Holiday Box-Set Roundup

Ray Charles
Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection

IN 1955, RAY Charles bled gospel into gutbucket. His rhythm 'n' blues smash "I Got a Woman"--a rewrite of the old hymn "I Got a Savior"--took the line "I got a savior/Way over Jordan," hollered it sidelong as "I gotta woman/Way over town," and effectively refigured Christian need and plain desire, into, well, the most exciting American expression I can conjure. Elvis beat the tar out of that expression; the Stones rode it like doom. But the idiot pub-rat Rod Stewart perfected the stuff on his Every Picture Tells a Story (1973). Yet, the two dozen songs on the Levitical first disc of the five-disc Genius and Soul box lets us feel R&B--and its redheaded stepsister rock & roll--at its rawest, its most orgasmic. When Ray and his Wurlitzer organ lean into his back-up chorus, the Raylettes, on "What'd I Say Parts 1&2," the call-and-response "ooohhhhhhs" and "yeeeeaaaahhhs" are almost pornographic.

The church-born call-and-response wailing technique (see my heroes, the Swan Silvertones) would become a crutch for Ray, and by the middle of the second disc (right after "Hit the Road Jack") you begin to pray for something new. Ray never really offered it. The maudlin (though not wholly unredeeming) string-soaked country covers gleaned from his 1963 pair of hit albums Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music bury the rangy intensity of his voice. His Beatles covers (opening disc four) were constipated at best. Ray, like Elvis, quickly became a pop singer. By the time we hear him do tunes like "Makin' Whoopee," "I Don't Know What Time It Was," and Barry Manilow's "One of These Days," we're listening with something akin to pity. Lust's empathy has long since left the building.

But even the aging Ray has that voice. If you want proof, listen to his jive-turkey/sexpot-boileth-over routine in a charged 1971 gospel duet with Aretha, "Spirit In the Dark (Reprise)," or groove as his backseat mumbles undercut Ben Martin's Stax guitar strut on "Booty Butt." (That's right, "Booty Butt"--it was a hit, dammit!) Those gems notwithstanding, 80 percent of Genius and Soul is a patchwork at best; it chugs along with Charles's career until hitting the tired (and almost heartwarming) 1993 cover of "Still Crazy After All These Years." So leave it be, and go with Rhino's The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 box. That fucker has God in it. (Jon Dolan)

Charles Mingus
Passions of a Man: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1956-1961)

THIS SIX-CD reissue from Rhino is a root-shaking civics lesson, a reminder that democracy (a cliché in the modern-jazz vernacular) is based on both individual expression and collective rebellion. Bassist/composer Charles Mingus, who produced the set's six albums for Atlantic while he was recording for various labels, delivers musical sermons inspired by Ellington, haunted by the ghost of Bird, and always propelled toward all-out wail, the precursor to Ornette Coleman's freedom ride. Instead of evoking varied colors or vague images and shapes, Mingus and the collection's more than 20 collaborators paint vivid street scenes, humanized by loose, jaw-breaking solos and a sporadically funky, always swinging gait. From the impassioned shouts driving "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and the rumbling moan of "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me" to the grinning bop of "Blue Cee," there are mercurial shifts in pace and political purpose. But the gutbucket is always within earshot, sprayed with boiling blood and angry sweat.

The groups sport different styles and sizes. With Teddy Charles on vibraphone, a quartet date on the second half of disc one cradles the ear on a deliciously dreamy cushion. The head-reeling, horn-driven Blues and Roots Session takes its cue from wandering alto players Jackie McLean and John Handy, talkative trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and Pepper Adams, who keeps things anchored with his foot-stomping baritone sax. Mingus at Antibes, recorded three months later, is an all-out jam, its irresistible, blues-drenched groove delivered with a fervor usually associated with after-hours rock & roll. The Clown Session, an eclectic combination of orchestral discipline and raw chatter, could be a soundtrack for the Beat Movement. The title track hinges on a spoken-word improv from New York DJ Jean Shepherd, the humorist who hooked Mingus up with filmmaker John Cassavetes.

