Ben Folds – Best Imitation of Myself (CD review)

Ben FoldsThe Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective   (Epic/Sony Legacy) by Jay Scott (CD review)

Ben Folds has a potty mouth.  His language and songs are often born of this predicament we call life, which not only makes him a relevant artist, but a relatable one as well.  It’s a good thing too, because his music originates from an extraordinary pop plain, one we can only, but thankfully, visit – not unlike Brian Wilson or Elton John in their prime.  While the Beach Boys’ and Elton’s zeniths came early – both had greatest hits packages released within the first five years of their recording careers – Ben Folds is still peaking, and a scant 16 years in (20 in demo years, for those playing at home) offers up his first-ever, career-spanning collection, The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective.

It may seem odd to chronicle an artist who has had only one bona fide ‘hit’ – the near-afterthought “Brick” – but Ben’s records have always been more substantial and rewarding than that of mere Top 40 fodder.  In evidence here are many of his best-known compositions – “Underground”, a celebration of independence and uniqueness that introduced Ben Folds Five to the world at large in 1995; the semi-autobiographical “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces”, possibly the most brutal rock song without a guitar ever; the self-effacing college hit “Rockin’ the Suburbs”, with Ben’s wicked, tongue-in-cheek humor on display; the gorgeous, autumn-themed “Don’t Change Your Plans”, replete with lush harmony vocals and flugelhorn solo; as well as the aforementioned top 20 hit “Brick”, co-written with Darren Jessee, and presented here in its rare single mix.  Of particular delight to the longtime BFF faithful, the boys reconvened to record a new track “House”, which effortlessly picks up where they left off 11 years ago.

While the single-disc version of Best Imitation is impressive on its own, it is also available as a 3-CD deluxe edition, containing two additional, generous discs of live and rare recordings, an essential treasure trove for Ben Folds devotees.  Among the many highlights are two more, new BFF recordings, including the terrific Robert Sledge tune “Tell Me What I Did”; “Rocky”, a longtime, fan favorite demo; “Amelia Bright”, an outtake from the Five’s aborted fourth album, produced by Mitch Easter; two previously unreleased compositions, “Rock Star” and “Break Up at Food Court”; and Ben’s lovingly serious interpretation of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit”, present in its original single mix, previously available only on vinyl in the US.  Three outstanding cuts from Ben Folds Five’s 1999 Royal Albert Hall Show make their debut, and serve as a potent reminder of the musical depth and diversity of that group.  The expanded format also allows for rediscovery of tunes that fell through the cracks the first time around, like “Kylie From Connecticut”, “Picture Window”, “Evaporated”, and a stunning live, solo take of “Selfless, Cold and Composed”.

The set’s 28-page, track-by-track liner notes are well annotated, personally penned by Ben and filled with insightful and often laugh-out-loud-funny remembrances, a fine companion to the stellar music.

Now, how much would you pay?  But wait – there’s more!  If you act now and purchase the expanded edition, you’ll also receive access to the ‘Ben Folds 55’ online vault, which includes a free five-song EP – featuring the infamous “Song for the Dumped” demo – as well as another 50 exclusive rarities, available for individual purchase.

The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective succeeds both as an introduction to the insanely tuneful world of Ben Folds, and as a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.  The alternate and live versions of deep cuts never feel forced or obligatory.  In fact, they live comfortably amongst the familiar songs, and help to paint a fascinating portrait-in-progress of a singular, enigmatic artist who is so uncool, he defines cool.