IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

’Tis the season for musical boxed sets

“Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: Bluegrass,
80 Years of American Music,” Various Artists
It’s appropriate that the magnificent bluegrass collection called “Can’t You Hear Me Callin”’ starts with a selection from the Skillet Lickers, a popular 1920s string band. What made that group of musicians so distinctive was not necessarily the music they played but how they played it — a very stylized, deliberate take on front-porch and barn bands aimed squarely at the realms of professional performance and recorded sound.

And that’s precisely the way bluegrass was born.

This four-disc, from-the-vaults collection — a wild ride through American roots music and the sounds it begat — introduces us to rounders, ramblers, gamblers, wrecks on the highway, breakdowns and shakedowns and rags and lonesome rivers and men of constant sorrow. Just as important, it hands dabbler and expert alike a breathtaking look at the balladeers, fiddlers and guitar and banjo pickers who spent 80 years forming one of the main historical arcs of American modern music.

Bill Monroe, of course, is the undisputed father of bluegrass, and he is represented well in all his phases, as are his many disciples, particularly Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The early stuff here is welcome in its reappearance, particularly in its ability to convey how Monroe and Roy Acuff sounded in their early years, long before the Grand Ole Opry made it to television.

Of particular note in the collection’s earlier part is Monroe’s “Blue Grass Breakdown,” and the picking in it that presages the more aggressive, showy sounds of the 1950s and 1960s.

Later tracks show how the Monroe diaspora spread and mutated — and emerged into the larger culture with cuts like GrandPa Jones’ “Mountain Dew” and Flatt, Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys singing “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” (It was two Hollywood movies, though, that really did it in the end — the use of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Dueling Banjos” in “Deliverance” five years later gave bluegrass a sudden nationwide audience. Both are included in this collection.)

The final disc is, in some ways, the most breathtaking — especially if heard after listening to the first three. It’s a synthesis: In people like the Byrds and Alison Krauss, the Dixie Chicks and Mark O’Connor, we hear the continuity — the echoes of the Skillet Lickers and Bill Monroe and all the pioneers, retooled and reinterpreted for a modern commercial machine, yet still able to convey the individualism that the genre demands. Call it “applied bluegrass.” It’s lovely, particularly in context.

As with any collection that purports to survey an entire region of music, “Can’t You Hear Me Callin”’ will have its naysayers, those who say, “Why wasn’t this included?” or “You put THIS in?” But as a snapshot of a sound, this is a marvelous effort and something that any fan of country music — or any fan of American music, for that matter — should acquire.— By Ted Anthony

“Left of the Dial: Dispatches From
the ’80s Underground,” Various Artists
There’s a wedding planner in Keokuk, Iowa (don’t ask) who gushes about her receptions featuring “that great ’80s music,” to which clever couples respond, “What great ’80s music?”

Ah, but such stuff does exist, and “Left of the Dial” provides proof. Rhino has assembled four CDs showcasing the best of the worst musical decade — until this one, at least — since the birth of rock ’n’ roll.

There are only a handful of bum cuts among the 82. The set covers a range of rock genres and subgenres, from hardcore, goth, industrial dance, ska, country rock and rap metal to funk punk, folk punk, swamp punk, cowpunk, postpunk and the magnificent song “Punk Rock Girl.”

While gems are resurrected from such forgotten bands as the Rain Parade and Throbbing Gristle, the lineup isn’t as obscure as the boxed set’s title might suggest — songs by R.E.M, the Cure and the Replacements are among the first six cuts.

One quibble: too many synthesizers and drum machines. But hey, that was the ’80s. Hit the skip button a few times, and “Left of the Dial” will make a terrific collection for your next wedding party.— Steven Wine

“Get Down Tonight: The Disco Explosion,” Various Artists
A new 3-disc boxed set called “Get Down Tonight: The Disco Explosion” is out to prove what many knew all along — you can’t kill disco. It’s a living part of America’s musical history and when presented properly, as it is here, it accurately documents an era of listenable music.

The most defining moment for disco music might have come with its alleged downfall. When the early 80s rolled around, some radio disc jockeys throughout the country joined in tossing dance music onto the trash heap and declaring in unison disco was dead.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Disco evolved, and these discs show the listener how. Freewheeling night club anthems were replaced by tight, funky electronic beats. After Evelyn “Champagne” King ruled the late 70s disco days with “Shame,” bands like Midnight Star kept the bodies moving in the early 1980s with “No Parking (On The Dance Floor).” Both tracks are on this collection, two of 58 songs in all.

The best part about this boxed set is that the producers knew exactly which songs cannot be excluded from a definitive disco collection. Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell,” Average White band’s “Pick Up the Pieces,” and Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” would have been glaring omissions, and thankfully they were not.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that the versions of the songs on the discs are the short, radio length versions and not the extended disco singles that worked the crowds into a froth in the nightclubs.

