Bob Dylan and others release new box sets for the holiday season
2 days ago
Here are reviews of key box set releases:
Bob Dylan (Columbia)
The box set is a curious beast - a combination of curatorial selection, increased quality, whiz-bang packaging and new insights on favourite talents. Nowhere is this truer than with "Dylan," an impressive yet redundant three-disc compilation of the talents of one of America's best creative minds.
The problem with any Dylan box is that the concept - distillation - defies logic. Try and imagine going to the biggest library in town and asking the librarian to represent it with a small pile of carefully selected books. No matter how good the volumes, they can't represent the richness and diversity of the library itself.
If you begin with that premise, though, "Dylan" is a compact and aurally pleasing, if unimaginative, tour of the artist and the American musical tapestry he has spent his life exploring.
This is a 48-track arc of Dylan's career, from his earliest days ("Song to Woody") to his 1960s icon moments ("The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Like A Rolling Stone") to the soul-scouring "Blood on the Tracks" era ("Tangled Up In Blue") to his Christian period ("Gotta Serve Somebody") to the gravelly, growling Dylan who's still producing genius today ("Someday Baby").
As with most compilations, there's lots to argue - particularly given the raft of already existing Dylan box sets. This is no "Biograph," the 1985 retrospective that was a piece of genius but, of course, is missing everything since then. And the choices in "Dylan" skew too popular: Where's "Desolation Row"? Where's "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"? With Dylan, there's just so much that these arguments are fruitless late-night conversation fodder, like those who spent the '70s arguing for hours over which Beatles album had been the best.
"If this were a college English course . . .," begins one paragraph of Bill Flanagan's liner notes. And that's it exactly. This is a survey course of Dylan, who could be an entire major or even a graduate degree. Blues, jazz, folk, country - their roots and branches are all here. In that respect, it's one of the best classes available to any Dylan freshman anywhere. But if you're a graduating senior who's not a sucker for beautiful packaging, you might want to pass.
-Ted Anthony, AP
Emmylou Harris (Rhino)
The first cut on the boxed set "Songbird" shows how far Emmylou Harris has come to achieve her status as a grande dame of country music.
Harris sounds like some flower-power refugee on the opening "Clocks," channelling Judy Collins in a wispy alto. The 1970 performance has aged poorly, not surprising since it's an outtake from Harris' long-forgotten debut album.
Harris deserves credit for including the curiosity, and by cut two she's on to sturdier stuff - a duet with Gram Parsons. It's a nice transition, because Harris says she found her voice singing with Parsons.
Lots of wonderful music follows. There are 78 songs in all, with two discs of Harris' personal favourites, and two discs featuring previously unreleased material, collaborations and songs that appeared on tribute albums. The set's fifth disc is an entertaining DVD with nine performances dating back as far as 1975.
"Songbird" is a valuable companion to a two-disc anthology released by Rhino in 2001 that focuses on Harris' hits. These performances are less well know but just as compelling.
Harris sings songs by Springsteen and (Townes) Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams and Hank Williams, the Beatles and Leonard Cohen, and makes each tune her own. The set also showcases Harris' underrated songwriting talents.
And few singers have performed with so many great musicians. The parade of talent in the boxed set includes Johnny Cash, George Jones, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde, Mark Knopfler, Ricky Skaggs and many of the best instrumentalists of Harris' generation, among them Sam Bush, James Burton and Albert Lee.
The handsome package meets Rhino's usual high standards, although the discs are difficult to extract. More than compensating for that annoyance are Harris' illuminating song-by-song comments in the liner notes. She speaks as well as she sings.
-Steven Wine, AP
"The Original Outlaw"
Merle Haggard (Time Life)
Singing harmony behind Merle Haggard must be a great job. Here's the supporting part for "Today, I Started Loving You Again":
"'Cause today I ooooooooh.
"I'm right back ooooooooh.
"I got over you just long enough ooooooooh.
"Then today ooooooooh."
