Piano man Ben Folds’ mammoth career-spanning retrospective is an absolute feast for die-hard fans. Everyone else should proceed with caution.
For a music geek growing up during the 1990s, Ben Folds Five could not have come along at a better time. By the time they released their self-titled debut in the fall of ’95, the fires of alternative nation had been snuffed out by the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the subsequent proliferation of marginally talented impostors like Bush. That fall, typically diverting bands like Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers put out miserable albums and Billy Corgan taught us that ego truly knows no bounds.
So when Ben Folds Five’s playful hipster indictment “Underground” appeared on modern rock radio, we assumed the DJ had accidentally cued up a long-lost Squeeze B-side in place of the latest Alice in Chains single. After the endless parade of guitar-based rock bands we’d seen over the previous four years, it seemed inconceivable that someone would put together a band that didn’t even have a guitarist. But here was Ben Folds, a piano virtuoso from North Carolina of all places, trafficking in turbo charged Tin Pan Alley pop and keenly observed character-driven balladry, backed solely by a drummer (Darren Jesse) and a bassist (Robert Sledge). Blessed with an almost otherworldly ability to craft a melody, Folds made 1970s piano rock sound cool again. He was a pre-Disney Elton John minus the costumes and the cocaine and his music was a welcome antidote to all of the doom-laden rock n’ roll clogging up the airwaves.
When the band improbably scored a top 10 hit with “Brick” from their sophomore album Whatever and Ever Amen it felt, for a fleeting moment, like the geeks had won. Even though the band would split just two years later, the incessant touring that followed “Brick”'s surprise success won Folds an intensely devoted international following and established him as a premier songwriter. As a solo artist, Folds’ popularity continued to grow, largely due to his highly engaging, frequently hilarious live performances. In addition to handling production duties for everyone from Amanda Palmer to William Shatner, Folds has performed his music with symphony orchestras all around the globe.
The quality of Folds’ music has rarely dipped over the last decade and a half yet something was clearly amiss on 2008s Way to Normal. Folds, known to crack wise and cuss a blue streak in his songs, is often written off by his detractors as some sort of bullshit novelty act. The messy, often misogynistic Normal, recorded in the wake of Folds’ third divorce, seemed to support their claims. For the first time in his career, Folds seemed unable to commit to a sentimental tone for very long. We could never really tell if Folds was just being playful or if he was truly angry at all of the crazy dogs, crazy baristas and crazy bitches in his life.
While Folds appears to be stuck in a minor creative slump, he’s also more popular than ever thanks to a recurring gig as a celebrity judge on NBC’s The Sing-Off. No time like the present, then, for an exhaustive vault-clearing anthology. Folds seems to understand that The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective is a vehicle for his bosses at Sony to cash in on his improbable reality TV stardom, yet he’s more the willing to play along -- offering up several hours worth of previously unreleased material and writing extensive liner notes that are a pleasure to read (unless you’re one of his ex-wives). The single disc version of Imitation features a career-spanning best-of while the expanded edition includes two extra discs packed with rarities and live performances. If the three hours of material here still somehow isn’t enough Ben Folds for you, an additional 55 tracks will be made available on Folds’ website for those who purchase the expanded edition.
The best-of portion of Imitation suffers from the same problems that hamper all similar compilations -- it’s poorly sequenced and its track listing leaves much to be desired. Folds seems to be aware that fans are going to gripe about song selection so he tries to stuff his entire catalogue, save for his oddball 1998 solo album Fear of Pop: Volume 1 and last year’s University a Cappella, onto the 3-disc version of this anthology. Unfortunately, he still can’t construct a satisfying through-line with what he perceives to be A-list material. A strong opening number is a hallmark of every Ben Folds album so it’s more than a little disconcerting when this collection opens with “Brick”. Although it’s Folds’ biggest hit to date, a somber abortion ballad is hardly an appropriate starting point for, well, anything at all, really. Almost-hit-singles like the dated but still amusing satire “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and the Regina Spektor-assisted “You Don’t Know Me” are obvious choices and it’s nice to see Folds give the nod to deep cuts like the BFF mini-anthem “Philosophy” and the Bacharach-esque “Don’t Change Your Plans”. The material isn’t sequenced in a manner that makes any sort of sense, however. The set picks up steam with the barreling “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” only to peter out with the wedding standard “The Luckiest” two songs later. The entire affair practically begs to be listened to on shuffle.
