Repackaged Goods

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

At the record company meeting
On their hands--at last--a dead star!
Best of! Most of!
Satiate the need
Slip them into different sleeves
Buy both, and be deceived.

So sang Morrissey on The Smiths' final album, which was immediately followed by the obligatory live album and then The Smiths' Volumes 1 and 2 best-ofs, which were soon compressed into one succinct best-of-the-best-ofs package. Sure, Morrissey overreacts like most old queens, but haven't recording artists always been worth more dead than alive? Yeah, even Dead or Alive, a group that no man, woman or beast should care about either way, a band the pop world passed through its digestive tract without affording a second glance, even it's had its millisecond in the sun recycled several times over.

Never was CD deja vu more rampant than in the early '90s, when record companies first discovered how lucrative musical alchemy could be, using the expensive multidisc set to overanthologize artists whose recordings laid dormant in the vaults for decades. In most cases, they didn't have to pay a cent to anyone but the sleeve writer.

Yet the four corners dropped out of the boxed-set industry somewhere around 1994. Record companies learned there are only a handful of geniuses worthy of a four- or five-CD assessment before you're scraping the bottom with boxed sets like The Complete Hot Butter ("Containing the uncut version of 'Popcorn' and coupons to save on Jiffy Pop!") or Zager and Evans: The Lost Years 1969-2525. Okay, so these travesties don't really exist, but do you doubt that a Terry Jacks in a Box set wasn't at least considered in some Arista boardroom?

Once you entomb your dead artist in his cardboard sarcophagus, what can he do for an encore besides decompose? Nothing. That's why you've gotta keep on repackaging until you get it right. Take the immortal Otis Redding. One would've thought Rhino/Atlantic's three-disc The Otis Redding Story would've sufficed, but those crafty catalogue merchants decided to add more rarities and a fourth disc that collects his best live performances to make Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding. Now, when you throw around a word like "definitive"--that indicates "well, all right, okay, you win" finality, right? "A matter of opinion, baby," as Carla Thomas told Otis in their duet "Tramp."

Rhino even pared down the four-disc collection to this year's two-CD set titled Dreams to Remember. Although you won't find a bum track on any Otis collection, the two-CD set is actually tougher to listen to than the longer ones because, to borrow from Solomon Burke, you get what you need, but you lose what you had. All of Otis' hits are here chronologically, but this sequence makes you think all this proud man did was plead slow ballads every instance a mike was turned on. So casual and diehard Otis fans looking for the best Love Manthology can now choose from single, double, triple and four-CD denominations. Re-re-re-re-re-re-respect, indeed!

The incredible shrinking expanding box!
Something's happening here to our previously released boxed sets--they've been repackaged, too! The big 12-inch boxes used for sets like The Rolling Stones' London Years or Bob Dylan's Biograph have been shrunk down to standard double-CD size, the better to accommodate shelves that have recently shed all that unsightly, bulky vinyl. Before this, most people took the individual jewel cases out of the box, stored them with their other CDs and just kept the boxes on some far-off bookshelf. Now these new slim, book-bound boxed sets have gotten rid of the separate box, but you'd have to get empty jewel cases in order to store them with the rest of your CD collection. Maybe you can stack them alongside your VHS videos, but when DVDs really start happening--ooh, my brain, it's just too painful to think about.

When is a bonus cut not such a bonus?
Older boxed sets, like The Who's Maximum R&B, which had extra unreleased tracks as their dangling carrot, were quickly rendered redundant by the individual albums' rerelease with even more buried treasures. Sony Legacy is notorious for this. There isn't an unissued track on the Byrds' boxed set that hasn't made it onto the individual album releases, and the same will probably ensue with the Cheap Trick and Simon and Garfunkel reissues.

Who are these sets made for? Surely not fans who buy it expecting never to want another Who or Byrds CD ever again. No, it's just to ensnare impatient fans who can't wait another minute to hear an unissued track they've heard about all their life but never actually heard.

Your only hope of getting unreleased tracks that stay boxed-set bound are the Dylans and Springsteens, who have enough outtakes in the vaults for several more boxed sets without having to add previously released album tracks on. And frankly, I can't see Sony Legacy rereleasing all 40-plus Dylan albums with bonus tracks. Life's too short.

The fifth time around?
Rhino, the champs at repackaging Otis Redding, proved the champs at repackaging their own various-artist compilations. They won a Grammy for best packaging with last year's Beg, Scream and Shout! The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul, which made the most of duplicating its own 11-LP/three-CD Soul Shots series of a few years earlier. Now Rhino's made a four-CD set out of Nuggets: Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era. This new collection is infinitely preferable to the three volumes Rhino previously released on CD, which had an overabundance of mainstream mainstays like The Grass Roots and the Lovin' Spoonful. But when you consider that the original LP series numbered nine, that's still too many orphaned songs like Hackamore Brick's "A Gal Named Wilma" cast to the wind.

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."

Paul Weller fans can invest in two import boxed sets that feature everything the Jam ever did. Lord help us, there's even a five-CD set of the Style Council, possibly the most reviled group ever formed by a former superpower. Before the "Cappuccino Kid" called it quits, the Style Council had a final album in the can that Polydor begged off releasing. And it's here for the belching. I'm all for it; if someone wants this, let him eat shite!

We do boxes right:
Sometimes quantity and quality come together in a boxed set that succeeds on all levels. Zombies Heaven, a four-CD summary only available as an import, gives you the sense that here was a group that rivaled The Beatles and Kinks in the sheer brilliance and consistency of its criminally neglected catalogue. Despite a glowing booklet intro by Tom Petty, most Americans might tend to view the Zombies as a three-hit wonder. Cultists are more familiar with the legendary Odessey and Oracle album, which the band released posthumously, only to see its single "Time of the Season" soar to number three a year after the split.

The Zombies released only two albums in their four-year existence, but the standard on every B-side is of such high caliber, you wonder if all that was standing in the way of mass acceptance was the band's nerdy, horn-rimmed image. One fan-magazine blurb reproduced in the splendidly annotated full-color book has the band members playing chess with the caption "the group with brain power." Certainly they had more than that going for them; they had one of pop's most gifted vocalists in Colin Blunstone and one of England's first true keyboard heroes in Rod Argent.

But it's the organization and care that is taken with the whole enterprise that makes it so enjoyable, and here is where Zombies Heaven really puts The Beatles Anthology to shame. Once the official stuff on disc one and two have won you over, you get a disc of outtakes and studio chatter and a disc of BBC recordings of high and low fidelity that you graduate to when you want more out of a defunct group.

The book also gives you a record of every date they ever played, sessions and revealing anecdotes from all five former members. Who knew that the Zombies played the Philippines right after the Beatles' debacle there and were treated like royalty? Or that there were dozens of impostor Zombies groups touring America to cash in on their sudden posthumous popularity? And Britrock fans can finally get to hear in its entirety a single like "Indication," which contained premature-ejaculation lyrics about "holding out against sensation, I know I can hold out" far more controversial than "Let's Spend the Night Together."

One really comes away knowing all there is to know about a band that really deserved more praise than it ever got. But who's to say some outtakes won't surface in the year 2000 that will render this set "superfluous

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