Music » Music Feature

You can do better than an iTunes gift card

Perhaps the music lovers in your life would enjoy 23 CDs of the Isley Brothers, two decades of the Staple Singers, or a half century of rural southern sounds from County Records.

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PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Every fall, to give music lovers a few gift ideas during this jolliest time of the year, I review a pile of recent box sets. Releases like this are rarely geared to the casual listener, and it's hard to gauge their success using commercial metrics—as sales of physical media continue to decline, expensive multidisc collections become increasingly niche ­oriented. I've tried to cast a broad net here, including not only folkloric compilations whose musicians are by and large known only to their friends and relatives but also a giant set by long-­running hit makers the Isley Brothers. Most of these would make good gifts not for the average consumer but rather for the sort of person who'd be happy to listen to Bob Dylan rehearse and develop various versions of "Like a Rolling Stone" for the space of entire disc. If you choose wisely, you can make someone—but not just anyone—very happy.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Harry Bertoia
Sonambient: Complete Collection
(Important) $98

This monumental set collects the 11 private-­press LPs that designer, artist, jeweler, and aesthete Harry Bertoia made during the 60s and 70s in a secluded barn next to his home in Bally, Pennsylvania. Best known for his iconic chairs, Bertoia became obsessed with resonant metallic sounds in the late 50s, when a piece of alloy wire he was working with snapped and struck another wire. The resulting sound triggered an obsession that he pursued till his death in 1978; he spent his spare time building gorgeous architectural sound sculptures, and though they were primarily for his own edification, he did make a few large-scale versions as public art. (The one in the plaza of the Aon Center was the subject of a recent sound installation by Olivia Block.) In 1970 Bertoia released the first of many albums called Sonambient on a label of the same name, and the other ten came out eight years later, after he'd been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Bertoia spent hours in his barn recording the sounds of his various sculptures with four microphones and a basic playback system. Some of the works collected in this set are straightforward documents of the resonant, droning sounds the artworks produced when struck, rubbed, or set up to interfere with each other; others are layered manipulations of earlier recordings produced by varying tape speed and direction. The set also contains a lovely 114-page booklet that includes reproductions of the original album art, an essay by scholar Beverly H. Twitchell, dozens of photographs, a 1972 interview that Bertoia did for the Smithsonian Institute, and appreciations from several new-music luminaries and Bertoia family members. These sounds might strike the average listener as narrow in range and esoteric in origin, but Bertoia has created his own serene, meditative form of beauty from ringing, crashing, and vibrating metal.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Bob Dylan
The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12
(Columbia/Legacy) $149.98

The latest entry in this long-running Bob Dylan "bootleg" series pulls back the studio curtain on his creative process during one of his most potent periods, when he was making Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. I have the six-CD deluxe edition; also available are a modest two-CD version and an exhaustive 18-CD set that collects everything laid to tape during the sessions (it's limited to 5,000 copies and costs $599.99). Even the six-CD collection isn't for the casual fan: disc three contains nothing but the song "Like a Rolling Stone" in alternate takes, rehearsals, false starts, and incomplete versions. But in my experience Dylan fans are rarely casual, instead clinging to every word, vocal phrase, and instrumental flourish—and this set's level of documentation, whether you think it's ridiculously excessive or not, makes it possible to follow the development of one of the greatest rock songs of all time. The earliest takes employ waltz time, and you can hear Dylan and his band feeling things out (at least until he announces, "My voice is gone"). During a series of rehearsals recorded the next day, the song evolves into its familiar shape—and the set also includes several versions recorded after the one that ended up on Highway 61 Revisited.

Throughout the collection, Dylan experiments with language, the shapes of words, and the band's approach to his loose musical sketches—changes between takes make it clear how much input the players had. Dylan is so pleasantly surprised by some of the dazzling lines that Chicago blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield improvises during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions that he loses his place in the music. On a loose first take of "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," the band performs in 6/8, and Dylan is still refining his phrasing; they're miles from the sharp drive immortalized on take 15, and it's fascinating to hear how they get from point A to point B. Obviously the partial takes have limited repeat-listening value, but most of the complete alternates are satisfying in their own right, thanks to the excellence of all the musicians involved. The Cutting Edge also includes a beautiful 120-page hardbound book filled with detailed liner notes, song annotations, and rare photos from the era.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

The Isley Brothers
The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983)
(Sony Music/Legacy) $179.98

