Give Until It Hurts

Kronos Quartet: 25 Years

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.

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

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)  

Herbie Hancock
The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions
Blue Note

WHEN BLUE NOTE casually tossed off this six-disc retrospective, jazz fanatics let out a collective groan: With hundreds of the label's lost gems in need of digital polish, why have they wasted one more jewel box on Hancock's catalog? After all, 99 percent of what's been packaged here has already been available for years on single CDs like Takin' Off, My Point of View, Inventions & Dimensions, Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage, Speak Like a Child, and The Prisoner. For the answer to that question, a cynic will point to the ceaseless gift sets and "remastered" rereleases still being mass-produced in the wake of Miles Davis's death. There are a handful of names--Monk, Mingus, Coltrane--the conglomerates know they can recalibrate, rewrap then resell to the coffee crowd at Barnes and Noble. Herbie Hancock is, pre-mortem, becoming one of those names. To be sure, the commercial success of the 58-year-old pianist's latest, lackluster "tribute" on Verve, Gershwin's World, proves the point. The Sixties Sessions is especially irksome for hard-core collectors. Only eight of the 54 tracks are previously unreleased. And of those, only one isn't an alternate take. What's worse, this material is not only subpar, but mostly meaningless. Fits and starts like these engage if they reveal musical growing pains or let listeners in on the uneven terrain of a jam session among unacquainted talents. On a majority of these C-sides ("Riot," "Watermelon Man"), what the listener hears are ordinary miscues and careless mistakes, facts of life in the recording studio that are no more telling than a TV blooper. Still, despite the repetition and toothless packaging, it's impossible not to marvel at the young Hancock's light phrases and groovy lines. During most of this formative period (1962-1968), he was writing for and freestyling with a brooding Davis quintet that featured saxist Wayne Shorter, teen drummer Tony Williams, and bassist Ron Carter. As a leader, Hancock guides these same musicians--along with session stars such as Thad Jones, Donald Byrd, and Dexter Gordon--away from the darker tones of hard bop with rhythmically infectious melodies (in a precursor to fusion) and light, orchestrated tone poems that conjure visions of Ellington. Tunes on the first four CDs, such as "Dolphin Dance," "One Finger Snap," and "Cantaloupe Island," have become standards for a reason. They're simple enough for casual listeners to digest (hence their re-emergence in hip-hop sampling), but also carry an improvisational immediacy. Hancock's subtle fingerings and innate sense of harmonics keep the soloists on their toes allowing little space for laziness. On "Takin' Off" and "Maiden Voyage," for instance, Freddie Hubbard turns in some of the most thoughtful and tuneful trumpet work of his career. "Speak Like a Child," the set's most memorable outing, and segments of "The Prisoner" play like orchestrated suites--more sentimental than spry. Still, like the whole of Hancock's Blue Note work, the sentiment is both ardent and cerebral. (David Schimke)

Miles Davis
The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions

THE BITCHES BREW sessions, only two-thirds of which have been released until now, represent the last great musical revolution from Miles Davis's repertory genius. Miles had already rearranged the face of jazz at least three times (with the bop-swing blend Birth of the Cool, the modal eminence of Kind of Blue, and the orchestral grandeur of his collaborations with Gil Evans), and patented the blueprint for small bop ensemble interactions with his quintets during the '50s and '60s. At the dawn of the '70s, he broke the mold once more, by transfusing the jittery nerve and bombastic nova-bursts of rock 'n' roll into his electrified explorations of space and harmony. The splatted phrases and roiling, burbled rhythms that came to fruition during these eight sessions, recorded from August 1969 to February 1970, would remain an integral part of Davis's arsenal until his death in 1991. The first disc-and-a-half of this four-CD set presents the original Bitches Brew double-LP without the remastering difficulties that have plagued some previous Davis reissues. There are also tracks from the sessions that appeared on Davis's Big Fun, Circle in the Round, and Live-Evil records. But the greatest source of excitement surrounding this release is the inclusion of nine previously unissued tracks. Some of them contain significant flaws: Davis's "Corrado" is an ungainly jumble further muddled by Billy Cobham's fulsome drumming; "Feio" is a slow, enervate New Age blues number from Wayne Shorter; and "Big Green Serpent" is a slight collection of riffs and playful snippets. The three previously unissued Joe Zawinul compositions on disc four are all solid but too reminiscent of the quieter, more reflective songs on Davis's In a Silent Way, recorded just six months before Bitches Brew. (Davis apparently thought so, too, recasting Zawinul's "Double Image" as a vehicle for John McLaughlin's torrid blues guitar on the Live-Evil LP.) The treasure trove of new material comes from a couple of Davis compositions recorded at a November 28 session in 1969. "Trevere" is a multitextured opus that expertly uses a huge rhythm section that includes two bassists, drummers, and electric pianists, a tabla player, and the Latin percussionist Airto. Their fascinating rhythmic exchanges are topped by gorgeous harmonies from sitarist Khalil Balakrishna, bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, and especially organist Larry Young, who brings a churchlike resonance to the proceedings. The result is a tune both exotic and earthy, with a brooding tone that is nevertheless imbued with vibrant dramatic tension. "The Little Blue Frog" is simpler, with a noodling intro that steadily intensifies into a superb funk workout, presaging the music of Joe Zawinul's Weather Report and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters while retaining Miles's spatial flair and unique rhythmic shadings. It's bitchin'. (Britt Robson)  

Ray Charles
The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986

ONE REASON ATLANTIC'S three-disc Ray Charles retrospective, The Birth of Soul, is such a consistently satisfying listen is that it culls from such a small, fertile patch of Charles's output. By focusing solely on the pioneering R&B developments he engineered during his four-year tenure with that label in the late '50s, it ignores the ravenous pop appetites he developed afterward, which would lead to his most startling triumphs and head-scratching miscues--often in the same song. As if to compensate, this four-disc examination of Charles's lifelong flirtation with country music highlights the flawed genius that makes him impossible to write off, even when he's indulging in goopy moments too frequent to be dismissed as mere lapses in taste. Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, included in its entirety here (along with its companion follow-up volume), was heralded as a monument to musical miscegenation and creative control when released in 1962. Unfortunately, it's also as infuriatingly uneven as any artistic achievement ever to earn such landmark status. Once Charles proves himself capable of swinging out Hank Williams numbers with droll sophistication, the wan dynamics of his string settings sound even more unforgivably intrusive. One moment he's caressing the lyrics of Eddy Arnold's "You Don't Know Me" with a canny intelligence, the next he's carelessly bequeathing the melody to an overblown choir. Over the course of the '60s, the quality of Charles's country releases varied wildly, often within the same song. But he also managed to refine his choral-and-string addiction to maintain a semblance of palatability. Well into the '70s, treasures verging on the miraculous bubble up: "Take Me Home, Country Roads" laced with a metallic electric piano; an orchestral and panoramic "Wichita Lineman"; a definitive "Ring of Fire" that typifies Charles's knack for admiring his own emotional depth. But by the time Ray wowed 'em at the '84 Republican Convention, his vocals had settled into gruff affectation, punctuated by the obligatory huh. And so he embraced metronomic regularity, allowed Nashville hack Billy Sherrill to put him out to stud with forgotten country pinup Janie Fricke, and unearthed such masterpieces of American doggerel as Gary Paxton's "Woman Sensuous Woman." Which leaves one to wonder: Does Charles's career in country document the complexities of racial and commercial integration, or just one man's dubious taste in white people? (Keith Harris)

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