The Disco Box
More book than box per se, The Disco Box, compiled by Billboard and A&R veteran Brian Chin, is a 4-CD, 60-page tribute to the dancing queen. According to its producer, it also purports to "illuminate and document disco's other two elements: the music and the DJs." Huh? The haphazard, non-linear liner notes attempt to tell the real story of the club and DJ culture of the Seventies ooh-ooh dance scene, but succeed only at confounding anyone bothering to read the editor's nightmare. In all fairness, it's clear that Chin & Co.'s hearts are in it -- enclosed are entertaining, albeit self-indulgent, accounts from real DJs and scenesters of the time -- but the overall effect of the tome is a glaze not unlike a 5am bad coke come-down. Disco was and is the People's Music, but when documented by insular industry in-crowders who made their living at it back then -- and rest atop its crusty, boogie-fevered laurels now -- disco becomes an epoch that nobody else really lived through. Were this truly the "illumination" of DJ culture that it claims to be, the CDs would have included more obscure and less-radio saturated numbers, or at least some samples of real DJ mixing -- teasingly detailed in the otherwise unexplained DJ set lists littering the notes. Where is this music, dammit?? Instead, included here are 80 obvious hits (Sledge, Chic, Summer, et al), nothing more illuminating than a teeny dot of disco ball light, really. The liner notes tantalize with words of BPMs, race mixing, DJs blending three songs at once, and naughty leather bars, but the discs never deliver. As on Rhino's unfortunate Seventies Disco Ball Party Pack, this package is tediously mismatched to the music, which isn't to say it's without merit. The goofy pic of the Hues Corporation alone might be worth the price of retail to some, but for our money, we wish they had dug a little deeper. Then again, much of what made disco sizzle and what continues to keep its DJ legacy spinning today is that it's driven by the underground. Perhaps that's where it belongs. Perhaps commodifying the real club music that drove folks wild on the dance floor would make it all about as radical as your boss shaking his groove thing to Peaches & Herb at the next office party.
2 stars --Kate X Messer
Dusty in Memphis (Rhino)
Dusty in London (Rhino)
The reissue of an album as perfect as 1969's Dusty in Memphis hardly needs bonus tracks and yet there they are, 14 of them. Likewise, Dusty in London is a new collection of 24 Springfield songs recorded in London when she was under contract to Atlantic. The net result is a glorious array of Sixties girl Brit-pop at its absolute stunning best -- and neither collection features Stateside chart staples "I Only Wanna Be With You," or "The Look of Love." By the time England's Springfield teamed with the legendary trio of American producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin in 1969, she was well-established on both sides of the ocean with hits such as "Wishin' and Hopin'" and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." Despite the soulful undercurrent that runs through most of the Memphis songs, considered not only her best album but one of the best of the decade, syrupy Sixties arrangements drown songs, some with my blessing, like "Windmills of Your Mind" or "Make It With You," which was schlock then and is schlock now. But schlock serves as an excellent low point from which to measure the highlights, of which there are enough to, well, to fill an album. The centerpiece of Memphis' 11 original songs was "Son of a Preacher Man," the hit that took Springfield from her sugary Sixties pop best to downright soulful. There's more where "Preacher Man" came from; "Don't Forget About Me," "That Old Sweet Roll (Hi De Ho)," and the scrumptious "Breakfast in Bed" are gems ready to be dusted off and restored to their original brilliance. There are no credits on Memphis, though the press release names "The Memphis Cats," who played alongside Elvis Presley and Wilson Pickett. London is equally anonymous and string-heavy, so while it's not sappy, American-style pop, the violins can overwhelm. The best cuts on London are the ones that defy labels, the cabaret-style "I Only Wanna Laugh" and the bluesy "Crumbs Off the Table." Still, her voice was so sultry that she could dance around the heart of a single note without touching it, whether rendering her singularly exquisite version of Leon Russell's "Song for You" or rocking on "Ain't No Sun Since You've Been Gone." Dusty Springfield died of breast cancer in February, just a few weeks before her richly deserved induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She'd likely have gotten in on the strength of her hits, but Memphis and London ensure her place in the pantheon of pop goddesses.
