The holiday shopping season has kicked into overdrive, and the Reader is helping to push. For the past few years I've been chipping in by picking my favorite box sets and reissues. Some of them have been widely covered already (especially the remarkable Bob Dylan set), but others are likely to be unfamiliar to you—these aren't stocking stuffers or last-minute ideas. (I've reviewed the CD version of each, but several come in more expensive LP versions too.) The releases devoted to Designer Records and electroacoustic composer Akos Rozmann are geared to very specific types of listeners, but if you know folks with such curious ears, you could make someone very happy.
Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972
Because Captain Beefheart's 1969 classic, Trout Mask Replica, is such a singular work of genius, the records he released immediately afterward tend to get short shrift, especially since they're marginally less odd—though that's a relative assessment. This four-CD set collects three of those albums—Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), The Spotlight Kid (1972), and Clear Spot (1972)—and adds a disc of previously unissued rarities from the same period. Beefheart and his Magic Band were in the zone, refining and streamlining the ideas of Trout Mask Replica for the concise, hard-hitting Lick My Decals (which has been out of print since 1989). Beefheart has a reputation as a cryptic, difficult artiste, but he doesn't leave room for anybody to misinterpret his carnal desires on the title track—the perverse wordplay never lets up, and neither do the fractured grooves.
After John "Drumbo" French (a crucial force on Trout Mask and Lick My Decals) left the group, Beefheart assembled a new lineup for The Spotlight Kid, and the music got more "normal"—though it remained impossible to confuse his post-Howlin' Wolf holler with any other voice on the planet. On the even more accessible on Clear Spot, he occasionally ditched his growl for a more conventional croon, such as on the soul-stoked "Too Much Time" (replete with a chorus of female backing singers) or the largely acoustic ballad "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles." The bonus disc includes outtakes, alternate versions, and early iterations of tunes that would be formally released years down the line, including a stripped-down take on the jazzy "Harry Irene," which would appear on 1978's Shiny Beast. Journalist, novelist, and music critic Rip Rense wrote the set's richly detailed and illuminating liner notes.
The Complete Columbia Album Collection
(Sony Classical) $221.98
Few people have exerted more influence on 20th-century classical music than French composer Pierre Boulez, an intellectual and iconoclast who after World War II led an impassioned push toward abstraction and experimentation, both with his compositions and with his theoretical writing. He also embarked on a fruitful career as a conductor, an aspect of his work saluted by this weighty 67-disc box set, which collects his recordings for Columbia released between 1967 and 1995. He led many of the planet's great orchestras, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra of London, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (though none of his recordings with the CSO were for Columbia).
A small part of this splendid set is devoted to Boulez's own compositions—including performances by his peerless Ensemble InterContemporain—but for the most part it offers a wonderful survey of modern European music, with an emphasis on the likes of Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Bartok, and Webern. Since this behemoth was released last week, I've only spent a short time with it, but considering how little it costs per disc, I already feel comfortable declaring it an excellent investment.
Miles at the Fillmore—Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3
In April 1970 trumpeter Miles Davis released the paradigm-shifting classic Bitches Brew, a bold excursion into churning group improvisation charged with the energy and electricity of rock. Late that summer Davis and his powerhouse ensemble performed at Bill Graham's Fillmore East in New York, part of a triple bill with Neil Young and the Steve Miller Band. Before the year was out, Columbia released a double album called Miles Davis at Fillmore, whose heavily edited tracks had been cut with a razor and spliced back together by producer Teo Macero—something he'd been doing to Davis's live and studio recordings for more than a decade. His handiwork was deft, and I've never felt cheated by the trimmed-down version of the set—but I sure am glad Columbia has released the unedited performances on this dazzling four-CD set, the most recent installment in its Miles Davis Bootleg series.
Each disc captures a night's performance, from June 17 to June 20, and the set lists are largely identical. With a lineup that includes saxophonist Steve Grossman, keyboardists Chick Corea (electric piano) and Keith Jarrett (organ), bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira, the band rips into the material with ridiculous energy and elasticity. No one with working ears disparages this period in Davis's career, at least not these days; he may have borrowed from rock for commercial reasons, but he wasn't simplifying or dumbing down his music. These ferocious recordings make the studio version of tracks such as "Directions" and "Bitches Brew" sound tame. Until he went on hiatus in 1975, Davis transformed his music from month to month, and what he was doing with it in 1970 remains astonishing. This set includes as bonus cuts three previously unissued pieces taped at Fillmore West in San Francisco in April 1970, most of which turned up on the 1973 album Black Beauty.
Bob Dylan & the Band
The Complete Basement Tapes
The historic reel-to-reel recordings Bob Dylan made with the Band near Woodstock, New York, in 1967 have a byzantine history, but I had no idea how tangled it was till I read the nine pages detailing their long history (with all the various dubs, bootlegs, discoveries, and official releases) that Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin wrote for the liner notes of this six-CD set. These informal sessions were conducted largely to cut demos of new Dylan songs for other artists to record (many did, including the Byrds, Fairport Convention, Miriam Makeba, Manfred Mann, the Box Tops, and Peter, Paul & Mary), but they became a creative crucible in which the musicians reassessed and assimilated the breadth and history of American music. It was as though they'd mainlined Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music to catalyze an all-new amalgam of sounds.
