Taking a listen


Ben Folds — Way to Normal (Sony) Some people never really grow up; they just learn to keep their cool in public a little better. This is especially true for Winston-Salem’s own Ben Folds, who has put together a much celebrated career while never surrendering the jocular wit that imbued his earliest work with the Ben Folds Five and has persisted through his solo career. That much is apparent upon listening to his third solo and seventh overall release, Way to Normal. Folds sets the album’s tone with an amusing recollection of a nasty fall he suffered onstage in Japan with “Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head).” Of course, his trademark piano mashing is on full display throughout. You would never expect any less of the man who over the summer retired a certain Dr. Dre classic-that-shall-go-unnamed-here with a furious flourish that would make Jerry Lee Lewis blush. Gone for the most part are the quiet orchestral qualities of his last two albums that seemed to identify him as a solo artist, though a hint is still detected in “You Don’t Know Me,” his upbeat duet with Regina Spektor. His sailor-mouthed tendencies, however, remain and are on full display in “Bitch Went Crazy,” a dignified account of a break-up from the male point-of-view. She stabbed his basketball, for Pete’s sake! Still, it wouldn’t be Ben Folds without a few forthright tearjerkers and that’s exactly what you get with “Cologne” and “Kylie from Connecticut.” The positioning of both tracks serve as somewhat of a buzzkill in comparison to the joviality and geeky aggravation presented by the rest of the album. Still, Normal qualifies as another successful offering by a guy who just doesn’t succumb to the temptation of self-reinvention that besets many songwriters at this stage of their careers. It’s a sound all his own and you’ll know it when you hear it.

Rating (3.5 out of five)

Michael Franti & Spearhead — All Rebel Rockers (ANTI-) The world needs people like Michael Franti. As a man who decided in 2000 that he would remain barefoot for three days as an anti-poverty protest and has yet to lace them up since, Franti has been as devoted to his political stances as he has about making music for all tastes. His band Spearhead’s albums, particularly 2006’s incendiary Yell Fire!, are Marley-esque cries for social justice and his latest album, All Rebel Rockers, is another page in his musically expansive book. I had high expectations when I discovered that dub gurus Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare were recruited to lead the album’s production in Jamaica. Fortunately, their influence is felt throughout most of the album, particularly on opener “Rude Boys Back In Town.” Though the production seems a bit heavy handed and eager to please, the dancehall flavor does lend itself very nicely to Franti’s amalgamation of reggae, hip hop, folk and political activism. Having Sly & Robbie in the booth does have additional perks, such as access to the incredible stable of artists in their rolodex. African-fusion group Zap Mama and dancehall singer Cherine Anderson make several appearances throughout, most notably on the album’s first single, “Say Hey (I Love You).” It’s happy-go-lucky and the least political track of the album, but then again, each of his releases seem to have their own version of “Everyone Deserves Music.” Franti wraps up Rockers with the stripped-down testament to everyday worries of “Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong” and the acoustic “Have a Little Faith,” both of which juxtapose beautifully with Sly & Robbie’s bouncing dub stamp. Though some of his lyrics border on paranoid, Franti doesn’t fail to produce yet another socially conscious, danceable album sure to play to his live performance strength. Rating (3 records)

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