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Freedy Johnston rocks. Having a drummer like former Tom Petty foil Stan Lynch and a producer/ guitarist like Danny Kortchmar (one of the tougher-minded members of the ’70s/’80s session mafia) along doesn’t hurt. But what really drives Johnston’s fourth album, Never Home, is the way the singer/songwriter’s quizzical lyrical voice, his irrepressible melodic gift, the snap of the band, and the finely ground arrangements all come together for an effect rare in an era when Hootie & the Blowfish pass for great commercial pop-rock.

Johnston’s linking of indelible tunes with smart, compact storytelling—his stuff actually earns him the right to cite Raymond Carver as an influence—makes it easy to follow the rock-crit rule about not reviewing the printed text. On Never Home, his and Kortchmar’s guitars intertwine modified power chords with singing Byrdslike lines in a manner Lindsey Buckingham would recognize. The near-ethereal vocal harmonies of “One More Thing to Break” give way to a seam-busting solo in a screaming tone that refuses to die away even when the song is done. That all this is used to get across the tale of a rough-cut man whose lover hides him from friends and abandons him in nightclubs is a sharp formal move, but it’s far more than that. Johnston, as his oft-cited cover of “Wichita Lineman” implies, doesn’t take the relative lack of currency of the style and intelligence he plies for a license to self-indulgence: He no doubt knows people like those who populate his songs and would like nothing better than to reach them on the radio.

Such plain-spokenness, of course, is a hallmark of country music, and Johnston makes some sly connections with the genre. The I-gotta-move-on-babe clichés that nouveau hillbilly crooners borrow from their longhaired ’70s precursors (and which might as well have been swiped from Steve Martin’s “ramblin’, ramblin’ guy”) are flipped around in “He Wasn’t Murdered.” Over a jaunty midtempo strut, Johnston refuses to romanticize his hero, placing him near a burned-out neon sign in a motel with a “used-up mirror.” At the number’s end, the bewildered protagonist is ready to turn back around, scrabbling for change for a phone call home.

Never Home’s finest melody, “You Get Me Lost,” is also the dreamiest track on a disc that elsewhere finds Johnston comparing romance to hypnosis. “Lost” also serves as respite from Carveresque vignettes such as “Gone to See the Fire,” in which Johnston elongates his syllables to communicate the confusion of a woman whose new boyfriend appears to be an arsonist. The economy of a tossed-off phrase such as, “When the roof fell in/He lit up again,” and the way Johnston sings it, are masterfully jarring. That the song’s setting encourages listening to the tune in a car with crankin’ speakers makes it complete. Yeah, Johnston rocks.

The leader of Ben Folds Five, on the other hand, simply tries too hard. On Whatever and Ever Amen, the three-piece Five’s sophomore (-ic) second effort, Folds too often augments his early-’70s Elton John and Todd Rundgren swipes with unconvincing profanity and bad jokes that turn on his unprepossessing status as a piano-pounding songster; he joins the two on “Song for the Dumped,” whose chorus is built around the cry, “Give me my money back, you bitch.” None dare call it Weezer. Folds displays his stunted sense of irony on “Fair,” which features a hapless lug whose wife changes her mind in the midst of leaving: “When he lunged onto the hood/She stopped to tell him she’d been wrong/He was thrown head over heels/Into the traffic coming on/But then/All is fair in love.”

Much of the remainder of the disc is spent on sensitive-guy stuff like “Brick,” an abortion tale whose subtlety lands like its title object. At least it makes Fountains of Wayne’s similar and far superior “Sick Day” sound even better than it already did. “Selfless, Cold and Composed” is a tediously lengthy homage to Night and Day-era Joe Jackson (it figures that Folds would aim for an easier target than Jackson’s own more complex role model, Elvis Costello).

In straining to open out his trio’s sound, Folds missteps stylistically to an embarrassing degree. “Smoke” fails at its try at French-cafe ambience, while “Steven’s Last Night in Town” grafts several Klezmatics to its jazzy tale of another college-town loser. Unfortunately, Folds can’t think of anything for the guests to do but run through a Broadway-style showstopper that doesn’t exactly threaten to supplant our memories of Fats Waller or Louis Jordan.

He finally gets it right, and gloriously so, on the record’s 10th song, “Battle of Who Could Care Less.” Not only does Folds nail this envoi to a Rockford Files-addicted couch potato, he sings it to a winning tune in a pared-back setting that, for once, actually honors Honky Chateau and Something/Anything?. In blasting the “unearned unhappiness” of a pal several years after the phrase “slacker rock” was last deployed in Rolling Stone, the singer gets across on well-planted detail (“See, I’ve got your old ID/You’re all dressed up like the Cure”) instead of generalizing about an obvious topic, as he does over Whatever’s other three-quarters of an hour. Maybe the third album will offer a worthy B-side for a “Battle” 45.CP