When Ben Folds Five's self-titled debut came out in 1995, the Chapel Hill band seemed doomed to the novelty ghetto: The hit single "Underground" was a cheeky slice of of-the-moment irony, and the trio was generally viewed as little more than that indie-rock band with the piano where the guitar usually goes. But 1997's best-selling Whatever And Ever Amen dodged those pitfalls nicely, helping to establish Folds as a skillful composer and singer of witty, old-school classic pop, albeit one deft and contemporary enough to write a radio hit about abortion ("Brick"). After an ill-conceived Folds side project—Fear Of Pop's recent album was stuffed with the sort of wankery most bands relegate to uncredited bonus tracks—Ben Folds Five returns to form with The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner. Recently recast in the media as a depressed, tortured artist, Folds does come off a bit less cheerful than usual here, but the album has plenty of bright spots, from the bouncy, infectious, funny single "Army" all the way to "Magic, a mournful dirge that somehow never plods. During moments of "Narcolepsy" and "Regrets," the band piles on strings, Queen-like bombast, and wistful melancholy, lending the songs the sort of dramatic flair usually reserved for lavish Broadway show-stoppers. But then there's the hauntingly compelling "Your Most Valuable Possession," a minimalist jam built around a cryptic answering-machine message from Folds' dad. As a whole, Unauthorized Biography feels a little slight, but its best moments ("Army," the gorgeous, hitworthy ballad "Mess") make it an enduring addition to Folds' catalog.
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