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BOXING YOUR EARSA GUIDE TO THE BEST OF THIS YEAR'S CD SETS

Although every record label wants to claim it was the first, no one really knows who invented the boxed set. Usually comprising a cardboard box, a handful of CDs and a book full of pictures, boxed sets focus on the music of a single artist, time period or genre.

A marketing concept bordering on genius, the boxed set has provided record labels with a profitable way to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, boxed sets give labels a newfangled way to reissue their back catalogues on CD. And because they're newfangled, boxed sets are--yes, Veg-A-Matic fans--a great gift idea.

The boxed set can also be credited with giving new life to labels specializing in classical music and jazz. This year's Mozart bicentennial celebration, for example, has spawned innumerable boxes collecting the composer's symphonies, operas and chamber music.

Since that first boxed set appeared four Decembers ago, every autumn is now marked by the pitter-patter of record-store clerks piling up the season's new crop of Christmas-ready product. The quality of these cardboard-encased wonders varies greatly. Some are rush jobs--bad sound, useless booklets, little if any intelligence at work. Others are massive labors of love, their warm sound and meticulously annotated books worth far more than the asking price.

In the past year, boxed sets have attracted the interest of nearly every segment of the record-buying public. For the majority of listeners--casual fans whose old Lynyrd Skynyrd records look like the lunar surface and have the fidelity of an eight-track tape exposed to direct sunlight--boxed sets are a great way to catch up on old favorites. Boxed sets can also serve as the ultimate greatest hits collection. And to entice the serious music fan who has all the individual records, the well-done box now includes enough out-of-print and unreleased cuts to convince even the most complete collector to come up with the cash.

Coming up with the cash--that's the only drawback to boxed sets. They ain't cheap. Most are in the $25-to-$50 range. This Christmas, $50 seems to be the most popular price for the best of them. Whether a box is worth that much depends on the number of CDs it contains. The new Patsy Cline box--easily the classiest of this year's crop--has four CDs. Purchased individually, the CDs would cost more than $50--and wouldn't include the set's outstanding book. This Christmas, the avalanche of boxed sets is more voluminous than ever. Artists whose boxed sets are out already or will be soon include Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Chicago, the Clash, Patsy Cline, Natalie Cole, Albert Collins, Crosby, StillsMDSU & Nash, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Howlin' Wolf, Kris Kristofferson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Monkees, Queensryche, Bessie Smith, Phil Spector, Steppenwolf, Barbra Streisand, Traffic, T-Bone Walker and Frank Zappa. Classical and jazz boxes are too numerous to list. Three boxes that came out earlier this year deserve special mention. Except for the Patsy Cline set, nothing in this year's Christmas rush comes close to equaling James Brown's Star Time box, The Byrds or what is probably the finest of the boxed sets, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968.

These sets are treasures. The music they contain is some of the richest and most soulful ever cut into petroleum. James Brown will always be one of the most electric performers to slip into a patent leather jumpsuit. The Byrds are the first and still the best "alternative" band. And Stax/Volt artists--Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, Otis Redding--are responsible for the most moving and influential body of popular music yet recorded. Without Otis Redding to show them the way, there wouldn't be an M.C. Hammer or a Michael "Did the masturbation scene offend you?" Jackson.

Of course, if that were true, there would be no MTV and life would be . . . oh, well, on to the boxes. PATSY CLINE

The Patsy Cline Collection
(MCA)

The first of her two chart-topping singles didn't hit until 1961, and she died just two years later at age 30. Contemporaries Brenda Lee and Connie Francis both left her in the dust when it came to sales.

But Patsy Cline's too-brief eight-year career lasted long enough and produced classics enough to shine bright among country-western music's top-wattage luminaries. A warm combination of great talent and only-the-good-die-young mystique has turned Cline into a rare bridge spanning the ever-widening gap between the old and new generations of country-music lovers. Got a mom who measures music by the twang quotient? How about a sister who's too sophisticated to move? Keeping a kid who is considering country? Patsy Cline fills all needs, and here's an opportunity to get them all in one fell swoop.