Mingus neophytes will find themselves addicted to the spiritual fervor, schizophrenic pulse, and unassuming, but uncanny, musicianship. Hard-core fans, even those who already own a majority of the work, will feast on the revealing alternate takes, chronological progression, and a stream-of-consciousness interview filling the final disc. Everyone will marvel at Mingus's ability to express his fierce individuality while at the same time allowing for an unprecedented amount of give-and-take between the band and the compositions set before them. (David Schimke)  

The Zombies
Zombie Heaven
Big Beat, UK

LIKE MANY OF their mid-'60s contemporaries, the Zombies began as a better-than-average teenybop pop group and rapidly evolved into visionary artists eager to explore new avenues in songcraft and studio experimentation. Yet, while the classics created by their more famous, like-minded contemporaries--Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, etc.--have been canonized (and recanonized), the British five-piece's masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle, has yet to make most rock historians' record books. Nevertheless, the Zombies' Abbey Road-recorded 1968 swan song stands among the finest works of the psychedelic era. Ripe with Technicolor vocal harmonies, ornate piano clusters, and swirling organ augmentation, it basks in the dappled naïveté of songs about, you know, Really Important Topics: World War I ("Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914)"), William Faulkner ("A Rose for Emily"), and the universal travails of unrequited love (every other song on the record). Yet, while Odessey yielded the band its biggest single, the airily funky "Time of the Season," it failed to tie down a mass audience, saving its spacey, studiocentric influence for today's artier 4-trackers (see Apples In Stereo) and psych-pop wiz kids (and/or Papas Fritas).

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

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.

Listening to the three discs composing Farewells and Fantasies can be heartbreaking. Following Ochs's path from witty, hopeful numbers like "What's That I Hear" and incisive barbs like "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" to the baroque Scott Walker-styled sorrow of "Pleasures of the Harbor" and "Rehearsals for Retirement" is like sputtering down an off-ramp to nowhere. Perhaps it's the grimness of Ochs's later numbers that prompted the set's compilers to skimp on the songwriter's final work in favor of the earlier, easily digestible protest songs.

Yet, while the mid-'60s songs are undeniably powerful, the darker-hued, more musically complex material that followed strikes the deepest chord. Particularly gut-wrenching is his final studio recording, "No More Songs" (1970), an ironically exquisite examination of Ochs's artistic block. Against a majestic backdrop of timpani, horns, and strings, Ochs hauntingly apologizes to the listener for surrendering his muse with "a white flag in my hand." Today it rings reminiscent of Kurt Cobain's reading of Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." You can almost hear Ochs dying in his song. If you listen hard enough, you might hear the '60s go with him. (Ruttenberg)

various artists
Holding Up Half the Sky: Women's Voices from Around the World

YES, I KNOW: You're sick of women's film festivals, women's art collectives, goddess cults (which I swear have more variants here in Northern Cali than Mickey D's has national franchises), and "Women in Rock" magazine covers. Me? It's all fine: Art and culture need marketing hooks, and goddesses--like all deities--need worship. So aside from the chintzy Gaian new-age bookstore packaging, I heartily endorse Holding Up Half the Sky, a four-CD box, which sets out to (re?)expose far-flung artists that you'd probably never get to hear if they didn't come on a record bearing Sky's subtitle.

The music gets parsed into Asian, Celtic, Reggae, and African sets, and while the samplings aren't definitive, they're well-informed. The standout African disc bypasses Egypt's Om Kalthum--probably the continent's biggest star ever--but does include a delicious mid-'70s recording by South Africa's Miriam Makeba, probably the continent's second biggest star ever. I don't know where Zaire's Tshala Muana charts, but this set includes the boffo "Tshibola": Originally from 1991's Soukous Siren (easily one of my all-time favorite Afro-pop recordings), it has her representing tougher than L'il Kim in a Don King pay-per-view, and rocking harder than Shania Twain on a mechanical bronco. You also get girl-group mbaqanga from South Africa (the Mahotella Queens, with a little number about ritual circumcision), girl-group juju from the Lijadu Sisters singing about God-knows-what, and stranger hybrids like Malika's Swahili wedding-band pop and Malouma Mint Miadeh's Arabic-inflected take on Quiet Storm. It's all primo.  