Funny how a weepy song like that can bring a smile. Haggard's tunes of heartache have been making audiences feel better for more than 40 years, and "The Original Outlaw" collects his best work in one three-CD set.
The set spans Haggard's career and starts fittingly with "Sing A Sad Song" in 1964. Most of the 60 tunes were hits, including "The Fugitive," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Okie From Muskogee," "Mama Tried" and "Movin' On." The appeal of such songs is obvious, with Haggard's commanding baritone delivering performances so convincing he was embraced both as an outlaw and as a voice for the silent majority.
Alas, this is an oldies set. Like many country stars of his generation, Haggard had difficulty sustaining his career when urban cowboys began to dominate Nashville. The most recent hit included is from 1986, and "The Original Outlaw" features only five songs from the past 20 years - all excellent, by the way.
The set is part of Time Life's series "Legends of American Music," and for the most part the packaging is well done. One major flaw is the failure to identify Haggard's top-notch backing musicians, who included such heavyweights as Glen Campbell and James Burton. But the liner notes are informative, and previously unpublished photos are a treat, just like the music.
-Steven Wine, AP
"Miles Davis: The Complete On the Corner Sessions"
Miles Davis (Columbia/Legacy)
This is the eighth and final deluxe multi-CD box set in Columbia/Legacy's series of complete Miles Davis studio recordings spanning the years 1955-75, during which the restlessly creative trumpeter moved from hard-bop to modal jazz to jazz-rock fusion and beyond. This six-CD box set contains Davis' studio sessions from 1972-75 when the trumpeter completely reinvented himself and upset the jazz establishment with his revolutionary new style of electronic improvisational funk music. It was way ahead of its time and anticipated future trends in techno, trance, world music and even rap.
On these sessions, Davis abandoned the jazz mainstream with its emphasis on individual soloing in favour of a churning orchestral collective jam-band style. Davis brewed together a heady gumbo of ingredients: his own muted wah-wah trumpet, funky Motown bassist Michael Henderson's grooves rooted in James Brown and Sly Stone, Dave Liebman and Sonny Fortune's post-Coltrane saxophone blowing, Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas' slashing, Jimi Hendrix-style electric guitar runs; Indian tabla player Badal Roy and electric sitarist Khalil Balakrishna's world music influences, and tape manipulations inspired by avant-garde electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
This set not only contains material released on the studio albums "On the Corner" (1982), "Get Up With It" (1974) and "Big Fun" (1974), but also 12 previously unreleased tracks, notably the brooding "Mr. Foster" and "Chieftain," which melds Caribbean rhythms and Near Eastern colourings. There's a total of more than two hours of new music among the 6 1/2 hours of music.
That makes the box set, though pricey, a must for devotees of Davis' electric music because it illuminates the creative process by which Davis and his long-time producer Teo Macero edited and shaped the raw material into their finished form.
-Charles J. Gans, AP
"Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles"
Billie Holiday (Columbia/Legacy)
"Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959"
Billie Holiday (ESP)
These two Billie Holiday compilations are as different as night and day.
"Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles" is an 80-track, four-CD compilation - culled from the Grammy-winning 10-CD "The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-44)" box set released in 2001. Holiday's recordings during these years rank among the greatest sessions in jazz history, capturing the singer in her prime as she developed from a naturally gifted but unseasoned teenager into a preeminent jazz diva.
This box set - which includes a booklet with an excellent overview of Holiday's career and notes on each track - provides a superb introduction to Lady Day's artistry. On these recordings, the legendary producer John Hammond surrounded her with some of the leading soloists of the Swing Era, including pianist Teddy Wilson, clarinetist Benny Goodman, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and together they manage to turn even the most banal Tin Pan Alley tunes like "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" into enduring standards.
This set also includes the crown jewels of any Lady Day collection - her recordings with Lester "Pres" Young, whose tender romantic tenor saxophone lines enhanced her performances on such tunes as "I Must Have That Man" and " A Sailboat In The Moonlight." In her last years with Columbia, when she had become an established star who was given better material to record, the selections include such classics as "God Bless the Child," "Them There Eyes," and "The Man I Love."
