BEN FOLDS: A RETROSPECTIVE

 

The Best Imitation of Myself; A Retrospective is Ben Folds‘ first career-spanning retrospective, which features a selection of Ben Folds Five rare and unreleased songs, as well as classics from the entirety of his recording career (1991 to 2011) and three “never before heard” Ben Folds Five songs brought literally to the surface after a flood in Nashville that destroyed Folds touring piano and a couple of recordings.

The lining in this dirty grey cloud is that after salvaging and listening to many of the long-forgotten tapes that he managed to save, Folds realised that he had not actually heard all of the tracks he had recorded. In light of this, he decided to compile a selection of unheard demos, studio out-takes and other mixes.  On forgetting the tracks, Folds says:

“Some of those early things I can barely remember, and I wasn’t drunk or anything, it’s because we were doing more than was physically possible and we were just baked.”

 

 

Disc One

 

1. Brick from Whatever and Ever Amen (1997): Surprisingly, the best-known song by a band whose talents reach so far beyond what is presented in this track, but almost a commentary in itself on the unchallenged tastes of the mainstream audience who are, to this day, still probably clueless as to the meaning behind this dulcet tune.

2. Annie Waits from Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001): As in many of his songs, the movement of time and the follies of love and loss are explored in the first track of Ben Folds’ first full-length solo album.

3. Philosophy from Ben Folds Five (1995): Arguably one of Folds’ finest piano pieces, the soaring introductory crescendo through to the crashing finale was one of the first indications for many of Folds’ incredible musical prowess.

4. Underground from Ben Folds Five (1995):  ”I was never cool in school / I’m sure you don’t remember me/ But now it’s been ten years, I’m still wondering who to be/ But I’d love to mix in circles, cliques, and social coteries, that’s me/ Hand me my nose ring, show me the mosh pit/ Can we be happy? We can be happy underground.”  The anthem for every kid outside the norm throughout their schoolyard days, and anyone who has experienced what it is to be part of a sub-genre (before sub-genres became mainstream…of course) will know that indeed everybody is happy underground.

5. Landed (Strings Version) from Songs for Silverman (2005):  Hopeful and sweet, Landed was the first single from Folds’ second solo album, Songs for Silverman.  A stunning intro with soulful lyrics and a marvellously interwoven string section gives this track the awesome depth we have all come to expect from any Folds song.

 

 

6. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces from Whatever and Ever Amen (1997):  Ben Folds Five were champions for the underdog and this is undoubtedly their finest example, giving every kid ever bullied in the schoolyard the knowledge that said bullies are by now drowned in a pool of their own mediocrity.

7. Don’t Change Your Plans from The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999):  From the crooning opening lines, “Sometimes I get the feeling/ I won’t be on this planet for very long/ I really like it here, I’m quite attached to it/ I hope I’m wrong” this song draws you in with its flawless melody and the classic quirkiness of Folds’ cadence.

8. The Luckiest from Rockin’ The Suburbs:  The most unpretentious of love songs.

9.   Smoke (with the West Australian Symphony Orchestral) from Whatever and Ever Amen (1997):  The introduction crafted by the WASO with soft twinkling strings, flutes and percussion is so perfectly complimentary to one of Ben Folds Five’s most beautiful and poignant tunes.

10. Rockin’ the Suburbs from Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001): Ben Folds tells us what it’s like being male, middle class and white. A brilliant satire and totally rocking, as the name would have you believe.

11. Kate from Whatever and Ever Amen (1997): Catchy, cute and the total epitome of BF5′s pure piano-pop sound.

12. Gracie from Songs for Silverman (2005):  Written by Folds about his daughter, Gracie.  The simplistic and child-like tune showcases Folds undying love for his daughter. Very different themes than are within the song about his son, Still Fighting It.

13. Still Fighting It from Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001):  Written by Folds for his son Louis, the soothing lyrics and quiet melody somehow make the inevitability of growing old seem alright again.

14.  You Don’t Know Me (featuring Regina Spektor) from Way to Normal (2008): This amalgamation of the styles of two such esteemed artists produces a weird, wonderful and wildly entertaining little ditty.

15. There’s Always Somewhere Cooler Than You from Sunny 16 (2003):  Ben Folds’ second EP Sunny 16 showcases five of what I feel to be his funniest and most cynical songs, presented, as Folds tends to do, in a pop-wrapped blanket.  He tells us what we all should know anyway: that being true to yourself is the coolest thing of all.

16. Still from Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP (2006):  Another commentary on change and life, brought to life by the stunning strings interlude.

17. From Above (featuring Nick Hornby) from Lonely Avenue (2010): An up-tempo tune delving into the inevitability of the human connection.

18. House from The Best Imitation of Myself; A Retrospective (2011): The first of the three new songs recorded by Ben Folds Five for the retrospective album.  Slow and serene, with a classic BF5 chorus and some really beautiful poetic verse.