(Memphis) 4 stars
(London) 2.5 stars --Margaret Moser
LIVE AT GILLEY'S
The mass appeal of so-called country music didn't begin with the Garthization of the early Nineties. Country music, or more accurately soft pop rock with Southern and Western streaks, was an A-1 seller 20 years ago, and there are still the cobwebbed mechanical bulls to prove it. Led by John Travolta's Urban Cowboy military-taut Wranglers, all things country were hot property in the late Seventies, and the scene's epicenter was Mickey Gilley's eponymously named club in Pasadena, a sludge-filled ship-channel suburb of Houston. In its dozen-year history, the nightclub/theme park became so popular it ultimately expanded to hold over 6,000 people, in the process drawing more tourists than the Astrodome. But people didn't come merely to sample Gilley's signature beer or purchase panties with the Gilley's logo. Country folk and Travolta wannabes came to hear Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Bellamy Brothers, Mel Tillis, Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash, Johnny Paycheck, and of course, Mickey Gilley. Urban Cowboy's popularity and Gilley's series of chart toppers thankfully afforded the roadhouse a state-of-the-art 24-track recording studio used to record nearly 1,000 performances. Even luckier, this treasure chest of recorded music was removed from the omnibus club before it burned down in 1989, making Live at Gilley's the first time these recordings have seen daylight. This 4-CD set spans Gilley's golden age, 1980-1988, and sure enough, the anthem of this honky-tonk zeitgeist, Johnny Lee's "Lookin' for Love," leads off the 64 tracks. Other highlights include Fats Domino's "Walking to New Orleans," Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," and Ernest Tubb's "Walking the Floor Over You." Yet aside from the novelty and recording timbre, there ain't much being added to the musical gene pool here. The remaining selections must be the idea of a dusty radio programmer who's been cryogenically suspended since gauchos were vogue; does the world really need another version of "Wildfire," "Hooked on a Feeling," or the cheesy-silly lyrics of Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey?" Given the volume and quality of the recorded oeuvre, it would've made more sense to release a potent 2-CD sampler and/or a few complete shows from the super-knowns, who unfortunately are only represented on Live at Gilley's by their perfunctory, encore-closer commercial bits. The effect is like having your radio permanently dredge a lifeless Houston commercial country-pop station in 1985. But lowest-common-denominator song selection isn't a big surprise: Tunes were chosen by Q Records, a subsidiary of the ubiquitous TV-mall QVC. Too bad. Live at Gilley's was -- and still is -- an idea with serious potential.
2 stars --David Lynch
HOT RODS & CUSTOM CLASSICS
In an effort to get more mileage out of their unparalleled back catalog, Rhino has started releasing "topical" compilations focusing on everything from Christmas to barbecue. While some of these topic-driven comps come off as tenuous and vain next to traditional collections like the Doo-Wop Box, Hot Rods & Custom Classics proves the concept's worth beyond a doubt. Cleverly packaged to look like a plastic model car box, this 4-CD collection never begs for relevance, because fast and cool automobiles rank as one of rock & roll's perennial sister obsessions. The set also succeeds on a purely musical level because Rhino A&R man James Austin put it together with all the precision and flair of a please-fall-in-love-with-me mix tape. One listen to this hodgepodge of fast-driving rock, country, and R&B is all it takes to make you feel eternally cheated for having to drive some Japanese compact. Sure, 100,000-mile warranties are nice, but today's cars just don't inspire paeans to speed like Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats' "Rocket 88." Subsequently, the vast majority of Hot Rods' 87 tracks hail from the Fifties and early Sixties. Lost highlights include Ronnie Dee's jiving toe-tapper "Action Packed" and the Collins Kids' adolescent rockabilly nugget "Hot Rod." Many of the tunes pay homage to a certain make or model, such as Ronny & the Daytonas' obvious inclusion "G.T.O" and Carol & Cheryl's less-than-obvious follow-up, "Go Go G.T.O." The last few tracks on the second disc focus on car crashes. Next to a morbidly twisted piece of work like Nervous Norvus' "Transfusion" (a #8 hit in 1956!), Dave Edmunds' "Crawling From the Wreckage" and Jan & Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" almost sound safety-conscious. Following this sequence with a 1955 James Dean interview where he warns kids not to drive fast is an especially nice touch. In a strange twist of irony, Hot Rods' auto-centric approach actually liberates the music from the troublesome constrictions of genre. How else are you going to hear Thee Midniters' "Whittier Blvd.," the B-52's "Devil In My Car," Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," and Junior Brown's "Highway Patrol" in one box set? There are also sound bites of old gas station jingles, drive-in movies, and a recording of a "rev off" between Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer's 1951 Mercury Custom and Mike Young's 1960 Chevrolet "Exotica" Impala. While you're enjoying the music, you can open the accompanying booklet and read "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," Tom Wolfe's new journalism chronicle of the Southern California custom car aesthetic. All this and a pair of fuzzy dice for your rearview mirror will make even the least romantic economy car feel a little bit more like the long, lean American ride of yore.
