Friday, November 25, 2005


Artist Box Sets {vbar} Richard Harrington

The Ramones, "Weird Tales of the Ramones." Rhino, $64.98. The notion that punk pioneers the Ramones were cartoon characters playing cartoon music gets a punkishly poetic twist here. This career-spanning set includes three CDs with 85 tracks compiled by the group's late founder and guitarist Johnny Ramone; the band's famously loud, fast, hard -- and short -- songs allow for as many as 34 to be included on a single disc, but there are only a few rarities. A DVD documentary, "Lifestyles of the Ramones," includes all their videos and various talking heads. (For a better narrative, seek out the excellent, albeit sadder, "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones," which Rhino released earlier this year.) Best of all is the set's hyper-colorful, 54-page EC Comics-style booklet in which the group's history is imaginatively explored by 25 comic artists. Among them: Matt Groening, Mary Fleener ("Life of the Party"), Bill Griffith ("Zippy the Pinhead") and Jaime Hernandez ("Love & Rockets"). There's even a 3-D section, glasses included.

The Band, "The Band: A Musical History." Capitol, $89.98. The Band's third box set -- with five CDs and a DVD -- is the first to spin the group's complete tale: The first disc illuminates its early '60s roadhouse roots backing blues-rocker Ronnie Hawkins, its initial entry as Levon & the Hawks and the first of many creative communions with Bob Dylan, this one as he goes whole-hog electric. The set contains 111 tracks, all remastered; 37 are previously unreleased, including nine on a concert DVD taken from Festival Express and Wembley Stadium and a three-song "Saturday Night Live" performance filmed a month before "The Last Waltz." Appropriately, the compilation ends, as that legendary farewell concert did, with the Staples helping the Band carry "The Weight." Executive producer and Band co-founder Robbie Robertson wisely includes most Band classics (albeit sometimes in alternate takes) along with enough fascinating "sketches" that completists will want a whole set of those. "History" is packaged in a beautiful, 108-page hardcover book, with extensive commentary by Band historian Rob Bowman and loads of rare photos.

Jelly Roll Morton, "The Complete Library of Congress Recordings." Rounder, $127.98. Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax's 1938 recordings of Morton -- jazz's first major composer, arranger and piano stylist -- were the idiom's first oral history, and even now probably its greatest. After all, Morton was a crucial figure in early jazz, and his somewhat self-centered creation story was told through mesmerizing narratives and performances. A charismatic raconteur, a sterling pianist and fine but heretofore unrecorded singer, Morton delivered vivid tales about the music, culture and daily life of early 20th-century New Orleans as well as the roots, branches and mechanics of jazz. For decades, the recordings were available only at the Library of Congress or in truncated record form that left out Morton's bawdy or graphic recollections. This marks their first appearance with Morton's narration and music presented in the order in which it took place -- seven discs' worth, all remastered and at the correct pitch. An eighth CD includes later interviews with New Orleans musicians and a 200-page PDF document with transcripts of all dialogue and lyrics, as well as rare documents from the Morton archive. The piano-shaped box contains Lomax's biography "Mister Jelly Roll" (derived from these sessions) and an informative 80-page booklet about Morton and these seminal recordings.

Ray Charles, "Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959)." Rhino, $149.98. Charles's extensive catalogue has been revisited many times, before and after his death in 2004, but this is the most loving, and fun, tribute, celebrating his best work for his greatest label. Delightfully packaged as a replica of a '50s-style portable record player, the seven-CD, one-DVD, 164-track set contains all of Charles's seminal recordings for Atlantic, from studio sessions and live dates to collaborations on albums by jazz vibist Milt Jackson and Charles's long-time band leader, tenor saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. In this period, Charles reinvigorated American music, melding gospel, R&B, blues, jazz and country, pretty much invented soul and crafted a lasting, inimitable legacy. Bonuses include a recently discovered 1953 rehearsal session with some intriguing studio give-and-take with producer and Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun, performances from the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival (the DVD is taken from that concert as well) and an 80-page book with essays by Charles friend and biographer David Ritz and others.

Johnny Cash, "The Legend." Columbia Legacy, $49.98. Cash died before the story of his early life and career was told on film, as it is in the new "Walk the Line." And like Ray Charles, Cash continues getting bona fides on the reissue front as well as on the box set front. "The Legend" is a four-CD, career-spanning, multi-label retrospective containing 104 recordings, from Cash's Sun debut to his final recordings in 2002. (Sadly, there's nothing from his career-reviving American Records '90s catalogue.) The first CD, "Win, Place and Show," is a greatest-hits stand-in (everything on it charted 1, 2 or 3), but just about everything here fits the description of a Cash standard, classic or favorite. A deluxe version of "The Legend" comes as a large hardback book with a bonus CD of Cash's earliest radio performances and other delights, and a DVD of his 25th anniversary CBS television special. There's also "The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958" (Time Life, $39.98), which doesn't include alternate takes (available on a five-disc collection from Germany's Bear Family label), but does include a definitive version of each of the 61 songs Cash recorded at Sun. Cash's soul mate gets some overdue respect via "Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter Cash -- Her Life in Music" (Sony Legacy, $24.98), a two-CD, 40-song set that's as much a history of country music as Johnny's sets are.

