Ben Folds Five
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
(550 Music)

Hey, Ben Folds! You've just scored a sizable radio hit in "Brick," a song about a gloomy holiday abortion. What are you gonna do now? Judging from his trio's third album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, it certainly isn't a trip to the Magic Kingdom for a fun-filled day with Mickey and the gang. In fact, there's nothing magical, fun, or special at all about Reinhold Messner. It's a monotonous, tuneless, and pretty much pointless excursion into heavy-handed self-indulgence.

Late last year Folds released a one-off solo project (with assistance from the likes of master thespian William Shatner) called Fear of Pop. As a friend remarked after hearing Reinhold Messner, Folds should have called this one Fear of Pop. Abandoning, for the most part, the jolly, smartass piano pop that guided his first two albums--the fine self-titled effort from Ben Folds Five and the slightly more aggressive follow-up Whatever and Ever Amen--Folds and group attempt here to refashion themselves as "serious" musicians, proponents of the "Brick" formula.

But it just doesn't work. Loaded with tunes that are either pompously inflated to a grandiose scale or smothered in retro-lounge cheese, Reinhold Messner is never quite sure what it wants to be. On one hand, it aspires to concept-album hugeness (though I can't make out just what the hell it's all about); on the other hand, it wants to disperse with the flippant routine around which Ben Folds Five have built their career--they're grown-ups now. Whatever is going on here, it sure is dismal.

Yet, it starts off grand enough with "Narcolepsy," a bombastic album opener that sets the stage for something magnificent. It sounds like the first chapter of a story--The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, perhaps?-- but the remainder of the album seldom returns to that notion. There's "Army," a jaunty throwback to the old, carefree days when Folds banged away on the piano as if it was a drum kit and mocked his generation's frivolities. And there's "Your Redneck Past," from a similar channel. But most of Reinhold Messner is a head- scratcher, a lost opportunity to build upon an already-strong base. Artists, they're so temperamental when it comes to that whole maturity thing.

--Michael Gallucci

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Echo
(Warner Bros.)

Isn't it about time that Tom Petty made that great middle-age, coming-to-terms-with-his-life album? It's been ten years since his last real keeper, the solo outing Full Moon Fever, and the time since has been occupied with two retrospectives, one group album, another solo disc, a failed soundtrack attempt, and several tours. Now that longtime backing band the Heartbreakers is picking up sidemen to fill in the empty spaces, and his just-as-long marriage has crumbled around him, it would be the perfect time for Petty's own Blood on the Tracks (a heart-of-darkness exploration of divorce itself).

But Echo misses out on the chance. Instead, like nearly every Petty album (save the brilliant Damn the Torpedoes and semi-reflective Full Moon Fever), it travels down well-worn roads. Faithful to the rock-and-roll cause, but a little too familiar and tattered to induce any real leaps of joy. Especially since Petty doesn't really get around to any of that here himself.

This is a somber piece, thoughtful in its own small way, but too much of the time it's filled with the universal workhorses that Petty does so reliably well. And that's the biggest problem with Echo: It's too damn reliable. By now, you know what to expect from a Petty album: no dips into hip-hop, electronica, or any other genre from this '60s refugee. With production (from Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell, and Rick Rubin) more lax than usual, Echo could have taken them into another domain, one that explores Petty's marital breakup, his and the band's aging into monument status--their very own rock-and-roll odyssey.

Alas, Echo just busts open another can of heartland rockers with occasional glittering Hollywood twists. "Room at the Top" nearly finds its groove as the intro track to something grand. "Please love me/I'm not so bad," Petty muses, with a slight crack in his voice. But by the time he gets around to "Free Girl Now" two songs later, he's back to carving up not-so-fresh slices of rock and roll. It's Petty's most assured album of the '90s, but Echo could very well be a product of the '80s . . . or even the '70s.

--Gallucci

Underworld
Beaucoup Fish
(JBO/V2)

Ambient music has never jelled like this. Beaucoup Fish is a thick liquid that transforms its surroundings into a massive sonic swimming pool, and we, the listeners, become the fish, pulsing with the flow of the rhythms.

Underworld proves it, too, has been transformed. All the foundations are still there: the years of American house music, the '80s synth avenues once walked, the live evolution of music in its natural, non-studio format, and even the tribal beats of quasi-generic techno-pop. Underworld has forgotten nothing, but it's not stuck in the past. Beaucoup Fish is all about the liquid nature of time and reality and bending to the will of something higher, almost out of human conception.

