Holiday Box-Set Roundup

Such adoration sets the stage for Zombie Heaven, an exhaustive documentation of the quintet's brief existence. Guided by the dubious notion that "every note the Zombies played is of interest," compiler Alec Palao leaves no stoner unturned, laying out all of the group's singles, albums, demos, and BBC appearances over four CDs. This strategy obviously has its ups and downs. It's certainly interesting to hear the singles leading up to Odessey, but aside from the band's wonderful 1964 debut, "She's Not There," and a handful of others--"She's Coming Home," "Remember You," the manic "She Does Everything For Me"--the band's mop-topped early work only offers the blueprints for stranger things to come. More notable is the set's inclusion of R.I.P., a posthumous "Zombies" album that showcases an artistically mature--albeit less fruitful--version of the group.

Still, the Zombies' creative leap wasn't just a drug-zonked cartwheel up space mountain. Their best work directly opposed commerce's stranglehold on pop music. It wasn't acid that stimulated Odessey and Oracle, but a newfound disregard for sales. Principle songwriters Rod Argent and Chris White decided to produce the final album themselves before disbanding the quintet; seeing that the teen-phenom Zombies were basically kaput, they were able to make their last hurrah a purely artistic endeavor. Zombie Heaven makes one wonder what the group could have accomplished had they continued their uncharted ascension. (Jay Ruttenberg)

various artists
Kurtis Blow Presents: The History of Rap Vol. 1-3
Rhino

IT'S TOO BAD that a genre founded on the liberal use of other people's music is so fly-papered to copyright restrictions that it can't even give us one comprehensive, cross-label box set containing every great jam before, say, The Chronic. Who would lose? As far as nostalgia-rap consumers are concerned, any music older than either member of Kris Kross has old-school cachet, and labels like Thump and Deepbeats have been releasing compilations that seek to profit by playing off that very fact. Rhino's Kurtis Blow-compiled three-CD set promises something more. Auspiciously titled The History of Rap, it starts with the original funk used by those breakbeat-hungry DJs in the '70s, moves on to classic golden old-school, then charts the music's mainstreaming via Yo! MTV Raps.

As an aural history, The History disappoints, leaving us to construct that perfect box set in our mind. But before you gripe about your favorite missing tracks, just appreciate the collection for what it is: a good place to start for beginners and a convenient package for old-schoolers who may already have all this on vinyl. Vol. 1 is the real treat for me, and not just because I've always wanted my own copy of the S.W.A.T. theme. Even a casual listener to a B-boy favorite like "Scorpio," by Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band, may instantly recognize the horn-y intro and drum breaks that have been relentlessly pried, plied, and applied through the years. Yet, if hip hop's found-vinyl sound collages reduced such stray moments of rhythmic joy to pure abstraction, then hearing those old rare grooves reified and reinstated might be just as jarring.

But then you'd be missing the heart of hip hop's base theory: Rap is to be redefined--at all costs. And, in turn, repoliticized. After all, even rap's goofy first moment in the limelight, "Rapper's Delight," transformed Chic's party groove into something a little more severe. Echoing the darkest shards of James Brown's trance-rock, rap made funk sound militant in a post-disco era in which significance had passed out on the dance floor like an iron-poor Donna Summer. So, listening to disc two's electro-beats imitate and retard the '70s funk of old is downright spine-tingling, especially when Melle Mel finds his voice on the Puffy-pilfered classic "The Message"--which remains to this day the only rap record to use the word "fag" empathetically. But what's most striking about discs two and three is how their collections of intentionally "poppy" inner-city singles manage to sound both ultramelodic and damn melancholic. Example: the contemplative synth figure on Whodini's "Friends," which Nas later lifted for a cover of Kurtis Blow's own "If I Ruled the World."

This stuff isn't the naive party-people music golden-age rap is supposed to be. Nor is it merely sample fodder for late-'90s no-schoolers, from Puffy to the Inivisbl Skratch Pklz. There's an oppositional integrity here. And that's timeless. (Peter S. Scholtes)

Phil Ochs
Farewells and Fantasies
Elektra Traditions/Rhino

DESPITE THE FACT that Phil Ochs never let his hair grow past a "reasonable" length, or wasted his gray matter extolling the merits of psychedelic drugs and love beads, his life is, for better or worse, a road map through the optimism and agony that was "the 1960s." He grew up idolizing John Wayne (what '50s kid didn't?), got charged by folk music and college-level leftism, and wonked off for Greenwich Village, arriving shortly after Dylan, and immediately establishing himself as a caustic fixture on the Lower East Side folk scene.

And if it weren't for Dylan he might have been the best singer-songwriter of the Greenwich-folk moment. He wrote the first Vietnam protest song ("One More Parade"), the best Vietnam protest song ("I Ain't Marching Anymore"), and the stirring JFK tribute, "Crucifixion." Yet, as the '60s marched on, his young-folkie's idealism was ground down to disillusionment--with politics, America, and life itself. Ochs hedged away from protest folk, toward an introverted eclecticism, then gradually lost his muse altogether, claiming in an interview that "me and the country were deteriorating simultaneously and that's probably why it stopped coming." He hanged himself in 1976.

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