With The Patsy Cline Collection boxed set, MCA has flat plucked out all the stops. Four sweet CDs account for all of Cline's 102 vocal efforts, including standard recordings, radio transcriptions, live takes and previously unreleased gems.  

The Patsy Cline Collection has, most considerately, gathered the singer's life work into a comfortable chronological order. From her first, seldom-spun single "A Church, a Courtroom, and Then Goodbye" (1955) through, ironically, her final recording "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," the set is given a pristine production, with all details thoroughly mastered. Many cuts meet stereophonics for the first time, and radio recordings are cleansed of noise without harming Cline's torchy sounds a solitary scintilla. The Country Music Foundation took the point in producing this set and deserves great credit.

Punctuating the No. 1's ("I Fall to Pieces," "She's Got You"), No. 2's ("Walkin' After Midnight," "Crazy"), and those classics that, inexplicably, stayed low on the charts ("Sweet Dreams," "Faded Love," "He Called Me Baby") are dozens of fine surprises, including early honky-tonk, more of her trademark ballads and marvelous--occasionally astonishing--covers. If you haven't heard Patsy's versions of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Lovesick Blues" or Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose," why, it's treat time fo' sho.

The set includes as no small throw-in--in fact, it's a tremendous bonus--a 64-page soft-cover booklet. This isn't any black-and-white biography or assemblage of lists, but a comprehensive retrospective given as much delicate attention as the music. It is filled with rare and wonderful photographs and hand-tinted pictures of Cline, an exhaustive tracking of her musical past and a gossipless glimpse into the life of this plain-spoken, sweet-dreaming seraph. Those who loved her and worked with her share insights into the Cline mind in a way that complements the music like Zen liner notes.

We learn that one giddy day early in her career--when 25,000 records sold constituted a big ol' C&W hit--Cline told singer Jan Howard (wife of master songwriter Harlan "I Fall to Pieces" Howard), "I'm gonna sell a million records!" Coal Miner's Daughter, the 1985 Cline movie biography Sweet Dreams and the legions of new fans they inspired have rendered Cline's bold promise a belated truth. Since 1985, more than five million Patsy Cline albums have sold, and they continue to sell at a pace of 750,000 a year.

Whether it's an addition to your array of Patsy works or a gift for one who really should get to know her, The Patsy Cline Collection is a remarkable, comprehensive mode for learning about a singer who died too damn soon. --

JACK KEROUAC The Jack Kerouac Collection
(Rhino)

Jack Kerouac has accumulated so much mythological baggage that it's now almost a cliche to mention the man's name.

After all, everyone's heard of Jack Kerouac. He's the "King of the Beats," the man who redefined adolescent angst back in 1957 with his amphetamized travelogue On The Road. Beatniks? Hippies? Punks? They're all Kerouac's apostles, as are many poets, writers, fine artists and, to be sure, convicted felons, drug addicts and others similarly confused about the notion of freedom.

All of which makes it hard to believe that there's anything new to learn about Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac.

But there is. And it's handsomely packaged in a boxed set of three spoken-word CDs titled, appropriately enough, The Jack Kerouac Collection.

What's fascinating about this compilation is that it never blinks in presenting an icon as a human being. This isn't a studied biography or the third-person-twice-removed memoirs of an old caffeine-addled colleague. No, that's Kerouac speaking through the speakers, and he sounds very real and very mortal. Indeed, his brutish, Eastern accent is eerily reminiscent of the nasal tones of recently departed rock impresario Bill Graham.

At times, Kerouac seems tentative on these mostly mono recordings, like when he reads his poetry with a halting stiffness over the piano accompaniment of former Tonight Show host Steve Allen. The collaboration was good for 14 cuts, all recorded in one take with no rehearsals at a New York studio back in 1958. They're included here on a disc titled Poetry for the Beat Generation.

