Gifts that sing—are you listening? | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Gifts that sing—are you listening? 

The year’s best box sets include 11 CDs from David Bowie’s Berlin period, 529 tracks of vintage country from Louisiana Hayride, Roland Kayn’s 14-hour electronic masterwork, and the most complete portrait yet of Hüsker Dü’s early years.

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Of course it's not real snow. That'd melt in a second under studio lights. - JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Of course it's not real snow. That'd melt in a second under studio lights.
  • Jamie Ramsay

David Bowie

A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982)

(Parlophone)
$106.99, $206.82 for vinyl

David Bowie's personas were often inseparable from the records he made. You might even say that he had only one—a persona of constant artistic reinvention—and that his music changed along with it. He displayed this mastery of self-transformation most dramatically during his so-called Berlin period, which began in 1977. Collaborating with producer Brian Eno, he radically revamped his sound and methodology, adopting Eno's approach to the studio as an instrument unto itself. This 11-CD/13-LP box includes the three albums they made together—Low, "Heroes", and Lodger—as well as the brilliant 1982 LP Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), recorded without Eno but cut from the same cloth.

During this period Bowie's most experimental impulses blossomed, with encouragement from Eno's unconventional aesthetic—and from the famous deck of Oblique Strategies cards the producer had created with artist Peter Schmidt, which he and Bowie used to inject Zen-like non sequiturs into the creative process. Bowie's chart popularity took a hit—to this day none of the four studio albums that resulted has been certified gold in the U.S. The records are stunning in their detail and structural convolution, though, and they contain some of his most iconic songs: "Heroes," "Sound and Vision," "Fashion," "Ashes to Ashes." The passage of time has only made them sound more vibrant, and it's clear now just how prescient Bowie was. He anticipated several trends in underground rock, sometimes by decades: manipulating ideas from Krautrock, dabbling with ambient noise, or layering abstract sounds atop punishing but danceable beats.

A New Career in a New Town also includes a 2017 remix of Lodger by engineer Tony Visconti, who worked on all four albums—before Bowie's death in January 2016, Visconti secured his blessing to revisit the record. The new version isn't a radical improvement, but it does give the music a lighter, less muddy sound. Also part of the box set are two versions of the 1978 double live album Stage (where Bowie's glam-era celebrity collides with his new experimental impulses), a disc that compiles the single versions of album tracks alongside the 1982 EP In Bertolt Brecht's Baal (four songs of Weimar cabaret by the famous lyricist, appearing for the first time on CD), and an EP with four versions of "Heroes" sung in different languages. The set's 128-page hardback book contains essays by Visconti on each studio album, scads of images, reviews from the time, and thorough discographical info. Committed fans will already have the studio albums, so whether the additional material makes this release essential depends on just how committed they are—in any case, assessing all of it together makes an excellent argument for the fertility of this five-year stretch of Bowie's career.


Bob Dylan

Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981

(Columbia/Legacy)
$120.19, vinyl $99.99

Of all the music Bob Dylan has recorded, little has been more routinely maligned than the three albums of original gospel he made during his brief born-again phase in the late 70s and early 80s. Those are the years covered by this new eight-CD set, volume 13 in the ongoing Bootleg Series, though the albums themselves aren't part of it—it consists entirely of unreleased material, most of it recorded live during tours to support those gospel records. I bought the first, 1979's Slow Train Coming, when it came out—I listened to it religiously even though, as a junior high student, I didn't realize it was religious in nature. The other two, Saved and Shot of Love, address similar themes of worship and salvation, but somehow I didn't hear them when they came out. And then I went three decades without playing Slow Train Coming beginning to end.

Many of the previous entries in this wonderful series have been revelatory—especially volume 11, a dive into the 1967 sessions that produced The Basement Tapes, Dylan's Americana album with the Band. But Trouble No More is the first volume to make me completely reconsider the body of work upon which it's focused. As Ben Rollins writes in his liner-note essay, Dylan often worked quickly when he made a studio album, creating something like prototypes of the songs; he'd then subject them to repeated, radical transformations on the road. In another essay, Amanda Petrusich calls the records "documents to enable the tours" and the tours "opportunities for Dylan to serve the Lord by spreading His word."

