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Friday, December 10, 2004; Page WE31


Artists Box Sets Richard Harrington

U2, "The Complete U2." iTunes, $149.99. The first-ever "digital box set," from iTunes, covers the band's 14 albums, including the new, chart-topping "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," plus 100 live tracks, B-sides and remixes, 40 previously unreleased songs from throughout the band's career, and a downloadable book. The treats among the set's 446 tracks include previously unheard material from the "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and "Atomic Bomb" sessions, three live shows (Boston 1981, Dublin 1989 and Mexico 1997) and early U2 singles previously available only on vinyl. But there's also some serious repetition (11 versions of "Lemon," nine of "I Will Follow"). Overall, this is a convenient way for tech-savvy folks to acquire the entire U2 catalogue: It takes but a single click at the iTunes online store, and dedicated fans can download it onto the new U2 special-edition autographed iPod, which costs $349, with room for more than 4,500 other songs.

Nirvana, "With the Lights Out." Geffen, $59.98. Originally intended for release in Christmas 2001 (coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the band's breakthrough album, "Nevermind"), this set was mired in since-settled lawsuits from Kurt Cobain's widow, Courtney Love. What we have now is 81 chronologically arranged tracks, 68 previously unreleased. It's a bounty of acoustic and electric home and studio demos, rehearsal and session outtakes, radio station and club shows, B-sides and oddities. Sound quality is verite variable, and the format shows a band finding its voice and character, from its 1987 house-party debut with a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" to Cobain's solo home demos of "Do Re Mi" and "You Know You're Right," recorded just weeks before his 1994 suicide. The accompanying DVD features nine songs from a 1988 rehearsal at the home of bassist Krist Novoselic's mother, and other previously unreleased live performances, including the first public performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Michael Jackson, "The Ultimate Collection." Sony Legacy, $59.98. The master of hits collections puts out his first box set. Though the four-CD, one-DVD compilation is not quite as complete as the title suggests, it is the first collection to cover Michael Jackson's entire career: The first two discs contain hit tracks from the Jackson 5's Motown days, as well as Columbia-era Jacksons and "Off the Wall"/"Thriller" classics. Of 57 tracks, 13 are previously unissued, including substantially different demos of "Shake a Body" (which the Jacksons turned into 1978's "Shake Your Body") and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," and Jackson's solo demo of "We Are the World" (followed by the generic "We Are Here to Change the World" from the Imax 3-D short, "Captain EO"). Several '80s tracks making their first appearance are impressive, including a propulsive "Sunset Driver" and sinewy "Cheater," though his newest song, "We've Had Enough," is a weird antiwar song undermined by those odd Jacksonian hiccups. The DVD features 16 songs from a concert extravaganza shot in Bucharest during the "Dangerous" tour and originally shown on HBO in 1993.

"The Immortal Soul of Al Green. " Capitol, $69.98. Al Green's 1997 four-CD "Anthology" was a scattershot bio-box loaded down with too many previously unreleased live tracks, alternate takes and interview segments. This new four-CD, 75-track box set is the unadulterated goods, featuring almost all of the familiar hit singles and album tracks sequenced chronologically from Green's early rough-edged gospel-soul efforts to his emergence in the early '70s as the greatest, smoothest male soul singer ever at Memphis's Hi Records. That's where Green was blessed to collaborate with label-owner-producer-writer Willie Mitchell and Al Jackson Jr., the Booker T. & the MG's drummer who co-wrote and played on many of Green's biggest hits. The quintet of albums Green recorded between 1971 and 1973 -- centered by "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love With You" and "Call Me" -- remain a benchmark of modern soul, as well as the core of the set's first two discs. Though the latter Hi recordings are disappointing, and the gospel-heavy post-Hi legacy is erratic and often under-whelming, this collection's remastered sound helps make it a keeper.

Bon Jovi, "100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can't Be Wrong." Island, $59.98. This hard-core, fan-directed four-CD, one-DVD set is composed almost entirely of unheard and unseen material from the band's archive. The first three CDs include 38 previously unreleased songs and a dozen variations on other recordings, such as a demo version of "Always," and new songs such as the Springsteen-style anthem "Nobody's Hero" and "Why Aren't You Dead?," a catchy kiss-off in the tradition of "You Give Love a Bad Name." The fourth CD consists of some of Bon Jovi's favorite rarities, such as "Edge of a Broken Heart" from the 1987 film "Disorderlies" and a different version of "Someday I'll Be Saturday Night." The hour-long DVD consists of interviews, video-shoot outtakes and backstage footage.

Richard Harrington is the pop music writer for Weekend.

Children's | Nicole Arthur

Milkshake, "Bottle of Sunshine." Milkshake Music, $15.99. The follow-up to its aptly titled 2002 debut, "Happy Songs," finds Milkshake no less happy. "Bottle of Sunshine" does, however, find the Baltimore duo -- vocalist Lisa Mathews and guitarist Mikel Gehl -- taking more chances. The disc includes songs in a dizzying array of styles: The singalong-ready "Bluebird" could be mistaken for a public-domain folk song, whereas "Book of Dreams" wouldn't sound out of place on an adult contemporary radio station. "ABC of Me" is as sassy as a show tune, while "MS R&R" is a '50s-style rave-up in the tradition of "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Whimsical spoken-word introductions add an intimate dimension to several of the tracks, and new parents will recognize the lyrics borrowed from "Goodnight Moon." While many of Milkshake's songs describe the world from a kid's point of view, others are more like love letters from parent to child. It was, after all, having kids that inspired Mathews and Gehl, veterans of the rock band Love Riot, to start making music for children.