I can't think of a pop act that's stayed successful, creative, and urgent for as long as the mighty Isley Brothers. Ronald Isley was there during the early days of rock 'n' roll, singing gospel-­driven hits such as "Shout" and "Twist and Shout," and his silken voice sounded equally at home at Motown, on psychedelic soul numbers, and on proto-­slow jams. He's still making records, and though some of the lyrics are idiotic, he's managed to sound credible produced by R. Kelly, who's long cited the Isleys as an influence. This veritable brick of CDs—a total of 23—collects just about everything the Isley Brothers recorded during their peak years (excepting a mid-60s stint at Motown), loading each album with bonus tracks such as mono versions, single edits, and disco mixes. The set includes In the Beginning, a previously released compilation of recordings the group did with a young Jimi Hendrix in 1964-'65 (prefiguring Ernie Isley's wild, flanged guitar playing, which would become as much a trademark of the group as Ronald's satiny croon), as well as a couple of live albums, among them the previously un­­released Wild in Woodstock, taped in 1980 in front of a small crowd at Bearsville Studios and rejected by CBS Records (which distributed the Isley's own T-Neck imprint).

It's great to have the group's classics together in one place. There's the 1971 album Givin' It Back, where the Isleys remade Vietnam-­era protest songs such as "Ohio" and "Machine Gun" in their own creamy, expansive style. The 1973 gem 3 + 3 includes their most famous hit, "That Lady" (it stings that I think of Swiffer when I hear it, thanks to those commercials), as well as an indelible cover of "Summer Breeze." And the title track of the 1983 quiet-storm masterpiece Between the Sheets has been sampled by Notorious B.I.G. (for "Big Poppa") as well as by Jay Z, Common, Da Brat, Whitney Houston, Usher, and countless others.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Brad Mehldau
10 Years Solo Live
(Nonesuch) $130

In order to compile this meticulously sequenced collection, pianist Brad Mehldau spent several years listening to recordings of 40 or so solo concerts he'd played throughout Europe between 2004 and 2014. The 19 pieces he chose total more than five hours, and diving into these eight LPs (or four CDs) is a daunting prospect. Mehldau is a rigorous musician who prefers elegant, sometimes florid rumination over ebullient extroversion, and he consistently brings a rhapsodic quality to these performances. He also takes a great deal of liberty in this format—for instance, he might build upon terse phrases from a composition's melody without regard to harmony or form. "This more stream-of-­consciousness approach is possible in a solo performance," he explains in his typically expansive liner notes, "because there is no need to match my harmony with someone else, lest we are thinking of different chords that would clash with each other."

Melhdau tackles a few jazz tunes, among them "This Here" by Bobby Timmons, "Countdown" by John Coltrane, and a couple of Monk pieces. But much of the material comes from contemporary pop, including songs by Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Massive Attack, the Beach Boys, Jeff Buckley, Sufjan Stevens, the Kinks, and Nirvana. (There's also some Brahms.) Mehldau is a transformer, and fits his varied repertoire into a single aesthetic. He sometimes includes brisk motion, as on a spry reading of the standard "Get Happy," but more often he plays fluidly and spontaneously, creating emotionally potent, swelling waves of filigree and shimmering harmony. His love of melody dominates his sound, but he's also mastered dynamics and mood, shifting effectively between major and minor modes. He encourages listeners "with a lot of time and endurance" to listen to the whole set in a single sitting, but I've been satisfied with much shorter sessions.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Small Faces
The Decca Years
(Decca/Universal) $99.99

Playing a hard-rocking take on American R&B, London band the Small Faces quickly became teen heartthrobs during their short stint on the Decca label from 1965 till '67. Lead songwriters Steve Marriott and Ronnie "Plonk" Lane churned out hooky gems inspired by singers the group covered—Sam Cooke, Don Covay, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye—and Marriott's wailing, extroverted voice, which clearly had a big impact on Robert Plant, consistently stole the show. After rebelling against manipulative manager and A&R man Don Arden and severing ties with him and with Decca, the Small Faces signed with the Immediate label, run by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. They set out to realize their creative ambitions, moving away from a bald emulation of soul toward something more original, and in '67 they racked up their biggest American hit with "Itchycoo Park." The band's drive for self-invention reached its apotheosis on the 1968 concept album Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake.

