Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Compilations, Reissues, EPs, Soundtracks, Etc.

10) Bee Gees - Odessa (Rhino/Reprise)
This three disc reissue replicates the original packaging with the entire box covered in red felt. (Ooh, so soft.) I must admit to having never heard this full album before I scored this deluxe edition. I only knew the single “First of May” (which has been on a couple of Bee Gees compilations) and the cut “Melody Fair” because Young Fresh Fellows covered it. I must say that after a few listens I could see why it’s grown in critical stature over the years. The original double album is stacked with as wide a range of songs as (danger, danger—bold statement coming) The BeatlesWhite Album. The title track incorporates the orchestral progressive rock sounds of the Moody Blues, “Melody Fair” and “Lamplight” are exquisite ballads that are placed next to country-flavored tunes like “Marlery Purt Drive” and the Dylan-esque bluegrass number “Give Your Best.” Pair that up with strange, offbeat rock tunes like “Edison” and “Whisper Whisper” (which at 2:27 switches from a odd little rock song into a horn-inflected workout that could be on the soundtrack to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and then wraps up with a drum solo…huh?) and you have one weird piece of work. You also have what has become my favorite Bee Gees album, non-disco edition. The outtakes and alternate versions on the third disc show that the Brothers Gibb made the right choices for the album mixes while providing an interesting glimpse into their studio work.

9) The Jayhawks - Music From the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology (American/Legacy)
This collection is a gift and a curse for a hardcore Jayhawks fan. The gift is the huge serving of great rarities on the second disc and the videos (many of which I never saw) on the DVD. The curse comes from the fact that a hardcore fan would probably feel compelled to seek out the Best Buy version, which came with a bonus disc with three previously unreleased songs. And some crazier fans in Brooklyn (cough, cough) might even download the five extra tracks on the Amazon MP3 version. Thankfully seeking out all these extras is worth it because it’s a treasure trove of worthy songs. Highlights include “Old Woman from Red Clay,” which later became “Two Angels” on Hollywood Town Hall; “Stone Cold Mess,” which Gary Louris rewrote for Smile’s “A Break in the Clouds;” the goofy B-side “Get the Load Out” and a rocking alternate take on “Tailspin.” North Country’s best feature is it shows just how prolific the band was in trying to create a commercial breakthrough on Smile and its more stately follow-up Rainy Day Music. Each of those sessions contribute eight tracks apiece to the three different rarities discs/downloads. I know of many bands that would kill to have songs on their albums that are as great as these outtakes. Oh, and I almost forgot—the main disc has every great Jayhawks song save two. That’s a pretty fine best of package you’ve got there Jayhawks. Now how about a few East Coast reunion shows in 2010?

8) WarChild Presents Heroes (Astralwerks)
The concept behind this benefit album for WarChild (which helps orphans in war-torn countries around the world) is pretty simple—great veteran artists pick great young artists to cover songs from their catalogs. Bob Dylan tapped Beck, who does a decent version of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Paul McCartney picked Duffy, who does a passable take on “Live and Let Die.” And Iggy Pop chose Peaches to, well, destroy “Search and Destroy.” This compilation makes the list only because of two artists’ picks—Bruce Springsteen selecting The Hold Steady and U2 choosing Elbow. Springsteen’s tapping the Hold Steady is no surprise, as the band wears their love of his music on their sleeves. And The Boss was on hand at his own 2007 Carnegie Hall tribute when the band stole the show with a jaw-dropping take on “Atlantic City.” Their version on Heroes is just as powerful. I still wonder if U2 knew just how good Elbow would be taking on The Joshua Tree’s “Running to Stand Still.” Elbow singer Guy Garvey has a majestic voice (I’m thinking if you looked up "majestic voice" on You Tube, you’d get about 1000 clips featuring Elbow) that is very restrained during the first two verses and then takes off into the atmosphere during the bridge and the final verse. It’s a goosebump-inducing cover, which I never thought was possible for anyone to do with any U2 song.