A second CD, Blues and Haikus, shows Kerouac in more of a groove. This time his poetry is backed by the considerable twin saxophone work of jazz greats Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. An eager-sounding Kerouac is obviously more into these recordings--though the jazz players he idolized and personally requested for the session apparently didn't share the same enthusiasm. The accompanying booklet reports that Cohn and Sims looked on the project as just another recording gig and, when finished, left for the nearest hangout without so much as listening to the playback. Producer Bob Thiele writes that he later found Kerouac squatting in a corner of the studio, sobbing, "How could they leave me without listening?"  

The third CD includes another humbling experience for Kerouac. Most of the recording is a re-release of Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation, an out-of-print LP originally released on Verve Records in 1960. But a couple of "bonus" tracks are included, and one of the extra cuts is a speech Kerouac gave before a forum at Brandeis University in 1958. According to the booklet, Kerouac initially turned down the invitation but later agreed after getting the impression that he was to be the featured speaker. But when the reluctant spokesman showed up at the school, he found the forum was a debate and Kerouac was expected to defend the proposed "thuggery" of the increasingly volatile Beat Movement.

Kerouac, primed with pot and booze, wound up making a fool of himself, stumbling around and acting silly before and after taking the stage. But the speech itself holds its own as both sloppy and riveting, a subconscious manifesto for a generation of restless minds rushing toward the Sixties.

The Jack Kerouac Collection is a winner, from the mostly clean recordings (static from old master tapes claims only two casualties), to the generally boffo booklet.

Most of all, The Jack Kerouac Collection is an honest effort, an unflinching audio portrait of an anxious man forever positioned in the Pantheon of pop culture.--

CROSBY, STILLS & NASH CSN
(Atlantic)

Every now and then recording artists and their handlers really do release a boxed set that is "a must for the collection." It merits purchase not simply to satisfy the collector's endless acquisitiveness but also because the material is rare and arresting.

Such is the case with CSN, a compelling collection of music by Crosby, Stills & Nash, the original supergroup whose name always sounded more like a law firm than a reigning force in rock.

When the group first appeared in 1969, Rolling Stone offered its faint praise by likening it to such "classic" bands as Moby Grape. And though 1969 was the Year of the Guitar in rock 'n' roll, by summer's end the acoustic chords and peerless harmonies of this unlikely trio permanently changed the shape of American music. For many, Crosby, Stills & Nash became synonymous with Woodstock (the band's second gig), and they shall remain so forever.

This four-CD boxed set is a seamless resurrection of previously unreleased and studio originals that--even for the most cynical of Seventies survivors--will send goose bumps down your spine. From the album's first notes--an unreleased alternate mix of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"--to its concluding cut of "Find the Cost of Freedom," this collection is the definitive summary of the group's efforts over the past 21 years.

While the music is arranged for the most part chronologically, out-of-time surprises dot the landscape, like an unreleased, seven-minute version of Steve Winwood's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" that appears midway through the fourth disc. Along the way, producer Graham Nash deposits gems like a live, unedited original of "Almost Cut My Hair" (priceless for both its lyrical irrelevance and musical integrity) and an unreleased Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version of "Taken At All" (as Nash says, "Four guitars, four microphones, one take").

Apart from all the previously unreleased material (even a hasty 1969 recording of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird"), Nash and re-mixer Stephen Barncard have included some of the best work ever done by Crosby, Stills & Nash as solo or duet recording artists. Crosby's "Laughing", Stills' "Black Queen" and Nash's "Military Madness" typify the sort of solo work that completes the band's many missing chapters and finds its way into this outstanding collection.

There is one downside to relying on so many alternate takes for a discography. In many instances, the listener hungers for the original album version of the tune. Here, for example, we get an "unreleased early demo" of Crosby's "Guinnevere", which is interesting as an archival find but less satisfying than the recording that wound up on the band's first album. On balance, though, especially given the hundreds of times we've heard the album originals, Nash's final selections for this set make an interesting aural tapestry.

