As you may or may not have read in my previous post, I have a long history with the music of Ben Folds. For those that did not or chose not to read that entry, here’s a quick synopsis: I’ve been a fan since 1997 (pre-“Brick”) and it’s been a rollercoaster, though a tame one at that.
So while I may not be a music expert, when it comes to Ben Folds’ new retrospective, The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective, I have a very strong, educated opinion.
The album came in two sizes, 1 or 3 discs. Being the dedicated fan I am, I went for the 3-disc version, mainly because of the content on the second two discs. In total there is almost 4 hours worth of material, along with an additional three hours worth of music that was released online as the Fifty-Five Vault (which I will discuss separately at the end). In total that is 7 hours of material, most of which has never been heard by the casual fan. If anything could be said about Ben Folds over his career, he has kept his fans in mind, and this release embodies that fact.
The three CDs of The Best Imitation of Myself are all career-spanning in their own right and are broken up as such: Disc 1 is a “Best Of”-esque album (aka the 1-disc version); Disc 2 is all previously unreleased live material; Disc 3 is previously unreleased studio recordings, mainly demos. As mentioned earlier, I was more interested in Discs 2 and 3, but was also interested in seeing what was put on Disc 1. When I saw the initial track listing, I was happy to see that I was present for four of the live tracks (two from the Roseland Ballroom show, two from the Ben Folds Five reunion show), as well as seeing some unreleased recordings that were supposed to be on the unfinished fourth Ben Folds Five album. I was intrigued and excited.
It’s now been over a month since the collection was released, and I’ve had time to digest it all. Overall, it’s a very good collection, and one that any true Ben Folds fan should own, if only for the second two discs. The first disc does a decent job of giving some of the highlights of Folds’ career, so the single CD version is not a bad starter CD for newer fans.
For the convenience of you, the reader, I’m going to highlight parts of the collection, dividing them into the following categories: What’s Great; What’s Interesting; What’s Missing. In all honesty there is nothing BAD about this collection, and as a hardcore fan, the worst parts for me are the omissions (which are my opinion). So here we go.
– Everything by Ben Folds Five. Every single one of the selections that has Ben Folds Five performing is fantastic, even the newly recorded tracks. For hardcore fans, the studio recording of “Amelia Bright” (on Disc 3) is a gem, even if Ben messes up the words to the first chorus. This track comes from the fabled Mitch Easter Sessions for the never-finished fourth album.
– The live disc. If you have seen Ben Folds perform live, with Ben Folds Five or solo, you know he puts on an incredible show. These tracks are a great example of this fact, especially the Ben Folds Five recordings. They were a special group, and their live shows were incredible. If you can’t hear that in these recordings, you probably don’t like live rock music.
– The demos from 2000. These were likely recorded before, during, and after the dissolving of Ben Folds Five. Most were eventually rerecorded and released in one form or another, but the demos are still interesting to hear.
– The alternate version of “Time.” This is easily one of my favorite tracks in the collection. Supposedly (and I forget if I this was an internet rumor or it came from Ben) this recording was part of the original version of the album that would become Songs for Silverman, where Ben played all of the instruments himself, but it got scrapped by the record label, and he rerecorded everything with his (then) new band. This recording is darker and slower, lacking the plethora of background vocals and the studio slickness of the Silverman version, but holy crap, is it better. The music and lyrics fit together perfectly, and you can hear the emotion in Ben’s voice. One can only imagine what the entirety of the original version of Songs for Silverman sounded like, but if this is any indication, it was damn good.
– The track list of Disc 1. I am not talking about what’s on Disc 1, more how it’s presented. Both Disc 2 and Disc 3 are presented, for the most part, in chronological order, yet the first CD is all over the place chronologically. Maybe it’s because as single disc it flows better in the order that it’s in, though newer, more casual fans may have benefitted from seeing when each of the tracks came out in relation to each other. Maybe not.
– The inclusion of “The Luckiest.” It wasn’t a hit, nor is it one of the best songs on Rockin’ the Suburbs. It was written for his most recent ex-wife, even though Ben writes in the liner notes that this is not the case, and now the song is about his present wife. Ok, whatever. And even though fans all over the world love this love song, some using this as their wedding song (one of my friends, included), it should not be included on this retrospective.
– The inclusion of “Gracie.” Ok, this one isn’t that interesting since the song is about his daughter, and the song about his son, “Still Fighting It,” is also included (though that song is fantastic). They’re twins, so he’s obviously being fair to them. Still, “Gracie” is not one of his best songs, and not one of the best from Songs for Silverman. Luckily, the best song from the album, “Landed,” is included, so the album is at least properly represented.
– Ben sings lead on “Tell Me What I Did.” This song was written by Robert Sledge, and on a bootlegged recording from a show at Scranton University in 2000, he sings lead. This was also recorded by Sledge’s post-Five band, International Orange, and he sings lead on that too. Maybe it’s because this is a Ben Folds collection, so he felt he needed to sing lead. Who knows? Just doesn’t sound right.