 

Disc Two

 

1. Julianne (live in Stockholm, 3/12/1997) from Ben Folds Five (1995): Fast-paced, angry drums and furious piano set a great backdrop to the excitement garnered from dumping a fuckwit.

2. Video (live in Stockholm, 3/12/1997) from Ben Folds Five (1995): Though the prediction of what our present day was to become may not have been a difficult one, I don’t think anyone else could have put it so perfectly. Welcome to the twenty-first century…

“Barren stares as they light up the screen/Bearing teardrops that shatter in slow motion/ Novocaine our brains and we’re out like lights/ And as I’m growing older, I’m bored/I remember when misery thrilled me much more/ When I can’t relax and I’d like to go back/ But that’s gone, we don’t think that way no more/ Turn around, turn the volume down/ We’re counting the days down, to the day when we’ll live in a video/I’ll be stone faced and pale, you’ll pout in stereo twenty-four hours every day of the year/ Oh, what fun/ I can’t wait ’til the future gets here.”

3. Song for the Dumped (live, Hard Rock, Las Vegas, 5/8/98) from Whatever and Ever Amen (1997) : Just that- raw and simplistic with the signature style of self-depreciating humor and, oh, what a chorus.

4. Missing the War (live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 12/14/99) from Whatever and Ever Amen (1997):  Another of Folds painful yet so lyrically put breakup songs.  A portrait of a man and his intensely conflicting emotions.

 

5. Mess (live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 12/14/99) from The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999):  Amazing track, one of their finest.  The minor tones make for a haunting  picture of the mess we will all inevitably make of our lives at some stage or another.

6. Magic (live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 12/14/99) from The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999): Solemn, sincere and infinitely beautiful.

7. Selfless, Cold and Composed (live, Bowery Ballroom, New York, 12/9/01) from Whatever and Ever Amen (1999): Rolling piano with swirling interludes and quiet tunefulness.

8. Zac and Sara (live, Roseland Ballroom, New York, 6/13/02) from Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001): Instantly addictive with a huge sound.

9. Girl (live, Roseland Ballroom, New York, 6/13/02):  The introductory remarks made by Folds at the beginning of this live track explain it all.  Pure ‘boy band’, you can just imagine the dance moves…

10. Just Pretend (live, Palais Theatre, Melbourne, 3/24/03) from The Bens EP (2003): From the first and only record produced by the “supergroup”, consisting of Ben Folds, Ben Kweller and Ben Lee.  An amalgamation of all their sounds and with just a guitar and harmonica featuring, it is a very pleasant departure from Folds’ usual piano-heavy stylings.

11. Fred Jones, Pt. 2 (live, Kings Park. Perth, 3/12/03 with The West Australian Symphony Orchestra) from Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001): Soulful and deeply upsetting, yet the floating piano makes it one of his loveliest songs.  The lines, “Life barrels on like a runaway train, where the passengers change/ They don’t change anything, you get off, someone else can get on” are amongst his most relatable.

12. Careless Whisper featuring Rufus Wainwright (live, Mountain Winery, California): Great cover of an old-time classic.

13. All U Can Eat (Live MySpace Broadcast, 2/27/07) from Sunny 16 (2003): By far his most thinly-veiled social criticism and in the classic Folds style, the jaunty jazz tune emphasizes the weight of the words.

14. Long Tall Texan (live, Houston, Texas, 10/24/08): Originally by Jerry Woodard (1960), Folds shows his roots in the Deep South by poking  fun at a neighboring state.

15. Army (live, UNC Memorial Hall, North Carolina, 9/18/08) from The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999): When Ben Folds plays this on tour, he uses the crowd as the horns section for an unforgettable chorus performance.  That, and the immortal opening lines of, “Well I thought about the army/ Dad said, ‘Son, you’re fucking high’” make this one of Folds’ most beloved songs.

16. The Battle of Who Could Care Less (live, UNC Memorial Hall, North Carolina, 9/18/08) from Whatever and Ever Amen (1997): Such an aptly descriptive piece of what is truly the affliction of our society.

17. Kylie from Connecticut (live, Detroit, 10/9/08) from Way to Normal (2008):  Huge piano solo and some marvelous alliteration.

18. Effington (live, Ax Hall, South Korea, 6/9/11) from Way to Normal (2008): A musical epic about a sleepy little town.

19. Picture Window (live, HMV Hammersmith Apollo, London, 2/20/11) from Lonely Avenue (2010): A heartstring-pulling chorus and gorgeous hopeful melody.

20. Sentimental Guy (live, Diamond Hall, Japan, 6/7/11) from Songs for Silverman (2005):  Pure jazz, trumpet and all.  This track makes you want to walk down a snow-covered New York footpath with twinkly lights and a lamp post or two to swing about on.

