Sunday, December 13, 2009

Daddy-o Gives You a Bonanza of Box Sets in 2009

Here is my annual review of compact discs and records that I think were exceptional!

2008 was a slow year for me as far as there being a number of extraordinary compact discs and records released. Some yes, but not a lot. I thought the lousy economy had something to do with it and I expected the trend to continue in 2009. Not so. Early in the year, a number of multi-disc sets came out that had me in orbit! By years end there were several multi-disc CD sets released that I had dreamed about for years. They finally materialized and the discs were spinning madly at home and in my car. They are all pictured here and merit an alphabetical mention for each.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters "Nothing But Good (1952-1962)", Bear Family BCD16795EK

Let me start off by saying that in 2008 I swear I could hear vintage 1950s recordings on Bear Family compact discs with ever greater audio quality than ever. I am sure newer digital transferring methods are being used by Bear Family because their compact discs sound better than ever before and their CDs in 2009 confirm what my ears are hearing. This five disc set contains everything Hank Ballard and the Midnighters recorded for the King label in Cincinnati. Hank Ballard actually stayed on the label into the 1970s making solo recordings that went ignored by most. James Brown remained a champion for Ballard's cause which is a good explanation for his continued releases on the label. Those solo recordings are promised as a future box set as stated in the booklet contained in this box set. As for these recordings, having the opportunity to hear them all leaves me thinking that Ballard and company were very prolific and as such not every tune is a classic. The number of jaw-dropping tunes is pretty high, but there are some tunes where the ensemble sounds a little uninspired or tired. Complete sets like this make this apparent to the listener but that is what is nice about box sets like this. We get to hear them all and decide for ourselves which tunes are great and which are so-so. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters also help make clear the distinctions between doo-wop groups and tough-sounding rhythm 'n' blues vocal groups that come a lot closer to rock 'n' roll. Ballard had a handful of early hits about a loose girl named Annie, which inspired other rock 'n' rollers of the period to name-drop Annie in their songs. Then he invented the Twist and managed to make some of his best later hits while Chubby Checker claimed the hit version of "The Twist". My wife and I saw Hank Ballard and the Midnighters onstage in 1987. It was one of the wildest concerts I ever saw! When he first appeared onstage with his close-cropped hair, snug-fitting suit, and dancing my wife exclaimed "My God, he's the black Pee-Wee Herman!".

While on the subject of the King Record label, here is a good place to urge you all to read two excellent books about King Records. Can you believe it has taken this long for someone to write books about King? Shoulda happened decades ago! As it is we can thank these two authors:

"King of the Queen City: the Story of King Records" by Jon Hartley Fox, University of Illinois Press (This publisher has some really fine books on early rock 'n' roll and rhythm 'n' blues!) As expected the book is full of outrageous stories about label boss Syd Nathan, plus there are separate chapters about each type of music released on King and its subsidiary labels. The author goes to great pains to stress how the different types of music of that period drew inspiration from each other and is easily able to site specific examples that took place under the roof of King Records.

"King Records of Cincinnati" by Randy McNutt, Arcadia Publishing (This book is one of a large series of books in a series called "Images of America") McNutt became known to rockabilly fans years ago with his mostly-picture book entitled "We Wanna Boogie". This is a similar but more professionally produced picture book with very well written lengthy captions depicting the scenes of rhythm 'n' blues, country 'n' western and rock 'n' roll music that poured forth from the studios and pressing plant at King Records from the 1940s through the 1960s. While you are at it, you should read McNutt's other book in this series entitled "The Cincinnati Sound" which covers the music scene of the entire area, including the also fondly remembered Fraternity record label.

