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

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Somebody needed to make sense of Ben Folds’ career.

After all, over the past 17 years he’s played with three different groups (the Ben Folds Five, the Bens, 8in8) and released six solo albums. He’s written songs for movies such as Me, Myself and Irene, Hoodwinked, and Over the Hedge; performed with symphony orchestras; and collaborated with everyone from Rufus Wainwright to William Shatner. And don’t even get me started on his three-year gig judging The Sing-Off, to my taste the most addictive competition on television.

Still, the news that Folds was releasing a retrospective compilation–The Best Imitation of Myself–seemed baffling. “Best of” box-sets come in many guises: a career roundup for past-their-prime artists; the place-keeper a label slaps together when a moneymaker suffers creative block; or a cynical cash-in after an artist jumps labels. Shouldn’t a guy this young–Folds is only 45–who’s still releasing wonderful albums such as last year’s Lonely Avenue wait a few more years? Even with 10 studio albums, Folds doesn’t yet have enough honest-to-god hits to populate your typical “greatest hits” collection.

But The Best Imitation of Myself finds a hook for everyone. It’s a decent jumping-off point for newbies (say, curious Sing-Off fans) who want to get up to speed on Folds’ wide-ranging output. Fans will appreciate it too–both latecomers like me who need a primer for Ben Folds Five material, and BFF fans who fell by the wayside and want to rediscover how he’s matured as a singer/songwriter. Arranged chronologically, each disc shows Folds’ work developing, toning down BFF’s frenetic fury until he’s out-Eltoning Elton John and stealing a page from the Joe Jackson playbook.

For when all’s said and done, Folds is a throwback creature: a professional songwriter who can crank out arresting pop songs with killer hooks, soaring melodies, topical references, and shrewd character insights. Best Imitation’s amusing liner notes track his creative process (as in, “I just liked the concept of early 90’s ‘coolness’ put to cabaret Bee Gees music”; Folds is such a music geek). A career built on such solid songcraft is always a moving target; you start out singing about breakups and hookups, and end up writing wistful cameos about failed marriages, forced retirement, and roads not taken. Change your subject matter, and you’ve got to pull out new melodies and arrangements. A full bag of tricks is essential, and Folds’ bag is Santa-like in its capacity.

On Disc One you get the hits, or what passes for hits with an indie artist like Folds: “Brick,” “Underground,” “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” “Landed,” and “The Luckiest” (okay, “The Luckiest” was never a hit, but dammit, it deserved to be). You get Folds’ own sentimental favorites: the paired songs “Gracie” and “Still Fighting It” written for his young twins; songs he co-wrote with his first wife; songs he co-wrote with novelist Nick Hornby. And–value added!–“House,” a brand-new track by the Ben Folds Five, reunited just for this album.

That’s the Ben Folds Happy Meal version, available as a single disc. But the three-disc set is where the real value lies. Disc two is all live performances, from North Carolina to Japan and Australia.  They range from adrenaline-fueled Ben Folds Five cellar-club jams to poignant ballads performed with full orchestras. This sounds like overkill, but Folds’ melodic pop gems actually blossom with full movie-music arrangements.  Besides acquainting listeners with 21 further songs, the live tracks confirm Folds’ warp-speed piano technique. It’s a great sampling of Folds’ impish humor, right down to quirky choices of cover songs like “Long Tall Texan” and “Careless Whisper”.

Disc three opens a trove of lost album tracks and at least a dozen demos that are so good, you wonder why they went no further. And since we’re talking unreleased tracks, why not throw in the other new Ben Folds Five track? Another reason to spring for the three-disc version: it gives you on-line access to a digital library of 55 extra tracks that Ben Folds, over-achiever that he is, couldn’t tuck back in the vault.

In the end, The Best Imitation of Myself doesn’t really “make sense” of Folds’ career. But it goes one better: it reveals all the facets of his restless musical intelligence. The same guy wrote all these songs? Pretty incredible.

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About Holly Hughes