Honestly, the accompanying book alone is worth the price of admission. For every cut, the author or some significant other pens a history of the song's creation. Like any great biography, CSN also leaves you returning to original source material, albums like Deja Vu and Crosby's If Only I Could Remember My Name. What better tribute can be paid to a boxed set?--

MODERN JAZZ QUARTET Modern Jazz Quartet 40
(Atlantic)

Whereas most jazz boxed sets re-release everything the artist recorded for a label, Atlantic Records chose instead to cull from the Modern Jazz Quartet's fertile history on seven different labels. How long a history? Double the life of Aerosmith, or add another ten years to the Stones' career, and you'll have a feel for how long this foursome has been together. Jazz boxed sets may be oddly sparse this season, but if one band is due a lengthy retrospective, it's the 40-year-old MJQ.  

Years weathered together, though, are not the main justification for this five-hour-plus tribute. Pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Connie Kay and bassist Percy Heath have uniquely melded bebop and a touch for classical music into a sort of "tuxedo" jazz that no one else attempts. The MJQ could seduce the worst Bach snob into swinging, thanks to the baroque leanings of Lewis and the intelligent improvising of Jackson. Even the ever-critical Miles Davis deemed the band's "Django" to be "one of the greatest things written in a long time."

"Django" joins the other MJQ classics in this monster paean to upper-crust swing. The quartet's signature version of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" shares the bill with "Skating in Central Park" and "Bag's Groove," two MJQ tunes that long ago became jazz standards. Having won the attention of boppers, the group smoothly courts the classical crowd with heady jazz interpretations of Rodrigo's Adagio From Concierto de Aranjuez, Bach's Fugue in A minor and Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras. Cuts featuring topnotch guests like saxmen Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond and Latin jazz/classical guitarist Laurindo Almeida remind the listener of how often the elite figures in music eagerly joined forces with this class act. MJQ 40 is jazz so good it sounds expensive.

Keep in mind that the quartet's tunes tend to ride like a Mercedes--the jolts and surges in speed are few, and usually found in the occasional orchestral crescendo. The nuances of Lewis' understated piano and Jackson's velvet vibes can easily be overlooked on low-key cuts like "For Someone I Love" and "For Ellington," especially if you're sitting through a hefty stretch of the set's 54 selections.

The casual jazzbo may find the offering too rich and instead settle for a couple of the group's 46 (!) albums. But if jazz is where you lay your bread, dole out the dollars for this penthouse suite of boxed sets. There's no topping MJQ 40 for the best of jazz with an attitude. --.

VARIOUS SPEAKERS Great Speeches of the 20th Century
(Rhino)

There is something inherently boring about spoken-word records. Once they're separated from the people who spoke them, words often fall flat. Usually, a little spoken-word listening goes a long way.

Now there is a boxed set that may change all that. Rhino Records, the once-lowly, reissue-only label best known for such audio fodder as the ten-volume "Have A Nice Day--Super Hits of the 70's," has come up with a spoken-word set that isn't just for eggheads. In Great Speeches, Rhino has collected a fast-moving, clear-sounding, easily identifiable mass of words, many of which retain an undeniable power even today. With one bold box, Rhino has taken spoken-word records away from academia and handed them to the masses.

Great Speeches is a compendium of formal speeches, about half political, that span American history since Thomas Edison invented the recordable cylinder. In fact, the oldest recording in this set is a promotional message for Edison's then-revolutionary phonograph. Taken as a whole, Great Speeches does not trace the history of the western world so much as it illuminates the procession of quirky personalities that have shaped and at times threatened it. Most of the obvious speeches are here: FDR declaring war on Japan, Churchill's "Finest Hour" address and LBJ's tight-lipped "I will not accept the nomination of my party" farewell. But like any boxed set, it's the unexpected nuggets that make it worth the price.