7) The Bears - The Bears (PMRC/IRS/EMI)
Oh, I love when a holy grail is finally available. I've been wanting to get The Bears self-titled debut album in any form for about 14 years now. The “hit” single “Fear Is Never Boring” is one of my favorite songs of the 1980s (and maybe ever). Yet it's been out of print for a long, long time. Finally EMI dug through their vaults this year and released a bunch of out-of-print stuff from I.R.S. Records digitally. So you better believe I marked down on my calendar the exact date this album was going to be available on iTunes. (Actually, I bought it on Amazon, but who’s counting.) And it's just as much of a pop masterpiece as I remembered. Singer-guitarists Adrian Belew and Rob Fetters create some excellent harmonies, and both lay down some fantastic solos in the context of these great pop tunes.

6) Minus 5 - Butcher Covered (Book Records)
This tour-only release collects 17 covers Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and company have recorded over the past 15 years or so. It’s a pretty diverse lineup of artists they paid tribute to over the years, including Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Kinks, Guided By Voices, MC5 and The Modern Lovers. Some of these songs are done very faithfully (MC5’s “High School,” Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” Lennon’s “Power to the People”) and others are just, well, kind of fucked up. (The take on Skynyrd’s “That Smell” is, well, kind of creepy and taps into the song’s drug message more than Ronnie Van Zant ever did.) The best part of this collection? I don’t have to search out the rest of the tribute albums the Minus 5 are on anymore. That’s probably going to save me about 50 bucks, which I am very grateful for Mr. McCaughey. Very grateful.

5) R.E.M. - Live at the Olympia (Warner Bros.)
In last year’s RT 20 I tabbed R.E.M.’s show at Madison Square Garden on June 19th as the best concert of 2008. It was a capping point to a creative resurgence for the band that included their best album (Accelerate) and single (“Supernatural Superserious”) since Bill Berry departed in 1997. Live at the Olympia shows where those creative flames were reignited. Drawn from five shows billed as “rehearsal” gigs at the Dublin, Ireland venue, this two-disc set shows the band working up the songs from Accelerate in front of an audience and diving into their back catalog with a fervor not seen in many years. Tracks from Reckoning (“Harborcoat,” “Second Guessing,” “Letter Never Sent”) Chronic Town (“Carnival of Sorts,” “1,000,000”) and Fables of the Reconstruction (“Maps and Legends,” “Kohoutek,” “Auctioneer”) were played for the first time in well over two decades. The in between song chatter from Michael Stipe and Mike Mills proves that the band wasn’t too sure if they could pull off all these gems from their past. The Dublin audience doesn’t care, as they give a raucous reception to almost all of the older tracks and many of the new ones as well. The album is worth skipping the download and buying in CD form, as Peter Buck wrote in depth liner notes about each track. His honesty about their past songs (“Second Guessing”—“I don’t know why we stopped playing it”) and the newer tracks is a great window in the band’s creative process. Live at the Olympia is (Stupid pun alert! Stupid pun alert!) an R.E.M. document worth having.

4) The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses: Collector’s Edition (Silvertone/Legacy)
In the grasping at straws mentality the record industry has specialized in over the last decade, one of their grandest schemes has been to repackage new albums months after their initial release and call them “special editions.” And when that doesn’t con people to buy the same album twice, they’ve started doing “deluxe editions” that come out the same day as the standard album. And then to make things even more confusing for the consumer, the industry has started making even “harder to find” packages (usually with a t-shirt, a DVD and some other stupid item) and called them “collector’s editions.” It’s enough to make a 40 year old guy to steal all his music off the internet. Fortunately for the record industry I haven’t gone down that road yet. One reason is the work Legacy Recordings has done with their catalog over the past decade. And they really nailed it with this reissue of The Stone Roses debut album. The Legacy Edition contains a remastered version of this great album, a disc of demos and a DVD with all their videos and a live concert. But the download version of Collector’s Edition is the one to pick up, as it adds all of the singles and b-sides from that era. Those non-album tracks are just as good as what made the cut in 1989. (And in the case of “One Love” and “Something’s Burning,” better than anything on the album.) As much as I enjoyed what the Collector’s Edition has to offer, I mentioned the download version for a very specific reason—the physical copy of the Collector’s Edition costs 150 bucks and is quite insane. Does anyone really have use for a huge box that includes a 48 page book, three vinyl LPs, artwork from a band member and a lemon shaped USB drive that adds five backwards tracks and producer John Leckie's personal home movie Up at Sawmills: The Making of Fools Gold? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

3) Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Deluxe Edition) (Shout Factory)
When you look at the new 2009 Music Critics Bible of Clich├ęs (coming soon to Amazon Kindle), next to the definition of “star-studded tribute album” there is a picture of the cover for Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy. Don’t let memories of other crappy tribute albums scare you away from this fantastic collection. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, The PixiesFrank Black and Juliana Hatfield are not phoning it in here. Proceeds from the album will go to the former Miracle Legion and Polaris frontman, who lost his wife suddenly last year and is raising their young twins by himself. It’s obvious that every artist appearing here has a great love for Mulcahy and his body of work. I suggest grabbing the deluxe iTunes version, even though it bulks up the album to 41 tracks. There’s not a bum cover in the bunch, and the extra cuts include great work by Buffalo Tom, Laura Veirs, A.C. Newman, The Autumn Defense (John Stirrat and Pat Sansone of Wilco) and the best of the entire lot, "Closer to the Wall” by The Gravel Pit. It’s the first new recording from the Boston favorites in eight years and it features everything I love about the Pit—masterful drum and bass work from Pete Caldes and Ed Valauskas, muscular guitar playing from Lucky Jackson and Jedidiah Parish's bigger than life voice. As a matter of fact, I’m going to listen to that song again right now. I encourage you to go do the exact same thing.

2) Big Star - Keep An Eye on the Sky (Rhino)
Big Star is, quite simply, one of the best power pop bands to appear on this planet. If you’ve never heard them before, you must put down the list and go listen to them now. Go ahead, I’ll wait right here.

(Waiting.)

(Still waiting.)

You done? Good. Big Star released only three (amazing) albums during their initial lifetime. (And one of those, Third/Sister Lovers, was issued three years after it was recorded—and never had a so-called “official” track listing until 1992.) Creating a box set this good out of just three albums is an impressive feat. The remastering of the original album versions are a sound for sore ears. Ballads like “I’m in Love With a Girl” and, um, “The Ballad of El Goodo” come off crisper, while rockers such as “O My Soul” and “September Gurls” are more powerful than the initial CD versions of the first two albums. The numerous demos of songs like “Jesus Christ,” “Thank You Friends” and “Downs” are enlightening looks at pop gems in their purest form. The fourth disc, Live at Lafayette’s Music Room, is notable not only for the great live performances by the trio edition of the band but by the indifferent audience. The only time the band gets a rise out of the crowd is when Alex Chilton announces that the headliners, Archie Bell and the Drells, will be on soon. This utter lack of caring seems appropriate for an act criminally unacknowledged during their own time. The inclusion of the Chris Bell’s pre-Big Star bands Icewater and Rock City and Bell’s solo single “I Am the Cosmos” present a full picture of an essential act that probably launched a thousand bands.

1) Neil Young - Archives Volume 1 (1963-72) (Reprise)
When Neil Young’s Archives Volume 1 (1963-72) was finally released after years (well, decades) of delay, the majority opinion of fans on Young message boards and blogs is that a) it was too expensive, b) Neil was robbing his fans because the set contained two concert albums that were previously released and c) that there was a shocking lack of unreleased material.

I think all those fans can, well, go fuck themselves.

They’ve completely missed the point. Young’s Decade didn’t have a ton of unreleased material—it was Young trying to make a portrait of his career so far. Archives is driven by the same principle, on just a slightly bigger scale. Okay, a stupidly bigger scale. The eight CD set includes over 40 rare and unreleased tracks. The previously released material has never sounded better. (I did a bit of comparison with my older CD pressings, and the sonic upgrade on songs like “Harvest” and “After the Gold Rush” is totally noticeable.) The DVD version (which I own) has a multitude of goodies—a leather bound book with scores of old newspaper articles and detailed track info, hidden songs, tons of unreleased performance footage, video and audio interviews, Young’s original lyric sheets and (my favorite part of the whole set) a short film of Young going to a record store to buy up his own bootlegs. It is an expansive and at times overwhelming set. But this guy has had an expansive and at times overwhelming career. I’m so happy that he decided to document it as obsessively as a fan would.

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