On these tours Dylan initially refused to play any material from before his salvation, much to the displeasure of fans—their reactions sometimes echoed the ugliness of 1965, when he first plugged in his guitar. Eventually he relented, and in 1981 classics such as "Maggie's Farm" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" began reappearing in his sets. He moved on, quietly retreating from Jesus and becoming the grizzled, world-weary cynic we all love.

Certain songs from Dylan's gospel period remain part of his repertoire, and "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Slow Train Coming" still sound great. But what floors me about Trouble No More is that even material I'd been completely indifferent about in studio versions sounds fantastic played live. Six of the eight CDs open with "Slow Train," in wildly varying forms—like most of Dylan's huge repertoire, it changed from show to show, both in his phrasing and in the arrangement. His typically fantastic bands—which included great southern musicians such as keyboardist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Fred Tackett, drummer Jim Keltner, and backing singers Clydie King and Regina McCrary—helped him reshape the material. Just as I did with Slow Train Coming almost 40 years ago, when I listen to this set I end up focusing on the performances more than the messages.

Most of the material isn't new, just occurring here in previously unissued live versions—but there are 14 songs that haven't been officially released before. The box also comes with a hardbound photo book and a DVD, most of which is taken up by Trouble No More: A Musical Film, a mix of unreleased performance footage and readings by actor Michael Shannon of texts from Luc Sante. The four-LP vinyl version of the set includes significantly less music.


Fairport Convention

Come All Ye: The First Ten Years

(UME)
$58.49

I suppose I'm something of a fair-weather fan when it comes to British folk-rock institution Fairport Convention. When I first got into the band, I decided to ignore the records they made after guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson left in 1971—and in retrospect, that was unfair. This seven-CD set, which spans the group's first decade (1967-'77), contains plenty of strong music recorded without Thompson. But I will say that without him Fairport Convention lost some of their originality and bite, and a much greater share of their output turned into generic folk-rock piffle.

British folk-rock authority Andrew Batt dug deep when he put together Come All Ye: The First Ten Years—the studio albums are augmented by 22 rarities and live tracks—but the Thompson version of the band lasts only till early on disc three. The bulk of the rest of the set features the members who have soldiered on (with the expected lineup changes) throughout the decades since, serving more as standard-bearers of folk-rock than as innovators. Batt's history provides lots of information about the post-Thompson era that was new to me, but the notes don't do much to explain what albums or sessions the material comes from—and the discs come in flimsy cardboard sleeves. The set seems aimed at Fairport Convention completists, but since most of the music is already available on other releases—the rarities are often just different versions of songs easily accessible elsewhere—I'm not sure even the fanatics will care that much.


Hüsker Dü

Savage Young Dü

(Numero Group)
$40, $85 for vinyl

Hüsker Dü drummer and singer-songwriter Grant Hart died of liver cancer this past September, but even if he hadn't, it looked like his old band Hüsker Dü were going to be rare holdouts in the rock nostalgia game, refusing to reunite for a big payday. Ever since Hüsker Dü split in 1988, after a decade of furious creativity that played out at deafening volume, their back catalog has gotten little respect—and the acrimony of their breakup had only just begun to thaw. So I was surprised to hear about the three-CD/four-LP set Savage Young Dü—an archival effort, assembled with the band's cooperation, that documents the earliest days of these Twin Cities icons, from their inception in 1979 to the 1982 studio album Everything Falls Apart (and some live performances surrounding it).

I was even more surprised by how much I liked the music. I'd never cared much for Hüsker Dü till their debut for SST, 1983's Metal Circus, and I didn't see them live till 1984, after the landmark double album Zen Arcade. My idea of the band's early sound had been shaped by the breakneck proto-thrash on their 1981 debut, the live set Land Speed Record, and by '83 they were moving rapidly away from that. I knew there were a few indelible melodies scattered throughout their previous work, but I figured most of it was just white-noise blurs.

