TO DORK-DOM AND BEYOND
March 26, 2009
By ROBERT BIESELIN,
WHO: Ben Folds.
WHEN: 8 tonight and Saturday.
WHERE: Wellmont Theatre, 5 Seymour St., Montclair; 877-935-5668 or wellmonttheatre. com.
HOW MUCH: $40.
Its difficult to define but easy to recognize.
No, not "obscenity," but "cool." Among the cloudiest bits of nebulous slang, this cousin of "hip," "hot" and "awesome" is used lazily to describe everything from fashion to presidents. But "cool" is largely without a functional definition; nothing more than a cultural placeholder.
And to make it even more complicated, according to Ben Folds - one of the primary architects of the post-grunge, late-90's shake-up of the traditional "cool," - it's easily mistaken for its antithesis.
"The coolest people, I think, are perceived as dorks because everyone else is so sort of shaken of their self-certainty by trying to be cool. No one trying to be cool can possibly be cool," he said during a recent phone interview to promote his upcoming show in Montclair (his former stomping grounds).
It's like "the anti-Cool came down and said you had to wear sunglasses and tight leather pants. And everyone thought the anti-Cool was the Cool and they followed him into Dork-dom."
His description of "Dork-dom" dates the singer-songwriter, accurately pegging him as a child who came of age in the mid-80's, when stuffing yourself into Jim Morrisons mid-70's pants and Roy Orbisons mid-60's glasses was all the rage.
His definition of cool paints him as accurately: a dork-ish artist who got his break in a post-Nirvana, Weezer-ized world where sincerity (and lyrics) mattered.
Cool [kool] adj. "anyone that can navigate the necessary doubt, self-doubt in life and remain unfazed and just believe in what theyre feeling."
"I can do it sometimes and sometimes not," Folds admitted, "but if theres any preaching in my music, thats probably it just to be yourself."
The notion of Folds eventual self, a power-pop piano-pounding rock star, wasn't a new one when he emerged from previous bands (including Majosha) and previous instruments (including bass and drums) to take up the keys and form Ben Folds Five in the mid-90s. Elton John, Billy Joel many had pulled a piano bench up to the mainstream table and chowed down on a full plate of wit and bouncy chords. Folds, however, pulled it off in a new way, proving a closer cousin to Randy Newman, Harry Neilson and Elvis Costello than John or Joel.
He hit it big in 1997 with "Brick," a poignant ballad about abortion off "Whatever and Ever Amen." But other tracks off the same album ("Song for the Dumped," "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces") proved more apt samples of his biting, humorous style, one hed continue on 1999s "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner" and four solo albums, most recently "Way to Normal," released last year in a "cool," if unorthodox, fashion.
"A record label would have sued me for doing this eight years ago literally sued me," he said of the pre-release stunt that prefaced the proper drop of the album.
Folds recorded a fake version of the album and leaked it on the Internet. "Some people thought it was great. Some people thought it was really horrible," he laughed. The point is, it got peoples attention something that's not easy to do at this point in the music world.
"Its the Wild West in the music industry or maybe its the Titanic," he said. "Now, everyone's recommending all these goofy things: 'Well put the album out on a flash drive thatll go on your keychain and then well do a hologram thatll pop out of the CD.' I think the good thing is, if there's an opportunity to do something different, everyone's up for it now. So I look for them."
And Folds isnt having any trouble finding them.
Last month, he released "Stems and Seeds," which paired the fake version of "Normal" with the official version's vocals and instrumental tracks in an effort to encourage fans to remix the songs.
Next month, he'll drop "Ben Folds Presents: University a Cappella!" a collection of his biggest tracks ("Brick," "Jesusland," "Army") as performed by a cappella bands from 18 universities.
He's also begun work on an album with English author Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy," "A Long Way Down").
"I'tll be like one of my albums, only Nick will be writing the lyrics," Folds said, adding that the two have a lot in common artistically. "I think both of us prefer not to write from points of view that are all-knowing. I'd say the big thing we have in common is that our characters are far from perfect and they're aware of it."
Far from perfect, but still "cool."
The geeky "Zak and Sara," the delusional "Uncle Walter," the over-patient Annie from "Annie Waits" - they're endearing in spite of (or maybe because of) their flaws, just like the commitment-phobic Rob Fleming in "High Fidelity" or the suicidal Martin, JJ, Maureen and Jess in "A Long Way Down."
They're cool, because they're realistic - something they share with their creators.
Cool isn't "not caring what people think. Thats the idiot version," Folds said. "You do care what people think, but you listen to the higher voice and remain unfazed. If you can do that, then youre cool."
Copyright 2009 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.