and powerful. Highly recommended.

See you in line Tuesday morning.