The new Savage Young Dü, a typically lavish release by Chicago's Numero Group, knocked me on my ass with its first disc, a mix from the band's earliest days of impressively nonshitty live tapes (by unofficial band archivist Terry Katzman) and makeshift studio recordings—I expected more of the high-velocity roar of Land Speed Record, but what I got was supercatchy punk. In the early 80s, most hardcore groups started out pretty inept, but these early Hüsker Dü songs are remarkably solid (albeit a bit derivative), with occasionally strong melodies and locked-in performances. It wasn't till the band toured the U.S. and Canada in 1981 and '82 that they switched to the blitzkrieg-fast salvos of Land Speed Record, which amped up the furious vocals of guitarist Bob Mould and the trio's generally angry, confrontational tone. (Land Speed Record isn't part of the set, but different live versions of all its songs do appear.)

Savage Young Dü consists of 69 tracks, 47 of them previously unissued. It's packaged in a 144-page hardbound book full of rare photos, gig flyers, and well-researched liner notes by Reader contributor Erin Osmon. This set would be a pretty poor introduction to Hüsker Dü—the pleasant surprise I got from the first disc notwithstanding, their best work definitely came later—but it's fascinating and illuminating, and changed my perception of the band more than three decades after the fact.


Roland Kayn

A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound

(Frozen Reeds)
$135

Named for the single 14-hour, 22-movement piece it contains, this 16-CD set has served as my somewhat overwhelming introduction to the music of German composer Roland Kayn. Though he finished this electronic epic in 2009, two years before his death, this is its first-ever release. The piece is a culmination of a project he began in the 70s, through which he hoped to fuse music with the once fashionable field of cybernetics—he explored the possibility of communication between the human nervous system and machines (or the control of machines by the brain) and experimented with complex networks of computers that interacted with one another. His process had some commonalities with early research into artificial intelligence, in that he'd set up intricate systems and let them run to see how they evolved and what they produced. In 1964, before immersing himself in this work, he'd cofounded brilliant Rome-based improvising ensemble Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, which introduced new streams in contemporary classical music into its vocabulary of techniques (and whose members included famous film composer Ennio Morricone). In 1970 he moved to the Netherlands and dedicated the remainder of his life to electroacoustic composition.

I don't know exactly what Kayn's source material was for A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, but it's an engrossing journey, with surprises around every bend—though the piece's overall aesthetic is drifting, ambient drone, it's energized by a rich sense of torsion and the hovering potential for explosion. Kayn abandoned conventional melody, harmony, and rhythm, and this music utterly lacks motific or narrative development. As a composer, he saw his job mainly as designing elaborate electronic networks (one of his key sound sources was modular synthesis) that would produce streams of permutated signals, which he could tweak or redirect by introducing his own input into the recording process. The scale of A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound is admittedly daunting, and listening to it all in a single sitting requires a major commitment. Even approached one disc at a time, it requires rapt attention—at least if you want to absorb the minute, shifting detail beneath its cloudy atmosphere. But the time I've invested so far has all been worth it.


Those of you keeping score at home will no doubt notice the absence of the Teddy Wilson set. Its release was just pushed back till January. - JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Those of you keeping score at home will no doubt notice the absence of the Teddy Wilson set. Its release was just pushed back till January.
  • Jamie Ramsay

Stack Waddy

So Who the Hell Is Stack Waddy? The Complete Works 1970-1972

(Cherry Red)
$26.99

The title of this blaring three-CD set asks the obvious question—one that's floated through my brain on and off for years, thanks to repeated mentions of Stack Waddy by the likes of engineer Steve Albini and writer Byron Coley (usually in the same sentence as fellow British pub-rockers the Count Bishops and Dr. Feelgood). Stack Waddy predate those bands, and they were far more rude. The Manchester four-piece were out of step with the UK rock scene of the early 70s—they were too old-school for hard-rock and prog fans and too unkempt and loud for traditionalists and blues-rock purists. In Stack Waddy's loose, ferocious sound you can hear echoes of Black Sabbath's proto-metal and foreshadowings of punk rock. The band often bring to mind the Stooges or the MC5—though singer John Knail could sound like Captain Beefheart, at shows he sometimes threw empty beer bottles into the crowd.

