On the heels of his second solo LP Songs for Silverman, released last spring, Ben Folds has put out a 28-track album of live and studio recordings, including speaking tracks in which he explains the origins of his music and his background as a musician. The album was made in conjunction with iTunes, and has been made available exclusively through the iTunes online music store.

iTunes Originals - Ben Folds features a variety of new recordings from different periods in the 39-year-old artist's musical career, ranging from "Philosophy," the second track off Ben Folds Five's self-titled first album, to "Landed," the hit single off of Songs for Silverman. There are eight new recordings in total, in addition to eight reproduced recordings from previous albums.

While the new recordings are intriguing to Folds fans who are bored of listening to the same versions of their favorite songs, very few of them offer anything new to the listener. For the most part, the recordings contain the same melodies, harmonies, and tempos as their previous incarnations (although the songs from Folds' days with Five have noticeably cleaner harmony parts).

The most notable exceptions to this rule are "Philosophy" and "Bastard." "Philosophy," known for its wild outro in which Folds manically quotes Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" before attempting to splinter the keys with his fists, is lengthened to include an extended outro in which Folds also plays several rapid bars in a blues scale before ending with a frenzied adaptation of "Chopsticks."

Though the new ending is fun, the rest of the song is perceptibly less energetic than the Ben Folds Five recording. This seems to fit in with a trend in Folds' music, which, since he began his solo career, has sacrificed intemperate, rough-edged energy for a smoother, more refined sound.

"Bastard" features an updated bridge characterized by elaborate vocal harmonies, a revision that Folds incorporated into live shows during his tour last summer.

But the draw of this album is not the music. While Folds' lyrics have always been extraordinarily honest and conversational, iTunes Originals' speaking tracks give the listener the opportunity to hear Folds talk candidly about his childhood, his introduction to music, and the people and events in his life that inspired his most poignant compositions, unconfined by the poetic limits of lyricism.

At the beginning of the album, Folds talks about his first incidences of exposure to music.

"There was no live music...no musical instruments in my house as a kid," he says. His family's first piano was acquired incidentally by Folds' father, to whom it was bartered as payment for a remodeling job his client could not afford.

This type of compensation was not uncommon for Folds' dad, who did much of his work in the poorer, predominantly African-American parts of town, where his clients, many of them fans of R&B, often paid him in vinyl albums. Young Ben was the beneficiary of these exchanges, accumulating a formidable collection of R&B albums, including those by Ike and Tina Turner, Otis Redding, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Folds attributes his understanding of music as a celebratory art to his early R&B influences.

Noticeable throughout his entire body of work has been Folds' tendency to paint lyrical portraits of made-up people. With regard to this motif of character-based songs, he describes it on one of the iTunes Originals tracks as a way to "write about yourself without being emotionally lewd." A pleasant, simpler recording of his song "Alice Childress" follows this explanation.

As any Folds fan would expect, the most candid speaking track, entitled "A Really Tough Year," provides an in-depth discussion of the background for his band's first pop hit, "Brick." While it is common knowledge among Folds fans that the song is about an abortion, it is fascinating to hear Folds explain exactly how literally the lyrics reflect the reality of the subject matter. The most poignant moment of the track is when Folds recalls his parents walking into a pawn shop and seeing him trying to sell the cassette player his whole family had collaborated to buy him as a Christmas gift. Folds needed the money to pay for his girlfriend's procedure.

While iTunes Originals - Ben Folds offers very little in the way of musical novelty, it is essential to the collection of any Folds enthusiast, and useful to anyone who wants to know the underpinnings of his music.