Some of these songs appeared on a 1975 album called The Basement Tapes, for which members of the Band added overdubs and cleaned up the original sessions. By contrast, this set has everything they laid down in 1967 in its unvarnished form—not just Dylan originals (often in multiple takes) but also a diversity of folk, country, blues, and current pop, including tunes by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Curtis Mayfield, the Carter Family, Ian & Sylvia, Tim Hardin, John Lee Hooker, and Clarence Williams. The set comes with a generous selection of paraphernalia and two books, one full of gorgeous photographs shot around the time of the sessions and another containing the discs and liner notes (where Basement Tapes scholar and Long Ryders cofounder Sid Griffin offers the regrettably faint praise that this material "birthed the Alt-Country movement"). The obsessive completism of this release seems intended for hard-core fans, but I can't imagine anyone who loves American music not savoring every note.
(Luaka Bop) $69.99
Last fall Luaka Bop released Who Is William Onyeabor?, a single-disc compilation of material by this mysterious Nigerian, who made eight albums between 1977 and 1985 and then rejected music in favor of religion. As he told Mike Rubin in the New York Times last year, "I was a sinner who repented and gave himself 100 percent to Christ." His fascinating homemade funk, powered by drum machines and analog synths, was pretty obscure even in his homeland, and the releases were all but invisible outside Nigeria. But in 2005 Luaka Bop included the track "You Better Change Your Mind" on the wonderful African psychedelic compilation Love's a Real Thing, and soon the label began working on a compilation dedicated entirely to Onyeabor. The process dragged on for years, largely because the singer either appeared indifferent to the label's efforts or obstructed them.
Eventually Luaka Bop chose to make a virtue of these difficulties, using Onyeabor's failure to cooperate to paint him as a compelling, mysterious figure. The singer still won't get involved in Luaka Bop's marketing in any serious way, but the single-disc compilation proved to be such a big hit that the label has decided to release all the Onyeabor music it's uncovered and licensed. This new nine-CD set collects all eight of his albums, plus an alternate version of 1977's Crashes in Love; it also includes a lengthy essay that details the laborious negotiations with the singer.
12 Stations/Tolv Stationer (1978-2001)
(Ideologic Organ) $70
Distinctive Hungarian composer Akos Rozmann moved to Stockholm, Sweden, in 1971, when he was in his early 30s—he'd landed a postgraduate scholarship that allowed him to escape the intellectual gulag of Soviet Hungary. Rozmann had radical ideas about circumventing the limitations of Western music, and though he soon landed a day job as a church organist, he also began forging some of the most daring and mind-warping electroacoustic music ever created. He composed the epic 12 Stations mostly in two discrete periods separated by many years: from 1978 till 1980, he relied on analog gear, employing classic musique-concrete tape methods such as splicing, mixing, and speed manipulation, and from 1998 till 2001 he used samplers and a digital work station.
The piece owes its genesis to fellow Hungarian composer Miklós Maros, who commissioned a five-minute work for piano and soprano (to be sung by his wife, Ilona Maros). Rozmann initially conceived a tape piece that would manipulate recordings of a pianist and a soprano, but it soon grew well beyond those modest beginnings. The six-part finished suite fills seven CDs and nearly seven hours, and this release by Ideologic Organ—a label run by Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O)))—is the first time the whole thing has ever seen the light of day. (It put out an 80-minute version on vinyl in 2012.) In the early movements you can pick out the original acoustic sources, but as the work develops it grows more daring, abstract, and even disturbing; the second half the third part, The Contents and Life of the Black Pit, frequently includes what might as well be the sound of a man with terrible dry heaves. Thankfully the piece's swirling sonic palette commands my attention and interest all the way through.
The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions
The incomparable Mosaic label nails it again with this nine-CD set collecting the complete output of crucial but short-lived Los Angeles label Dial Records, including many of greatest sides waxed by Charlie Parker. Founded in 1946 as an outgrowth of a record store called Tempo (owned by Ross Russell), the label lasted only till January 1948, but managed to chronicle an emergent sound that changed jazz forever. In addition to those crucial Parker cuts (recorded with sidemen such as Miles Davis, Wardell Gray, Duke Jordan, Shorty Rogers, and Russ Freeman), the set includes sessions led by pianists Erroll Garner and Dodo Marmarosa, trumpeters Howard McGhee, Fats Navarro, and Dizzy Gillespie, and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards.