Richard Harrington is the pop music writer for Weekend.

Classical {vbar} Tim Page

Wagner, "Tristan und Isolde." EMI Classics, $62.98. The role of Tristan in Wagner's great meditation on love and death is generally considered the most challenging part for tenor in the operatic repertory. The fact that Placido Domingo has taken it on in his mid-sixties is remarkable in itself; that he has proved to be one of the best ever exponents of the role -- ardent, powerful, intelligent and astonishingly sweet-toned -- is nothing short of amazing. He's backed up with a solid cast, too -- the fresh, lyrical Nina Stemme as Isolde; Rene Pape as a fine, sad King Marke; Mihoko Fujimura as a haunted Brangane. Antonio Pappano's straightforward conducting inspires urgent, focused performances from the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, although I wish he had surrendered more wholeheartedly to Wagner's delirium: This is wonderfully crazy music, and it should sound that way. Still, this is one of the best recordings of "Tristan" available.

Strauss, "Daphne." Decca, $33.98. Those who heard soprano Renee Fleming sing the title role in Richard Strauss's "bucolic tragedy" "Daphne" a month ago at the Kennedy Center will likely have purchased this recording already. The opera, rarely performed until recently, is unearthly beautiful, suffused with a brilliant autumnal radiance; Strauss himself seems to have esteemed the last scene as some of the best music he wrote, playing it on his piano over and over again in the last years of his life. But "Daphne" is also terribly difficult, as Strauss calls for a combination of Mozartean purity and Wagnerian force, a stark contradiction that is almost impossible to bring off. Yet Fleming succeeds admirably, as do the other members of the cast -- especially Michael Schade and Johan Botha in two killer parts for tenor and contralto Anna Larsson as Gaia singing out some of the lowest notes ever written for a woman. Semyon Bychkov coaxes appropriately opulent playing from the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne.

Mahler, Symphony No. 8. EMI Classics, $16.98. It is a truism that Gustav Mahler is a composer that listeners tend to take to wholeheartedly or not at all -- and never more so than with his gloriously over-the-top Symphony No. 8. This massive work is an exercise in sheer overkill: scored for huge orchestra, eight vocal soloists and as many choristers as possible, it combines a 25-minute setting of an 8th-century Christian hymn with a complete, hour-long musical rendering of the final scene from Goethe's "Faust." It is most effective when heard live (Leonard Slatkin will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in three performances next June), but Sir Simon Rattle's new disc with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is probably the most exciting recording of the symphony since Leonard Bernstein's version with the London Symphony Orchestra. Play loud .

"Hersch-Josquin-Rihm-Feldman." Vanguard Classics, $13.98. Composer and pianist Michael Hersch, born and raised in the Washington area, is a natural musical genius who continues to surpass himself. Hersch, now 34, was almost 20 when he began his studies, but he discovered, as geniuses will, that he somehow already knew what he was doing. Within three years, he had turned out a symphony, an unaccompanied violin sonata, a set of preludes for piano and a wide variety of other works. By now, he has written almost 100 hours of music, much of it dark, brooding and charged with an unrelenting (and unforgettable) intensity. This latest disc features Hersch at the piano, playing not only his own "Milosz Fragments" but works by contemporary modernists Morton Feldman and Wolfgang Rihm, as well as two transcriptions from the Renaissance composer Josquin des Pres, which fit in perfectly. The album concludes with a 40-minute sonata for unaccompanied cello, played by Daniel Gaisford.

Brian Eno, "Another Day on Earth." Opal, $17.98. Calling Eno a pop musician doesn't do him justice, for most of his energies have long been devoted to sonic explorations that place him solidly among the international avant-garde. "Another Day on Earth" is Eno's first album of songs since his undervalued collaboration with John Cale, "Wrong Way Up," 15 years ago. The beat is strong and the tunes are potent ones, but for many, the real appeal will be the lushly textured musical accompaniment, which combines an otherworldly eeriness with a steady, almost hymnlike consonance. This is a record as arresting and intellectually interesting as it is catchy and approachable: Among present-day British musicians, only Sean O'Hagan (High Llamas) has such an ear for gorgeous sonorities.

Tim Page is chief classical music critic for The Washington Post.

