The Season of Box Sets: Pop | Bleader

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Season of Box Sets: Pop

Posted By on 12.16.09 at 04:10 PM

Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky
  • Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky
It’s appropriate that one of the two essays in the hundred-page, photo-crammed book that comes with Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino), a four-CD set of music by Big Star, is devoted to the Memphis band’s cult following. Written by former Reader columnist Bob Mehr, it tells how the criminally overlooked combo, fronted by Alex Chilton, grew into a legend in the decades after its dissolution in 1975 (a reconstituted version of the band has been active sporadically since 1993). Indeed, these days Big Star is the classic guitar-pop avatar—a crucial inspiration for hordes of postpunk bands, from the dB's to R.E.M. to the Replacements, as well as an indirect influence on the countless groups that followed in the footsteps of those 80s outfits.

The 98-track collection includes all the songs from Big Star’s three studio albums as well as some fascinating late-60s obscurities—pre-Big Star tunes by Chris Bell, who left the group when its debut album, #1 Record, tanked, and by the band Icewater, which featured both Bell and Chilton. As the liner notes explain, though, there weren’t many Big Star outtakes in the Ardent Studios vault. Instead the box set makes do with a slew of alternate mixes and a handful of demos for familiar songs like “What’s Going Ahn” and “You Get What You Deserve.” Most of these tracks differ from the previously released versions in negligible ways and will likely be of interest only to die-hard aficionados, but others, like the alternate take of “Back of a Car,” have vocal arrangements different enough to suggest how deep the band’s knack for pop transcendence ran. The fourth CD features an electrifying live performance taped in Memphis in 1973 and never previously released.

If you’ve got all three of Big Star’s studio albums already, I’m not sure you need Keep an Eye on the Sky—but honestly, I’m having trouble assessing how useful the set might be to other people. I’ve been lost in the rediscovery of this music, which has been imprinted on my brain for more than two decades. The packaging is awfully nice, but when I next want some Big Star it seems more likely that I’ll just pull out one of their records.

Daryl Hall and John Oates: Do What You Want, Be Who You Are
  • Daryl Hall and John Oates: Do What You Want, Be Who You Are
Many of the songs on Do What You Want, Be What You Are (Legacy/RCA), the recent four-CD box devoted to Daryl Hall and John Oates, are also burned into my brain, as much by their ubiquity as by their catchiness. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, where the duo were treated as hometown heroes, even though they split for New York once they were signed to Atlantic in the early 70s; some of their first hits, like “She’s Gone” and “Sara Smile,” got lots of local airplay, alongside the wonderful “Fall in Philadelphia,” which wasn’t a hit but got plenty of spins because it name-checked the city (despite the fact that it’s about wanting to get the hell out of it).

I enjoyed the first disc of the set more than anything else here. It includes tracks by the soul bands they fronted before they became a duo—Hall sang for the Temptones, Oates for the Masters—which demonstrate how deeply soul music was embedded in their musical DNA. Also on that first disc is their Atlantic output, recorded with producers like Arif Mardin and Todd Rundgren, which is pretty terrific if a tad erratic. The second disc picks up with the duo’s move to RCA Records in 1975, by which time they’d found their groove—the so-called blue-eyed soul that they remade in their own image. When they became steady chart-toppers in the 80s they jacked up the rhythms in their music, which helped turn their biggest songs into dance-floor staples. It’s practically impossible for me to analyze cuts like “Maneater,” “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” and “Kiss on My List,” just because they’re so overexposed. They’re expertly crafted confections with indelible melodies, albeit with often dated production—ouch, those drum sounds!—and hearing them for the billionth time is still pleasurable for me. Some of Hall & Oates’s work from this period reeks of mainstream radio aesthetics—slick bombast, quasi-anthemic crescendos, woozy sentimentality—and because the fourth disc, with recordings from the late 80s through the present, has that weakness without the classic songs to offset it, it’s often pretty hard for me to listen to at all.

The book in the package includes lengthy annotations for each song, and when you read through them, it’s easy to get the idea that one of the keys to the band’s longevity has been that these guys have never had a grand message that they’re burning to get across. Despite the tunefulness of their songs, their inspirations for lyrics are simple, sometimes downright prosaic. It can be almost funny. Oates says he wrote several songs about girls he was thinking about dating but never got around to asking out. And when Hall describes the early tune “Waterwheel,” it’s hard not to wince: “I’ve always been influenced by water. I look at it as a symbol of my life.”

I don’t think Hall & Oates made perfect albums, so for me Do What You Want, Be What You Are is like an expanded greatest-hits package. The songs from their 80s peak will never go away, while their earlier 70s output deserves better. Leaving the questionable fourth disc aside, this set ties it all together nicely.

Today’s playlist:

Darius Jones Trio, Man’ish Boy (Aum Fidelity)
Leela James, Let’s Do It Again (Shanachie)
Ran Blake, Driftwoods (Tompkins Square)
Mario Diaz de León, Enter Houses Of (Tzadik)
Adriana Calcanhotto, Partimpim 2 (Sony Music, Brazil)

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