Monday, 29 September 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 6 (Top Five): Box Sets

And this week’s top five: in honour of the forth-coming Kinks box-set (due for release in either late October or early November 2008, depending on what you read), we highlight five of the best box-sets available featuring AAA groups: (continued next page...)

5) ‘Lennon Anthology’ (1999). Unissued tracks: a whopping 94 (although many were featured on the radio series ‘lost lennon tapes’, so strictly speaking only about half of these are ‘unheard’). Dismissed at the time as a cash-in on the Beatles’ Anthology, I actually prefer this 4CD set to the Beatles’ six-CD one—there’s less of the important stuff missing and what’s there hasn’t been messed around with by editing out-takes together to create 1990s hybrids of session tapes etc (why EMI/Apple, why?!?) There are perhaps too many spoken-word dialogue-only tracks here (about 15 or so, some barely 10 seconds long) and another 20 tracks are Lennon demos which peter out after only 30 seconds or so, but the bulk of this set includes such delights as rough-hewn demos from the Plastic Ono Band + Walls and Bridges albums, plus most of the songs from the Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey albums, which sound really good without the excessive overdubs and polish those albums came with. As for the packaging, this set features one of the most moving (and longest!) essays Yoko has written to date about her late husband and 20 pages of Lennon song lyrics, some thing that’s always good to have. Highlight: Cheap Trick’s pounding version of ’I’m Losing You’, with Lennon at the end of his life sounding 20 years younger—why on earth did they nix this superior take for the comparatively laidback groove of the finished product? (allegedly, Yoko wasn’t too keen on it at the time…which is ironic given how Yoko-sponsored this set is!)

4) Grateful Dead “The Golden Road” (1999). Unreleased tracks: 39. In what was a good year for box-sets came a collection of the first 10 Grateful Dead albums from 1965-72(plus a 2CD compilation of pre-Warner Brothers live and studio recordings); with many of these re-mastered LPs double or triple albums originally and practically all of them ridiculously hard to get on CD in the UK (’Amnerican Beauty’ is the only one I’ve actually seen rather than read about). Even ignoring the albums themselves, there’s still an awful lot of unreleased bonus material to wallow in— four hours’ worth by my reckoning, mainly live recordings but with a few single mixes/un-issued studio tracks/radio spots/demos thrown into the mix too. Highlight: Pigpen’s moving ‘farewell’ song  ‘Two Souls In Communion’, the keyboardist’s last song before his death (that we ever got to hear anyway— there are reportedly later songs on bootlegs), recorded live on the European tour his doctors tried to ban him from taking. OK, this set is a lot of money and only really worth it if you’re missing most or all of these classic albums on CD, but the packaging (detailed essays and lengthy discography, plus rambling booklets with every individual CD) might just be impressive enough to swing it for you anyway.

3) ‘Buffalo Springfield’ (2000). Unreleased tracks: I lost count past 50! (there’s lots of rare mixes on offer here, even on the songs that aren’t listed as being different to the ones we know and love!) For a band who only made three (very short) albums, there’s an almighty range of rarities, out-takes and demos in this fine set. Only the 4th CD of this four CD set includes previously released material—the rest is equally divided between Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay taking turns in the spotlight, starting with the Springfield’s poppy wannabe beginnings of 1965 and ending with elaborate, discarded takes from 1968 when band members left with such regularity nobody was quite sure who was in the Springfield at any given time. The packaging could have been better and the absence of under-rated final album ‘Last Time Around’ from the re-mastered CD at the end is curious indeed, but the music itself is just fine. Highlight: a tired and slurry-sounding Stephen Stills sits at the piano, asks for the lights to be turned down and turns in a spine-chilling off-the-cuff version of his little heard draft-dodging ballad ‘Four Days Gone’. Jaw dropping stuff indeed.

2) Beach Boys “30 Years Of Good Vibrations” (1993). Unreleased tracks: depends whether you have the ‘bonus’ 6th CD or not, but even without that hard-to-find extra the total comes to an impressive 55 unreleased tracks. The box-set to end all box-sets, this takes us from the Beach Boys’ living-room recordings of 1961 up to the 1980s and impressively—given what a warring, court-case friendly band the Beach Boys had become by the 1990s — the balance between old and new, rare and loved, finished and work-in-progress is absolutely spot-on. Admittedly, a good third of the unreleased stuff is peculiar vocal/ instrumental split mixes nobody really needs, but there are still lots of classy unreleased songs here (highlights: Brian Wilson’s charming late 60s ’comedy’ songs ’HELP! Is On The Way’ and ’I Just Got My Pay’, plus his moving mid-70s where-did-it-all-go-wrong narrative ’Still I Dream Of It’, which if you’re a true Beach Boys fan who knows their troubled history inside-out is guaranteed to make you cry) and its still the best place to look for Beach Boys-era Smile recordings. As anyone who has read my gushing review of that album (101) will know, this expensive set is still worth the price for that selection of 1966 recordings songs alone. The packaging is impressive too, although the brown ‘surfboard’ cover is curiously dull for such a colourful compilation. Still, that’s no matter really—remember, as Brian tells us in an unreleased gem here, ‘love creates trust which manifests peace’. So there.

1) “CSN” (1991). Unreleased tracks: 25. This set does exactly what it says on the box by including the very best tracks by every single branch of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young family up to the early 90s (CSNY/ CSN/ C S or N solo, Crosby-Nash, Manassas, etc) and Nash’s democratic track listing divides up the spoils equally between the trio and a good 95% of the selections are spot-on. No bland live recordings, interviews or pointless remixes for this set (well, not barring three curios anyway)—instead just oodles of lengthy alternate versions and unreleased classics, including a seven-minute ’Suite: Judy Blues’ that rivals the finished take, a glorious CSNY version of Crosby-Nash’s popular ‘Homeward Through The Haze’ and a full un-edited nine-minute version of ’Almost Cut My Hair’ trimmed down to 4:19 by some record company man who obviously never heard this electrifying cut or he’d have included it all. The packaging includes a CSN family tree, CSN/Y views on every song included here and some rare photos. Still the best place to start any self-respecting CSN collection, this is a great set for CSN beginners and survivors alike.

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