The other sets do right by their traditions, too. The Celtic disc gets points for capturing talented artists like Clannad and Mary Black before they got crossover sticky. The Asian set scores by hopping the frisson between decorum and passion (and also for how darn avant-garde it all sounds). And the reggae collection is recommended for reinvigorating history and avoiding cheese--though it should be docked for using the edited version of Rita Marley's "One Draw," which cuts out the midsong skit where the school marm gets turned on to ganja by her red-eyed Rasta pupils. Maybe the producers were worried about C. Delores Tucker? Cowards. They could always have pleaded sisterhood. (Will Hermes)

various artists
I Am Time
Blue Jackal

I AM TIME attempts the near impossible feat of compiling the history of Cuban music into one neat four-CD package. And, consequently, it fails. The greatest singer in Cuban music, supa soulsista Célia Cruz, is not here; neither is its most famous salsa bandleader, Tito Puente--assumedly for copyright reasons (Rhino has recently released excellent compilations of both). Bassist-bandleader Cachao, frequently compared to Mingus, is here, but only once. (Get to know him through Epic's Super Sessions.) Same holds true for legends like Bene Moré, and key players like Arturo Sandoval. And though its century of song reaches well into the '90s, the white-hot, genre-hopping singing star Albita Rodriquez is, sadly, not in the house. Yet, while this may not be the best possible pop-music passport to a country whose riches are known only too vaguely by most Americans (thank you "cultural boycott"), it still stands out as an excellent introduction for any curious Yan-qui, and an inexhaustible pleasure-listen, regardless of where you're from--or how much you already know.

Divided into four programs--"Bailar con Cuba," "Cantar en Cuba," "Cubano Jazz," and "Cuban Invocations"--I Am Time finds that socio-musical sacred space where Hispanic Catholicism and West African tribal religions miscegenate. My favorite song here is Merceditas Valdés's goody basket, "Osain," in which a stately, Eurocentric wash of piano and acoustic guitar fades into a sublime Afro-polyrhythmic bump-and-grind sheared by West African, call-and-response sing-chants. It comes on the "Invocations" disc, along with 12 other love-sexy Afro-Cuban prayer-jams--all of which are thoroughly discussed in Time's 112-page liner notes. As are all the different drums, dances, artists, and singing styles that crop up on the other three discs. But the notes are inessential. Bene Moré's breezy big-band beats, Ñico Sequito's spare, plaintive ballad "Maria Christina," and Irakere's acidic jazz-funk all speak for themselves, and they do it in tongues. Wild ones, and weird ones too. Oh yeah, and it comes in a cigar box. Essential. (Dolan)

various artists
The Riverside Story

EXCEPTING SOME STUFF from France--a country that understands the secret of stinky cheese--most jazz-fusion variants marketed under the handle of "acid jazz" could disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow without having left an aesthetic ripple. The last thing the world needs is more lightweight groove bands trying to play jazz. On the other hand, we could sure use some heavyweight jazz bands that appreciate the power of a groove. You can savor that pleasure, along with some other equally exquisite ones, on the 4-CD Riverside Story box, which offers some of the best post-bop jazz ever recorded, and reclaims the term "crossover" from the pop-music insult glossary.

Like the nonexistent Rough Trade box I've wasted way too much of my life waiting for, this set documents the short but significant history of an indie label that helped define an era. Riverside was born in 1952 with a handful of reissues, but became a major player when it signed Thelonious Monk in 1955. That's where this set begins, with Monk's precisely wobbly investigation of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." (Monk's conclusion? It does if it's got this swing.) That's followed by another swing entirely: Mongo Santamaria's Latin boogaloo classic "Watermelon Man," which actually made it onto the Billboard Top 10 pop chart in 1963. With occasional exclamations from vocalist La Lupe, and a horn chart that swells like an exceptionally tuneful head rush, it leaves the likes of Kenny G. slumped outside the bodega with an empty 40-ounce, mumbling something about "soul power."

Nothing else here was as commercially successful, but there are plenty more pop-wise, pre-rock aberrations, like Cannonball Adderly's gospel-charged "This Here" and Charlie Byrd's string-soaked bossa nova "Meditation." Of course, the label's adventurous heart really belonged to the sort of post-bop that made more history than dollars: Sonny Rollins's stark and muscular "Freedom Suite" with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach; Bill Evans's beautiful "Waltz for Debby"; and two versions of Monk's "Ruby, My Dear," one with Coleman Hawkins on sax, the other with John Coltrane. This is all pop, too, of course--just conceived for a more perfect world. (Will Hermes)

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