Like other Mosaic sets, this anthology includes lots of alternate takes and rigorous liner notes (written mostly by Russell himself). Most of this music was reissued in Japan by Toshiba in the mid-90s, in conjunction with British label Spotlite, which had released many Dial recordings on LP in the 70s. The Mosaic version features remastered versions restored by Steve Marlow and Chicagoan Jonathan Horwich using a digital process called "bit density processing," which adds clarity and brightness to the horns and pianos and eliminates all kinds of surface noise; the downside is a whooshing quality to the sound of the drums, which can be a bit hard to take. Production quibbles aside, though, the music is as essential as it gets.
Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
This remarkable set assembles recordings made in 1947, 1948, and 1959 by legendary folklorist Alan Lomax at the notorious Parchman Farm, a Mississippi prison where African-American inmates served their sentences doing forced labor. Field recording was in its infancy, and the technology available to Lomax was even more limited, so he had the inmates perform their work songs, field hollers, and proto-blues numbers in a borderline staged setting—rather than hack at a stump with an ax or break rocks with sledgehammers as they sang, they'd drive their hammers into the ground. The blues emerged in part to help people cope with pain and suffering and transform them into art, but at Parchman Farm the pain and suffering never stopped—these performances seem to be more about simple survival than self-expression. The songs could make brutal work more bearable, and their rhythms also kept the prisoners in sync so they wouldn't accidentally wound one another while chopping down a tree. Even six decades later, the recordings can feel voyeuristic—it's almost nauseating to listen to these men fighting against a cruel penal system bent on breaking their bodies and spirits.
As is typical for Dust-to-Digital releases these days, the two discs of Parchman Farm are packaged in a beautiful hardbound book filled with black-and-white photos shot by Lomax on his final visit. The liner notes are taken from previous issues of the material, though nearly a dozen of the 44 tracks have never been released before. It may be hard to enjoy this music without suppressing parts of your consciousness, but its power and resourcefulness are unmistakable.
The Soul of Designer Records
(Big Legal Mess) $39.99
The four-disc set collects black gospel released in the late 60s and 70s by a Memphis imprint called Designer Records. The label itself is the product of a bygone era—it was a sort of vanity label, often referred to as a "custom" label, that would release music by anyone who could pay for studio time, a producer, and a fixed number of copies. Style Wooten, a mysterious raconteur and entrepreneur from Florence, Alabama, was drawn to the record business despite having little acumen for it, and beginning in 1964 he launched a series of such labels, promising to record anyone with enough money—regardless of artistic merit or commercial potential. Luckily for Wooten, he hooked up with guitarist Roland Janes, owner of Sonic Studios, who'd cut several important rockabilly sides at Sun as a member of the Little Green Men (the band responsible for the classics "Red Hot" and "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll"). Janes served as producer for a slew of Wooten imprints, including Style-Way, J'Ace, Camaro, and Tri-State.
I can't say anything about what came out on those labels, but the 81 Designer Records tracks in this set are surprisingly listenable. The discs are packaged like a gatefold record, and the engaging liner notes include bios for some of the artists (probably the ones who left some sort of paper trail and found a modicum of success). Wooten started Designer in 1967 and over the next decade issued more than 500 singles and LPs, including music by artists from as far away at New York, Boston, and California. The groups were usually in the Memphis area to perform, and Designer offered them an opportunity to record something while they were in town. Among the acts that aren't totally obscure are the Gospel Songbirds, the Jubilee Hummingbirds, and the Shaw Singers; most of this stuff is a gritty sort of gospel, infused with hearty doses of blues or funk.
Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014
It blows my mind sometimes to think that Wilco have been a band for two decades, but then I consider their dramatic developmental arc—artfully illustrated by this 77-track, four-disc compendium of demos, compilation tracks, B sides, and live material—and it no longer seems so surprising that it took Jeff Tweedy and his cohorts 20 years to cover all that ground. This package is clearly designed for the Wilco fanatic, but since that describes a huge subset of their listeners, it should find plenty of buyers. The first two discs focus on the years of the band's first three albums, during which Wilco morphed from alt-country standard-bearers to kaleidoscopic pop auteurs—to borrow a Tweedy phrase from the liner notes, "full-on pop music and not the kind of pop music that's apparently popular." Concerning a radio remix of "A Shot in the Arm" from 1999's Summerteeth, done by David Kahne at the behest of Reprise, Tweedy writes, "It was a really good learning experience of what not to do—to trust other people with the vision of your music." The remix's hilariously dated, jacked-up beats clog up that wonderful song, underlining the cluelessness of the label that would soon reject Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
The second two discs capture a band transforming itself into something more spontaneous, experimental, and personal. There's nothing here to upend the familiar story—the personnel changes, and move from Reprise to Nonesuch and then to the group's own label, et cetera. Among the throwaway tracks, alternate versions, and early sketches are plenty of great live performances that serve as a reminder of what a great band Wilco has always been to see onstage (and never more so than now). The set includes a lovely 64-page book with reminiscences by members Nels Cline and John Stirratt, former publicist and superfan Bill Bentley, and Nonesuch exec David Bither, but Tweedy's witty annotations make the best reading.