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

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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?"

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