FOLD IN TWO: An oddball pairing that somehow still makes sense, the double bill of Ben Folds and Frank Black this week promises to be one of the best shows to make its way to our sweaty burg this summer.

It's been over four years since Folds last passed our way (April 1997, at the Pima County Fair, to be anal) with his North Carolina-based Ben Folds Five trio, a band that would have been interesting enough if only for the fact that it was a power pop trio without guitar. As it was, however, due to a combination of Folds' keen sense of pop arrangement (more hooks than a pirate flick), his ability to pen tunes that were, by turns, sardonic, witty and wistful, and the sheer musicianship of all three members (pianist Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse), the band proved itself to be one of the few of its time to appeal equally to critics, fans and mainstream alternative radio. From 1995 to 1999 the band released three fabulous full-length albums, as well as a compilation of live tracks, b-sides and studio outtakes. In 1998, Folds also released a quirky solo album that hopped about the genre map like a clown on a pogo stick, under the pseudonym Fear of Pop.

But over the last couple years Folds has undergone some pretty serious life changes. For one, he moved his family to Australia. And for another--the one that fans will care most about--he disbanded Ben Folds Five.

When the group convened in the studio last year to record a new album, the band just wasn't "feeling it," and after a handful of tracks were put to tape, they decided to cut their losses and call it quits. A couple of the songs will make their way onto an expanded re-release of the Five's best-selling album, Whatever and Ever Amen (550/Sony), set to drop in September. On the very same day, Folds will release his first post-Five solo outing, Rockin' the Suburbs, which we will be privileged to preview live this week. The Tucson show is one of only five scheduled U.S. appearances before the album's release and is, quite simply, not to be missed.

As if that weren't enough, Frank Black was recently added to the show as opener/co-headliner. Black made his name as frontman for the Pixies (in which he called himself Black Francis), one of the finest and most influential bands of the late '80s and early '90s. When the band imploded in ego-goo in early 1993, Black responded with a solo album that very same year (on the ego tip: he began recording it before he bothered to tell his bandmates that the Pixies no longer existed). His self-titled debut as Frank Black, as well as its more successful follow-up, Teenager of the Year (both on 4AD/Elektra), were a clear departure from his old band, focusing more on pure melody and musical diversity than the soft-loud sonic dynamics he had previously mastered. In 1996, Black switched labels to American, and released the abysmal The Cult of Ray, chock full of pseudo-metal guitar riffs with nary a hook in sight. But in 1998, he resurfaced on yet another label, SpinArt, with backing band the Catholics (actually a renamed version of the same band he used on Ray), and the result was a fine return to form.

Frank Black and the Catholics have released three albums worth of stripped-down, back-to-basics rock tunes (with virtually no overdubs), the latest being last year's singer-songwriter-y Dog in the Sand (yep, folks, on still another label--this time it's What Are Records?). True to the album's title--and not dissimilar to Folds--Black is performing a handful of solo dates in Arizona and New Mexico before heading off to Europe to regroup with the Catholics in support of the record. Expect a healthy mix of newer tunes and old Pixies faves.

Ben Folds and Frank Black perform at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, July 17 at The Rock, 136 N. Park Ave. Advance tickets are available for $16.25 (plus service charges) through all Ticketmaster outlets, online at www.sfx.com, or by phone at 321-1000. They'll be $18.50 on the day of the show. For more information call 629-9211.

SUPER SMOOTHIE: Gregory Isaacs finally makes his way to town this week after the postponement of his scheduled March appearance. Reggae's "Cool Ruler," Isaacs possesses what is not only one of the most languid voices in reggae music, but one of the smoothest in any genre, period. Last month, Hip-O Records/Uni released Ultimate Collection, a 20-track compilation that is an excellent starting point for the casual listener, and which will, hopefully, provide a blueprint for the show we'll witness.

Gregory Isaacs performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, July 13 at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $20 at Twelve Tribes Reggae Shop and Hear's Music, and tickets purchased for the canceled March date will be honored. For further details call 798-3333.

THE SMELL OF KID: Spinal Tap fans will surely enjoy the fact that Sugar Ray and Uncle Kracker have picked Fort Huachuca for their first local appearances. SR is touring in support of their eponymous fourth album, which includes the infectious, radio-friendly pop ditty "When It's Over," and was released a month ago on Lava/Atlantic. Kracker, meanwhile, was once best known as Kid Rock's DJ and best friend, before he released Double Wide (also on Lava/Atlantic--coincidence?) in June of 2000.

Sugar Ray, Uncle Kracker and opener The Start perform Saturday, July 14, at Fort Huachuca's Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista. Advance tickets are available for $20 at MWR Box Office, Desert Lanes, Ozone, and MWR Rents (all on Fort Huachuca), as well as all Safeway stores and online at www.Ticketmaster.com. For more information call 533-2404 or 1-888-921-4745.

CATCH THE SPIRIT: Stoner rock trailblazer Scott "Wino" Weinrich and his band Spirit Caravan return to town in support of Elusive Truth, released at the end of May on Tolotta Records, owned by Fugazi's Joe Lally. It's the third Caravan release, but Sabbath freaks will surely remember the sludge 'n' fuzz grooves of his previous outfits, Washington, D.C.'s Obsessed and St. Vitus.

Expect more of the glorious same when Spirit Caravan, along with opener Michael Curry, take the stage of 7 Black Cats, 260 E. Congress St., at 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 12. For more info call 670-9202.

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