Understandably, there would be far fewer songs on the “Get Down Tonight” collection if each song was the 12-minute dance-til-you-drop rendition. But some songs like King’s “Shame” and A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” are best enjoyed at the extended version length, and some other songs should have been sacrificed to make room for them.— Ron Harris

“This Is Reggae Music: The Golden Era
1960-1975,” Various Artists
A four-CD reggae compilation might sound like too much of a good thing, but that’s not the case, mon.

Yes, a percolating bass and loping rhythms built on the backbeat are a constant. But the set features a delightful variety of acts, from reggae giants Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff to such acts as the Stingers and the Willows, obscure even in Jamaica.

The collection traces reggae as it blends African beats with calypso and American R&B, evolving from raw dance music to develop a commercial sheen and crack the Top 40 in America. Insightful liner notes by Colin Escott point out many influences, from Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Jackie Wilson and Al Green to Elvis’ bass player, Johnny Cash, Andy Williams and the Bible. Sources of lyrical inspiration range from hopelessness to anti-authoritarian anger and Rastafarian mysticism, and many of the singers are terrific.

Included are the original versions of “The Tide Is High,” “Cherry Oh Baby” and “Rivers of Babylon.” Every tune’s a toe-tapper, including a song by the Jamaicans, who sum up the set when they sing, “It’s ba ba boom time.”— Steven Wine

“Prince of Cool — The Pacific
Jazz Years 1952-1957,” Chet Baker
Just like the films of James Dean or the young Marlon Brando, the music of trumpeter-vocalist Chet Baker stands as a timeless icon of 1950’s-style cool. The 52 newly remastered tracks on this three-CD set culled from his recordings for the Pacific Jazz label present Baker in his youthful prime before the ravages of his heroin addiction set his career into inevitable decline.

Disc One, “Chet Sings,” offers Baker’s melancholic and endearing interpretations of classic romantic ballads, including “My Funny Valentine,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” and “Time After Time.” Baker’s fragile, feminine-like voice gave him a unique quality as a singer, even though he had only limited range and didn’t try to overwhelm with vocal pyrotechnics. On those cuts where he also plays trumpet, his concise and lyrical instrumental solos are miniature gems as he plays Lester Young to his own Billie Holiday.

Disc Two, “Chet Plays,” features instrumental recordings by Baker’s quartet, sextet and other ensembles featuring pianists Russ Freeman and Bobby Timmons, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and saxophonists Phil Urso and Jack Montrose, among others. The trumpeter is decidedly cool and laid-back on such slow-paced ballads as “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Trav’lin’ Light” with their stripped-down guitar and bass accompaniment. But Baker, who was chosen as a sideman by Charlie Parker for some of the bebop pioneer’s West Coast gigs, shows he can get hot and play at breakneck speeds on such burners as “To Mickey’s Memory” and “Jumpin’ Off A Clef.”

Disc Three, “Chet & Friends,” finds the trumpeter in ensembles with other stars of the West Coast cool jazz school. This disc has recordings by Gerry Mulligan’s unique pianoless quartet — most notably the subtly understated instrumental version of “My Funny Valentine” — that launched Baker’s career with his high trumpet serving as the perfect counterfoil to the leader’s low baritone saxophone. Baker’s trumpet playing rises to new heights when he is challenged by musicians of equal caliber — like alto saxophonist Art Pepper on “C.T.A.” and “Tynan Time” or tenor saxophonist Stan Getz on live recordings of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Yesterdays.” The disc also includes, “The Route,” the only original Baker composition among the 52 tracks.

While it’s easy to find other trumpeters and singers of his era with more formal musical training, better virtuoso skills and wider range, Baker had an intuitive bent for touching the pure emotions that enhanced his appeal beyond the jazz audience. “Prince of Cool” offers a splendid introduction to this young man with a horn who tragically never realized his full potential.— Charles J. Gans

“The Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans,” Various Artists
Jazz and the blues didn’t come from the crossroads or some smoky jive joint. New Orleans was its home. The Big Easy also reared rhythm and blues and became the first stopping point as zyedeco came out of the swamps.

And as a new boxed compilation called “The Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans” shows, the city’s musical luminaries from the 20th century had boundless style and came from each decade, and filling four CDs and with more than 80 hit songs.

Jelly Roll Morton wails long over a piano from his 1939 “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” now a jazz standard about the trumpet player who legend has it stumbled upon jazz. Twenty years later, Smiley Lewis calls back on “I Hear You Knockin’,” showing the world what Bolden’s notes had become.

What is refreshing about this big ol’ box is its how wide it spans.

Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven break it down old school on “Potato Head Blues” only to have the Rebirth Brass Band mix it up new school on “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up,” which makes a trombone and snare feel more hip-hop than jazz. Then there’s Ellis Marsalis and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The Neville Brothers and Fats Domino. BeauSoleil and The Iguanas. You could get lost in this box. Truly.

