Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Round-Up Continues: The Best Reissues and Compilations of 2008

Take Me To The River: A Southern Soul Story (Kent)
Genuinely one of the best soul compilations I’ve encountered – and it’s increasingly hard to stand out in such a saturated market. It covers necessary standards, predictable spine-tinglers and some rarities from off the beaten track. As a complete whole, it presents a compelling case for the audacity and radicalism of this wonderful music and its expressive storytellers.

Arthur Russell – Love Is Overtaking Me (Audika)
There may well be yet more to come from the Russell vaults, but it’s hard to resent Tom Lee for continuing the trawl, especially when the results are this illuminating and moving. Even recognising his chameleonic qualities, few could have realised that Russell had such a propensity for simple, direct songwriting infused with the American folk tradition. The outstanding tracks towards the end of the disc point to where he was headed and resemble some of the material on ‘Calling Out Of Context’. Russell was an extraordinary talent always honest and true to his calling.

Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue (SonyBMG)
Finally we get a proper CD release for this, the only solo album from the Beach Boys drummer. It has long been a cult classic but has been denied a widespread audience due to its rarity. It’s a rich, lush, intricately arranged work that captures the melancholy undertow of the Californian lifestyle. It comes packaged with the sessions that would have made for a follow-up ‘Bambu’, had they ever been completed.

Dory Previn – The Art of Dory Previn (Zonophone)
I hadn’t heard Previn until this year and I must admit my interest had been piqued by the lovely Camera Obscura song that takes her name. It turns out I’d been missing out on one of the great eccentrics – a singer and lyricist of brilliant, occasionally somewhat disturbing, originality.

Various Artists – African Scream Contest: Raw and Psychedelic Sounds From 70s Benin and Togo (Analog Africa)
Various Artists – Living is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-1929 (Honest Jon’s)
Various Artists – Nigeria Special: Modern High Life, Afro-Sounds and Nigerian Blues 1970-1976 (Soundway)
Various Artists – Nigeria Rock Special: Psychdedelic Afro-Rock and Fuzz Funk in 1970s Nigeria (Soundway)

Interest in a whole range of African music and its associated counterparts continues to flourish and here are some particularly fascinating collections. It’s great encountering this music and its unrelenting energy for the first time. Particularly intriguing is the West African music from 1920s Britain – Honest Jon’s have uncovered a whole world of music and culture that could so easily have been lost. All these compilations share an interest in spotlighting the symbiotic relationship between African music and Western popular music.

Various Artists – Rock On (Ace)
Various Artists – The Jerry Ragovoy Story (Ace)

Two compilations from the Ace staple that prove reliably edifying. There’s lots of attention meted out to the likes of Jerry Wexler, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Phil Spector, Norman Whitfield et al – but Jerry Ragovoy has perhaps never been given due credit for his huge productions and their stirring arrangements. There’s some spectacular music on this set, not least Loraine Ellison’s extraordinary plea ‘Stay With Me’. The ‘Rock On’ compilation has a broad brief – simply highlighting some of the music beloved by the legendary London record shop of the same name. It veers gleefully all over the place.

Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs (Columbia)
This predictably topped many reissues lists this year, but Columbia’s ludicrously overpriced deluxe edition justifiably angered many consumers. It’s a bit of a mixed bag all told, veering from tracks so quintessential you have to wonder why they were left off their parent albums to relatively straightforward live versions. As a whole, it does much to underline the notion that Dylan sees songs as perpetually incomplete, malleable objects that he can bend according to his will at any particular time.

Robert Wyatt – Cuckooland, Shleep, Rock Bottom, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, Old Rottenhat, Dondestan (Domino)
Even though the Wyatt catalogue was already readily available, and Domino have provided little in the way of extras, it’s good to have them packaged and presented cohesively. It’s also worth noting that Wyatt’s career has been consistently individual, inventive and fascinating, and that these albums rarely appear in best albums of all time lists, when perhaps they should.

Chris McGregor – Up To Earth/Our Prayer/Very Urgent (Fledgling)
It’s great that so many unsung legends of the jazz world are starting to get proper attention – from Ian Carr and Neil Ardley to the wonderful groups of Chris McGregor. These recordings aren’t quite as pivotal as the Brotherhood albums that resurfaced last year, but they give a strong sense of McGregor the free spirit, scorched and sometimes furious.

Nick Lowe – Jesus of Cool (Proper)
Or ‘Pure Pop For Now People’ as it was once called in some quarters, presumably to avoid offending the Christians. It’s a superb pop album of course, although quite some distance from the gentle country soul that is Lowe’s main trading point now. Much of it is jerky, wiry, angular pop music and Lowe’s deserves more credit for his considerable achievements as a songwriter.

Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon Expanded Edition (Rhino)
At last, a reissue package that does justice to Warren Zevon’s talents. This wasn’t his debut album, although it’s often considered as such. It is, however, arguably his best – certainly his most consistent collection of songs, and one where his individual stamp is marked most clearly. At times, it’s hugely over the top, but Zevon’s charm and sardonic humour means he can pull off the grandiosity.

Gas – Nah Und Fern (Kompakt)

Among the most vital and exciting catalogues in ambient and techno music, released in its entirety across four CDs. You’d need impressive mental stamina to absorb this in one sitting, but it’s wonderful in smaller doses.

Roy Orbison – The Soul Of Rock and Roll (SonyBMG)
Nina Simone – To Be Free (SonyBMG)

Two much-needed box sets chronicling the careers of major legends across their various record label changes. Simone’s is understandably the most consistent, and ‘To Be Free’ presents her as a defiant, righteous artist. Even when it sounded like she was compromising (by releasing more poppy, soulful material), it came so thoroughly washed in emotion that it could be the work of no other. Orbison’s classic singles for Monument, small kitchen sink dramas of heartbreak and despair, remain some of the greatest works in the history of pop music. His voice still sounds staggering, especially when it came from such a shy and retiring man. The quality is not maintained – although the box set does give credence to the notion that the comeback album ‘Mystery Girl’ was worthy of his talents.

ECM Reissues – Dave Holland (Extensions), Kenny Wheeler (Gnu High), Pat Metheny (American Dream) (ECM)
Some classics from the ECM vaults repackaged at bargain price (which is essential given how overpriced ECM CDs usually are). ‘Gnu High’ – which also features Keith Jarrett and Dave Holland, remains one of my favourite albums of all time.

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