Saturday, January 21, 2006

Best of 2005, Part Two: The Past

Thanks to my gig with Fresh Air, I get far better service from reissue labels than from labels putting out new stuff. This is, of course, as it should be: record labels aren't charities, and they only send press things they think will get publicity. And it must be admitted, this was a great year for reissues.

Biggest news of the year was Motown Select's Internet-only release of three volumes of the complete Motown singles in deluxe packaging with a copy of a vintage Motown 45 slipped into the cover of each one. The landscape this opens up is much wider and more diverse than you'd think, although the real treat is the scores of lost soul acts like the Velvettes and the Contours who recorded for Motown. Motown Select also reissued three of Eddie Kendricks' solo albums, which, although dotted with missteps like many Motown albums of the '70s, go a long ways towards proving my long-held contention that the "disco" era wasn't the arid stretch of musical history so many people believe it is. It'd be stretching it to say that "Keep On Truckin'" is worth the forty bucks alone, but his attempt to clone Marvin Gaye's What's Going On with his album People...Hold On is a very pleasant revelation.

It was a great year for folk fanatics, thanks to Legacy's Charlie Poole box, which, remarkably, doesn't attempt to present Poole's recordings in a straightahead chronological fashion, but, rather, to show the records which influenced Poole and the ones he influenced, thereby proving that this marginally insane drunken banjo player was a force in country music similar to Robert Johnson in blues. An exemplary document, even if the packaging is a bit fragile.

Equally fascinating and welcome as a cultural touchstone is Good For What Ails You, Old Hat's collection of medicine show music, black and white, which was incredibly influential in the days before radio became widespread among rural Americans. Sure, what the "doctors" were selling was, for the most part, booze (as if you couldn't figure that out by some of the performances here), but the music itself came from traditional wellsprings and went into the folk process, too. A great example is "The Mysterious Coon," a song which seems pretty racist from its title (and, by our standards, is), but which invests the "coon" of the title with superpowers any rapper would envy when it comes to standing up to the law. Don't be surprised if you find yourself entertained by this; it was, after all, intended as entertainment.

And the weirdest of all the folk reissues from the era of the 78 rpm record is Revenant's American Primitive, Vol. 2, the last collection curated by the late John Fahey, filled with his love of the odd and singular, and with performances both completely bizarre and breathtakingly moving, often in the same song. It's worth having for the complete (known) works of the mysterious Delta blueswoman Geeshie Wiley, whose "Last Kind Favor" is up there wtih Richard "Rabbit" Brown's "James Alley Blues" and Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman" for expressing something dark and deep that we all recognize, even if we've never encountered it before.

The British reissue label Ace (which also reissues soul on Kent) got an American deal this year for distribution, and acquired an American publicist, thereby making it easier for U.S. music fans to finally hear thousands of tracks they've never been aware of. The list of great Ace reissues is too long to post here, but this year's had some killers in it.

Ace has a deal to reissue the King label, which has always stood with Atlantic and Modern in my mind as one of the groundbreaking postwar independents, and in a way, greater than them because it also issued some great country music. Proof positive comes on Fifty Miles to Travel, a collection of the Delmore Brothers' original master recordings from the late 1940s and early 1950s, whose clear sound and impeccable guitar pyrotechnics could get you hooked on this duo who were an important link between the '30s brother duets and rock and roll. The King deal also means finally having clean copies of recodings by two almost forgotten rockabilly masters, Charlie Feathers and Mac Curtis, both of whom did their best work for King.

And, naturally, it means that my all-time forgotten doo-wop group, the "5" Royales, get a "hits and rarities" album, It's Hard But It's Fair, which, because the box set I helped curate for Rhino is long out of print, is the best place to find out why I venerate this group, whose co-lead singer, Johnny Tanner, passed away this year.

Another deal Ace has been working on for the past couple of years has been leasing the Modern catalogue, which has not only been out of print forever, but has been sloppily curated on the reissue front. The biggest news out of this deal was the B.B. King box set which came out a couple of years ago, and the reissues of his albums for Kent with original covers and half again as many tracks as the originals. But it's also meant that the likes of Richard Berry and Jesse Belvin are back in print, and this year saw a great double of Etta James' Modern and Kent singles, which will blow your socks off.

Moving into the '60s, Ace also put out two great pop masterpieces. Many of you will be familiar with Jack Nitzche, the arranger and producer who showed up practically everywhere, from Phil Spector sessions to working with the Buffalo Springfield, but until this year he never got the career overview he deserved. Go look for my Fresh Air piece on this if you want a taste of how great it is. And if you like that kind of dramatic pop music, The Best of Reparata and the Delrons will send you to heaven. Fresh Air piece on this one is coming up.

