Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ben Folds 11: The Best Imitation Of Myself

A busy fifteen years in the music business brought Ben Folds to a place where either he or his erstwhile label decided to put together a compilation of hits and favorites. The Best Imitation Of Myself is packed with some of the more obvious choices from his solo career, while being sure to include key signpoints from Ben Folds Five. To make it more interesting, a few oddities provide a different perspective. “Brick”—track one, fittingly—appears in its “radio edit”, and “Landed” includes a lush string arrangement by Paul Buckmaster to cement its debt to Elton John. “Smoke” is a performance with the West Australia Symphony Orchestra. “Gracie”, his song for his daughter, is nicely positioned next to an extended-intro mix of “Still Fighting It”, his song for his son. But then there’s “You Don’t Know Me”, his one hit that everybody seems to like except us. The big news was a brand new Ben Folds Five track, the moody and melancholy “House”. It’s hardly brilliant, but its internal theme of not going back into the past would backfire once they decided to keep going.
Of course, one disc of hits wasn’t going to be enough for this guy, or his fans. Therefore, The Best Imitation Of Myself appeared as both a single disc and as an expanded package containing a disc each devoted to live tracks and rarities. Everything is nicely annotated with liner notes and key information for us geeks who like reading such things while we listen.
The live disc is arranged chronologically, which is nice, as it provides an aural glimpse of what the Five was like on stage. As wacky as they could be on their albums, their concerts gave each of their songs a shot of chaotic energy (or energetic chaos, take your pick). Piano stools would be thrown, songs would be made up, and anything went. It’s a noticeable difference when the switch to “a man and a piano” takes over for the solo years, and you can hear how the addition of a band eventually pushed him back toward the gimmicks that keep his shows interesting. Most of the songs stay close to the album versions without being redundant, but there’s also his boy-band knockoff “Girl” and a performance of “Not The Same” with the audience singing the three-part choral harmony. And we’d love to know what George Michael thinks of the duet with Rufus Wainwright on “Careless Whisper”.
The rarities disc includes unreleased demos and tracks, as well as a couple of soundtrack contributions, a track from the never-released fourth Ben Folds Five album and two more new songs from the reunited Five. The focus is predominantly on his songwriting process, with such comedic departures as the wonderfully crude “The Secret Life Of Morgan Davis” and covers like “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and Ke$ha’s “Sleazy”.
There’s a lot to take in here, but that was just the beginning. With so many things having piled up over the years, he concurrently offered up Fifty Five Vault for digital download, with 32 of the 56 tracks (no, that’s not a misprint) previously unreleased. Three hours of potentially new music is daunting on its own, but consider this: what if your favorite artist began offering up music this way?

Ben Folds The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective (2011)—

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