Ben Folds — The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective 

Those, of course, are his songwriting and piano playing (dude’s never been much of a singer, but to his credit, his voice has never seemed to hinder listeners from engaging with his music), which established Folds as the premiere balladeer for both Generation X and Y.

He’s got plenty of other sensibilities, including a penchant for pretty, intricate melodies; a sharp, sarcastic bite (both in his own lyrics and his selection of covers); and oodles of creative showmanship and presentation, exampled by his recent live staple “Ode to Merton” and the very cool 2006 MySpace gig in Nashville, Tenn., where his cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” featured a 50-man guitar chorus and faked suicide outro.

Best to start with “Disc One: The Best Imitation of Myself,” a best-of with all the choice cuts (“Brick,” “The Luckiest,” “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You,” and the Nick Hornby collaboration, “From Above,” really stand out) and a pair of previously unreleased songs, “House“ (a psychological insight Folds wrote specifically for the retrospective) and an extended version of “Still Fighting It,” left over from the “Rockin’ the Suburbs” sessions, now more than a decade old. Even with age, the sentiments still tug at your heart, tousle your hair or just leave you feeling lonely.

“Disc Two: Live” mixes a few original live staples (“Zak and Sara,” “Song for the Dumped”) with slightly more obscure crowd-pleasers like the gouging anti-consumerism mocker “All U Can Eat” and an absolutely hilarious duet cover of Wham’s “Careless Whisper,” aided by a spot-on Rufus Wainwright. I fully intend to rehearse this for hours with whichever bro embarks on the next road trip with me.

“Not the Same” closes out this disc, with a three-part audience helping to tell one of “Rockin’ the Suburbs”’ funniest stories, about a guy who — while on LSD — fell out of a tree and became a born-again Christian the following day. The opening piano rumbles through the mix, ripping open an enormous gap for an eerie-sounding synthesizer to rattle around. It sets a grand, poignant stage for the odd drama to unfold.

“Disc Three: Rarities” itself is probably worth the album’s price, if just for the ornate constructions around the rich melodies that juxtapose the sordid stories in Ke$ha’s “Sleazy” and Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” Even the most prude listeners can’t help but tap their toes and sing along with their slummy, awesome choruses. Although I should point out that the MySpace Sessions’ take on “Bitches” might have been a better addition to the live disc, as it takes the song way further over the top than the studio recording does.

“Rarities” probably exhibits Folds’ progression as a performer and knowledge as a songwriting historian better than either of the other two discs, as it features a bunch of fun, revealing demos from the early ’90s (a clicky, piano-lounge version of “Best Imitation of Myself” and a relatively stagnant vocal performance of “Julianne” that features an uncharacteristic slide guitar) and a couple of earnest covers. The thick sonic arrangement of Steely Dan’s “Barrytown” gets stirred even broader and more rich by Folds’ echoing piano and additional instrumentation. Also, The Postal Service’s oft-covered “Such Great Heights” gets a piano rendition that makes you really wonder how much Ben Gibbard owes Folds for the successful path he cut ahead of him.

Also, the more recent original songs “Because the Origami” (from the 8in8 session with Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Damian Kulash) and “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues” (originally written by BFF drummer Darren Jessee and re-recorded for the compilation) both stand up with the rest of his catalogue as great, short story-like tellings of loneliness and self-esteem struggle.

Great stuff, Mr. Folds. Looking forward to your show Thursday night.

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