While most box sets have a theme to hold them together, it’s not always easy to feel that stream of content here. Like New Orleans itself, there’s too much going on.

But maybe it’s supposed to be that way. After all, they say there is a melange of aftertastes to a good gumbo. Maybe that breaks down into music, too: jazz, rhythm and blues, and zydeco.— Ryan Lenz

“Straight from the Heart,” Various ArtistsThere’s probably enough 1960s and 1970s music compilations out there to last retro lovers until VH1 begins filming “I Love the ’60s.” But unlike formulaic predecessors, the “Straight from the Heart” box set successfully combines the eras’ dramatic and often kitschy love songs.

There’s the requisite: Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together, Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” and Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You.” But there’s also the unexpected: The 5th Dimension’s “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All,” Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue,” and Dr. Hook’s “Sharing the Night Together.”

With 20 years of music to pick from, you won’t find any repeat artists over the course of the set’s 60 songs. That’s right. There’s only Dionne Warwick song, “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.”

The three-CD compilation isn’t chronologically organized, which leads to a surprisingly organic and nostalgic listening experience. On the first disc, for example, the jazzy “Traces” by Classics IV featuring Dennis Yost leads into the chirpy “Sad Eyes” by Robert John which moves to Joe Cocker’s sappy “You are So Beautiful.”

The complete randomness of “Straight from the Heart” and, well, the lovey-dovey pop landscape of the 1960s and 1970s make for an evocative journey that’ll either put tears in your eyes or a grin on your face.— Derrik J. Lang

“Kesto (234.48.4),” Pan SonicFinland’s Pan Sonic (formerly Panasonic before legal intimidation from the electronics corporation) released the four-CD set “Kesto (234.48.4).” The album’s title can be loosely translated as both “strength” and “duration,” while the digital subtitle details the exact length of this monolithic indo-electro-ambient masterpiece.

In essence four different albums, the sounds throughout the set are astoundingly diverse. Utilizing a template set forth by electronic/noise trailblazers Einsturzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle, Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen have created music (at times with homemade instruments) that although often stated, truly defies categorization. Each ambitious disc offers a different tone, yet all four seem to be set in a cold, perilous place where mayhem goes unnoticed.

The tracks are issued with Finnish and corresponding English titles which help illustrate the mood: “Groundfrost being,” “Arctic,” “Mutator” and “Cavity.” Disc one is comprised of clamorous, hostile “beats” and adheres closest to a conventional song structure; disc two’s shorter tracks are more atmospheric and rhythmic; while disc three’s “metallic” pieces focus on corralling abstract noise and capturing synthetic field recordings, replete with extended bouts of silence and sporadic surges in volume.

The last hour-plus disc entitled “Radiation” is one mesmerizing (and menacing) melody. Comparable to William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops” or the equivalent of Tim Hecker letting one of his pieces fill out space, “Radiation” drifts through the unseen cracks and swirls like cigarette smoke on a black, winter night. “Kesto (234.48.4)” is a colossal aural experience and without question one of the better electronic releases of 2004.— Jake O’Connell

“DFA Compilation .2,” Various ArtistsThe DFA is the visionary production duo of James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy. Along with Jonathan Galkin they established a record label to go with the recording studio of the same name in 2002.

Not about superficial, one-dimensional dance music, the New York-based DFA recently inked a distribution deal with EMI and have become one of the more consistently challenging independent labels of the new millennium. “DFA Compilation .2,” released just a year

after “.1,” collects every vinyl-only release, B-side, dub, remix and unreleased track since the first compilation and pairs them with selected A-sides and future singles.

Their diversified (and growing) roster is showcased here: the recently departed Rapture and noise-agers Black Dice get two spins each, but relative unknowns like pixeltan, J.O.Y. and Black Leotard Front (party-starter “Casual Friday” has to be heard to be believed) surprisingly turn out more arresting results. The collection is spread across three discs — the third a mix by Goldsworthy and spinster Tim Sweeney.

That is, besides the recently rendered “Bellhead,” the first new material in ages by Liquid Liquid, (if they hadn’t existed, neither would this compilation) and everything by Murphy’s outfit LCD Soundsystem. The inclusion of the Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” flip “Beat Connection” is easily the best thing here. “Yeah,” released in two versions at the beginning of this year, sounds somehow even better almost a year on. Both renditions a Pretentious Mix sans vocals and a Crass Mix, where Murphy rants about the inability of his peers over a stomping techno wallop, are unstoppable.

The third disc is a mix CD with most of the songs ripped right from the first two discs, the only exceptions being The Rapture’s “Echoes (DFA mix)” and Juan Maclean’s fantastic “Give Me Every Little Thing.” The climax of the mix and perhaps the entire set is the concluding tussle between “Beat Connection” and “Yeah.” In a final stroke of mixing genius, the DJs decide to splice them together before giving way to “Yeah’s” show-stopping, serrated-synth seizure. It’s the listener who wins out in the end.— Jake O’Connell

1 | 2