Music Article

Box Populi

Kenny Gamble, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and more all have compilations out for Christmas

We take a look at holiday boxsets

Silver discs, silver discs, soon it will be Christmas Day...and what do you get for that devoted music lover in your life? Don't fret; as usual, the music business has waited until just before the shopping season to offer suggestions. This week's section is devoted entirely to this fall's avalanche of boxed sets and greatest-hits packages, designed to please all ye faithful — and ye newcomers as well.

The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, & the Story of Brotherly Love (1966-1976)

Think of Gamble and Huff as the Babyface of the early '70s: For a few years, it was impossible to flip on the radio without hearing their signature Philly Soul arrangements backing one of their stable of acts. Where would AM have been without Billy Paul's R&B cheating song ''Me and Mrs. Jones,'' the O'Jays' jubilant ''Love Train,'' or Teddy Pendergrass' bittersweet growl on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' ''The Love I Lost''? It's hard to believe no one has attempted a comprehensive overview of the Gamble and Huff years, but here it is, at last: three discs of sumptuously seductive R&B, music between the sheets and the streets. Along with the hallmark O'Jays and Blue Notes hits, the collection also includes Gamble and Huff's work with the Three Degrees (''When Will I See You Again'') and the Soul Survivors (''Expressway to Your Heart'').

In retrospect, what's impressive about Gamble and Huff's legacy isn't merely the lasting appeal of their orchestral-R&B approach. Songwriters as well as producers, they fused the medium with a message: The Blue Notes' ''Wake Up Everybody'' and the O'Jays' ''Rich Get Richer'' snuck in angry social-consciousness lyrics (Babyface, listen up). You can literally hear black America growing wary, unsure of its own future. Alas, this box also makes it clear how sadly brief Gamble and Huff's heyday was: By the third disc, they've begun sucking up to the disco pacifier. Yet The Philly Sound reminds us that the duo's soul symphonies deserve to be remembered for being more than just fodder for future jingles. A-

The Beach Boys: The Pet Sounds Sessions

With its lush orchestration, layered harmonies, and general mood of tortured romanticism, the Beach Boys' 1966 Pet Sounds was both a dramatic farewell to surf music and a boldly unprecedented artistic manifesto. A commercial washout at the time of its release, the album has since grown in reputation to the point where pop aesthetes speak of it in hushed tones as the zenith of Brian Wilson's genius, a seamless masterwork that rewards deep, repeated listening. Less awestruck types know it as the album that gave us ''God Only Knows,'' ''Wouldn't It Be Nice,'' and ''Caroline, No.''

Pet Sounds remains a wonderful collection of songs, but is there really anything to be gained from hearing it stripped bare and reassembled? Taking the fetishization of aural minutiae to new heights, this long-delayed four-CD box presents us with mono and stereo mixes of the album, demos, alternate takes, instrumental tracks, radio promos, and studio chatter (''Is it possible we can bring a horse in here if we don't screw anything up?'' asks Brian at one point). It's hard to imagine even the staunchest fan embracing this celebration of marginal differentiation. Ever wondered what ''Sloop John B'' would sound like if Carl Wilson had sung the first verse? Or whether a sax solo would ruin ''God Only Knows''? Me neither.

Not surprisingly, Pet Sounds' parts turn out to be less compelling than its whole. So while the original album deserves an emphatic A+, reason demands that this lovingly assembled but ultimately misguided labor of love get a C+.
— Tom Sinclair

Simon & Garfunkel: Old Friends

''That was early work,'' pooh-poohed Paul Simon at a recent taping of VH1's Storytellers, when asked about this overview of his years with Art Garfunkel. Okay, he has a point: Relistening to ''The Dangling Conversation,'' ''The Sound of Silence,'' or other standards on this three-disc set, Simon still sounds fresh from an English-lit class, Garfunkel from choir practice. Yet there's no denying the eternal allure of these recordings; thanks to Simon's way with a melody and the duo's way with arrangements, everything from the folkie serenity of ''Bleecker Street'' to ''Bridge Over Troubled Water'' has dated better than the capes Simon once wore. Autumnal pre-breakup tracks like ''Song for the Asking'' suggest the end of the '60s but carry more universal intimations — about, say, foundering friendships — as well.