This five-CD set digs deep into the vaults, compiling the 30-some tracks the group cut at Decca and adding a full disc of rarities and outtakes plus another of interviews and BBC sessions. The Decca Years is strictly for the hard-core collector, because the Small Faces were still in their proto-mod form—only Marriott's overwrought cry signals their future innovations. The set includes a handful of oversize postcards with vintage photos and 72-page booklet of essays and press clippings.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Staple Singers
Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976
(Stax) $59.99

The Staple Singers, one of gospel's most important and enduring groups, finally get the deluxe treatment they deserve on this essential four-CD set, which collects material made for several labels over more than three decades. The collection opens with a single they recorded for Chicago imprint United, which is missing the tremolo guitar arpeggios by group leader Roebuck "Pops" Staples, a trademark of their early material—instead it uses the label-sanctioned piano of gospel great Evelyn Gay. By the time the Staple Singers started working with Vee-Jay in 1955, though, that guitar sound had become a tell-tale sign that you were about to hear a Staple Singers song, with either Mavis's low, throaty voice or Pops's smooth croon caressed by mixed-­gender harmonizing that was unusual at the time. Pops had a deep knowledge of tradition, bringing together old spirituals, modern tunes, and even white gospel numbers—the group's version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is as definitive as the Carter Family's, for example.

By the early 60s the Staple Singers had become stars of the gospel circuit, and Pops saw a chance to reach a larger audience via the folk revival. (The group had been playing folk festivals, and along the way they discovered Bob Dylan.) In 1963 they recorded Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in their usual format, and a few years later harder drums and driving bass turned up on their version of "A Hard Rain's a-­Gonna Fall." As the decade progressed the Staple Singers' arrangements grew thicker, tapping into funk and hard soul, which led to a fruitful stint at Stax beginning in 1968. The group even took on some secular material, though the songs carried messages that fit right in with their spirituality—some of the best examples are the massive 1971 hits "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There," as well as the collaborations with Curtis Mayfield that end the set. The package includes a great 58-page booklet filled with photos, essays, and discographical info, as well as a seven-inch single featuring the Staple Singers' first recordings, "Faith and Grace" and "These Are They."


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Various artists
Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings From the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946
(University of Wisconsin/Dust-to-Digital) $60

The remarkable Dust-to-Digital label has taken its ethnographic releases to a new level by partnering with academic presses to complement the music with research and writing by devoted scholars. The five CDs in this set collect fieldwork by Alan Lomax and several other ethnographers, who ventured deep into Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota between 1937 and 1946 to compile a broad portrait of folk traditions in the area. Music brought by immigrants from Lithuania, Ireland, Poland, Denmark, Germany, Serbia, Sweden, and elsewhere—sometimes stylistically pure, sometimes weirdly Americanized—is complemented by music of Native Americans (Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, and Oneida), French Canadians, and African-­Americans. Lomax wrote of his discoveries in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, "I felt that there was enough material in the region for years of work."

Musicologists routinely overlook the midwest in favor of the south, which enjoys the advantage of having spawned blues and country. Taken on its own terms, though, the upper midwest is a serious treasure trove—not so long ago, all kinds of traditions coexisted in close proximity, creating a rich multicultural fabric. Scholar James P. Leary provides invaluable background, annotating each folkloric collection and every track. The Wisconsin Lumberjacks, for instance, whose music fills one of the discs, were a troupe of lumberjacks from several mill towns along the Red Cedar and Flambeau rivers in the northern part of the state; they formed to share the diverse culture of the workers at folk festivals in Chicago and Washington, D.C. (where the recordings were made). The set also includes a DVD of silent performance footage shot by Lomax that's accompanied by music he recorded.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Various artists
Legends of Old-Time Music: Fifty Years of County Records
(County) $59.98

New Yorker Dave Freeman founded County Records in 1963 to reissue the sort of rural southern music he first encountered on an early-50s family road trip to New Orleans. His father tuned into regional radio stations along the way, and Freeman was riveted by the mountain music and early bluegrass he heard. Two years after starting the label, whose name refers to the way musical styles vary from county to county, he met a Chicago fiddler, Charles Faurot, who suggested they cut their own records with musicians from Virginia and North Carolina—and before long County's excellent field recordings began to eclipse its reissues. This magnificent four-CD box collects a vibrant assortment of string music from the label's early years through the 1980s. Some of the musicians represented—including banjo player Wade Ward and singer-guitarist Eldridge Montgomery—had previously recorded with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, but most of the folks here were introduced to the world at large by County.

