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.