Box Compilations {vbar} Richard Harrington

"The Great American Baseball Box." Shout! Factory, $59.98. What's in first? In this case, a four-CD celebration of America's national pastime, housed in a padded, textured box resembling a base. Inside, you'll find a disc of baseball songs spanning 60 years, a collection of historic play-by-play broadcast moments from World Series-winning home runs (and errors) and legendary farewells (and a second disc featuring interviews with famous players and managers) as well as a collection of baseball poetry, radio comedy routines, public service announcements and commercials with players as pitchmen. Musical mementos include Count Basie's exuberant "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?," recorded soon after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, and Steve Goodman's poignant " A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request." The sketch disc features such classics as DeWolf Hopper's hyper-theatrical "Casey at the Bat" from 1909, the hilarious "Two Top Gruskin" from "Duffy's Tavern" and, of course, Abbot and Costello's dazzlingly surreal "Who's on First?" The accompanying booklet is a terrific history of baseball, but hardly insightful about the box's contents.

"Heaven Must Have Sent You: The Holland-Dozier-Holland Story." Universal/Hip-0, $39.98. Defining the sound of young America for Motown, Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland were the 1960s' most successful team of songwriters and producers, with more than 50 Top 10 pop or R&B hits, 13 of them No. 1s. This 65-song, three-CD set gathers their classic Motown material -- they were the label's biggest hitmakers between 1963 and 1967 -- and songs from Invictus/Hot Wax, the label they started in 1968 before returning to Motown in the mid-'70s. It's the '60s work that dominates, when the three were working with the Supremes, the Four Tops, Martha & the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and others. How good were they? Well, the 13 Supremes hits featured here include "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Back in My Arms Again," "I Hear a Symphony," "My World Is Empty Without You," "You Can't Hurry Love" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Four Tops standards? How about "Baby I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "It's the Same Old Song," "Reach Out I'll Be There," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "Bernadette." This is a classic soul station without commercials.

"Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of 'The War of the Worlds.' " Columbia Legacy, $24.98. In 1979, a panel including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas voted Wayne's take on H.G Wells's Mars-invades-Earth classic the best recording in science fiction and fantasy. But, Spielberg wrote to Wayne, though it would make "a unique and visionary film," he had too much on his plate to ever consider "a project of this size" (ha, ha). Wayne created a mostly orchestral adaptation that is true to Wells's original story, set in England at the turn of the century. It's narrated by Richard Burton, lending gravitas to a story of brutal invasion, futile resistance and out-of-the-blue redemption built around long instrumental sections with recurring musical motifs and occasional vocal cameos by David Essex, Phil Lynott and Justin Hayward. Released in 1978, the two-album set sold millions of copies overseas; this seven-disc collector's edition contains the original album (remastered, as well as in 5.1 surround sound), four CDs of remixes, demos and rarities, a 90-minute DVD documentary and a glossy booklet with a full script.

"Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar." Columbia Legacy, $49.98. This four-CD, 78-track compilation is a must for anyone with the slightest interest in the instrument's history. Though not a true century -- the music was recorded between 1906 and 2001 -- this history is inclusive (more than three dozen labels are represented), definitive and expansive. It includes the first recorded amplified jazz guitar solo (by Hawaiian guitarist Sam Koki in 1934) and honors such pioneers as Eddie Durham, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Les Paul. The set follows the guitar's evolution from the swing era to bebop and bossa nova, fusion and free jazz. Jazz proves a fluid term, with room for country and Texas swing guitarists Leon McAuliffe, Eldon Shamblin and Hank Garland and rockers Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana, and the set will likely spark further explorations of its many six-string geniuses. The 160-page booklet includes photos and essays for every artist featured, as well as 25 major guitarists musing about their heroes.

" One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found." Rhino, $69.98. This delightful celebration isn't about the obvious hits everybody knows. (That can be easily found elsewhere.) The four-CD, 120-track collection does include some familiar names on less-familiar songs, such as the Chiffons' psychedelic pop plaint "Nobody Knows What's Goin' On (In My Mind but Me"), and familiar songs in their original versions. Evie Sands's "I Can't Let Go," Bessie Banks's "Go Now" and P.P. Arnold's "The First Cut Is the Deepest" were pretty much copied and turned into hits by the Hollies, Moody Blues and Rod Stewart, respectively. Rhino couldn't license any of Phil Spector's Phillies classics, but Spector associates, acolytes and imitators abound on a set that also honors the Brill Building brilliance of such writer-producer teams as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Mixing known, lesser known and virtually unknown artists -- and a lot of rediscovered treasures -- each disc sits in a mock compact-with-mirror, fabulous liner notes fill a mini-diary and the whole thing comes disguised as a '50s-style hat box.

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