The set augments the two studio albums Stack Waddy made for John Peel's Dandelion label—their self-titled 1971 debut and 1972's aptly titled Bugger Off!—with a third disc of rarities, outtakes, and live tracks that might test your patience if you try to listen to it front to back. Much of the group's repertoire consisted of covers of familiar rock and blues songs (Bo Diddley's "Bring It to Jerome," the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," Dale Hawkins's "Susie Q"), but it misses the point to call them merely "covers"—they're more like the musical equivalents of furious fistfights. Stack Waddy's stubborn one-take primitivism can be stultifying, but it's also what makes them so great—their immediacy and badass attitude get right to the essence of rock 'n' roll.


Various artists

American Epic: The Collection

(Legacy)
$44.69

This terrific 100-song, five-CD set accompanies the three-part PBS documentary American Epic, which originally aired this past May. Both the set and the documentary address the early days of American recorded music—specifically the point at which the burgeoning industry began courting audiences outside the white mainstream, resulting in the advent of so-called race records and a flood of releases in regional styles. Many were created in makeshift studios around the country, where open calls attracted hundreds of amateurs eager to cut a record. Sold alongside the box is a book by the documentary's director, Bernard MacMahon, written with producers Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson and music critic Elijah Wald; it goes into detail about this phenomenon.

The set limits its scope to rural styles developed in America, but otherwise it's agnostic about genre, as befits the wonderfully bastardized development of vernacular music in the U.S. during the 1920s and '30s. The discs are organized according the region where the recordings were made, rather than where the artists originated, which leads to a lot of pleasantly startling track-to-track segues between styles—country, blues, gospel, Cajun, and Hawaiian music, among others. The curators generally allow just one song per artist, no matter how great or influential, which lets them cover more of the breadth of the era—though they also make plenty of canonical selections, including tunes by the likes of Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Dock Boggs, and Jimmie Rodgers.

Many box sets have covered similar territory already, among them Harry Smith's 1952 touchstone Anthology of American Folk Music and Legacy's sublimely eclectic but long-out-of-print 1992 collection Roots n' Blues: The Retrospective 1925-1950. So while American Epic doesn't get points for originality, it also wasn't trying to radically transform listeners' perspective. Its book includes lyrics for most of the songs, basic discographical information, and a brief essay explaining some relevant music-business history—in short, race records and specialty releases became a phenomenon largely because the new popularity of radio hurt record companies' sales and drove them to seek a broader customer base.

The book also details the peculiar process that sound engineer Nick Bergh used to "restore" the old 78 RPM disc sources, which involved reverse-engineering a re-creation of a 1920s Western Electric recording system using original parts. The resulting 78 transfers are as clean, rich, and deep as any I've ever heard. This set might not impress folks who are already dedicated fans of early American music, but it's as good an introduction as anything on the market—and if you don't feel like spending more than $40 on an introduction, you can opt for the single-disc 15-track sampler called American Epic: The Soundtrack.


Various artists

At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight . . .

(Bear Family)
$249.99

Bear Family has long set the bar when it comes to documenting American roots music, and this 20-CD box meets the German label's usual high standard for extravagance, authority, and depth. It contains recordings of 167 different country artists who performed live on a popular weekly radio program called Louisiana Hayride, which ran from 1948 till 1960; it often attracted an enthusiastic audience of several thousand to its onstage studio at the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium, and its broadcast on local station KWKH reached hundreds of miles into neighboring states. The two-and-a-half-hour show featured a shifting cast of regulars performing their latest songs interspersed with comedy bits. It joined a country radio tradition that already included Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and Chicago's own WLS National Barn Dance, during a time when a 50,000-watt "clear channel" AM station could cover much of the continental United States.

Louisiana Hayride often worked in the shadows of those other programs—especially that of the Opry, which poached many rising stars who'd developed their voices in Shreveport. Colin Escott's detailed liner notes tell the story of the Hayride's earliest success, with an artist the producers brought on in 1948 despite serious reservations: Hank Williams already had a reputation as an unreliable performer with a drinking problem. He soon became a superstar, though, when early songs such as "Move It on Over" and "Lovesick Blues" rocketed up the charts, thanks in part to Louisiana Hayride's increasing listenership—and the show benefited as much from Williams as he did from it.