21. Not the Same from Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001): A song about a guy on an acid trip at Robert Sledge’s (BF5 bassist) party.  Who knew dramatic religious conversion was a possible side effect?

 

Disc Three

 

1. Unrelated (demo, 1996): A signature interlude with some funky bass.

2. Best Imitation of Myself… (demo, 1992): The namesake of this album, it paints a portrait of what we all do, every day of our lives.

3. Rocky (demo, 1993): From childhood memories of grass and hazy sunlight, to the suicide of a friend in the present day.

4. Boxing (demo, 1992) from Ben Folds Five (1995):  The saddest, yet by far most beautiful, of all Ben Folds Five’s songs.  The tale of Muhammad Ali and his imaginary confession to the late, legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell.

5. Julianne (unreleased first album, 1994): Vastly different from the eventually released version, this one is mellow and jazzy with a bit of country twang.

6. Evaporated (unreleased first album, 1994): I think the pinnacle of Folds’ vivid use of imagery comes in the lines: “Blind man on a canyon’s edge of a panoramic scene.” Another melancholic tale presented with a flawless piano melody.

 

 

7. Alice Childress (Rare On Air 3: KCRW Performances, 1997): Moving on and moving away; lovely lyrics and a soothing tone.

8. Barrytown (Me, Myself And Irene soundtrack, 2000):  Cover of a Steely Dan classic, true to the original but with a bit of signature Folds flair.

9. Amelia Bright (Mitch Easter Sessions, 2000): an unreleased track performed live by the band 1999-2000. This song was later featured on the Hotel Lights album Firecracker People, Darren Jessee’s band after BF5.

10. Tell Me What I Did from The Retrospective Album:  Performed live by the band only a handful of times, this track has been rerecorded by BF5 to be the second previously unreleased offering on the retrospective album.

11. Rock Star (demo, 2000) from Sunny 16: Either a quiet insite into the lonely life of a Rock Star or apparently a song about a waitress. Both work and regardless of the ambiguity of the meaning the song is memorable with an infinitely singable chorus.

12. Losing Lisa (demo, 2000) from Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001): Such a big band sound, and another classic intro that leaves you dying to get into the rest of the song where the chorus explodes.

13. Break Up at Food Court (demo, 2000):  Considering Folds is onto his fourth marriage, his insight into the relationship breakdown is justified. Jazzed up with some seriously cheesy ’80s elevator-style synth riffs.

14.  Hiro’s Song (demo, 2000) from Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001):  Quite a raw sound about one hell of a mid-life crisis.  Pretty funny and doesn’t take itself seriously at all.

15. Wandering (demo, 2000) from Speed Graphic (2003):  All the songs apart from Dog on the Speed Graphic EP are deeply sad amd this one is no exception.

16. The Secret Life of Morgan Davis (alternate mix, 2001): Great ’70s TV show sound and a story to rival that of  Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

17. Such Great Heights (originally by The Postal Service): A brilliant cover of a brilliant song.  Folds indulges his usual penchant for making a song his own; given his magical piano talents, he could have covered the intricate electric sounds note for note, but instead Folds offers us a radically stripped-back version of this classic tune.

18. Bitches Ain’t Shit (originally by Dr Dre): Folds jokes that this is “his most successful song” and I think, in a way, he is right. This could not be a more perfect satire if it tried, no-one could have dreamed how such a terrible song could be transformed into one of the most genius statements of our time.

19. Time (alternate version) from Songs for Silverman (2005): A stand-out song from Folds’ second solo album.

20. Sleazy (originally by Ke$ha):  Another masterful cover of an otherwise horrendous song.

21. Because the Origami (with 8in8 – Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Damian Kulash) originally released on Amanda Palmer’s Nighty Night album: A cute song about the things parents do for their kids.

22. Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues (with Ben Folds Five):  The final previously unreleased song from Ben Folds Five, the name really sums up the overall tone of this quaint little blues tune.

 

Given that Ben Folds has produced hundreds of songs over his illustrious career, it is expected that there be a few exclusions which may upset some fans. Firstly, as my namesake, I would have love to have seen Jane included; the message it sends out is timeless and universal.

Also, I am just a little bit devastated that no tracks from my personal favorite Ben Folds album, the collaborative Fear of Pop Volume 1 have not been included. The spoken word songs performed by William Shatner- In Love and Still in Love- are two of his finest works and a timeless collaboration and Fear of Pop showcases a funky bass-line, screaming sounds and the tune Avery M. Powers Memorial Beltway is an incredibly enslaving tune. In fact, my love for this album is so great, I think it should have been included as a fourth disc…

 

 

Words: J M Copeland

 

Tags: Ben Folds, Ben Folds Five, Retrospective, The best imitation of myself

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