Repackaged Goods

The boxed-set dilemma: When are four CDs too little and three CDs too much respect?

Equally, Rhino has repackaged what some curmudgeons might term the most nauseating collection ever assembled, the Have a Nice Day series, into a seven-CD boxed set. The individual 22-volume series contained every truly cheesy '70s hit ever to ooze out of a car-radio grille. For those lactose-intolerant people who want a more accurate picture of what AM radio was like, the seven-CD set also includes tracks excised from Rhino's Didn't I Blow Your Mind series of '70s soul. My preference would be an exhaustive boxed set of every year, filling in as many songs as you can license in one fell swoop. But I'm sure there's someone writhing on the floor with the terror of having to relive 1977 AM-menities all over again.

Is three really the magic number?
You could argue that last year's Simon and Garfunkel boxed set Old Friends set plays better as a three-CD set than it would've as a four-CD set with everything included. In this case, the complete Simon and Garfunkel would've only meant including studio versions of 10 songs represented here with live versions and eight songs that were just average album filler. Myself, I hate going from studio sound to live sound and back. I'd have preferred the extra CD collect all that stuff so it'd feel like I was hearing an entire concert instead of following Paul and Artie's tour/recording itinerary for 1967. This ping-pong effect is what made The Beatles Anthology such an exhausting listening experience. Just when you're really getting into hearing the boys get some incredible sounds in the studio, they're whooshed back to some gargantuan stadium to sing "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" out of tune. Christ, didn't these guys ever get a rest?

This year we've seen a lot of new three-CD sets. In case you thought time was tight on a single-disc Booker T and the MGs collection, here's this new one, which seems a tad excessive to me, especially when you have to pad the last disc with guest shots by Boz Scaggs and Neil Young. Likewise, the Stevie Nicks box Enchanted tries pulling in fans with every duet she's ever crooned with Tom Petty, Kenny Loggins and even John Stewart on "Gold," a song she only sang background vocals on, enchanting though they may be. If you're a three-shawl Stevie Nicks fan, there's precious little on these three discs you haven't already purchased. When the unreleased live versions, non-LP B-sides and demo recordings only add up to eight songs, you wonder why they even bothered assigning them a key of symbols.

For a casual fan, three discs of her larynx-ravaged voice are two too many. And you know there's gonna be someone complaining that there's no "Dreams" on here, but maybe when they hear the overblown piano demo of "Rhiannon" they'll shut up. As Dylan did with Biograph, Stevie commits the cardinal sin of not showcasing her body of work in chronological order, a sure sign of a career that has no real strong finish.

When is an overview underachieving?
When licensing problems prevent you from collecting the original versions of early hits on another label, a boxed set should go back to the drawing board. Neil Diamond and Rod Stewart both have two unsatisfying retrospectives, each offering lame live versions of hits that appeared on the other labels in studio form. So if you want a version of "Stay With Me" so impaired by drunkenness that it actually slows down midway, check out Rod's Mercury best-of, and if you want an old-man version of "Cracklin' Rosie" where you can hear every nose hair growing, check out Diamond's Columbia boxed set.

Give Me Everything!
Obviously, someone who's investing 40-plus dollars on an artist is more than just the casual fan. Cough up all the track-by-track annotations, outtakes and live recordings in one belch and let the fans decide what stinks.

This being our first Christmas without the Chairman of the Board, one could fill the Frankless void with two exhaustive boxed sets that would set you back a total of about 500 clams. You can sweep up his entire Columbia output with Sony's recent 12-CD set, and any serious scholar of the Voice would have to jump at this. Of its 256 tracks, 150 have not been available since their release on 78s! Then there's the Complete Reprise Recordings, a whole 24 hours of music on 20 CDs, although you might be delirious by the time Trilogy's Future suite comes into orbit.

With a pivotal figure in popular music such as Sinatra, purchasing 32 CDs that don't even cover his years at Capitol doesn't seem like overindulgence. But what is one to make of the German company Bear Family Records and its projected three-volume set of the complete Rosemary Clooney? The second installment is seven long CDs and, let's face it, the target audience for such an overview doesn't have all that much time left. One imagines a prospective buyer of volume three barely clinging to life on a respirator in the hope of running his or her fingers over its smooth surface just one time before the man upstairs yells "come-on-a my house."

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