The Beatles: the stereo (16 CDs + DVD) and mono (13 CDs) box sets

The Beatles recordings for EMI/Capitol/Apple Records have been freshly remastered and reissued in individual albums as originally released in the U. K., and also in these box sets. There are subtle differences in these CDs in the way we have heard these same songs for decades on records, radio, and the older CDs. The big difference, I think, is that there are instruments and voices that were more buried in the mix on earlier versions that are heard here more clearly--not more loud but more separated and I like it. I listened to these discs and often remarked that in places I heard things I never noticed before. By no means did they change things and screw them up. I have had to explain to younger people the reason why there were mono and stereo Beatles albums in the first place is because for a decade EVERYONE released their new LPs in both mono and stereo because not everyone had stereo record players yet. There were format wars even back then, like a few years ago when movies were released on both video cassettes and DVDs--not everyone owned a DVD player yet. Now, in the case of the Beatles, we have heard especially since the 1980s that the difference between Beatles stereo and mono songs went beyond different mixes. In many cases significantly different takes and edits were used between the two. I am not going to list them for you here. I will say that I have heard both box sets and can tell there are a number of differences apparent. Enough people care about these differences to warrant the trouble of putting both stereo and mono versions on separate box sets. The limited edition of the mono box quickly sold out causing a panic so a second pressing was made, same as what happened when the Traveling Wilburys were reissued in a limited deluxe edition.

Allow me a few lines here to comment on the curious phenomenon of Beatle-bashing that seemed to start in the 1990s when the Beatles "Anthology" project was completed (The Internet started about the same time and is likely responsible for giving voice to this complaint). There seems to be two groups of people who gripe about the Beatles. The smaller, older group are those who were rock 'n' roll musicians in the early 1960s, mostly playing in surf or frat bands, who overnight found themselves musically out of style. I almost feel sorry for them. Then there are those younger folk who were a little too young to have experienced Beatlemania firsthand but liked punk rock in the 1970s. Many rockabilly revival fans seemed to have been part of the punk scene and often express disdain for the Beatles and the whole psychedelic era. I keep some distance from both camps because I have always liked the Beatles ("like" puts it too mildly, actually) and I heard psychedelic music in the 1960s that I still like today. For me, it was heavy metal that brought an end to my enthusiasm with new styles of rock music. So, for all my love of first generation rock 'n' roll music and its musical kissin' cousins, you won't find me among the Beatle-bashers. Nope. Not me. All you need is love.

Chuck Berry "You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966" Hip-o Select 93783

This is the second four-CD set containing the Chuckmeister's complete recordings for Chess Records. When Chuck got out of jail, he made some of his very best records in 1963 and 1964. They are among his biggest hits, too. In 1965, Chuck's guitar started sounding strangely out of tune all the time and his music went to Hell. There have been a very few flashes of brilliance from him since. This CD set is necessary because there is some very good music on it. At this point, Chuck left Chess for Mercury. Since Universal Music owns both labels these days they could put all of his Mercury recordings on another four CD set. It won't be pretty. Chuck returned to Chess near the end of the decade and remained until the label folded up in 1976. All of those later Chess records could come out on a final CD set. Completest fans will add both to their collections but few will enjoy the music as much as that heard on this and the first CD set. Again, it is nice to hear it all and judge for ourselves which songs are good.

Eddie Cochran "Somethin' Else: the Ultimate Collection" Bear Family BCD15989HK

A four CD box set by Eddie came out in the 1980s. Then the Rockstar label was created largely for the purpose of releasing rare and previously unreleased recordings by Eddie Cochran. Rockstar has put out MANY Eddie records and CDs some of them featuring Eddie playing guitar on other peoples' records since he was a daily fixture in Los Angeles recording studios before he was offered the opportunity to make records of his own. We will likely never hear the end of obscure records by singers no one remembers with Eddie plucking strings on them. Rockstar Records should be around for some time (even though they still don't have a website!). So it was indeed time for a fresh comprehensive collection of Eddie Cochran. This eight CD box set fills the bill. Discs 1 - 4 contain Eddie's studio recordings of his own. There are two discs of radio and television performances and interviews. There is one disc of Eddie playing guitar and singing on other artists' records (remember I said there are many more discs of this stuff elsewhere). The box ends with a disc of alternate takes of songs heard earlier in the box set. What is really smart is the fact that this box set was released on the 49th anniversary of Eddie's death rather than on the 50th anniversary as one would have expected. The reason being that as stories in the news about the 50th anniversary of his death rolls around this CD box set will already be in stock in stores and mail order firms thus making it easier to be purchased. Too bad a similar marketing strategy wasn't in place for the 50th anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly.

