Ben Folds’ retrospective exceeds expectations

Robert Starr

Ben Folds loves his fans, and if they needed any proof, they now have it in the form of his new release, The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective. Not content just putting together a simple “best-of” album, Folds throws nearly four hours worth of material at his fans, including music from all stages of his career, most of it previously unreleased. It’s the kind of release most musicians promise but never get around to putting together and, though there’s a lot here, quantity never trumps quality.

Folds’ trademark piano style, which is at least as percussive as it is harmonic, complements his distinct voice that lends itself just as well to goofy songs (“One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces”) as it does to heartfelt ballads (“The Luckiest”). The range is well represented on this retrospective, which begins with demos that he recorded in his pre-Ben Folds Five days and goes all the way to the present, up to and including his surprisingly catchy cover of Ke$ha’s “Sleazy.”

All of the favorites are here, from “Brick,” which was one of the few hits that Ben Folds Five released, to “Philosophy,” “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and pretty much every other song that a fan of his would want to hear. And while some tracks are the same as we’ve heard on the original album releases, or at least very similar, most are not. Many songs are included as live performances or via four-track demo form so we can hear what they sounded like before they were fully polished. “The Best Imitation of Myself,” for instance, sounds completely different than the album version, presented as more of a bossa nova tune than a rocker.

The included live recordings (mostly on the second disc) also sound fantastic. Folds is an energetic performer who doesn’t need any more than a microphone and a piano to put on a good show and we get to hear a lot of that on this release. Still, there are some surprises, including guest appearances by Rufus Wainwright on a cover of Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” and a performance of “Just Pretend” with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller, who toured with Folds under the name of The Bens.

There are two releases of the album, a single disc version and a three-disc one, though fans shouldn’t waste their time with the former. The single disc release is a nice introduction to Folds’ career for those who aren’t that familiar with his work, but the additional two discs are the meat of this collection.

Still, even with all that’s included, there’s always a desire for more. It would have been nice to have had something from the recording sessions that Folds did with William Shatner that resulted in the unexpectedly wonderful album, Has Been, and it couldn’t have hurt to have included examples of some of Folds’ live Chatroulette improvisations.

Those are minor gripes, though, and it’s hard to have much complaint with the abundance and quality of what’s included here. For Folds fans old and new, this retrospective exceeds expectations and truly represents the best of the artist’s work.

Printed on Tuesday, October 18, 2011 as: Folds goes above and beyond in retrospective album's scope