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Album review of Ben Folds' 'The Best Imitation of Myself'

As a solo artist and the leader of the Ben Folds Five, singer-songwriter Ben Folds' pop sound channeled the best of Billy Joel, Elton John and Joe Jackson.

Ben Folds
"The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective" (3 CDs)

By Michael Popke

Singer-songwriter-pianist Ben Folds may have increased his visibility factor by appearing as a celebrity judge on NBC’s a cappella competition “The Sing-Off.” But before television beckoned, Folds unfolded a distinct sound that recalled the best elements of Billy Joel, Elton John and Joe Jackson as both leader of the alternative-rock trio Ben Folds Five and a quirky solo artist.

The three-disc expanded edition of “The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective” provides a template for future reissue packages. The first CD (also available separately) gathers 18 songs capturing the essence of Folds’ music – full of clever lyrics and unconventional melodies – leading off with one of the least likely pop singles of the past 15 years: “Brick,” a 1997 Ben Folds Five track that recounts a high school-age Folds taking his pregnant girlfriend to get an abortion.

Ben Folds Best Imitation of Myself

But what really makes this expanded edition a must-have for longtime fans and newcomers alike are the 21-song live set of mostly unreleased material recorded between 1997 and 2011, a third disc of 22 rarities including demos and obscure projects, and three new Ben Folds Five tracks. The plethora of extra material reveals Folds’ penchant for raucous concerts punctuated with the occasional use of profanity, as well as his ability to write in a variety of musical styles and make demos that sound like fully formed songs.

All told, there are 61 tracks here (almost four hours!), with very few repeats. And there’s more where that came from: Each copy of “The Best Imitation of Myself” comes with an online code redeemable for a downloadable bonus five-song EP from the “Ben Folds ‘55’ Vault.”