– Studio recording of “Army.” This boggles my mind. Yes there is a live version of “Army” from the reunion show on Disc 2, but how in the world is the best song and the only “hit” from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner missing from Disc 1? It should be part of this retrospective, especially on the 1-disc version. I mean, it’s easily one of the best songs Ben has ever written, and is probably a consensus Top 5 Ben Folds Five song. I’d love to hear why it was not included.
– Material from Fear of Pop, Volume 1. Right before Reinhold Messner came out, Ben put out a solo album under the name Fear of Pop. The album, Fear of Pop, Volume 1, is an interesting collection of musical and studio experimentation, and features a track with William Shatner. Personally, I think it’s an important part of his career and one of the tracks should’ve been included, or at least the demo of “In Love” that is included in the Fifty-Five Vault should have made it to Disc 3. It’s the only studio album that he put out that’s not included in the collection.
– Live recordings from the Rockin’ the Suburbs tour. The band that Ben put together to tour in support of Rockin’ the Suburbs was his best solo band. If you saw this tour, you know what I’m talking about. Made up of two old friends of his, Millard Powers (bass) and Snüzz (guitar), and current Counting Crows drummer, Jim Bogios, the band kicked ass on stage and had fun doing so. Their energy rivaled that of Ben Folds Five, and their musical execution was impeccable. Why there is no recording from this tour on the retrospective is beyond me. If anything, there should be audio documentation of Ben using a keytar. Luckily, there are videos on the Internet of this band. Here’s one and here’s another. Hopefully you can see what I mean.
– Majosha tracks. This one is a bit far fetched, but in my opinion, it’s a vital part of Ben’s career. Majosha was his band from the late 1980s, and included Millard Powers and Evan Olson, among a few others (not 100% sure on other members). Ben played bass and piano, and sang a few songs in this band. A few songs that he recorded with Ben Folds Five and as a solo artist made their debut with this band. It would’ve really been great for him to have included some of these tracks (like “Solider of Love”), but alas, he did not. So here’s their version of “Video” a song that was eventually released on Ben Folds Five.
As I said earlier, overall, this retrospective is very good. It does a more than adequate job of covering Ben Folds’ career up to this point. This probably has to do with the fact that Folds, himself, put this together. I highly suggest that any fan of Ben Folds, specifically Ben Folds Five, get the 3-disc collection. The live disc alone is worth the buy.
At this point, I’m going to go a little deeper and discuss the Fifty-Five Vault. Since this is an online a la carte collection, casual fans might want to stop here. However, if you are interested in what I have to say about the collection (whether you like the music or just like to read my opinions), please read on.
As mentioned above, the Fifty-Five Vault, is a collection of tracks from Ben Folds’ career that is being sold online. You can buy the entire 56-song collection or buy tracks individually; if you buy the 3-disc version of The Best Imitation of Myself, you get 5 pre-selected tracks for free. The collection is a hodge-podge of previously released (B-sides and soundtrack songs) and unreleased tracks (live tracks and demos that a majority of people have never heard).
I had most of the material already, but I was interested to hear how the early demos sounded (since they were remastered), as well as the two Ben Folds Five tracks that came from the Mitch Easter Sessions and any live Ben Folds Five material. Since this collection is really for the truly hardcore fans, I will be brief on my analysis and just point a out a few things that I noticed.
– The dates and labels of some of the demos. I have two collection of demos, one labeled Ben Folds and the other labeled Ben Folds Five, and almost all of the early demos are on one of these collections, so I’m familiar with them. Almost all of the demos are labeled as being Ben Folds Five tracks. The problem is that some of them aren’t. Any demo that comes before 1994 could not possibly be a Ben Folds Five demo, because the band formed that year. So why are they labeled as such? Is it because these songs became Ben Folds Five tracks later on? It’s really not that big of a deal, but for me it’s kind of annoying.
– The live material kicks ass. Just like Disc 2 on the retrospective, the live material is fantastic, and really showcases Ben’s talent for performing live. My favorites are “Jesusland (Stadium Version),” “Bitch Went Nutz,” “Say Yes” (electric piano FTW!), and “Narcolepsy.”
– The 4th Ben Folds Five album would’ve been stellar. All of the tracks from both the retrospective and this collection that came from these sessions sound fantastic. It would’ve been a different kind of album, but man, it would’ve been great. “Prince Charming,” which is sung by Robert Sledge, is beautiful, and though “It’s All Right with God” sounds more like a jam than a song, it’s still awesome.
Overall, this collection is far less impressive than the retrospective, but that’s likely because I have heard most of the tracks before. However, for those fans that may not have heard the early demos and the B-sides (especially the impromptu songs like “Champagne Supernova” and “Hava Nagila”), it’s worth a listen. Yet, unlike the retrospective, you can’t hear these tracks on Spotify, so you’ll have to buy them. For the truly hardcore fans, I say go for it, even if you just buy single tracks that you don’t have already. It’s a great companion to the retrospective, and for fellow Ben Folds enthusiasts, it helps complete the collection.