4 stars --Greg Beets
THE LAST SOUL COMPANY:
A 30 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE
Over the past 30 years, Jackson, Mississippi's Malaco Records has gained a reputation as the little label that could, growing from tiny roots indie into the foremost purveyor of Southern R&B, soul, gospel, and down-home blues -- a regional sound label president Tommy Couch calls "black music for black people." Despite the fact that only three releases in Malaco's history have made the pop Top 10 (with not many more reaching the R&B charts), Malaco has survived and even thrived in the shadow of the industry giants. For all the underdog charm of the Malaco story, however, their music has never had mainstream appeal, and The Last Soul Company shows why. To be sure, there are plenty of tasty cuts in this 6-CD set, tunes that conjure up Mississippi juke-joint romance and old-time house-party blues. Disc one is easily the strongest, sprinkled liberally with groove-heavy tracks in the finest soul tradition, including Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," Stefan Anderson's "I Feel Better Now," and four fine cuts from King Floyd. Other discs have their keepers as well: Elliot Small's "E Ni Me Ni Mi Ni Mo," Joe Shamwell's "I Wanna Be Your C.B.," and Freedom's "Get Up and Dance" all shimmy with a sly, pimp-funk exuberance, and Poonanny's eponymous "Poonanny Be Still" is nothing but a party, a raucous bedroom blues number that revolves around five pounds of butter and a baseball bat. (Don't ask.) For every piece of gold on The Last Soul Company, however, there are a couple of chunks of coal, if not more. Much of the blame for that spottiness can be laid on the evolution of the trademark "Malaco sound," a lightweight groove that indulges weepy sentimentality and come-hither smootholatin' over the genuine strut of classic soul. The discs are littered with too many string sections, falsetto voices, and hyper-sincere hushed-tone soliloquies. The problem is most serious with some of Malaco's thoroughbreds, including Z.Z. Hill, Latimore, Denise LaSalle, and the latter-day Bobby Bland. Discs 3-5, ostensibly covering the label's "Golden Years," are overpolished and distressingly similar, prompting the question of whether the Malaco sound is more a cage than a platform. At any rate, the sheer size of the project -- 112 songs, seven hours of music, 44,000 words of commentary, and a suggested retail price of $74.95 -- make the Malaco box instant overkill for all but the label's most hardcore fans. Pared to two discs (or even one), it would be a fine collection and a fitting testament to an enduring regional sound, but six discs is enough to dampen the enthusiasm of even the most sympathetic outsider. Then again, Malaco's records have never pleased outsiders, and years ago they stopped trying, catering instead to a small but extremely loyal pocket of fans centered in the black South. For that audience, Malaco is the real thing, with no substitutes accepted, and The Last Soul Company will be a treat indeed. For the rest, and with few exceptions, the box won't speak to a wider (whiter) audience; Malaco's appeal remains deep and narrow.
2 stars --Jay Hardwig
THE WEST COAST JAZZ BOX: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CALIFORNIA JAZZ
One thing immediately apparent about this 4-CD box set is the stunning diversity of the music contained within. The West Coast scene of the Fifties has often been pigeonholed as a bunch of white guys, primarily studio musicians, playing highly structured, dispassionate "cool" jazz, while their contemporaries on the East Coast were blazing away to the freewheeling hipness of hard bop. Like all stereotypes, this is a partly accurate picture, but the West Coast was much more than that. It also produced its fair share of truly outstanding and innovative musicians, black and white, including Dexter Gordon, Teddy Edwards, Wardell Gray, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman, to name but a few. Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, and others spent some time in Los Angeles as well and are also represented here. Covering the period from 1950-64, this set is a comprehensive primer, an overview of a vibrant scene that produced an astonishing variety of sounds and styles. Some of what appears here includes a post-Central Ave. jam session with Gordon & Gray, the ever-popular Mulligan/Baker pianoless quartet, Miles jamming with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, the roaring big bands of Stan Kenton, Terry Gibbs, and Gerald Wilson, and a sampling from Ornette Coleman's eye-opening first release. The Bay Area is represented by Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond, pianist Vince Guaraldi, and vibist Cal Tjader. Most interesting, perhaps, is the necessary inclusion of lesser-known musicians who nevertheless formed the backbone of the L.A. scene. Bassists Leroy Vinnegar and Curtis Counce, pianist Gerald Wiggins, drummers Chico Hamilton and Shelly Manne, saxist Harold Land, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, and multi-instrumentalist Buddy Collette all could have had brighter careers in the jazz world had they relocated to New York. Most importantly, perhaps, this collection disavows the perception of the West Coast as a homogenous scene specializing only in a narrow brand of anemic jazz. Just check out the Harold Land Quintet's scorching performance of "The Fox" from 1959, which is on par with the best of what was happening on the East Coast at that time.