Many of these same tunes can be heard repeatedly throughout the five-CD "Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959." This is a compilation best suited to the devoted completist Holiday collector who wants anything the singer ever recorded regardless of the sound quality. It is poorly packaged and the liner notes are only slightly more insightful than a Wikipedia entry, with the track-by-track descriptions sometimes lacking key details and including some glaring errors such as a reference to a 1953 appearance on Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" (Carson took over as host three years after Holiday's death in 1959).
The tracks include recordings from films with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, radio and television broadcasts sometimes with brief interview segments, and live performances from the Apollo Theater and Boston's Storyville jazz club, among other venues. There are even such oddities as tracks of the singer rehearsing with her band and an undated private recording of Holiday singing "My Yiddishe Mama" and "God Bless the Child" while visiting friends.
Rather than depict Holiday in her glory, this collection morbidly depicts the declining arc of her career when years of drug abuse and illness had ravaged her voice and she struggled through her sets - including tracks from her appearance at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958 and her last performance at the Storyville club in April 1959, just three months before she died at age 44 of cirrhosis of the liver under police guard in a Manhattan hospital.
-Charles J. Gans, AP
Various Artists (Rhino)
Heavy metal is a style to be reckoned with and Rhino manages a respectable chronicle of the genre's birth and various incarnations in a four-disc box set simply titled, "Heavy Metal."
Banging your head through roughly 25 years and 70 tracks of boot-stomping angst - from Iron Butterfly to Sepultura - may not be good for your health, but it's a fun ride.
Focused heavily on the years between punk and grunge, when metal ruled the airwaves, there are some scattered gems, tracks you'll think are not worthy and, of course, those that have been overlooked. (The inclusion of Dio-era Black Sabbath's "Neon Knights" as opposed to anything they recorded with Ozzy Osbourne will seem sacrilegious to some).
The souped-up psychedelic blues that marked metal's birth is here (Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Hawkwind) along with the glam-infused arena rock of Alice Cooper and Kiss; the stripped-down approach of early Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motorhead; progressive metal courtesy of Rush and Queensryche; shredding thrash from Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax. Even the oft-mocked '80s hair bands are invited to the party with entries from Whitesnake, Great White and Poison, among others.
Along with a wealth of photos and a track-by-track synopsis of metal's evolution, there are several interesting essays and interviews to help tell the story. And there's even a limited edition amplifier box with a volume knob you can crank up to 11.
Get the message and play it loud.
-John Kosik, AP
"Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970"
Various Artists (Rhino)
The late 1960s in San Francisco Bay area was a bit of a grab-bag when it came to music. It was a folk-rock-funk-acid cultural call-to-arms for those who ventured west in search of personal freedoms. The music of that time and place is captured in stunning fashion on the four-disc box set from Rhino, "Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970," covering some hits, a few misses and some pure freakouts.
The first disc gets off to a heartfelt start with Dino Valenti solo version of "Let's Get Together," made more famous later by The Youngbloods. Hearing Valenti (born Chester Powers) settle in with his guitar and forceful vocals makes you realize less is more. He is simply riveting.
Jefferson Airplane delivers the goods with their 1966 debut single "It's No Secret." Likewise for People's version of the Zombies tune "I Love You." This group formed in San Jose, Calif. and gigged around steadily before their rendition "I Love You" rocketed up the charts in the U.S. and abroad. Oddly, a spat over song titles and Scientology led to a parting of ways and Norman quit the band the day their album was released.
Albert Ribisi, father of Hollywood actor Giovanni Ribisi, delivers the best solo of the entire box set with his soulful keyboard work on that track.
