Music

In the Box

The holiday box set season bears fruit.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

If you never use the “shuffle” setting on your audio player and you really like to dig into recordings, it’s a fine time of year. That’s because record companies tend to go after your holiday wallet with their most spectacular Hail Mary, the box set.

Some of them are pasted-together collections of an artist’s B-sides and lesser-known works, and they often reveal that there was a reason for the “forgotten” in “forgotten gems.” Other times, they’re an overload of happy discoveries, such a thorough look at a musician that you’ll only get through the entire thing years after you get it, if at all. This year’s crop of box sets includes some real stand-outs, though with happy occasions like the re-release of a stellar collection of Jimi Hendrix unreleased and live material, it’s hard to choose. Here are three from Sony/Legacy that keep getting stuck in the CD player.

 

Taj Mahal

The Complete Columbia Albums Collection

 

Bluesman and Springfield native Taj Mahal made a name for himself in the 1960s on the West Coast, and these recordings document his beginning efforts in a traditional country blues vein and his early departures for intriguing hybrids of new and old into the mid-’70s. Mahal hardly stopped innovating at that point, as his later efforts attest. This set lets you hear the full splendor of his best early work, and some compelling experiments that will leave you questioning the wisdom of the track choices on later career-spanning collections. Happily, that’s probably because it’s extraordinarily hard to find any adequately representative sample of a man who is arguably the most exhilarating adventurer in the blues.

The set begins with Rising Sons, a 1964 recording of a band that also included Ry Cooder. It’s clear that Cooder and Mahal were devotees of Delta blues in its grittiest, most acoustic incarnation. What’s most remarkable about the record is just how seasoned the young performers sound. When Mahal’s gorgeous growl of a voice arrives, it’s easy to wonder just when this recording was made. It’s mainly an homage to earlier blues artists, and reveals that these musicians possessed some stout skills quite early on.

The next few releases are solo Taj Mahal, and they offer sounds simultaneously rooted in the late 1960s, with all the rock bravado of the era sewn together with Delta blues. It’s a happy convergence, and some tracks point toward later experimentation—Mahal often defies the predictability of the blues, even when he’s playing standard material, by applying unusual rhythmic emphasis and unusual choices of instrumentation. “Giant Step,” for instance, presents a challenging, unintuitive groove that deftly provides the blues proceedings an air of expectation.

In the later albums, Mahal becomes yet more unpredictable, sometimes mixing sounds old and new to create something unique—even a “Spirit of 1976” fife shows up in the middle of the blues. Always, pressing on to the next track is a happy gamble. You might get Curtis Mayfield-style ‘70s grooviness, or you might get a highwire act like “Eighteen Hammers.” On that track, Mahal employs ringing blows on metal as a rhythmic underpinning, and it’s a sparse, beautiful flavor of blues of the sort only Mahal delivers.

 

The Clash

Sound System

 

The new Clash set offers the kind of in-depth voyage into a band’s work that big fans giddily await. There’s a tremendous amount of audio, much of it from demos and B-sides, and even a DVD of previously unseen footage, videos and live Clash. It comes with stickers, booklets, repro fanzines, a poster and two Clash dog tags. Serious fans may drown in the goodness. The news for the rest is good and bad.

The bad is a surprise. The band was as inventive and energetic as any in punk, and brought the genre serious reggae grooves mixed with a politically militant edge. Their importance is undisputed, their tunes often unforgettable, and their sheer coolness rarely matched. But the B-sides, rarities and demos almost all prove flat and uninspiring in comparison to their major releases. In many, it’s clear that the musicians are experimenting, working to find the unique sorts of groove that made them sound like no one else. They don’t, however, find it very often in these clips. Many of the extras (three discs’ worth!) seem like what they often are: the sluggish stuff that got left on the cutting room floor. If anything, they threaten to pierce the band’s impressive facade of inventiveness.

But the good? For starters, the set contains all five albums, newly remastered. The glories of Combat Rock and London Calling are just as glorious, and the albums re-affirm just how fine a band the Clash really was at its best. Also to the good is the DVD—seeing the band in its late ’70s heyday brings on the adrenaline rush and sweeps you up in the deeply British musical revolution that saw Joe Strummer raising a fist to roaring audiences.

 

Paul Simon

The Complete Albums Collection

 

Though this box set, like the Taj Mahal set, lacks the unreleased rarities that usually attract buyers, it’s an astonishing collection of audio. It’s a happy benefit of CDs that such a large body of work can arrive in such a small package. Every album is a miniature of the vinyl original.

The collection begins with The Paul Simon Songbook, and it’s the only really strange piece of work in the whole 15-album set. Even then, it’s hardly a misstep—more just a then-new solo performer gauging his own depths. The songs include a fair number of Simon & Garfunkel hits, and it’s jarring to hear them after years of hearing the duo versions. Every song is confidently and adequately delivered by Simon with only his voice and guitar, but just when you expect high harmony or big orchestration, things continue in their sparse way.

The albums meander on through the ’70s, revealing a more thoroughly confident Simon exercising his trademark combination of introspective works led by finger-picking guitar and more pop-flavored concoction. What’s remarkable is what happens between the large number of radio hits—the songs may be less familiar, and a few are not particularly spellbinding, but even a “bad” Simon song is reliably sturdy and doesn’t call for fast-forwarding. That alone could solidify Simon’s deserved reputation as a stellar and important songwriter. He’s no doubt written stinkers, but few of them make it to release.

After many albums incorporating sounds of their era, mixing in synth or other new wrinkles with the guitar-fueled songs, the breathtaking exuberance of Simon’s attempt to bring new life into his work by collaborating with South African musicians on Graceland feels quite unexpected. That album brought Simon a lot of ire from those who felt he was appropriating the work of other musicians and defying the bans that kept South African musicians in their home country. Bridges, however, seem to have been repaired since for everyone except critics. The music itself is undeniably infectious, and everything that follows it in the collection reveals a Simon who’s free in his composing and who has maintained his sense of adventurousness.•

 

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