Song selection is particularly questionable over the second half of the album. Like any doting rock 'n’ roll dad, Folds wrote a song for each of his twins. Looking to avoid a lifelong family feud and a stack of therapy bills, Folds includes both songs here, even though the poignant “Still Fighting It” is several heads better than the corny (even for Ben Folds) “Gracie”. While it makes sense that “Not the Same”, an otherwise unremarkable song that’s become a concert staple possibly due to the audience’s three-part harmonies, would wind up on the live disc, it’s almost inexcusable that essential tracks like “Army” and “Fred Jones Part 2” would be relegated to the bonus discs while “Kate”, the eighth best song on Whatever and Ever Amen, gets to play in the big leagues. Every anthology needs some sort of hook to bring in the folks who are already intimate with the material. In this case it’s disc one closer “House”, the first of three new Ben Folds Five songs included here. Eleven years after their split, Jesse and Sledge help their former bandleader turn a run of the mill ballad into something explosive and compelling, proving once again why they’re the only rhythm meant to play with Ben Folds.
Most of the bonus material highlights belong to Folds’ former (and future?) band. The first six tracks of the live disc, recorded between ’97 and ’99, show a formidable live trio with undeniable onstage chemistry. Jesse, a fine singer/songwriter in his own right, is a tasteful drummer with serious jazz chops while Sledge’s furious, fuzzed-out bass playing leaves little doubt as to why the band never added a guitar player. Their pitch-perfect harmonies on live renditions of “Video” and “Missing the War” are nearly goose bump-inducing. A recording from a one-off reunion gig in 2008 shows the band picking up exactly where they’d left off. For the rarities disc, Folds unearths recordings of “Julianne” and “Best Imitation of Myself” from an early, ultimately scrapped version of the Ben Folds Five album that show a nascent band still trying to find its voice. And fans who’ve spent the last decade wondering why the previously unheard but much speculated about “Break-up at the Food Court” never made it onto The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner can finally rest easy knowing that they were better off with “Your Redneck Past”. It’s the Sledge-penned “Tell Me What I Did”, the second new BFF track, that threatens to steal the entire show. Unlike the downcast “House”, this bouncy, hook-heavy song shoves everything that was great about Ben Folds Five into two and a half obscenely catchy minutes.
The rarities disc concludes with a bizarre run of songs that begins with “The Secret Life of Morgan Davis”, a sort of even more offensive sequel to Ween’s “Mr. Richard Smoker”, and climaxes with the final new BFF recording, Jesse’s sparse yet gorgeous “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues”. In between we find a spot-on cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” walking alongside a frighteningly straight-faced cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit”. Then there’s a demo of the vastly underrated Songs for Silverman track “Time” awkwardly rubbing elbows with a cover of Ke$ha’s “Sleazy”.
If you can make it through this uncomfortable grouping, your reward awaits you in the form of the aching “Because the Origami”. The song, written and recorded in just two hours for a one-night, one-off project involving writer Neil Gaiman and Ok Go’s Damian Kulash, casts Folds and Amanda Palmer as distraught parents who, despite the noblest intentions and distractions (guitar lessons, drums, a friggin’ pony!) continue to fail their son Tommy so completely that he’s chosen to run away. Try as you might, it’s nearly impossible not to shed tears when Folds and Palmer, their voices choked with emotion, sing “Because we don’t know where you are we’re putting out this song / Because we think that you might hear and know where you belong”. On a compilation showcasing some of the finest songwriting of the last several decades, “Because the Origami” more than holds its own.
As an introduction to Folds’ music, Imitation is ultimately too imposing and unwieldy. While newcomers would be better served sticking to the studio albums, this retrospective is an embarrassment of riches for die-hard fans. Ben Folds has already seen his name listed among the greatest ivory-tickling songwriters of all time. Should the next phase of his career be as fruitful as the years profiled in this collection, he’ll find his name at the very top of the page.