The set includes a 224-page hardback book packed with charts, photos, and concert posters, as well as writing about every act represented. The sound quality varies, but the fidelity is generally pretty high for radio transcriptions of the era—and the silly banter by the hosts (as well as the aforementioned comedy bits) provide a glimpse of the old-fashioned cornpone humor that country audiences seemed to love. It's the music that justifies the existence of this 529-track behemoth, of course: its astonishing offerings include hardcore honky-tonk, bluegrass, rockabilly, and even some western swing, and much of it hasn't been heard since the day of its original broadcast.

Because the artists were promoting their records, the song selection favors familiar tunes, but that hardly diminishes the energy and excitement of the performances. You could assemble a who's who of country from the roster here—George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Faron Young, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Rose Maddox, Webb Pierce, June Carter—but just as satisfying in their own way are the also-rans who may have only waxed one killer tune. The set also includes recordings by Elvis Presley, including a 1956 appearance where emcee Horace "Hoss" Logan had to calm down ecstatic fans who were hoping for an encore, and thus inadvertently coined the catchphrase "Elvis has left the building."


Various artists

Atlantic Rock & Roll Series

(Stateside/Atlantic)
$21.99

Without rhythm and blues there would've been no rock 'n' roll, and Atlantic Records played a major role in popularizing the former. In an act of brazen opportunism made possible by the rise of rock, in 1956 and '57 the label hawked its impressive stable of R&B stars to a younger, whiter audience with six single-artist compilation albums it called its Rock & Roll Series. This modest six-disc set collects those compilations, which spotlight Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, and Ivory Joe Hunter, all of whom were well established with black R&B audiences before the albums came out. Some of their material had already scored with white fans as well, when white artists recorded much tamer versions of it (such as Bill Haley's cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," originally recorded by Turner).

On some of these records, you can hear evidence of Atlantic's producers pushing the artists to court that younger, whiter crowd: the McPhatter album neuters the soulful rasp of the former Drifters lead singer with strings and syrupy backing vocals, and Hunter, who was 43 at the time, was given goofy material (such as the 1954 novelty "I Got to Learn to Do the Mambo") in an attempt to appeal to teenagers. Despite how poorly those silly marketing decisions have aged, the actual music generally sounds great six decades later. Some of the albums make embarrassing trend-chasing choices here and there, but the collections by Brown, Charles, Baker, and Turner clearly succeeded at their crossover attempts because of their broad inherent appeal, not because they'd been cynically engineered to sell.


Teddy Wilson

Classic Brunswick and Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-1942

(Mosaic)
$119 (only via mosaicrecords.com)

Pianist and bandleader Teddy Wilson was a musician of deep erudition and elegant decorum, and from the 1930s through the '60s he was one of the most subtle and versatile figures in jazz. He worked alongside many of the music's most important figures, including Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, and Benny Carter, and he cemented his fame early in his career through extensive work with clarinetist Benny Goodman. Wilson was black and Goodman was white, and their association was instrumental in the rise to prominence of mixed-race jazz groups in the mid-30s. The trios Goodman led with Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (and their quartet with drummer Gene Krupa) were wildly popular and innovative, introducing a chamber-music approach to jazz—and Wilson's delicate touch and sensitive ears were key to its development. At the same time he was launching his own career as a bandleader, though he never enjoyed the success of Hampton or Krupa.

This seven-CD set from Mosaic, a longtime blue-chip source for comprehensive jazz reissues, contains 169 fantastic Wilson tracks (22 previously unreleased), some solo and some cut with small- to medium-size swing groups. Loren Schoenberg's typically authoritative notes offer detailed insight into Wilson's output for Brunswick and Columbia over a fruitful eight-year stretch, beginning with a 1934 solo session (unissued till decades later) that reveals a rarely heard extroversion from the pianist. A year later, when he recorded his next solo session, he'd reined in that flash.

Wilson was a craftsman, and his sharp, efficient arrangements gave his consistently strong sidemen a simpatico canvas for their soloing. Some of the finest jazz musicians of any race appear under Wilson's leadership on this set: Goodman, Hampton, Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, and Ben Webster, among others. During these years Wilson also worked with some of the greatest singers in jazz history (before they became stars), though this set dispenses with his widely available recordings with Billie Holiday and instead features performances by Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. In typical Mosaic fashion, these discs include loads of alternate and incomplete takes, which prove especially fascinating on the solo material—we get to hear Wilson's inquisitive mind exploring different solutions from performance to performance.  v

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