Josh Wolk
April 29, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

How has Ben Folds Five changed since ”Whatever and Ever Amen” became the group’s breakout record in 1997? Well, obviously, the guys prefer even longer album titles: Their new mouthful of a release is called ”The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.” But more important, the North Carolina trio is taking a musical cue from an old hero: Burt Bacharach, the composer of such ’60s pop classics as ”What the World Needs Now Is Love” and ”I Say a Little Prayer.” ”Our influences are from ’70s FM radio to soul music to indie rock,” says bassist Robert Sledge. ”But Burt Bacharach now has a bigger influence on us than the Pixies.”

The trio’s reverence for Bacharach became evident at last year’s all-star tribute to the composer, when they performed his ”Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” While Bacharach’s lush, bittersweet pop style could be heard intermittently on ”Whatever,” ”Messner” shows the band charging headlong into the the legend’s musical tradition: Many of the songs abandon Folds’ patented pounding piano for layered arrangements, with strings and horns floating behind the melodies. While this is a new direction for the band, Folds, 32, says it’s also a trip back to his past: ”(Bacharach) set a kind of tone I remember from being 3 years old in the last part of the ’60s. It puts that fluegelhorn sound in your head. For some reason it makes me think about VWs and mustard-colored curtains.”

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