Link Davis "Big Mamou" Bear Family BCD16523AR

Back in the late 1970s when I first started listening to rockabilly music I got two really nice various artists compilation LPs called "Starday-Dixie Rockabillys" Volumes 1 & 2. I really like the tunes heard there by Rudy Grazell, Groovey Joe Poovey, and Link Davis. Many years later I got CD compilations by Grayzell and Poovey that further proved their impressive talent. There have been earlier compilations by Link Davis but in '09 Bear Family worked their particular reissue magic with this CD. By the way, this is the ONLY new single disc CD I heard in 2009 that really knocked me out. Link Davis, it would seem, cared little for the real world and was forever drawn to the muse and vibe of music and the good times where he played it. And what different styles he excelled at! On this disc you'll hear the most amazing Cajun music you will ever hear, honky-tonk stuff, and truly unhinged rockabilly! Link played fiddle on the Cajun tunes and saxophone on the rockabilly tunes. What a combination of instruments! He played guitar, too. It was the tune "Sixteen Chicks" that attracted me to Link Davis long ago. That tune is here along with everything else he had released on the Okeh and Starday labels. All of it just fantastic stuff. You really don't think of country musicians playing polyrhythmic music but, my God, wait until you hear "Slippin' and Slidin' Sometimes". There are percussionists beating out multiple African-sounding rhythms that are hypnotising. Unbelievable. Look at these photographs of Link, portraits and onstage shots. He always has a "What? me worry?" look on his face.

Buddy Holly "Not Fade Away: the Complete Studio Recordings and More" Hip-o Select B0012875-02

In 1979 a six LP box set came out with all then-known recordings by Buddy Holly. The rockabilly revival was in full swing at the time and fans were thrilled to hear all this music. More recordings by Buddy have surfaced over the years which were duly released on unauthorized records and CDs, some with very impressive sound and packaging. Rightful owners of Buddy's recordings are just now making legitimate release of all these recordings on this six CD set. It is very nice to have here the biggest collection of Buddy's music to date. The sound is really very good on the master recordings. Still, Buddy Holly fans are very hard group to make happy. Online forums list known recordings not included. A few alternate takes are curiously not heard. From the beginning we knew that this CD set would not include any of Buddy Holly's recorded interviews or guitar and vocal performances on other artists' records. These omissions are disappointing seeing as how those recordings are considered to be important and so much effort was otherwise made to make this CD set complete. Why not take that extra step and include everything? I have said in other posts on this blog that I greatly prefer compacts discs housed in jewel cases rather than any other kind of packaging. Major American CD labels really have this awful thing about making multi-disc sets with the CDs put in pockets that scrape the playing surface every time the disc is removed and put back. I REALLY don't like that and I want this practiced stopped. As I have said many times before, I prefer multi disc sets packaged in cube, long box, or LP sized boxes with all the discs in jewel cases. As Holly historian and consultant Bill Griggs recently said, if nothing else we get to hear recordings by Buddy Holly here that have never been legitimately released before.

George Jones "Walk Through This World With Me" Bear Family BCD16928EI (5 discs) and "A Good Year For the Roses" Bear Family BCD16929DI (4 discs)

These two box sets combined contain everything George Jones recorded for the Musicor label, which covers the years 1965-1971. George has said he recorded too many songs for Musicor. That comment is explained in the booklets enclosed with these CD sets. At the time these recordings were made George had been making records for ten years. At this point he had truly mastered the art of singing and the art of studio recording. He knew the studios, the musicians, and the engineers intimately. These people were able to make subtle shadings in their performances that were easy to hear and appreciate. Everything was in place to make brilliant recordings. And they did, many times. The only real weak spot were some of the compositions themselves. By the time these records were made, songwriting in Nashville had become a 9 to 5 job, with dozens of new titles published weekly with the hope that now and then some artist would breathe lyrical art in a few of them and convince the listening public to appreciate them. It sounds here like George and the band was pulling lead sheets off the top of a stack and giving them a whirl while the tape rolled. That may be just what happened. George's singing and the band were right on target almost every time. It is only the weakness of the lyrics and the repetition of rhythms and instrumental solos that make this body of work short of consistent brilliance. I'm not complaining, though! This really is excellent country music by one of the three greatest country singers of all time.