Other standouts include the Chocolate Watchband's "No Way Out." It's heavy on twangy guitar, tambourines and scorching vocals. Also, don't miss The Morning Reign's "Satisfaction Guaranteed." Imagine a Jim Morrison/Beach Boys mash-up with a psychedelic light show dripping down the walls around you and you're halfway there.
Taken as a whole, this collection isn't about the free-spirited hippie songs you recognize. It's about the message-heavy music that kept a generation engaged; music that got darker as the Vietnam conflict thickened and the 1970s approached.
-Ron Harris, AP
"Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records"
Various Artists (Rhino)
From Judy Collins to the Doors to Queen, it's easy to see why the 10 years between 1963 and 1973 is dubbed the "Golden Age" for the venerable Elektra Records label in the box set "Forever Changing."
Spread out over five discs, the most well-known songs and performers are thrown together with more obscure gems from Elektra's vaults to showcase how the label evolved over that decade.
Beginning as a haven for folk singers, the first disc features contributions from Collins, Phil Ochs, Richard Farina and others who helped shape and drive forward the folk music boom of the early '60s. But the last two songs, one from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and an early version of the Doors' "Moonlight Mile," points to a turning point not only for Elektra but the entire music industry.
While it's always nice to hear familiar songs in a new light when put next to less familiar tunes, it's the ones that come out of nowhere that really make "Forever Changing" a compelling listen. The Zodiac Cosmic Sounds anyone? Ars Nova? And don't forget The Waphphle.
More than half of the 117 songs were never previously available on compact disc. And the 76-page richly illustrated booklet is chock full of useful tidbits about the songs and artists, ranging from the poignant to the funny, the interesting to the insipid.
-Scott Bauer, AP
Nick Drake (Fontana Island)
There are lots of different kinds of box sets, and unfortunately, Nick Drake's "Fruit Tree" is one of those that lovers of his music would do best to avoid.
For one thing, they most likely already have most of what's inside.
There's not a lick of new music to be had.
All three of Drake's darkly moody acoustic folk albums from the early 1970s are included in the box set. But they are unaltered from remixed versions that were released in 2000 and available ever since.
There is a new booklet with the box set with some more commentary on those records on Drake's career, pulling heavily from his producer Joe Boyd. But any Drake fan who wants to know what Boyd thinks would be better off buying his recent memoir or Trevor Dann's biography on Drake published last year.
That leaves the 45-minute 2000 BBC film documentary on Drake, released for the first time on DVD, as the only part of the box set most fans probably have never seen or heard before. But to get it fans have to pay box-set prices to rebuy the three official albums they already have, probably in multiple copies.
And they may even have the previous version of the box set that's been long out of print. In that one, instead of the DVD there was a fourth disc of rarities.
So is the new "Fruit Tree" worth it?
If you know a little bit about Nick Drake and always wanted to get into his music, this is the way to go. If you already own his releases, it's tough to justify spending around $60 just for a new booklet and the DVD.
-Scott Bauer, AP
"Classic Bluegrass Collection"
Various Artists (Time Life)
Since when is Vince Gill considered classic bluegrass?
Well, for purposes of the three-disc, poorly titled, "Classic Bluegrass Collection" he is.
Not that there's anything wrong with Gill, but putting his song next to those by the likes of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers just doesn't seem fair.
It's hard to fault the music collected for this collection. But it's poorly organized, with no real ryhme or reason for the track orders on each disc. The first two discs generally progresses through time, from oldest track to newest, with the third being comprised solely of modern bluegrass.
It's hard to believe that "Dueling Banjos" should be taking up space that could be given to another lesser-known, but more worthy, obscure bluegrass track from the 1940s or 1950s that would really fit the "classic" title better.
The skimpy liner notes, usually a stand-out in box sets that hang their hat on repackaging already available material, are also a disappointment.
For the bluegrass neophytes there's plenty to like about a collection as broad-reaching as this.
But for those who already have the hits, and are looking for something a little deeper than songs lifted from "O Brother Where Art Thou," this isn't the place to look. You've heard it all before.
-Scott Bauer, AP