When is bitter cynicism just a negative energy drain, and when is it a sign of someone's willingness to face unpleasant realities? Hell if I know, but whatever his case, I get quite a thrill from Ben Folds's intelligent venom. It would be one thing to shout lyrics like "Kiss my ass" or "Give me my money back, you bitch" while banging on an overamplified guitar; it's quite another to yoke such noble sentiments to sharp, explosive piano-based arrangements that hark back to 1970s radio pop while marking one way out of the distorted-guitar mess of modern rock music. The audio verite immediacy of the new Ben Folds Five album, Whatever and Ever Amen, recorded in Folds's home in Chapel Hill, suggests a group that can really kick it onstage without resorting to faux sloppiness or posturing, and Folds's lush, full-handed pianistics and the band's impressive group singing make for a good deal more harmonic sophistication and rhythmic variety than one might expect from such an angry young band. The wounded-nerd sarcasm and piano-bass-drums configuration (the Five is a trio) have prompted obvious comparisons to Joe Jackson and Elton John, and that's OK, but let it be said that Folds is much more of a singer than the former and much less of a bullshitter than the latter. Not only do his band's arrangements burst with excitement, but his songs also constitute a fine pop-culture document of contemporary cynicism, built not in strings of lazy "poetic" obscurities but in quick, unpretty verbal jabs that sound just like mundane living-room conversation: "Don't just stare like / You never cared / I know you did / You just smiled / Like a bank teller / Telling me blankly / Have a nice life." Thursday, April 24, 7 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, Chicago; 773-549-0203. --Renaldo Migaldi
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of Ben Folds Five.