If you’re the kind of music geek that I suspect you might be, there’s probably a soft spot in your heart for the music of Ben Folds. The witty singer/songwriter/pianist is one of the smartest and funniest guys to grace a major label – imagine Randy Newman and Joe Jackson thrown in a blender, with the songwriting virtuosity of a Billy Joel/Elton John-type – and, with his partners in Ben Folds Five (of which there were only two other bandmates), he was directly responsible for two of the best albums of the 1990s, the down-and-dirty Whatever and Ever Amen (1997) and the polished, almost jazzy The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999).
Though the Five broke up less than a year after Messner, Folds stayed busy, building a solid fan base over years of touring and an impressive discography of some four solo albums and a handful of EPs and collaborations. He could even turn the saddest-looking gig into something fun, even managing to add a touch of cool class to The Sing-Off. This fall, Folds will finally take a step back to provide the public with a career overview that stretches back some 20 years, with The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective 1991-2011, due October 11 from Epic Records/Legacy Recordings.
For the casual fan, the set will be available as a simple, single-disc overview, which draws from every one of Ben Folds Five’s and Folds’ solo albums, from the band’s surprise hit “Brick” (a heartrending ballad inspired by Folds taking his high-school girlfriend to the abortion clinic) to last year’s Lonely Avenue, which saw Folds setting melodies to lyrics by High Fidelity author Nick Hornby. The real prize, though, has to be “House,” a brand-new track recorded with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee, bringing Ben Folds Five back into the studio for the first time in a decade.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for die-hard Folds enthusiasts. A deluxe set will feature an additional two discs of rarities (a live disc and a studio set), virtually all of which have remained in the vaults. You get a sample of Folds’ early publishing demos from the 1990s, tracks from two unreleased Ben Folds Five albums (an early version of the band’s first record from 1994 as well as the band’s legendary unreleased fourth album from 2000, to have been produced by R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter), guest appearances from Rufus Wainwright and Amanda Palmer, plus covers of Steely Dan, Dr. Dre, The Postal Service and Ke$ha. And the cherry on top? Fans who buy the deluxe set get access to another 55 unreleased cuts from the vault. That’s more than 100 tracks of piano-punk goodness.
As a long-suffering box set collector, it’s hard for me to give in to the hype of an archival release. For that reason alone, you should check it out, because I have no qualms stating that Best Imitation of Myself is a strong contender for catalogue title of the year. There are sessions I never imagined I’d hear on bootlegs, never mind official releases. Folds has been hit-or-miss on his last few records, but getting back into the studio with his old bandmates and providing an overview of a decidedly underrated career will likely be the kick in the ass he needs to get back atop his game.
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