The Best Imitation Of Myself (Expanded Edition)
Epic Legacy, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/29/2011
Honesty—visceral, poignant, engrossing honesty—is the characteristic that comes through loud and clear on the first all-encompassing retrospective of Ben Folds’ long and varied career. Whether he’s talking about the tumultuous events surrounding a girlfriend’s abortion (“Brick”) or pushing the plunger to implode the final remaining shell of a relationship gone bad (“You Don’t Know Me”), he zeroes in on the molten emotional core of any situation and plumbs it fearlessly.
The three-disc “Expanded Edition” of The Best Imitation Of Myself—named for the earliest track found here, a 1992 demo—is divided neatly into one disc of studio recordings, a second featuring live cuts, and a third featuring rarities. Each mixes and matches cuts from throughout Folds’ career, placing his solo work alongside cuts recorded with Ben Folds Five, the original piano-bass-drums power trio comprised of Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee. Discs two and three consist primarily of unreleased material.
If all that wasn’t enough to intrigue the average Folds fan, Best Imitation also features the debut of three newly recorded tracks by Ben Folds Five (BFF), the first new material the group has released in more than a decade. (Keep in mind that the single-disc edition consists of disc one only, which means no live tracks, no rarities, and only one of the three new BFF recordings.)
Disc one is the titular “greatest hits” collection, but even here the choices are not necessarily the obvious ones. Yes, the best-known hits and notable album tracks like “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” and “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You” are here, but solo single “Landed” is represented by the alternate string version, deep album track “Smoke” shows up in the version Folds recorded with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and “Still Fighting It” is an unreleased extended version. What’s most notable in the end is the way the track selection underscores the distance between the two poles of Folds’ musical personality, the potty-mouthed anarchist and the sentimental romantic. He is (and is not) both of these characters, over and over.
Disc two is a major treat—21 live tracks, only four of them previously released. It begins with a 1997 taste of the reeling musical chaos that is “Julianne,” with the BFF at the height of their “punk rock for sissies” brilliance. It’s followed two tracks later by a truly epic rendition, complete with piano-strings-strummed-with-microphone, of the savagely funny “Song For The Dumped.” Another highlight is a stunning take on the touching “Fred Jones Part 2” with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra providing superb backing, though its artistic flipside might be a surreal duet with Rufus Wainwright on Wham’s semi-immortal “Careless Whisper”… a truly bizarre, indisputably Folds-ian moment. Sometimes things are unique simply because no one else would think to do them.
There’s also a terrific take on “All You Can Eat,” Folds’ brutal critique of modern American materialist “culture,” if you can call it that. It’s followed immediately by a riotous solo-piano-and-vocals takedown of Lyle Lovett’s “Long Tall Texan,” another example of Folds taking on another artist’s work in a manner that’s simultaneously self-deprecating and remarkably skillful, neither parody nor homage, simply Folds cutting loose and having fun as only a truly gifted musical artist can.
Back on his own work, Folds and the Five deliver the brilliant live 2008 MySpace reunion version of “Army,” a musical home run in every respect, with Sledge’s bass raging through the middle section and the crowd singing along at the top of their lungs throughout. More surprising, perhaps, are moments like “Effington,” a deep track from Way To Normal that seemed like a one-note joke in the studio version, but comes alive with energy and invention in its live incarnation here.
And the wonderful moments keep coming. The Nick Hornby/Folds collaboration “Picture Window” is the highlight of Lonely Avenue and a highlight here as well. It’s nice to be reminded that “Sentimental Guy” has an absolutely gorgeous melody, and with his current touring band he’s got four supporting musicians (finally a true Ben Folds Five!), so he has the luxury of including a French horn live. Closing out disc two is “Not The Same,” featuring Folds turning his audience into a choir to sing three-part harmony with him—and they do a hell of a job.
Disc three offers rare nuggets such as the studio version of “Julianne,” the only song that doubles up in this 61-track collection, a snappy, upbeat breakup song, and the original demo of “Evaporated.” The latter, as Folds suggests in the liner notes, is a superior performance to the version that ended up on Whatever And Ever Amen; it’s both quieter and more emotional.
For its part, “Best Imitation of Myself” reveals itself as the perfect title for this collection in that the song describes how we wear different masks at different times for different purposes in our lives—which is exactly what Ben Folds does as a songwriter. Of the many demos here, though, my favorite is probably the faintly hilarious mid-life-crisis narrative “Hiro’s Song.” Finally, “oddities” would be a better word than rarities for cuts like Folds’ covers of Kesha’s “Sleazy” and Public Enemy’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” and the all-star mash-up “Because the Origami”… funny the first time, maybe, but hardly shining moments.
As for the new Ben Folds Five material—one track on disc one and two on disc three—let’s state it plainly: it’s really good. Disc one’s “House” is a big, cinematic number where, interestingly, the melody is carried by an orchestra, but when they go for the big crescendos in the fourth minute, Sledge and Jessee power to the front of the mix. “Tell Me What I Did,” written by Sledge, is a one of the highlights of disc three, representing everything that was so much fun about BFF the first time around, including major attitude, childhood revenge fantasies and hyperactive musical accompaniment. The set closes with Jessee’s “Stumbling Home Winter Blues,” a nicely Folds-ified re-recording of a tune originated by the group Jessee has fronted since Folds went solo, Hotel Lights. (Rumor has it that the BFF will return to the studio this December for another go at recording… let’s hope so!)
The final bonus for those interested in Folds’ creative process is the liner notes. Folds offers both an introductory essay and wonderfully entertaining track annotations explaining the genesis of, or some interesting anecdote about, each and every one of these 61 tracks.
“Punk rock for sissies” is what Ben Folds has called the self-invented genre he occupied with Ben Folds Five and subsequently explored further in his solo outings, and the invented label is a good one in the sense that punk rock involves an atavistic release of unedited emotion, the id set loose to do what it will. But in Folds’ hands, which is to say in the hands of a guy who grew up idolizing Elton John, it becomes visceral piano music, at times hard-rocking, at times mellifluous verging on gorgeous. The common thread is honesty, and that Folds has consistently delivered for twenty years now, whether he’s been writing personal songs related to his own life, or exploring the lives of characters he writes about with the sort of fearless honesty and deft craftsmanship normally reserved for novelists (for example… Nick Hornby).
We already knew that Ben Folds is one of the most gifted songwriters and performers of his generation—The Best Imitation Of Myself just proves it all over again.