Music News

Repackaged Goods

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.

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic