A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: October, 2006

Recycled Goods (#36)

by Tom Hull

The heyday of the box set was back in the early '90s, when they seemed to be a badge of honor that every major artist deserved -- something like a big tombstone. Some were obvious and important: The Chess Box series never overstayed its welcome, although you did wind up having to buy a lot of packaging for just two discs of Bo Diddley; James Brown's Star Time and Louis Armstrong's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are two more. Still, a lot of those boxes did overstay their welcome, and many were perversely programmed, not even doing their subjects justice.

In the end, after much trial and error, there seems to be two viable models for really worthwhile box sets. One is to provide a career-spanning intro to major artists -- sometimes whole genres -- the general public is often underacquainted with: Fats Waller and Bob Wills are two good examples. The other concept provides specialists and obsessives with a comprehensive view of some important aspect of a major artist -- the Miles Davis Prestige box fits that bill, and fits squarely alongside the best of the dozen or more Davis boxes Legacy has released.

Tony Bennett's Greatest Hits of the '60s (1960-69 [2006], RPM/Columbia/Legacy): The former Anthony Benedetto didn't break from the pack in the '60s so much as keep standing while all the other big band boy singers, even the former Chairman of the Board, crumbled away. Ever since then he's been the most serviceable icon of a bygone era, perfectly preserved but always available. You forget that he never was that popular -- the booklets don't bother with charting his hits, since the numbers invariably fall short of your expectations. (His decade best was #14 for "I Wanna Be Around"; his signature "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" peaked at #19.) Aside from hard work and stubborn belief in his style, his one asset was a remarkably clear, powerful voice, able to overcome most of the embarrassingly lame arrangements. B+

The Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions (1955-58 [2006], Prestige, 4CD): The back story is well known. Davis signed with Columbia and organized a quintet to record 'Round About Midnight. The rhythm section was Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. After Davis' first saxophonist, someone named Sonny Rollins, refused to tour, Philly Joe brought in one of his homeboys, someone named John Coltrane. But Davis had a problem: he still owed Prestige a bunch of albums. They cut one quick in late 1955, then wrapped up with two long days, one on May 11, the other on Oct. 26, 1956. Prestige carved those sessions up by mood to get four albums: Cookin', Relaxin', Workin' and Steamin', but held them back to cash in on Columbia's publicity. But the quintet only cut one album for Columbia, so it was Prestige's quickies that eventually solidified recognition of Davis's First Great Quintet. The five albums fill three discs here, with 36-minutes worth of previously unreleased bait on the fourth, including three cuts with Bill Evans replacing Garland. The remarkable thing about the music is how natural it all sounds. The scion of East St. Louis has given us a near-perfect synthesis of West Coast cool and East Coast hard bop, as if it was the easiest thing in the world to do. A-

A Flock of Seagulls: We Are the '80s (1981-86 [2006], Jive/Legacy): MTV started broadcasting in 1981, ushering in the era of the rock video. TV had promoted rock as far back as Ed Sullivan's showcasing Elvis Presley's upper half, but rock videos were shot and cut more like advertisements -- fast cuts and subliminal titillation. Why anyone watched them is a question you should ask someone who did -- I hated them from the start, not so much for what they were as for how they impacted the music. This worked two ways, both bad: they made it more expensive to promote new music, and they selected for looks rather than for music. It's easy to see why the industry loved MTV: it gave them a new channel at a time when radio was shifting toward talk, and it gave majors an edge over independents. The original idea here was to take groups best known for their videos and package both video and audio on DualDiscs, but after delays they backed down to CD only -- making the music selection even more arbitrary. This group was founded by a couple of hairdressers, but their unassuming new wave bubblegum holds up pretty well without their hair styles -- probably better. B+

Journey: Infinity (1978 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Arena rock was what we got for building too many arenas. By the early '70s there were enough 10,000-plus seat facilities to pay for large-scale tours by bands popular enough to reliably sell out -- ranging from Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd, ZZ Top to Emerson Lake and Palmer. But once those arenas were in place, a sort of natural selection set in: much like honky tonks led to honky tonk and discos led to disco, arenas begat arena rock -- a sort of music engineered to fill huge spaces, where any sort of nuance or wit or fury would be dampened. Journey started as ex-Santana guitarist Neal Schon's attempt at a fusion band, but after three albums went nowhere, they added strong-voiced Steve Perry, toured relentlessly, and broke this slab of steadfastly average rock big enough to play the arenas they were meant for. C+