In fact, if girl group pop is to your liking, the mammoth Rhino collection, One Kiss Can Lead To Another, will be a treasure worth finding. Assembled by a British fanatic, a female British fanatic, at that, it's got almost no tracks which duplicate other collections, and yet from the perverse to the pretty, it's as good a summation of this era as you'll find.

Speaking of mammoth Rhino collections, the words "sumptuous packaging" almost fails to describe Pure Genius, which is nothing less than Ray Charles' complete works for Atlantic, down to the famous "rehearsal tape" of Ahmet Ertegun singing the words to "The Mess-Around" as he teaches it to Ray. There's also a mindblowing DVD of an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, a hardback book, and the whole thing is packaged to simulate a vintage portable record player.

The '60s have been mined so thoroughly that there's little rock left to explore -- or so you'd think. Rhino Handmade scored a coup by turning out Magic Hollow, a four-disc celebration of San Francisco's "lost" band. It's inconceivable to me that a group this good could have fallen between the cracks, especially during the whole Haight-Ashbury hoo-hah, but they did. Their version of "One Too Many Mornings" cuts Dylan's to shreds, and yet it never got higher than 95 on the national charts. Warning, though: my copy of this doesn't seem to play all the way through each disc, despite the fact that there doesn't seem to be any physical defect. No idea what's going on with it, but there you go. I'm certain Rhino will exchange defective ones.

And, of course, speaking of Herr Zimmerman, there was the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's documentary, which I have yet to see. The double disc stands on its own, though, especially the second one, which shows Dylan developing things we all know by heart in the studio, as well as two incendiary performances from That Tour.

What killed the '60s, as everyone knows, was the Stooges. Rhino has reissued, as double albums, both their first and their second albums, with disc two in each case featuring alternate versions and outtakes. Most importantly, the sound, for the first time, is perfect, and you can hear history being made in all its trashy glory. Annotator Ben Edmonds, who clearly has read too much of what the Brits have to say, still doesn't get it about my Rolling Stone review of the first album, where I pronounced it "loud, boring, tateless, unimaginative and childish," adding that it was proof that rock and roll was bad for you, just like your parents said, and concluding the sentence with the words "I kind of like it." Ben's irony meter is obviously defective, but Iggy's always understood, and that's what counts with me.

What the Stooges didn't destroy, Patti Smith did. Okay, that's also supposed to be humorous, but this year's 30th anniversary reissue of her first album, Horses, with the album remastered on one disc and then played at a recent concert on a second one, is a fascinating document of an artist's coming to fully inhabit her art. I know Ms. Smith's not for everyone, but this is solid. (Oh, and I understand my article on her Incredible Shrinking Tour from November has just come out in Paste, so run down to the newsstand today!)

There weren't as many country reissues as I'd have liked to have seen this year, but I do find the Johnny Cash collection, The Legend, to be extremely well-curated. I haven't yet seen the liner notes, but the music, although arranged thematically, is, of course, right on the money.

And speaking of Nashville, three Nashville soul collections came out this year which are well worth your notice. The first is the second volume of the Country Music Foundation's Night Train to Nashville, exploring Nashville's heretofore badly-documented R&B and soul scenes. Extra bonus with this set is a picture of Jimi Hendrix on stage with The Imperials, a show band he spent some time with in his early days. And Sundazed has come out with two more discs, neither of which duplicates anything from either of these collections. The first, Shake What You Brought!, is a collection from the SSS International label run by Shelby Singleton, with tracks by Peggy Scott, Jo Jo Benson, and Bettye LaVette (although, curiously, none of the Scott and Benson duets), and the second, My Goodness, Yes!, is all about his Silver Fox label, which I missed entirely, with Robert Parker, more Bettye LaVette, and (gasp) Hank Ballard, he of the "Annie" trilogy and the original recording of "The Twist," singing Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Both are highly recommended.

Finally, bringing us almost to the present day, is something which looks like a ripoff, but, in fact, isn't at all. The Talking Heads Brick may look like a triumph of art direction over utility (and, in that the albums aren't labelled on their spines, is), but it presents each of the band's albums, meticulously remastered by the band's own Jerry Harrison, on one side of each dual disc, and, on the other side, the whole thing in DVD-A sound (for those of you with players for such things) and a wealth of videos. Not all that many outtakes until you get to the later albums, but the sketches for some of the funkier stuff, especially the experiments which were abandoned, are very much worth checking out.

I'm sure that as soon as I post this I'll think of a couple of others, but this should keep you happy until I do my next one, which, for those of you looking for Christmas presents, I'll try to post before Dec. 25 of this year.

No promises, though. The past, after all, is a big place.

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