4 stars--Jay Trachtenberg
PEGGY LEE AND
The Complete Peggy Lee and June Christy Transcription Discs (Mosaic)
The main thing this 5-CD set does is establish that Peggy Lee is a great jazz singer. That hasn't been accepted by a lot of jazz critics and fans, because throughout most of her career she catered to a pop audience, sometimes even employing novelty material like "Mañana." But she performed with Benny Goodman at 19, and, working with her husband and musical director Dave Barbour, made some outstanding records several years later, including these 1946-49 Capitol efforts made exclusively for radio play. The set contains three and a half discs of her most jazz-oriented material. Except for nine cuts made with Frank DeVol's orchestra, Lee appears with pianist Buddy Cole, guitar, bass, and drums. During two sessions, two guitarists appear: Barbour, who also worked with Goodman, and George Van Eps. Like one of her main influences, Billie Holiday, Lee didn't sing with a lot of volume or range, but she had just about everything else, including a hip sense of humor. She was a master of understatement and had a warm, pleasing timbre. No matter how inconsequential the song, she'd do something interesting with it; her musicianship was top notch, something that made her a fine songwriter as well as vocalist. Lee's compositional skills are evident as well in her subtle improvising; she sings in a very relaxed, laid-back manner, and was always good at choosing material. On the final CD, she sings five excellent Van Heusen-Burke songs. Three are heard fairly often, but she makes you wish the other two, "Oh You Crazy Moon" and "As Long As I'm Dreaming," were as well. Check out also the work of Barbour and Schaefer. Barbour's glowing tone and spare, melodic solos predict the work of Jim Hall. In the mid-Forties, several pianists combined the work of Art Tatum and/or Teddy Wilson and/or bop and classic genres to create some interesting styles. The most important of them, Lennie Tristano, became a great, system-creating innovator. Dodo Marmarosa also played impressively in that vein, as did Schaefer, whose work is fresh and complex. The June Christy tracks are impressive as well, recorded from 1945-1946 with backing from Stan Kenton sidemen. Christy was one of the first and best of the Anita O'Day-influenced vocalists, actually replacing O'Day with Kenton. She sang with a restrained warmth that had something in common with West Coast jazzmen, and became one of the most popular jazz vocalists in the Fifties. Her later band contained some musicians who would become fine bop soloists, but here Christy employs swing-style trumpeter Ray Wetzel, saxman Boots Mussuli, and her husband, tenorman Bob Cooper. (Mosaic Records: 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902; 203/327-7111)
4.5 stars --Harvey Pekar
MEN ARE LIKE STREET CARS ...
WOMEN BLUES SINGERS, 1928-69
The blues has never been strictly a man's domain. In fact, until midcentury women were the the dominant practitioners of the form. For a wonderful collection of the female perspective on the blues, you could do a whole lot worse than this 2-CD, 46-track compilation that documents the music across five decades. In doing so, you also get a good sense of the evolution and transformation of popular urban blues styles from the classic singers of the Twenties on through to the modern divas of the late-Sixties blues revival. The first disc shows the mutually compatible relationship of jazz and blues, with most of the material coming from Thirties Decca recordings waxed in New York and Chicago. These urbane sides feature many of the top jazz players of the day providing impeccable support to the likes of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Alberta Hunter, and Blue Lu Barker. The disc also illustrates the dominance of northern, big-city sensibilities in American popular music through the first half of the century. The axis begins to shift by the early Fifties, however. The focus of the second disc reflects the emergence of small, independent labels that mined the much more down-home motherlode to be found below the Mason-Dixon line and on the Texas-to-Los Angeles mainline. Presaging and coinciding with the arrival of rock & roll, singers like Esther Phillips, Big Mama Thornton, and Lavelle White -- all Texans -- and Louisiana swamp boogie queen Katie Webster brought to the fore blues styles that were more suited to the rough 'n' tumble roadhouses of the South than to their more uptown sisters of previous decades. The blues centers of L.A., Houston, Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans-cum-Muscle Shoals are represented by the likes of Tina Turner, Irma Thomas, and Marie Adams. And let's not forget blues legends Etta James and KoKo Taylor from the mecca of Chi-town. As Rosetta Howard so flippantly observes in the title track, "Men are just like street cars, if you miss this one here, you'll get another one right away." 'Nuff said, gentlemen?