Nils Petter Molvaer: An American Compilation (2001-06 [2006], Thirsty Ear): The obvious precedents for the Molvaer's trumpet-topped jazztronica are Miles Davis, minus funk, and fourth-worlder Jon Hassell, far removed from the tropics. In other words, the difference is in the beats, which are as frigid as the isolated island off the coast of Norway he hails from. He apprenticed with bassist Arild Andersen in Masqualero, then broke out with two albums on ECM: Khmer ran on hard-charged beats, while Solid Ether pointed the way to humanizing the machine. Later albums never reached these shores -- some stuck in Universal's bureaucracy, others self-released. The idea here is to package chunks of those albums as an intro, then follow up with new stuff. While it intersects heavily with NP3, the live cuts and remixes hold their own -- especially with Sidsel Endresen's becalmed vocal on the closer. A-

The Essential Charley Pride (1966-84 [2006], RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2CD): Over the last century small numbers of both whites and blacks have been able to credibly sing in idioms associated with the other race. Mostly they were whites singing black -- the Afro-American primacy in American music was established when whites had to don blackface to sing minstrel songs. Son of a Mississippi sharecropper, Pride went the other way, picking up Nashville country on the radio. Still, when he broke RCA felt the need to prefix "Country" to his name. But soon it was clear how redundant that was: he was as pure and basic as country music gets, his diction clear, with a twang that could telescope from mild to Hank Williams depending on the material. He leaned toward honky tonk in form, but countrypolitan in manners, and wound up with a dozen gold albums, three dozen #1 hits. Few are all that immortal, but "I'm Just Me" reminds us that race wasn't the only label he managed to slip. A-

Fats Waller: If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It (1926-43 [2006], Bluebird/Legacy, 3CD): Thomas Waller was a dazzling stride pianist, an enduring songwriter, and one of the funniest singers and showmen ever. Anthologists have been tussling over these attributes ever since Fats, a round man with a narrow mustache and an irrepressibly sweeping grin, died just short of his 40th birthday. With Solomonic wisdom, producer Orrin Keepnews has given us one disc of each. Of course, one can nitpick further -- no "Black and Blue," which might have spoiled the jovial mood, and the "Strictly Instrumental" disc moves too quickly into the band pieces, including a couple of emphatically vocal jive-alongs. But if God had meant you to choose, she would have restored the entire catalog, which since RCA deleted their six box, 15-CD near-complete works has been in embarrassing disarray -- not even the bottom-feeding reissue labels in Europe have been able to put him back together again. Meanwhile, this one's a good-enough chance to get acquainted, and entertained. A

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: Legends of Country Music (1932-73 [2006], Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): Postwar taxonomy claims Western Swing and its greatest star for country -- a fate of race and geography, but back in the '30s there was nothing rural or folkloric about the string-oriented dance bands criss-crossing greater Texas. Wills drew freely on minstrels, songsters, and pop tunes -- jazzed them up and swung them hard -- but he also added a few twists, like steel guitar. He rarely sung -- Tommy Duncan is the voice most associated with his hits -- but he whooped and hollered, cajoling the band and rousing the dancers, and that even more than his fiddle was the band's signature. Past compilations -- Columbia's Essential and Rhino's Anthology -- limited him to two canon-defining discs. Familiarity with them makes this seem uneven at first, but after a few plays it all flows together -- even the '50s and later sessions on the last disc, cut well past Western Swing's prime time, fit seamlessly. If you want to know "What Makes Bob Holler" -- a song from his wheelchair-bound last session -- this is it. A

In Series

The first batch from Sony/BMG's Signature Series are elegantly packaged and mostly useful single discs. They're "the very best" only if you ignore extra-cost work for other labels -- Basie's prime was on Decca, his second coming was on Verve and Roulette, and his prolific comeback was on Pablo, but it's still good to have a cheap digest of the definitive 4-CD "Columbia Years" box, America's #1 Band. Presumably more batches are coming -- again drawing from the Arista, Bluebird (RCA) and Columbia vaults. My wish list starts with Red Allen and Anthony Braxton.

