Wanna buy an expensive CD?
Charlie Poole and various artists
You Ain't Talkin' to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music
Two years before Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family first stepped into a recording studio, Charlie Poole scored country music's first smash hit with "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues," later to become a bluegrass standard. So Poole, much of whose work is collected (along with relevant selections by his influences and contemporaries) on this three-CD collection, has major historical cred, plus an outlaw legend to sweeten the deal. In his 1985 book Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'N' Roll, Nick Toches called Poole "the greatest drunk in the history of country music." Toches, who also wrote biographies of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis, can be trusted on matters pertaining to profligate musicians. Poole was indeed wild, the sort of guy who might smash you over the head with his banjo, even if you were a cop. When Hollywood called with an unexpected offer that might have resuscitated his Depression-battered career, Poole responded with an extended drinking spree that killed him at age 39. Remember this the next time you wish for a killer party.
The string-band music Poole recorded from 1925 through 1930 with his North Carolina Ramblers and other ensembles, however, tends to be measured and elegant, rhythmically sprightly but steady interpretations of vaudeville trifles, Tin Pan Alley tearjerkers, minstrel tunes, blues—generally all manner of old-timey secular folk and pop. Like Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash and Ray Charles and Elvis Presley, Poole knew that a good song was a good song and that they could be found far and wide. The parts you didn't like could be changed, as Poole kindly did, probably for aesthetic more than moral reasons, with the racist minstrel numbers (and some of the more controversial material: His "Take a Drink on Me" was originally a give-cocaine-a-chance number called "Take a Whiff on Me").
Like most boxed sets, the 72-track You Ain't Talkin' to Me is overgenerous. Some of the non-Poole cuts provide context but little pleasure (take Dock Walsh's "Bulldog in Sunny Tennessee"—please!). And for every Poole classic such as "Leaving Home" (a great "Frankie and Johnny" variation) and "Flop Eared Mule" (dig the transcendent instrumental harmonies), there's a "Sunset March," a banjo showcase on which we are reminded that Poole was a great player but no virtuoso. Forgive him his lack of technical razzle-dazzle, though. His picking hand had been disfigured. In a drunken baseball mishap. —Dylan Hicks
One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found
The idea that there are 120 great lost '60s girl-group records seemed like a fairly hopeless ideal to pin a box set on, even if it did come in a hatbox. And I wouldn't argue that everything on One Kiss Can Lead to Another is "great," per se. But the level stays so high throughout that it's silly to quibble. There's plenty of enthusiastically trashy stuff here, but my favorites are invariably ornate: the Chiffons' proto-psychedelia "Nobody Knows What's Going on in My Mind But Me," Syreeta Wright's Motown-baroque "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel for You." Plus it comes in a hatbox. —Michaelangelo Matos
Fonotone Records (1956-1969)
Dust to Digital
The king of 78-rpm records, collector Joe Bussard (subject of the documentary Desperate Man Blues) put his money where his mouth was when he founded the Fonotone label. Rambling from hills and dales to bayous, he recorded folks more vivacious and plucky than those found on any O Brother soundtrack, and issued their efforts on custom-made 78s. These five discs (stuffed in a cigar box with postcards and old-timey bottle opener) collect those anachronistic times, revealing that Bussard was as much into recording living history as he was into making a hoot with buddies under fake names like the Tennessee Mess Arounders. But mind the Blind Thomas tunes: They're the first recordings of guitar legend John Fahey. —Andy Beta
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax
Sure, Jelly Roll Morton made a few mistakes, not the least of which was insisting to anyone who'd listen that he was the "inventor of jazz piano." While the seminal New Orleans composer, pianist, and vocalist shies away from his errors on Jelly Roll Morton's seven discs, the two books included in the massive, piano-shaped box offer clarification aplenty. Still, the biographical behemoth's audio reveals more about the artist and his times, largely thanks to recordist Alan Lomax, who even coaxes quite a few songs out of the reluctant maestro. Fortified by whiskey and accompanying himself magisterially on piano through a set of recollections that stretch back to the 19th century, Morton holds forth with eloquence and a keen observational recall. Who'd have guessed that, a century ago, certain Southern urban dandies favored heel-less custom-made shoes with big toes that curled up, some harboring battery-powered lights? —Rod Smith
American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939)
John Fahey's Revenant label, after the immense packaging extolled for Delta blues demigod Charley Patton and holy-fire hornman Albert Ayler, returns to simpler, more affordable pleasures on this two-CD collection of old 78s, which follows up the raw gospel of the first American Primitive volume with noisy, frequently abnormal folk-blues (and the more the shellac crackles, the better). Though now and forever obscure bluesmen dominate, wronged ladies haunt the compilation's periphery: Mattie May Thomas with her unaccompanied bellering; the pre-Shaggs stumble of Elizabeth Johnson; Geeshie Wiley's disquieting "Last Kind Word Blues." That last tune was featured in Crumb, and Steve Buscemi's character in Ghost World was equally infatuated with it. And for good reason: It sounds as if its origins are somewhere other than Earth. But most bizarre are the Nugrape Twins, who make a grape pop jingle effervescent. Almost 80 years on, it's transubstantiated into a sacrosanct vintage. —Andy Beta
Talking Heads Brick
As I giddily mowed through these eight studio albums, two things become abundantly clear: Time seems incapable of diminishing the core virtues and charms of vintage Talking Heads music; and, if in some configuration or another, you already own their output up through Speaking in Tongues, this collection is pretty irrelevant. None of the "bonus tracks" or "unfinished outtakes" is a stunner, or even often close to the caliber of tunes that originally made the cut. The "alternate versions" can be interesting—the cello undertow on the acoustic "Psycho Killer," the barely kitschy countrified fillips goosing "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," and the guitar strafing the mix of "Life During Wartime"—but this was a band of sublime instincts and rarefied taste. They already let you hear their best stuff. Ditto the videos. Go rent Stop Making Sense and otherwise use your DVD time on real cinema.
But if you've never immersed yourself in the chronology of the nerdy-arty wisenheimers whose jittery cool set a standard for a "new wave" both amid and apart from punk, and who seamlessly evolved into paleface funkateers so hip to the jive that they accurately name one of their outtakes "Fela Riff," then this box will tickle and rearrange your imagination. None of the eight discs is less than good, even the assiduously earnest-to-cute True Stories. By Naked, though, they make all the right moves but are just going through the motions. But oh, in their prime, say, "Psycho" or "Wartime" or "Animals" or "The Great Curve" or "Burning Down the House," Talking Heads were real beauts. —Britt Robson
Weird Tales of the Ramones
For the ultimate Ramones boxed set, go to Rainbow, ask for a box, put the first four Ramones albums inside the box. Then memorize every note and form a band, which will probably never be as good as the Ramones, but who gives a fuck. Except then you wouldn't have the triumphant "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" single, or '84's near-great Too Tough To Die, or any of the major pleasures from the minor albums. This four-disc set is properly generous with cuts from the first four and Too Tough and hits most of the other highlights. It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it. Plus it includes a cool and sometimes even moving comic book with contributions by Christine Shields, Sergio Aragones, Fly, and others. The fourth disc is all videos (I'm against it). —Dylan Hicks
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