George Jones is the absolute champion when it comes to singing with a chip on his shoulder. This man's songs are so full of self-doubt, personal inadequacies, moral weakness, and suspicions of other people. A poster boy for mental health he ain't. Therein lies one of the fascinations people have with country music. That anyone can sing these kinds of songs or listen to them with a straight face is truly beyond me. I always listen to music like this with tongue firmly in cheek and I often burst out laughing during these songs when I am sure the artists meant nothing funny by them. I clearly don't take these songs seriously. Forgive me if I don't. But I do really enjoy country music.

Freddie King "Taking Care of Business (1956-1973)" Bear Family BCD16979GK

When I first started to listen to blues music in the early 1970s after I got out of high school, one of the very first things I was taught about the blues is that the best guitar players were all named King. That turned out to be close to the truth. There are few blues fans who don't love some of the records of B. B. King (the most famous blues musician of all time), Albert King (my personal favorite of the Three Kings of the Blues), and Freddie King, the most rocking sounding of the three. Freddie didn't start making records for Federal Records (a subsidiary label of the heralded King Records) until 1960, so he is considered younger than the Muddy Waters/Jimmy Reed/Howlin' Wolf generation of Chicago blues musicians. Freddie is famous for his guitar/piano/bass/drum quartet heard on many of his Federal records. No rhythm guitar, no horns, no harmonica. Just a solid quartet with Freddie playing all of the guitar parts and constant rhythmic support from Sonny Thompson on piano who never seemed to run out of ideas for piano counterpoint to Freddie's guitar. It was a formula that worked over and over on both vocal and instrumental tunes. Of course, they knew better than to use this instrumentation on EVERY song. On some they indeed added a couple saxophones for great effect. Freddie's recordings for all labels except one are heard here. His final recordings for RSO at the end of his young life are the only ones not included. The Atlantic and Shelter sides are here, too, on this seven disc set. But it is those steady rockin' tunes for Federal in the 1960s that made him a star, not the least of which is "Hideaway".

I saw Freddie King on stage one time, just a couple years before he died. He was the warm-up act for the Bachman-Turner Overdrive at a sold-out municipal auditorium show on a Monday night here in my hometown. By then he used a quintet group, again with himself as the only guitar player but flanked by an organ and a piano player as heard on his Shelter recordings of the period.

Little Walter "The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967)" Hip-o Select 97841

Little Walter is universally regarded as the best blues harmonica player of them all. I agree. Sonny Boy Williamson II and Big Walter Horton are my other favorites. In listening to all of Walter's own recordings on this five disc set, time and again I am amazed at how he would deliberately start and stop his own playing and singing in many measures in his songs a bit early or a bit late. Casually one would think this is simply sloppy playing. NO! He was doing this on purpose to keep his band members and listeners on their toes. No complaciency was allowed when it came to Little Walter Jacobs. When it was time to play or listen you had to be on edge to keep up with him. Now, even though you hear all of his Chess/Checker records under his own name here, remember that Little Walter was a frequent harp player on other records by Chess artists, notably those by Muddy Waters. You will have to hear those tunes elsewhere. And I urge you to seek them out. Blues music was at its ever lovin' best on the Chess label.

This CD set won a Grammy award. Richly deserved!

Hank Williams "Revealed" Time-Life 24922-D

This is the second three disc set to include radio performances by Hank Williams and his famous Drifting Cowboys from live morning radio broadcasts on WSM radio, sponsored by Mother's Best flour and cornmeal. There are a lot of radio broadcast recordings of Hank, and many fans have come to prefer these performances over his studio recordings as he sounds more relaxed and naturally emotional and the band sounds more adventurous. A real memorable tune here is his take on "On Top of Old Smokey", which he gives a feel of lament which you've likely never heard attached to this song before. Reviews of the first CD set in this series complained that there was too little between-song banter. In direct response, the producers cheerfully complied on this new CD set, even going so far as to include a complete start-to-finish 15 minute radio program at the end of each disc. This is not the last CD set in this series. There is more to come.