Justin Roberts, "Way Out." Carpet Square Records, $15.98. On his fourth CD, Chicago children's musician Justin Roberts rocks out. His new disc chronicles the angst of the post-preschool crowd and has the decibels that go with it. (Yes, as a matter of fact, life does get louder as you age.) Longtime followers may react like crabby Dylan fans at the Newport Folk Festival, but probably with the same result. Certainly there are fewer potential lullabies here than on Roberts's previous recordings. Instead, songs such as "Picture Day," "Day Camp" and "Doctor, Doctor" are kid's-eye-view scene pieces from day-to-day life. The new songs are tuneful and engaging, and enlivened by unexpected stylistic flourishes -- there are Beach Boys-style harmonies on "Day Camp," and the disc's title track is set to a calypso beat. Roberts's dry wit surfaces in "Humpty's at It Again," a retelling of the nursery rhyme that posits the egg as a misunderstood visionary who sees wondrous things from his precarious perch.

"Beethoven's Wig 2: More Sing Along Symphonies." Rounder Kids, $12.98. There should be a warning label on Richard Perlmutter's recordings. Listen just once to his 2002 debut, for example, and you'll never hear the opening bars of the composer's fifth symphony without thinking, "Beethoven's wig . . . is very big!" The follow-up to that debut, "Beethoven's Wig 2," is just as hilarious as its predecessor. It also has the same format: On the first half of the disc, Perlmutter sets his own comic lyrics to a dozen or so well-known classical pieces. The second half contains instrumental performances of the same pieces. Although Perlmutter's lyrics are funny, that's not his main objective: Their content is intended to teach listeners something about the work and the composer. Thus Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" becomes "Wow, What a Wedding Cake" and Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz" becomes "Please Do Not Tease the Viennese." In addition to being entertaining, his creations are frighteningly effective mnemonics. How much children's music actually makes you smarter?

Ralph's World, "The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro." Minty Fresh, $15.98. The fifth children's recording by Ralph Covert, yet another rocker turned children's troubadour, may be his best yet. On "The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro," the Chicago bar band veteran demonstrates why he's one of the biggest draws on the hip children's-music circuit. Covert wrote most of the tracks on the new disc, which range from the abbreviated funk of "Playground," which celebrates the joys thereof, to the bombastic pop of "Kid Astro," which trumpets the exploits of an interplanetary superhero. His malleable everyvoice seems adaptable to any genre: "Sun in My Eyes" is a pre-K power ballad, while "Miss Molly Crackerjack" sounds like a big-band number without the big band. Covert certainly knows what interests kids -- several of the songs have animal protagonists, for example, while "Dumptruck" mentions not only the titular vehicle but backhoes and earth movers as well. As if to establish the viability of his connection to his inner child, Covert even includes "Old Man Dan," a song he wrote when he was 8.

Various Artists, "cELLAbration! A Tribute to Ella Jenkins." Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, $11.98. Long before "Schoolhouse Rock," 80-year-old folk musician and children's performer Ella Jenkins was using music to educate young audiences. This tribute disc, which contains 18 tracks by 15 artists, mostly longtime folkies, brings together original material and some of the many songs that Jenkins wrote, adapted or helped popularize. As well as being a lively celebration of Jenkins's music, "cELLAbration!" is a showcase of Washington area talent: It was produced by Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, and contains tracks performed by both, as well as by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Michele Valeri and Tom Paxton. The collection's standouts include Pete Seeger's "The World Is Big, the World Is Small" and Sweet Honey's "Go Miss Mary Mack." Appropriately enough, the collection, nominated for a Grammy for best musical album for children, is suffused with young voices: Paxton's grandsons chime in on "I Know a Tom," while the University Park Children's Ensemble appears on several tracks. Perhaps most important, "cELLAbration!" includes a Jenkins discography for listeners who are inspired to explore her work for themselves.

Nicole Arthur is a Weekend staff writer who covers children's entertainment.

Classical | Tim Page

Leon Fleisher, "Two Hands." Vanguard, $16.98. Pianist Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in the mid-'60s at the height of his career, when he was in his mid-thirties. The condition was eventually diagnosed as dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, and Fleisher fought it like a tiger for the next four decades. Recently, experimental treatment with Botox restored most of the power to the damaged hand, and an exuberant Fleisher, now 76, entered the studio to make a new recording, titled, appropriately, "Two Hands." The disc begins with miniatures by Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Chopin and Debussy, and then moves on to the massive Sonata in B-flat (D. 960), by Franz Schubert. All sentiment, all rooting-for-the-underdog, all yearning-for-the-happy-ending set aside, the result is a tender, wise, profoundly musical album that would make or enhance the reputation of any pianist now before the public.

Eighth Blackbird, "Beginnings." Cedille, $18.98. Daniel Kellogg may be the most gifted American composer under 30, and his "Divinum Mysterium," recorded by the new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird, is among the most immediately arresting pieces I've heard in years. Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, "Divinum Mysterium" lasts a full half-hour yet never comes close to wearing out its welcome. On the contrary: Such is the richness and fertility of Kellogg's imagination that one listens breathlessly, delightedly, to every passing inspiration, from the chimes and chanting that set the piece into motion through to its dynamic, ecstatic close. The disc also contains George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)," an evocative, if rather dated, work from a venerated master. But it is Kellogg who steals the show -- and, with any luck, he is just getting started.

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