Give Until It Hurts

GIVE UNTIL IT hurts, the holiday credo goes. What remains unspecified here is who feels the pain: the giver, who will take a sharpened credit card to her wrists come January; or the recipient, who is burdened with the expectations of boundless pleasure.
The CD box set, the ultimate stocking-stuffer, banks on both. At $30-$100 a pop, these exercises in audiophile overkill are priced to move--that is, move you to tears. And the poor listener suffers the obligation of plowing through voluminous B-sides and outtakes and assorted esoterica that the artists didn't deem worthy of releasing in the first place. With expectations suitably raised, we merrily present our second annual Holiday Box Set Roundup.

Bongwater
Box of Bongwater
Shimmy Disc

BONGWATER PEAKED IN 1990 with the song "Chicken Pussy," which first appeared on the New York duo's, uh, feline-obsessed fourth record, The Power of Pussy. Clocking in just under the two-minute mark, the song (which is included in this box along with every other note the group ever committed to plastic) is everything great and god-awful about stoner indie rock. The song is a murky instrumental stew cooked up by resident musician/impresario/producer Kramer. Above it hangs Ann Magnuson, adopting a phlegmatic tone as she expounds on her three favorite subjects: bizarre dreams, bizarre sex, and bizarre rock 'n' roll celebrities. "I'm in a one-room apartment located in the basement under the Polish National Church," she spiels. "There's a king-size mattress in the middle of the room where me and the big fat lead singer from Canned Heat finish up an afternoon of incredibly hot sex. Boy does he have a big one." Bongwater was conceived in 1985 when Kramer (who dropped his first name years before Cosmo) asked Magnuson to add words to his guitar excursion, becoming the first act to record for Kramer's Shimmy Disc Records. With its muddled, psychedelic sound and knack for irreverent classic-rock covers--"Dazed and Confused" sung in Chinese; "Julia" as emotionless garage rock--the band provided a cheeky blueprint for future Shimmy discs by Ween, King Missile, and When People Were Shorter and Lived by the Water. Although Kramer's post-Bongwater career as a solo artist and producer (Galaxie 500, Danielson Family) has made him something of a household name in college-radio circles, it was Magnuson who galvanized the band, grabbing laughs even when the music fell short. Her monologues are delivered in consummate Manhattan-ese. When she bemoans a Rolling Stone pan comparing her to Barbra Streisand ("wait a minute--maybe that's good"), or yaps about Beverly Hills car rides with Village Voice scribes, it's never fully clear who she's parodying--Streisand, Rolling Stone, or her own jaded self. Is she the pretentious artiste or bilious indie-outsider? And could that smarmy cynicism have found a home in the smart-ass age of Pavement and Beck? The .000000475 percent of the population that actually gave a damn will never know. Bongwater ultimately disbanded so that Magnuson could play Richard Lewis's dominatrix-boss on the ABC sitcom Anything But Love. True to indie-rock form, commitment just wasn't in the cards. (Jay Ruttenberg)

Kronos Quartet
25 Years
Nonesuch

UFF DA! TIME is running out, as Busta Rhymes keeps telling us, and here comes yet another 10-CD set. While critics are sure to give it less play than Mercury's decamerous Hank Williams collection in their best-of roundups, 25 Years is just as important a document of 20th-century Caucasian art, and less likely to gather dust on your archival shelf. For it's more than just the recordings of a particular boundary-busting West Coast string quartet. In total, it comes on like an overgrown, beautifully packaged K-Tel genre survey of Western classical music in our postminimalist age. It might as well be subtitled "Not Dead Yet." Given the peculiar economics and disciplines of "new music," much of this material may have never been written without Kronos, whose active grant-gathering and commissioning programs have made it financially possible for composers to write music for live performance, as opposed to, say, film scores. They cajoled Terry Riley back to the world of notational music, and he wrote a number of lovely works for them, including the delicious drone feast Salome Dances for Peace, excerpted in this collection. Alongside works by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, Riley's piece shows the bounty that's grown from the hearty seed of minimalist composition. You also get Alfred Schnittke's Russian existentialism, a pair of surprisingly thorny quartets by Henryk Górecki, and some lovely choral-spiked miniatures by Christian mystic (and Björk fave) Arvo Pärt. What you don't get is Kronos's freaky moonlighting and genre-hopping: No Thelonius Monk, no Willie Dixon, no Don Walser, no "Purple Haze." But that's no biggie. 25 Years is intent on showing how Kronos refigured the stodgy vernacular of the concert hall, so it sticks to big guns rather than curios. There's still plenty of cross-cultural play here, including Osvaldo Golijov's klezmer-spiked "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," the Southeast Asian majesty of P.Q. Phan's "Tragedy at the Opera," and some avant-tangos by Astor Piazzolla. The set finishes with Kevin Volans's "White Man Sleeps," a propulsive display of Afro-European minimalism from Kronos's best-selling (and perhaps best) LP, Pieces of Africa. It's an artful, hopeful, and subtly amusing end to a set whose raison d'être is to prove that European classical tradition is, in fact, not asleep, but in the midst of a bona fide rebirth. A good thing, since like that mighty whitey Bob Dylan once said, "He not busy being born is busy dying." (Will Hermes)

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