Opening the four-panel digipak that houses Ben Folds' The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective (Epic/Legacy 88697 92683-2), listeners are treated to an unsettling and hilarious sight: the bespectacled, slightly quizzical face of the singer/songwriter, superimposed onto bodies he clearly has no place being attached to. Those off-kilter images are exactly the kind of strange silliness fans have come to expect from Folds over a career that stretches more than 15 years, starting with the excellent power-pop trio Ben Folds Five and continuing through a lengthy solo career that's long eluded commercial fortune but has made Folds thisclose to a household name.
Quite frankly, the notion of a "greatest hits package" might not make sense to the average music observer. Folds' chart success begins and ends with "Brick," Ben Folds Five's unlikely multi-format Top 40 ballad about a high school couple getting an abortion - hardly the stuff that pop careers are made of. What Folds and compilation producers Timothy J. Smith and Darren Salmieri did instead was craft a rather thorough overview of Ben's discography that will provide more than enough for the first-time fan and satiate even the most ravenous of superfan. That's not bad for a guy with so few chart entries - and it's really the kind of approach everyone wants for their favorite artists.
In fact, go ahead and laugh all you want, but Best Imitation may be this author's candidate for the catalogue set of the year.
The first disc of Best Imitation, also released on its own (Epic/Legacy 88697 94445-2), is exactly the kind of hits disc you'd expect from most artists nowadays, collecting 17 of Folds' most beloved songs, solo and with the Five, and adding that one unreleased track - in this case, a brand-new Ben Folds Five recording, "House" - as a sweetener. (All of them are remastered by Bob Ludwig, and sound predictably great.)
These tracks are exactly what you might expect from an average Folds set list - from early theatre-shakers like "Philosophy" and "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" to softer tracks like "The Luckiest" and "Still Fighting It" (one of a few familiar tracks presented in alternate form, in this case, featuring an unreleased acoustic coda at the top of the song). The herd noticeably thins out after 2005's Songs for Silverman - there's one apiece from Way to Normal (2008) and Lonely Avenue (2010) and one track from 2006's soundtrack to Over the Hedge (clearly a favorite of Folds, as it ends up on every non-album compilation he's put out lately).
That new track, "House," is hardly the revelation you'd expect it to be. Blame it on the changing timbre in Folds' voice - he's far more airy and earthy in tone than his early, smartass days - or the lack of personality from bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee on the track (their fanciest accents and vocal harmonies are largely saved for the end), but of the three new recordings the band's released on the Best Imitation package, it's likely the weakest. The rarities on the hits disc - the radio mix of "Brick," with a thicker low end, a live take of "Smoke" with The Western Australian Symphony Orchestra and the orchestral version of "Landed" - are all great (although "Landed" is edited from its original album length, as was the case on the original video which used this mix).
While some would use an additional two discs to pad a package of this kind into obesity, the bonus discs on the deluxe set - a set of live cuts and an offering of studio oddities - are in fact relatively short on already-released material (perhaps ten tracks from various compilations or singles appear here) and almost entirely worth the price of admission. There are perhaps more gripes to be had with the live sets, more in terms of source selection than song choice. While all tracks are sourced from two-track masters, one wonders why there wasn't any live Ben Folds Five material from their earliest club days (although what you do hear, including tracks from a 1999 show at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the band's one-off 2008 reunion gig for MySpace, is great stuff). And given the obsessive documentation of Folds' solo touring (a great live disc in 2002, a partially-live EP in 2005 and a series of iTunes downloads in 2008), it's hard to find much to rediscover. (Ben's solo tour of 2002, captured on two tracks on the disc, is still smoking hot, however, and his candid reflections on the risks of going out on the road on his own are one of the many captivating reads in his track-by-track liner notes.)
For all of Folds' entertaining capabilities onstage, the real gems are on the studio disc. Almost all of it sources from little-documented periods in the man's career: early publishing demos that have yet to lock down Ben Folds Five's piano-bass-drums format, quirky early versions of songs from 2001's solo debut Rockin' the Suburbs, a fascinating scrapped version of the band's first album and - most exciting of all - tracks from BF5's incomplete fourth album, recorded in 2000 with R.E.M./Let's Active producer Mitch Easter. "Amelia Bright," a gorgeous tune written not by Folds but Darren Jessee, remains one of the most beautiful songs in the Folds oeuvre, and could easily be worth the price tag alone to a superfan. (Another song from those sessions, the Robert Sledge-penned "Tell Me What I Did," was re-recorded for the new set, and comes close to replicating the hard-edged sound of the band's early years.)
The true narrative Folds would probably like you to divine from Best Imitation isn't complete - even with the addition of 55 downloadable extra tracks to augment this set. (More on that set in a later post!) But the biggest details - a guy with a knack for a good pop melody, a dedicated talent to piano in the tradition of Elton John and Joe Jackson and a side-splitting jackass - are all on The Best Imitation of Myself. And it's executed in a way that even fans who think they've heard it all before can enjoy anew. It's not easy to pull off that balance, but Folds somehow manages to do it. And in today's super-deluxe-reissue climate, that's no easy feat.