The disc is one long track, like the serpents referred to in "Shudder/King of Snakes." It undulates along an aural dreamscape in a ghostly, occult fashion, from the head-pounding onslaught of "Kittens" to the serene motions of "Winjer." There is but one bump in the road. "Bruce Lee" is too generic, the beat too normal, the hypnotic swells nonexistent. Fortunately, it's also one of the shortest cuts on the album.

Played end-to-end, Beaucoup Fish is religion for the club generation. Whether you sweat and move with the beat or close your eyes and allow it to carry you along, the experience leaves you somehow altered. You see and hear more in the world around you. The dull roar of traffic becomes just another form of mesmerization, and even the slightest tick metastasizes into an overbeat. The religion is the mystery, and the mystery is how Underworld could have accomplished this.

--David Powers

Cree Summer
Street Faerie
(Work/Sony)

Call it dumb luck or the convergence of various moon signs nearing the new millennium, but a former TV celebrity has finally cut a good album. Cree Summer has been in the biz since age thirteen, when she began doing cartoon voices, but is best known for her five-year run on NBC's A Different World. At some point, she, like John Tesh and Corey Hart before her, decided singing was her true calling. The first album she recorded was never released, so Summer returned to the world of cartoon voices. Then her old buddy Lisa Bonet talked her into sending Bonet's ex, Lenny Kravitz, a demo, and here we are today.

Much of Street Faerie walks the fine line between cliched and a new spin on an old sound. The only thing that saves it from tipping onto the wrong side is an underlying vibe--clearly placed there by the cunning hands of Mr. Kravitz, who produced and arranged the album. "Mean Sleep," a duet with Kravitz, is equaled only by the final track, "Curious White Boy." Kravitz definitely had a hand in Street Faerie, but he probably found it a pretty easy assignment. The fact that it doesn't come off as so much fluff-pop is indicative that he had a good working model going into the studio and merely had to clean up a few of the edges.

Summer's voice is one of the most dynamic in modern rock, traveling from the sultry depths of throaty blues to sweetly tender folk-inspired delicacies, sometimes within the same song. And while the overall sound of Street Faerie tends toward latter-day Lilith Fair stock, a closer listen reveals interesting melodies and intricately orchestrated songs. The sentiments tend to dip into the pretentious at times ("Fall" is more likely attempting to be "Ode to a Dying Leaf"), but that's a casualty of actually laying something on the line. Summer shows us something real and gives us a glimpse of a unique life (she grew up in a mud house on a Canadian Cree Indian Reservation and dropped out of school at sixteen). Many wrongly assume their celebrity status will be a golden key through any doorway; Summer clearly didn't assume anything and instead worked to produce a better-than-average album.

--Powers

Trans Am
Futureworld
(Thrill Jockey)

Futureworld, the fourth album in as many years by Maryland trio Trans Am, finds the group erecting a musical response to the world's heightened premillennial tension. Although the group's previous three records ran the gamut from ZZ Top-style riffage to Krautrockian keyboard folly, Futureworld has vocals and guest musicians, and seems generally preoccupied with vintage, pre-punk exercises a la Kraftwerk and Can.

"1999" kicks things off with a short sax solo (!) from Julian Thomson before getting down to business with "Television Eyes," a speedy drum 'n' bass ditty narrated by a robotic voice. So far, so good. All of the band's most appealing elements are present: the motorized riffing, the retro synth melody, the precise drumwork.

The title track is better: a spastic, major-key romp that jolts the listener back to the alienation of Krautrock circa 1978. The processed voice is strangely comforting, despite the jaded observations. The droning second half of the song is very cool, but this is a gloomy state of affairs, indeed. If this is Trans Am's prediction for our future world, unplug my computer and pass me some soma.

The wacky voice is amusing at first, especially when it utters Pimpbot-style come-hithers like "Come back to my house, baby" at the beginning of "Am Rhein." But its presence over the course of the album (in various states of computer-enhanced disguise) gradually wears thin. In general, the songs tend to become frustratingly retro, needlessly repetitive, or just silly. They say variety is the spice, but one's left searching for some deeper meaning.

It seems unfair to question Trans Am's sincerity at this point, since the band can rock the house about as well as any outfit currently active in the American underground scene. And although there is definitely some worthwhile material on Futureworld, Trans Am has yet to craft music, or a concept, that holds together over the course of an entire CD.

--Jonathan Cohen

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