Given that S&G have already released a hits album and collected-works box, do we need yet another recycling of ''Mrs. Robinson'' and ''The Boxer''? As it turns out, yes. Old Friends is the model of an efficient, enlightening box, its three discs alternating hits and album tracks (which have never sounded better, thanks to newly unearthed master tapes) with unreleased live cuts and a smattering of rarities. At the VH1 special, Simon dismissed the 15 rare or unreleased tracks here as ''nothing of any value,'' but he's wrong: The B side ''You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies'' is bitter urban folk rock, ''Blues Run the Game'' is an eloquent caress of an obscure Jackson Frank ballad, and concert versions prove they could duplicate those harmonies live. Not bad for early work. A

Various Artists: Anthology of American Folk Music

Folk music has long been equated with pristine three-part harmonies and ultraliberal sloganeering. But that wasn't always the case, as folklorist Harry Smith learned when he journeyed south between 1927 and 1932 to record local hillbilly singers and musicians. In real old-school folk songs — heard on ''Ballads,'' the first third of this historic boxed set — a bar fight results in one man ''shot right through the head''; a mysterious woman lures away a young boy and stabs him; couples sleep around on each other out of spite. Kelly Harrell's ''Charles Giteau'' is narrated by a man about to be hanged; in the Carter Family's ''Engine One-Forty-Three,'' a railroad conductor is killed in a train wreck, his ''face covered up with blood.'' By comparison, Marilyn Manson is a softie.

The 84 tracks here, first released on six LPs by Folkways Records in 1952, turned everyone from Dylan to Beck on to news-story balladeering and the art of making music by blowing into a jug. They've now been combined into one sprawling six-CD set, and praise the Lord: Folkways vinyl (as I discovered when I bought these records a decade ago) was often unplayably warped. Keep in mind that these unvarnished field recordings, with their nasal crudeness and layers of audio crackle, will try the patience of anyone raised on post-'50s pop and rock. Better to sample the box in small doses (try the bracing string of Cajun and mountain fiddle tunes that open the discs titled ''Social Music''). But it's worth at least a quick dip into these musical backwaters of America; the gospel tracks alone are so eerie and foreboding that they could scare Whitney Houston to death. B+

The Doors: Box Set

The oft-repeated party line on the Doors is that they were ''ahead of their time.'' And so they were: Death-tripping doom-mongers in a peace-and-love era, they were brilliantly spooky bad seeds who presaged a darker age and became an archetype unto themselves. Sure, Jim Morrison sometimes declaimed the most god-awful drivel under the guise of poetry, and the Doors perpetrated their share of dull music. But there's a reason impressionable young malcontents continue to fall under the spell of Morrison's mojo flow: The guy walked it like he talked it, a truth that's implicit in the Doors' best songs.

That said, this four-CD box is not the penultimate compilation of Doors fans' dreams. Even with one disc devoted to ''band favorites,'' it doesn't even really constitute a half-baked best-of (what, no ''Alabama Song''?). Still, this hodgepodge of archival live tracks, demos, and studio leftovers presents a kaleidoscopic overview of the band that may prove revelatory to those who think they've got them pegged, showcasing the Doors' talents as closet classicists (''Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor''), garage rockers (''Gloria''), wasted visionaries (''Rock Is Dead''), and down-and-dirty blues breakers (''Rock Me''). For those in search of cheap thrills, there's even the notorious version of ''Five to One'' recorded at the March 1969 Miami concert at which Morrison allegedly exposed himself; the singer's drunken attempts to incite the audience are both pathetic and riveting, audio verite at its excruciating finest. ''How does a musician imitate the sound of underpants sliding over a woman's thighs?'' asks Morrison in ''Mental Floss,'' an extemporaneous goof recorded at a 1970 show. Of the countless bands who've tightrope-walked the sex/death continuum, the Doors came closest to capturing that elusive sound. B
—TS

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

Brilliant, troubled, and impossible to classify, Charles Mingus was responsible for a body of work that to this day remains one of a kind — equal parts bebop virtuosity, big-band exuberance, art-music experimentalism, and revival-preacher fire. Five of these six CDs chronicle one of the most fertile periods of the great bassist-composer's career. The set focuses on Mingus' bluesy side, from the gutsy riffing of ''E's Flat Ah's Flat Too'' to the keyboard-bashing antics of ''Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me.'' Of the 40 tracks, only 1957's ''The Clown'' falls flat, due to windy beatnik narration by actor Jean Shepherd.

Passions doesn't pretend to be comprehensive: Mingus' career was long and storied (disc 6 contains a sometimes provocative, sometimes mundane 75-minute interview with the jazz legend). Even during the years covered by this set, he recorded for labels other than Atlantic. Still, Passion contains plenty of the lyricism, experimentalism, and hollering genius that made Mingus such a unique figure. Like the best such collections, it leaves listeners not overfed but hungry for more. A
—Ethan Smith

Originally posted Dec 12, 1997 Published in issue #409 Dec 12, 1997 Order article reprints