The ’90s answer to Lee Michaels or indie rock’s very own Elton John? A witty piano-pumping wildman from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Ben Folds is a keyboard virtuoso with an artlessly sincere voice and a knack for well-constructed songs that flirt convincingly with mainstream pop and soul sensibilities. Palatable and just this side of obvious, Folds’ goodtime creations repeatedly display an offbeat individuality that puts him in the realm of early Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson rather than Billy Joel.
Piano is such a distinctive rock instrument (and, for obvious reasons of do-it-yourself touring, almost unknown in alternaland) that Folds is typecast the minute he sits down to play, but Ben Folds Five matches mature music to a bratty sensibility. If Folds’ melodic sense and ivory-tinkling are strictly traditional, the pluck of his just-past-nerdy lyrics and the fuzzed-up punch of his rhythm section (the careful observer will note that Ben Folds Five is, in fact, a trio) leads him into a world hipper than most sitdown rockers ever know. Whether describing a girl as an Axl Rose lookalike, ribbing underground pretensions, conflating “Sports & Wine” or doing the “Best Imitation of Myself,” Folds is an ebullient and engaging force, supplying, as he puts it, “punk rock for sissies.”