One O'Clock Jump: The Very Best of Count Basie (1936-42 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Basie's Columbias have never gotten much respect -- after all, his 1937-39 Decca recordings represent the full fury of the territory band storming through New York; but Lester Young, for one, peaked here with "Lester Leaps In" and "Taxi War Dance," and padding with the early Jones-Smith Inc. spinoffs and later live shots doesn't hurt; a useful primer for anyone who doubts the 4-CD box. A

Sneakin' Up Behind You: The Very Best of the Brecker Brothers (1975-81 [2006], Arista/Legacy): Like so many fusion bands, they get tripped up by the supposedly simplistic beat, even when Marcus Miller lays out a gold-plated funk groove; what lifts them above average is the horn section -- saxophonist Michael can really let it rip and his trumpeter brother Randy can scale the heights, but they don't do it often enough to stay out of the ruts. B

Come On-a My House: The Very Best of Rosemary Clooney (1951-60 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): In the late '70s she made a comeback as a standards singer, which moved her into the jazz shelves, but back in the '50s she started recording pop junk for Mitch Miller -- inspired sometimes, but the ballads and novelties, duets with Bing Crosby, big band bashes with Billy May and Nelson Riddle, not to mention Pérez Prado go every which way but together; she was a trooper, and this is a valuable reference. B+

Night in Tunisia: The Very Best of Dizzy Gillespie (1946-49 [2006], Bluebird/Legacy): Three small group cuts with Milt Jackson and Al Haig lay out the principles of bebop, with the rest of the disc devoted to Dizzy's big band, including six key cuts with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo; a narrow slice of a brilliant career, not the "very best" so much as the truly momentous. A

God Bless the Child: The Very Best of Billie Holiday (1935-42 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Early on she was the singer in Teddy Wilson's groups, one star among many -- Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Roy Eldridge, many more, including drummer Cozy Cole -- but today those records are all filed under her name, and they flow seamlessly into the classics she cut with less notable bands; nobody has ever sung "Body and Soul" or "Solitude" better, and many hundreds have tried. A

Send in the Clowns: The Very Best of Sarah Vaughan (1949-87 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): One of the most incredible voices ever, but her records are extremely spotty, with adoring arrangers putting her on pedestals of statuesque music; unlike past Sony comps, this limits her 1949-53 period to two cuts, jumps to 1973 for five from Live in Japan, and finishes with massive orchestras that do her no favors. B-

Briefly Noted

The Bangles: We Are the '80s (1984-88 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): An LA girl group that looked back to the Beatles for pop sounds and to MTV for fashion tips, they released three albums -- the first seemed as smart as it was tuneful, but they got slicker and more shallow; this shuffles to obscure the down slope, which also spreads the dull spots. B

Tony Bennett's Greatest Hits of the '50s (1950-59 [2006], RPM/Columbia/Legacy): His big hits came early, forgettable stuff with his fine voice mired in Percy Faith arrangements -- his only post-1953 top-ten hit came in 1957 and didn't make the cut here; one cut with Neil Hefti and two with Count Basie give him rare chances to play with a band that adds something. B

Tony Bennett: I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1957-62 [2006], RPM/Columbia/Legacy): Assembled from scattered singles to complement one of his biggest, the seven orchestras are mostly indistinguishable -- even Count Basie barely stands out, but part of that is how well Bennett pulls them together. B+

Tony Bennett: Perfectly Frank (1992 [2006], RPM/Columbia/Legacy): Sparsely backed by Ralph Sharon's piano trio, so Bennett's voice practically stands on its own; he's as entitled to try Sinatra, but I'm reminded of Benny Carter's response when asked what he had learned from Johnny Hodges: "never to play any of his songs." B

Tony Bennett: MTV Unplugged (1994 [2006], RPM/Columbia/Legacy): Again with Ralph Sharon's trio, but this time on songs he's more comfortable with, summing up a long career that doesn't have much more to show; still, I could do without all the applause, the dorking around with the band, and the two guest shots with singers who aspire to be even squarer than Bennett: K.D. Lang and Elvis Costello. B

Willie Bobo: Lost and Found (1969-78 [2006], Concord Picante): Born in Spanish Harlem, played congas and timbales, made his reputation in the '60s recording for Verve; these odds and sods come from after he moved to L.A., where he had a role on Bill Cosby's show; the finds are scattered and discrete, of minor interest to non-specialists. B

Boston (1976 [2006], Epic/Legacy): Tom Scholz and company thought big enough to appropriate the name of a major league city for their simplified arena-ready art rock -- it is, at least, agreeably free of clutter if not pretension; the liner notes try to dry a line from this to grunge, but that only works if the line starts with Chicago. B-

Boston: Don't Look Back (1978 [2006], Epic/Legacy): A case of second album complex: having spent your best songs, your inflated ego tries to make up the deficit with fancier chops; still, the paeans to rock and roll partying are as button-down as the logo, safely ensconced in a mass market too easily satisfied to revolt; this is what punk was invented to trash. C+