5 stars --Jay Trachtenberg
THE 'ORIGINAL' BAD CO. ANTHOLOGY
Despite the fact that Bad Company released a total of six albums between 1974 and 1981, each one of them spawning at least one hit and thus propelling the English foursome into the annals of classic rock history, in retrospect, the band's legend might have been better served if they'd been a one-off supergroup who recorded their sole masterpiece and then faded gracefully into the pages of rock & roll mythology. Instead, Free refugees Paul Rodgers (vocals) and Simon Kirke (drums), along with Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and ex-King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell joined Led Zeppelin's manager and vanity imprint (Peter Grant and Swan Song, respectively) and became one of rock & roll's all-time leading case studies in the Law of Diminishing Returns. Beginning high atop a peak never glimpsed again, Bad Company's eponymous four-star debut is the epitome of mid-Seventies concrete & asphalt hard rock, paving flat any of their high-flying labelmates' flower-power folk flourishes and bleached free of the sort of hardcore Chicago blues Rodgers once emulated. "Can't Get Enough," "Rock Steady," "Bad Company," and "Movin' On," all from Bad Company, proved terrific FM radio fodder -- going gold (500,000 copies sold) -- yet were ultimately as flat and soulless as the era they inhabited. The follow-up, 1975's Straight Shooter, is perhaps the only argument against the lone LP theory and was a looser affair, spinning off hits "Good Lovin' Gone Bad," the Grammy-winning "Feel Like Making Love," and an instant AOR Hall of Famer, "Shootin' Star," but the next year's Run With the Pack, despite strong singles in the title track and "Silver, Blue, and Gold," marked a precipitous drop in the band's material. Burnin' Sky ('77), Desolation Angels ('79), and Rough Diamonds ('81) all yielded their requisite hit and little else. Which means this 2-CD, 33-song compilation is too long by at least one disc and about half its track listing. Neither the bottom-of-the-barrel B-sides nor four new songs are worth seeking out, while the liner notes and incomplete credits waste the bond they're printed on. Typical label throw-together. Get rid of "Ready for Love" and "Seagull" from the first album, throw in "Weep No More" from Straight Shooter, lop off the B-sides -- don't even think about "new" songs -- and round up the rest of the hits, keeping "Untie the Knot" from Rough Diamonds. There's your Bad Company compilation, screwed up once already in 1985 as 10 From 6. Time to reissue the first two albums as a two-fer and be done with it.
2 stars --Raoul Hernandez
Shades 1968-1998 (Warner Archives/Rhino)
The first sign that Shades is one of those "for diehards only" box sets is the booklet's ultra-defensive opening essay, "The Producer Makes His Case." Obviously self-doubting, Rhino A&R man David McLees offer this somewhat sketchy defense of Deep Purple's 30-year career: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith may be "more well known and better regarded," but Deep Purple made "seminal, progressive, kick-ass rock & roll music" that "defined heavy metal, not to mention shaped the course of hard-edged rock." Yet while Deep Purple's legacy of wiry dynamics does perhaps stretch beyond "Hush" and "Smoke on the Water," it's simply too easy to argue that the bulk of the band's accomplishments can be boiled down to just three albums: In Rock, Fireball, and Machine Head. Each is an undeniable powerhouse, but three albums does not a box set make. As for Deep Purple's influence, the bulk of this 4-CD, 62-track retrospective proves that influential does not always mean listenable, particularly more than two decades after the fact. What makes Shades so pale is simple: Deep Purple's achievements were primarily driven by great performances, not great songs. Wisely, Shades concentrates on the 1969-73 Ritchie Blackmore/Ian Gillan lineup that bridged that gap most often. Then again, that this lineup's best moments seem to come from volume, riffing, and clunky repetition, not experimentation, can't help but make a 30-song run a bit numbing. And while the 1973-75 David Coverdale era and the band's funk-rock approach holds up better by comparison, Deep Purple's shift from Spinal Tap prototype to Whitesnake is no less embarrassing. The rest of the set -- everything before the first Gillan lineup and after Coverdale -- is clumsy, unremarkable, and entirely disposable, particularly the stale-on-arrival Gillan/Blackmore revival/reunion material. To their credit, Rhino makes following Deep Purple's seven-phase shuffling of lineups and their 32 albums easy; the notes are clean, there are plenty of pictures and plenty of background. That's the good news. The bad news is that what McLees calls "track after track worth of evidence" leaves lots of reasonable doubt and only one justifiable verdict: Deep Purple simply doesn't have a catalog worthy of a box set retrospective.
2 stars --Andy Langer