Ben Folds & r & & r & Way To Normal & r & & r & 3 STARS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & en Folds is one of the oddest balls in pop music -- "normal" is the last word that comes to mind. And he rocks. "Hiroshima," for example, could be the next sports anthem sing-along if it were about something other than him falling off stage at a show (in Hiroshima) and the resulting MRI scan. (You can even see inside his skull in the disc's artwork.) And "Bitch Went Nuts" is even more hilarious. It starts off with the line "She stabbed my basketball" and goes on to more than earn the disc's "Parental Advisory" label, all set to some seriously frantic ivory-pounding.
Folds is more somber on the standout "Cologne," which is reminiscent of his last record, Songs For Silverman -- a much better record but not quite as fun as Way To Normal. With track names like "The Frown Song," "Free Coffee" and "Dr. Yang," Folds' absurdist streak is on full display -- reminiscent of former piano players like Billy Joel and Elton John, but way, way less normal.
-- TED S. McGREGOR JR.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & few years ago, in its England laboratory, the Streets concocted music's crystal meth: U.K. garage rap. It's a bold genre by nature, the equivalent of mixing oil with water.
But for whatever reason, the improbable union has worked for Mike Skinner, the one-man band behind the Streets. His 2004 effort, "A Grand Don't Come For Free" was a dazzling concept album that told the tale of a love-lorn loadie grappling with fame and substance abuse.
His fourth joint, "Borrowed," isn't as tawdry: Skinner takes on religion and the weather and personal strength. He's still experimental and brave in his attempts to push the limits, but "The Escapist" is a rich ballad with lyric appeal. He knows when to call upon his spoken-word strengths.
In the end, Skinner is riddled with wacky strengths and baffling minuses -- he can't rhyme, and doesn't -- though he's managed to produce a captivating, queer sound.
-- TIM BROSS
DOWNLOAD: "The Escapist"