A few years ago, major labels would have shied away from anything that didn’t smack of a Top 40 hit. Why invest hard-earned cash in some experimental effort when you’re mining for the next Celine Dion pot of gold? Could it be that we’re entering the age of artistic freedom? Or could it be that Ben Folds -- yes, of the popbeast trio Ben Folds Five -- has an anomalous and fortunate clause in his contract with his record company. Either way, Folds now enters the experimental realm with Fear of Pop, his spoken word, spazz-funk alter ego. Volume 1 features the familiar Folds old guard -- Caleb Southern and John Mark Painter -- and adds the talents of one William Shatner, formerly known for his Star Trek glory and sorry, best-forgotten attempts at dramatic Beatles covers. Volume 1 is a concept album with a kitschy, TV-theme vibe and a classic rock blandness that’s occasionally interrupted by driving guitar progressions and funky soul rhythms. This is Ben Folds’ admitted attempt at escaping the three-minute, pop songwriting formula his record company and fans so love. Those fans’ll be left with quizzical, raised eyebrows upon realizing that the tune here called “Kops” is a close descendent of the forgotten “Starsky and Hutch” theme or that “Interlude,” with its ’60s sci-fi sound, would get more airplay in an old episode of “Lost in Space.” “In Love” and “Still in Love” suggest that William Shatner secretly wishes he could be Serge Gainsbourg, but fails to seduce the listener into little more than disbelief. The promises of the title track, “Fear of Pop,” a swaggering, hard-driving funky guitar effort, are never borne out in what is at best an incoherent, spastic album. Luckily for Ben, he still hasn’t packed in his piano and doesn’t fear Ben Folds Five pop.
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