Such treasures include Woodrow Wilson's 1913 "Address to the American Indians," in which he asserts in a fatherly tone that the white man's dealings with the red man "have been wise, just and beneficent." This finest moment, however, can be found in Robert Kennedy's only selection--the speech in which he announces that Martin Luther King Jr. has just been shot. Struggling to overcome his own memories of unseen gunmen, Kennedy speaks from the heart about hatred, and the emotionally crippling desire for revenge.

In terms of organization, this set could have had a clearer direction. The generic titles that producer Gordon Skene gave to each disc are unclear: "The Political Arena"; "The Changing World"; "The Dreams, the Inspirations, the Accomplishments"; and "Best of Times, Worst of Times." There are just as many political speeches on "The Changing World," for example, as there are on the CD titled "The Political Arena."

Speaking of politics, if there's a problem with this set, it's Skene's overreliance on presidential speeches. Nixon, for example, is a leitmotif. His utterings and mutterings are represented by four selections--two more than anyone else. How does a discredited, though classically flawed, president get 16 minutes, 15 seconds for his 1962 governor's race "Concession Speech," while Malcolm X's landmark "On Black Power" speech is condensed to 1 minute, 16 seconds; Alan Freed's goodbye to his fans reduced to 25 seconds; and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's explanation of his police force's violent behavior at the 1968 Democratic Convention compressed to 17 measly seconds? Aren't these personalities and issues more important than Nixon's paranoid ramblings?  

As if the Nixon selections weren't bad enough, Skene includes a few "modern" additions, like Reagan's meaningless rehash of the Berlin Wall saga and a not particularly well-chosen excerpt from Oliver North's Iran-contra testimony. The let's-attract-modern listeners marketing ploy aside, the Bush, Reagan and North cuts sound small and unimportant next to truly great speeches, like JFK's "Inaugural Address" or Martin Luther King Jr.'s timeless "I Have a Dream."

The one beneficial result of Skene's obsession with politics is telling juxtapositions that expose how quickly politics and politicians can change. Charles Lindbergh, for example, is heard as both an internationalist ("On Lindbergh's Return to the United States, 1927") and as an isolationist ("Address on U.S. Neutrality"). Closer to our time, Vice President Spiro Agnew is heard righteously attacking Vietnam War protesters, then giving his bitter resignation speech. Like the World Series or the Super Bowl, the title of this box is a bit misleading. It should read Great American Speeches of the 20th Century. The only international figures who get any time are Chamberlain, Churchill and Hitler, who is heard in a confused, murky-sounding excerpt with awkward spoken translations.

Greatest Speeches might ultimately change your mind about spoken-word discs because it offers the chance to hear, in strikingly clear sound, the voices of this country's most famous people. It's startling to hear Amelia Earhart's confident alto or Teddy Roosevelt's blustery shout. The most satisfying voice on the record, however, is also the saddest.

In April 1947, Babe Ruth, dying of cancer, hobbled out in front of a Yankee Stadium crowd to say his goodbye to baseball. With his voice reduced to a whisper, Ruth's au revoir shows that there are words that retain the power to move you long after the speaker is gone.--

A marketing concept bordering on genius, the boxed set has provided record labels with a profitable way to kill two birds with one stone. With The Patsy Cline Collection box set, MCA has flat plucked out all the stops. Jack Kerouac squatted in a corner of the studio, sobbing, "How could they leave me without listening?"

Rolling Stone offered Crosby, Stills & Nash its faint praise by likening them to such "classic" bands as Moby Grape. The acoustic chords and peerless harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash permanently changed the shape of American music. The MJQ could seduce the worst Bach snob into swinging.

Great Speeches illuminates the procession of quirky personalities that have shaped and at times threatened it. It's startling to hear Amelia Earhart's confident alto or Teddy Roosevelt's blustery shout.


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