Bow Wow Wow: We Are the '80s (1980-82 [2006], RCA/Legacy): This was Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's second act, a Mohawked teenage nymph named Annabella Lwin and some ex-Ants doing a crude approximation of Afrobeats with chants and risque jokes; it was post-punk only in the sense that McLaren understood punk -- i.e., as hype. B

Stoney Edwards: Stoney Edwards/She's My Rock (1971-73 [2005], Hux): The other black country singer; like Charley Pride, he sounded even countrier than the white folks while keeping his honky tonk neatly scrubbed; unlike Pride, he never suffered Chet Atkins' production machine nor profitted from RCA's commercial pull; this combines his first two albums for about half of the best songs on his recommended but now-deleted Razor & Tie best-of. B+

Robert Fripp: Exposure (1977-79 [2006], DGM, 2CD): Singers dominate, which is one reason non-vocalist Fripp's vocal records seem so scattered -- Daryl Hall, Peter Hammill, and Terre Roche are the singers here, with Eno and Bowie in the choir; the rushed rockers wind up being art pieces, but the frippertronics can fascinate and seduce when they're allowed to surface; the second disc offers the 1983 "third edition" plus alt takes. B+

Great Day! Rare Recordings From the Judy Garland Show (1963-64 [2006], Savoy Jazz): The title cut closes the album, fading into "Over the Rainbow" with tumultuous applause, a logical if not literal end of Garland's one-year television run; the applause is hard earned -- she sings these songs with reckless determination, but they can get sloppy or corny, and you'd have to be a fan to be touched. B

That Old Feeling: Classic Ballads From the Judy Garland Show (1963-64 [2005], Savoy Jazz): The slow ones bring out the diva in her, especially when they bring out the schmaltz and bombast in her anonymous orchestra; two bonus duets are comic at best -- that would be the one with Barbra Streisand. C

Judy Garland and Friends: Duets (1963-64 [2005], Savoy Jazz): Only nine pieces, but they're mostly medleys and run a respectable 43:45; as TV without the video, you get the sense that you're missing things, especially when the flow cracks up; the guests are scattered too: Mickey Rooney, Martha Raye, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé -- a teenaged Liza Minnelli tops them all. C+

Ayelet Rose Gottlieb: Mayim Rabim (Tzadik): Texts from the "Song of Songs" -- hard to tell if they're as erotic as advertised, given that they're sung in Hebrew, but the voices radiate over clever arrangements of clarinet, piano, cello and percussion, unpeeling the popular artifacts of Jewish music to reveal roots that sound timeless. B+

The Green Arrows: 4-Track Recording Session (1974-79 [2006], Alula): Starts with the first LP produced in Zimbabwe, recorded by South African sax jive master West Nkosi; brothers Zexie and Stanley Manatsa played bass and guitar, the essential instruments to what sounds like classic kwela without the pennywhistle. A-

Solomon Ilori: African High Life (1963-64 [2006], Blue Note): A rare, early opportunity for a Nigerian to record his homeland's music in the US, the flip side of Art Blakey using him for The African Beat; mild compared to the supercharged juju that followed, but the reissue doubles the length by tacking on a later session where Donald Byrd, Hubert Laws and Elvin Jones jam with the drums and pennywhistle -- three long cuts that should have opened a dialogue, but instead sat unheard in Blue Note's vault. B+

Journey: Evolution (1979, Columbia/Legacy): The rich get greedy -- after a money squabble they replaced veteran drummer Aynsley Dunbar with his roadie -- while the singer gets whinier and everyone shows the strains of constant touring; good thing they lucked into an audience that would swallow anything. D

Journey: Departure (1980, Columbia/Legacy): Not bad for two songs: first is generic uplift -- "Any Way You Want It," it's not like they have ideas of their own; second a minor blues, "Walks Like a Lady," pure filler and all the better for it; soon enough they sink back into the usual indifferent arena mash, with two dreadful bonus tracks misordered on the back cover -- you can tell because the lyrics consist of the titles repeated endlessly. C-

Journey: Escape (1981 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): At first I thought they'd finally fashioned a coherent aesthetic out of their limited ambitions -- "Don't Stop Believin'" is probably the title of their business plan, which would explain their conviction; not sure if the live cuts are really a bonus -- it's their turf, but not one I've ever wanted to visit. C-

Journey: Live in Houston 1981 Escape Tour (1981 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): I went to a Journey concert once -- Roxy Music opened, and hardly anyone paid attention, including some of the band; I left two songs into Journey's set, but I suffered through all of this just to see how low it could go; low point: first encore, some tripe called "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'"; high point: the drum solo. D-

