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Music Review: Ben Folds – The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective

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Ben Folds has amassed a sizable body of work through his time with Ben Folds Five as well as in his solo career. Now it’s time for the required retrospective. Over three CDs, The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective covers Folds’ career to date, from rare demo tracks recorded in 1991, through his successful ’90s career with Ben Folds Five, to his solo records in the ’00’s wherein he wrote some of his best songs.

Like any retrospective you’ll get some excellent choices (“One Angry Dwarf”), a couple less-than stellar offerings (“Rockin the Suburbs”), covers (“B**ches Ain’t S**t”), live tracks, and demos. Folds actually gives it all and then some. The three-CD set contains 61 songs, plus liner notes about each track.

A big bonus for longtime fans is the inclusion of three new songs recorded by Ben Folds Five, the first new material by the band in over a decade. Of the three, “Stumblin Home Winter Blues” is the strongest, though “House” was the one chosen for a single.

The live CD is really where Folds comes into his own. He’s an excellent live performer and the songs here showcase his unique musical vision.  There are a couple choice cuts. A live duet of Ben and Rufus Wainwright doing Wham’s “Careless Whisper” suffers from a less-than-stellar-quality recording of Wainright’s voice, but it’s still a great listen–and what a combination of talent. Other live standouts include the criminally underrated “Kylie From Connecticut,” a buoyant version of “Army,” and the Ben Folds Five classic “The Battle of Who Could Care Less.”

Some of Folds’ early demo tracks are also featured. They are surprisingly good quality for simple 4-track recordings, including a decent early incarnation of “The Best Imitation of Myself.” The demos for “Hiro’s Song,” “Losing Lisa,” and “Break Up at the Food Court” are also must-listens.

That brings us to “Landed.” What can you say about the song? It is not only the best song Ben Folds has written to date, but one of the best songs of the past decade. The “strings” version is featured here, along with a little blurb about  the pressure from the record company to record a radio-friendly single, and how Folds wrote the song as an Elton John tune.

Best Imitation is essential Folds, as useful for a novice to his music as it is for a longtime fan. As a whole Ben Folds has written some amazing songs over last twenty years, all hewn with a rock sensibility and skills on the ivories that are unrivaled. And though his lyrics show a sense of humor that is both mocking and self-depreciating, he can reach into the emotional core as well. He hasn’t (yet) fallen into the schmaltzy crapola that Billy Joel and Elton John dedicated the latter half of their careers to. But who knows–that might be the title of his next album.

About Scott Deitche

  • F. Lombardo

    While Ben Folds is an admitted fan of both, please don’t lump Billy Joel into the Elton John “shmaltzy crapola in the latter part of their career” category.
    Elton recorded three times as many albums as Billy – and more bad albums than good ones.
    Billy Joel made far fewer albums – but every one was good.

  • Charlotte

    incredible collection of Ben Folds’ work, the guy is a musical genius. one of my favorites on the album is “House”, here’s a video of Ben explaining it that I found really interesting

  • Dave

    The Retrospective album is awesome. I got it for a really good price at this site http://www.myplaydirect.com/ben-folds

  • adamcmr

    Ben Folds = Genius! He is so talented and has had an amazing career. I love this video of him explaining this album and some of his historical songs.

  • teatiller

    I’m a late comer to this collection, even as a long time fan. Even though I have most all of Folds’ output, the live and demo/rarities cd’s make this a great and essential addition to my collection, as well for the unreleased alternate stuff on the first disc. There is plenty I didn’t already have, and it’s a great listen. It’s also priced well, and the packaging is sturdy, though it is difficult to get the cd’s and booklet out of the case (I put them in separate slip cases to store with the album). And it’s almost too much for a newcomer, but would be more than enough. Also, the live and rarities cd’s are almost chronological in the track order (not quite though), which is nice. I recommend it!