THE PIANO You can count on one hand the number of pop performers who've found mainstream success putting the piano at the forefront -- Elton John, Billy Joel, Carole King, maybe a few others. Yet it was this instrument that drew Folds as a socially awkward child, growing up in North Carolina. He learned bass, drums and other instruments, too, but when he formed the Ben Folds Five trio ("bad math joke," he says) with drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge in 1994, the piano -- not the distorted guitar -- formed the band's backbone.
"The piano is just a different animal," Folds told Paste magazine last spring. "It's expensive, it's big, it's heavy ... it's pretty rather than brash." Yet he also says the band's initial goal was "to be the loudest piano band in existence" - a goal that wasn't too hard to reach.
HOT TOPIC Though the band released its first, self-titled CD in 1995, it wasn't until 1997's Whatever and Ever Amen that the trio caught national attention. That's largely because of "Brick," a raw, tender ballad about Folds taking his high school girlfriend to get an abortion. They made an MTV video for it. They performed it on Saturday Night Live. And the song rocketed up the charts.
Most critics will point out two ironies there. One, that the subject matter turned out to be as popular as it did (unless listeners just never figured out what he was talking about). And two, that "Brick" was completely atypical of the band's catalogue. The former we accept. The latter is only partially true. The group's first two releases won them just as many fans for funny, raucous, punk-spirited songs like "Uncle Walter" and "Song for the Dumped" (chorus: "Give me money back, you bitch") as it won converts from "Brick." But those first two releases weren't just vitriolic screeds. Songs like "Best Imitation of Myself" and "Selfless, Cold and Composed" showed great sensitivity as Folds poured out his insecurities and lousy relationship skills.
MINUS FIVE So what do you do when your piano power pop group has just hit the big time with a song about abortion? You break up and go into the studio with William Shatner. In one of his more baffling career moves, Folds recorded a track with the chubby, melodramatic former Enterprise captain for his first solo disc, Volume I. It was a commercial dud.
PLUS FIVE Lucky for him, the band regrouped for 1999's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, in which Folds took the sensitive-songwriter thing even further than he had with their previous two releases. A dynamic, searching self-portrait, Messner first enraged hardcore fans, then became those same fans' new gold standard. The album never saw the commercial success that Whatever did, but it appeared the band had reached new artistic heights.
MINUS FIVE Then they broke up again.
REALLY BAD TIMING By 2001, Folds was in a good position to build up a solo career. "Brick" and Whatever had won him a certain amount of cultural cachet among the populace, and the artistry of Reinhold Messner had finally sunk in among his loyal fan base. The time was right to make his first big post-Five move, to go wide with a solo album.
He released Rockin' the Suburbs on September 11, 2001 -- when the listening public was, let's say, a little too distracted to notice. Which is sort of a shame. Despite the gimmicky title track (a heavy-handed mocking of suburban wannabes), Rockin' proved to be a strong step forward for Folds. But then, timing is everything.
FOLLOW-UP At this point, most musicians would likely return to the studio for another pop sucker punch. They'd work on branding themselves, on imprinting that brand on the cultural imagination. Maybe they'd do commercials, or appear in a film or two. (Folds did perform in local theater troupes in New York before starting his musical career.)
But Folds chose a different route. In 2002, he released a live album and contributed songs to films like I Am Sam and The Banger Sisters. The next year, he toured Australia with super-group the Bens -- Folds, Australian songwriter Ben Lee and American indie darling Ben Kweller. The same year, he baffled industry types by releasing two EPs strictly online, knocking Beyonce Knowles from Billboard's No. 1 download spot on the charts.
In 2004, Folds went back to work with William Shatner, producing the star-heavy album Has Been. Then he released another EP online. Last year, he performed with both the West Australian and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras, releasing a performance DVD of the former show.
WHAT'S IN A NAME To top all that, last April, Folds came out with his first full-length release in four years, and his worst-named.
When Ben Folds Five released The Autobiography of Reinhold Messner in 1999, they told the press that "Reinhold Messner" was simply a pseudonym used by drummer Darren Jessee in high school. They had to be told that Messner was, in reality, a famous Austrian mountaineer. When he named this most recent endeavor Songs for Silverman, he thought "Silverman" was just a good name for a generic Everyman. It was, but it was also a good name for that annoying Jack Black film Saving Silverman, released in 2001.
The similarity has rubbed some fans the wrong way. "I found out about the film after I named the album," Folds told the Boston Phoenix last May. "I was going to use a real person's name, but I was told I couldn't."
Folds seems to reflect on his age on Silverman. His voice sounds older. He sings a mournful lost-comrade kind of song about the death of songwriter Elliot Smith, and a too-sweet song about his daughter, Gracie. It's clear that he's grown past the days of Ben Folds Five, when he was known for being completely irreverent toward the piano -- thrashing on the keys and throwing his piano stool across the stage. Nowadays, he told Paste, "I'd rather see more musical communication and less pogo-jumping."
Still, the album retains a certain edge, if only for the bonus track included on the vinyl release -- a tender, ironic cover of Dr. Dre's profanity-laden "Bitches Ain't Shit."
"I guess I've had some really great failures in the past few years," Folds has said. But he's nothing if not persistent. By continually reinventing himself, diversifying his portfolio, mixing heartaches and abortion with gangsta rap and audience sing-alongs, Folds has -- somehow -- been able to do whatever the hell he wants. "Everything's running smoothly," he told one magazine. "I'm older than I was, and I'm still washed up, and I haven't changed my music one iota."
Chapter 12 in Ben Folds' How Not to Become a Pop Whore: Don't Change Your Plans.
Ben Folds plays at the University of Idaho's Kibbie-ASUI Activity Center, in Moscow on Sunday, March 5, at 8 pm. Tickets: $15 for students, $25 for the public. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.