Journey: Greatest Hits (1978-96 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): They had 17 Top 40 hits from 1979-87, plus one from the 1996 reunion counted as a bonus here; this loses five and adds three -- don't know why, but it's unlikely to matter; skipping past the bulk that plain sucks, their hits were interchangeable, contentless stealth rock -- perfect once radio decided the key to share was simply not provoking listeners to change the channel. C

Loverboy: We Are the '80s (1980-86 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Canadian arena-rock band, heavy-footed but melodic, slick, and bland, which was enough for platinum albums and nine chart singles -- a fairly substantial level of accomplishment for a band I never heard of, much less listened to; in the '60s rock fans listened to the same music, but in the '70s they didn't have to, and by the '80s they no longer wanted to. B-

Loverboy: Get Lucky (1981 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Second album, sold four million copies, sticking on the Billboard album chart for 122 weeks; I prefer the four bonus track demos -- lacking the calculated orchestration of the album brings them back to human scale, where their competency starts to look like honest work. B-

Tania Maria: Intimidade (2004 [2006], Blue Note): A Brazilian jazz singer-pianist with roots in the bossa nova of the '60s, I'm struck first by the depth of her voice, then by the lithe ease of the percussion; hard to tell at this point what distinguishes her, as this fits the expectations so nicely. B+

The Essential Ronnie Milsap (1973-88 [2006], RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2CD): Another blind pianist, got his start as a Memphis r&b session musician, then moved on to Nashville, where he's enjoyed huge success as a countrypolitan soul man -- 33 #1 country hits here, and more after he moved on; none are memorable, and few sound even remotely country. B-

Eddie Money: We Are the '80s (1980-89 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Born Edward Mahoney, his stage name redolent of the same fake glitz that gussies up his music; true to concept, this skips over his first hits from 1978 and doesn't follow him to the last one in 1992, but this suffices: at his best he was listenable, at worst forgettable; how anyone thought this marketable escapes me -- maybe the promoters hoped the name would rub off? C+

Putumayo Presents: Acoustic Africa (1994-2006 [2006], Putumayo World Music): Uniformly folk-singerly, and not necessarily African folk -- that involves drums, doesn't it? -- but generically guitar-guided, mostly from margins like Mali and Malagasy and Cape Verde rather than the jungles, urban or otherwise; still, remarkably pleasant. B

Putumayo Presents: Music From the Wine Lands (1991-2005 [2006], Putumayo World Music): They've done coffee, tea, chocolate -- I tried lobbying for cocaine, but they insist on keeping their vices, like their pop music, legal and mellow; the only thing remarkable here is that you can take thirteen songs from eleven countries and make them all sound the same -- the wines vary more than this. B

The Ravens: Their Complete National Recordings (1947-50 [2003], Savoy Jazz, 3CD): The first major black vocal group of the postwar era, and as such the first stop on the road to rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, funk, and everything else; their signature was bass singer Jimmy Ricks, who anchored "Old Man River," "Summertime," and other landmark hits; this is way too much -- a single disc will do almost anyone just fine. B+

The Essential Jim Reeves (1953-68 [2006], RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2CD): The sort of country singer folks referred to as Gentleman -- in other words, the antithesis of honky tonk; he became a star under Chet Atkins' guidance, the calm, reassuring voice of countrypolitan Nashville, but crashed his plane before turning 40 -- proving that you don't have to live fast and love hard to die young and leave a beautiful memory. B+

Scandal: We Are the '80s (1982-84 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): Another stodgy hard rock band with the usual arena aspirations and pretensions, differentiated by offering a female singer, spelled Patty Smyth, as if cockless rock were a concept. C

Rick Springfield: We Are the '80s (1981-88 [2006], RCA/Legacy): A TV soaps actor turned guitar slinger, or vice versa, with unexceptional taste in middling hard rock, so he was exactly what appealed to MTV; carefully culled, he's competent, with a possibly inadvertent joke in his choice cut, "Celebrate Youth." B

Rick Springfield: Working Class Dog (1981 [2006], RCA/Legacy): Working class my ass, except inasmuch as he makes his featured role in in this hard rock three-ring circus look as routinely tedious as an assembly job; at least he writes his own songs, except for the Sammy Hagar cover. B-


In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month: boxed giants (Miles Davis, Fats Waller, Bob Wills), country doubles (Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, Ronnie Milsap), jazz signatures (Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan), showbiz heroes (Tony Bennett, Judy Garland) what arenas and MTV wrought (Boston, Journey, A Flock of Seagulls) many more (48 records).

Copyright © 2006 Tom Hull.