The set includes a 28-page LP-size booklet with short bios of the musicians and annotations for the obscure and familiar songs they perform. Freeman, Faurot, fellow owner Richard Nevins, and onetime employee Barry Poss (who went on to found influential bluegrass imprint Sugar Hill) contribute concise memories of the label's history. As much as I love old-time music, I'm no expert, and I hadn't heard of most of the players here—I knew only fiddler Benton Flippen, guitarist E.C. Ball, and Carter Family scions Joe and Janette Carter. These 113 tracks—a few by fiery bluegrass bands, but most featuring just one or two folks, demonstrating a passionate, soulful homespun virtuosity—sound as alive and electric as almost anything I've heard in 2015.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

Various artists
Ork Records: New York, New York
(Numero Group) $35

The band Television basically launched Ork Records to release their brilliant debut single, "Little Johnny Jewel," in 1975—a year after Patti Smith's "Piss Factory," in the earliest days of punk rock. The label was named after and more or less gifted to Terry Ork (born William Terry Collins), a California film buff who'd moved to New York in 1968, caught up in dreams of Andy Warhol's Factory—for a while, he served as an assistant to Gerard Malanga. While working at Cinemabilia, a collectibles shop for film fanatics, Ork met Richard Hell, who soon reconnected with Tom Verlaine, a friend from Delaware boarding school Sanford Preparatory (they were kicked out after taking off on a road trip). The two of them started playing together in the Neon Boys and eventually started Television, which Ork managed. As Verlaine says in the liner notes to this remarkable two-CD set chronicling Ork Records' rocky history, "We decided to name the record label after him, because we figured he might want to start a label and keep it going if it did well . . . which is exactly what happened."

In typical fashion for the Numero Group, this set features insanely detailed, entertaining liner notes that tell the story of nearly every artist who made a record for Ork between 1975 and 1980 (as well as the 1965 single that future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye cut under the name Link Cromwell). Much of the label's catalog is historically fascinating but musically bland, despite its connection to a bona fide New York underground, but Ork would be immortalized in punk history even if it had released only the Television single and the 1976 debut seven-inch by Richard Hell & the Voidoids, "Blank Generation." Ork also put out several post-Big Star records by Alex Chilton, discs featuring rock critics Mick Farren and Lester Bangs, and the first single from pop auteur Chris Stamey (the label prepped one by his future partner in the dBs, Peter Holsapple, but it came out on Car Records after going unissued by Ork). Ork Records: New York, New York also includes a pair of previously unreleased songs by the Feelies ("Fa-Ce-La" and "Forces at Work") that predate their classic Stiff Records debut, Crazy Rhythms, and use an over-the-top production style at odds with the minimal sound they soon perfected. The set's surplus of great photos and many high points more than compensate for its weak tracks, making it one of the year's most essential reissues.


PAUL JOHN HIGGINS
  • Paul John Higgins

The Velvet Underground
The Complete Matrix Tapes
(Polydor/UME) $51.99

This four-CD collection rounds up the extant live recordings of performances the Velvet Underground gave at influential San Francisco rock club the Matrix on November 26 and 27, 1969, when the group's second lineup—Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Doug Yule—were based in the Bay Area. Some of this music has previously been released—on a deluxe reissue of the group's self-titled third album, on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, and as part of the box set The Quine Tapes—but by compiling everything available from those two evenings, The Complete Matrix Tapes delivers a laser-focused snapshot of this influential band well after their graduation from their Warhol-­guided phase.

The Velvet Underground's third album—their first studio effort with Yule—had been released in March '69, and it introduced the cleaner, strummier sound that's familiar from classics such as "What Goes On," "Pale Blue Eyes," and "I'm Beginning to See the Light." At these shows the band apply that new aesthetic—where Reed and Morrison lock together gleefully in a mesmerizing, propulsive rhythmic back-and-forth—to their earlier repertoire, giving a steadier drive to one of several versions of "Heroin," an appropriately narcotic gait to "I'm Waiting for the Man," and a swinging, accelerating-decelerating rock 'n' roll groove to "Sister Ray," with the usual waves of crushing feedback replaced by extended strings of fuzzed-out solos. Reed changes some lyrics too, singing a different verse from the studio version in "Sweet Jane." This set isn't for the casual VU fan, but getting lost in it—this fleeting moment was a real peak of the band's middle period—has proved pretty addictive for me.  v


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