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Music All ears

Both sides of the gift-giving fence

God bless the record industry for giving us the boxed set. Not only do they look swell under a Christmas tree, they often eliminate (or at least diminish) the old “does she have this?” dilemma. Sure, Mom may have all of Abba’s albums, but does she have the outtakes, photos, and dishy essays that are sure to come in that new gift set? Check one happy camper off the list. This year, we offer dueling perspectives on a handful of themes.

Jazz heads, raunchy vs. suave:

Not to be outdone by the record-player-shaped set (covered here recently) that Rhino recently devoted to Ray Charles, Rounder has crafted a piano-shaped box for The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax of Jelly Roll Morton. The self-proclaimed inventor of jazz has things his way here, on eight discs full not only of his songs but of the stories he told Lomax of whores, hustlers, and the birth of jazz. For good measure, the set includes a reprint of the bio Mister Jelly Roll.

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Much less elaborate and infinitely smoother is a set from another piano-playing singer, Nat King Cole. The three-disc King Cole Trio Transcriptions (Blue Note) is full of recordings that were cut in the studio not for retail sale but for radio broadcast. Cole was served well by this format, far from swooping string sections, where his honeyed voice sounded like it was addressing one listener at a time.

Songstresses, tart vs. sweet:

The scores of singers, some stars and some forgotten, on One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found (Rhino) were sometimes seen as disposable heroines for the bubblegum set. But among the shoop-shoops and doo-langs were some prickly messages and immortal melodies, no less real because the singers often didn’t write the songs.

Michelle Shocked, on the other hand, wrote songs aplenty, and has never been shy about criticizing an industry that never knew how to market them. (To be fair, she has always been a moving target.) Now that she holds rights to her own catalog, Shocked has repackaged her old albums in fancy boxes chock-full of bonus tracks — enough for two discs in the case of Texas Campfire Takes — and is selling them through michelleshocked.com. (Don’t go to the old mighty-sound.com, which is now owned by internet squatters.)

Hippies, first vs. second generation:

It seems fitting that the new Donovan set, Try for the Sun (Epic), is wrapped in purple faux-velvet. If “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunshine Superman” aren’t trippy enough, the 1970 documentary on the bonus DVD cements the songwriter’s psychedelic credentials.

A couple of decades later, the Paisley World resurfaced with some jagged edges among the hummable hooks. Children of Nuggets (Rhino) follows up on the classic Nuggets collection to draw a line from the Bangles to XTC, from the Cramps to the Posies. Happily, the set stays away from stuff you heard on the radio (unless you were lucky enough to attend a very cool college during these years), even for the well-known acts.

New Wavers, anthologists vs. completists:

The opposite approach is taken on Just Say Sire (Sire/Rhino), which amounts to a Greatest Hits set of one of the coolest labels of the ’80s and ’90s. From Madonna’s “Everybody” to the first experimental steps of Wilco — though not programmed in chronological order — the three discs and one DVD boast of the eclectic and rarely wrong vision of Seymour Stein.

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One of Stein’s bands, the Talking Heads, has just been summed-up in what is being referred to as The Brick (also on Rhino). Each of the group’s albums is here, in the confusing DualDisc format, which means that one side of each disc is a DVD while one side is a kind of CD that won’t play in all CD players. Not confusing enough? The jewel cases are plain white on the spine and back, so you’ll have to dig through the liner notes if you want to know what song is playing. The whole thing takes the band’s well known design fetish a bit far, but there’s enough bonus material here to please most fans.

Lonesome troubadours, Jersey vs. Manhattan:

Fresh on shelves, the 30th Anniversary Edition of Born to Run is a must for followers of Bruce Springsteen, and it’s getting enough press that readers probably know it offers one documentary DVD, one concert DVD from the Boss’ 1975 prime, and one disc presenting the original album in spanking-new sound.

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Also covered in these pages was No Direction Home, the latest Bootleg Series installment from Bruce’s spiritual predecessor Bob Dylan. So on the Dylan side of this equation, let’s put The Band, who recently released the lovely looking A Musical History (Capitol). Sure, there’s another Band box out, but that’s more of a hits set, while around half the tracks in this collection are previously unissued on disc — and the book into which they’re bound, for a change, looks like a real book instead of one of those half-width things. Robbie Robertson and the boys may still be hidden in Dylan’s shadow, but this set is one more step toward setting the record straight.

By John DeFore


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