Music : All ears

Unearthed and rediscovered

I love it when priceless music collectibles become obsolete.

To explain: Back when Matthew Sweet made his masterpiece, Girlfriend, his record company released Goodfriend, a for-VIPs-only disc with alternate takes on each song, packaged in a line-drawn version of GF’s gorgeous Tuesday Weld cover. Fifteen years later (and on the heels of Shout Factory’s Under the Covers, where Sweet and Susanna Hoffs re-do their favorite ‘60s tunes), Legacy has reissued the two discs as one set. Now fans like me can tell eBay to go to Hell.

A Ghost reborn: Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts has been re-released.

A few other recent reissues present albums that stand out in an artist’s discography as much as Girlfriend. Take The Belle Album (Hi), the first and best record Al Green made without producer Willie Mitchell. The title track, despite its relaxed groove, makes clear the tug-of-war Green was feeling at the time: “It’s you that I want, but it’s Him that I need,” he coos to his would-be lover, explaining that the Lord is more important than getting it on. As it foreshadowed Green’s upcoming move to Gospel-only records, he might as well have been singing to his audience.

David Byrne went the other direction in 1979, not leaving his Talking Heads producer Brian Eno but making their partnership more explicit: The result, the Byrne/Eno My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Nonesuch), is a landmark not only in their respective careers but in contemporary music, period. After incorporating African polyrhythms into Fear of Music, the duo stretched simultaneously into the past and the future, pairing tribal-sounding percussion tracks with woozy synthesizers. Their bigger innovation was the (pre-sampler) use of manipulated found vocals — hellfire evangelists, Third World chants, and radio talk shows — as the sole vocal on the record. Even now, after Pop has digested the record’s technical innovations, the music itself retains an otherworldly vibe that lives up to its name.

The Eno-produced Heads tune “Once in a Lifetime” pops up on Journey Into Paradise, one of two Rhino compilations to focus on pop scenes evolving in New York around the time Ghosts came out: Paradise highlights the eccentric taste of influential disco DJ Larry Levan, where Kraftwerk and the Clash met up with Sister Sledge; The Tommy Boy Story, Vol. 1 witnesses the birth of one of hip-hop’s essential record labels. Both two-disc sets are heavy on 12” single versions, true to the dance floor experience.

Another unexpected presence on Paradise is a track by Yaz, whose Vince Clarke was fresh from forming a little band called Depeche Mode. In the first wave of a series of DM reissues (each pairing an audio disc with a DVD), Rhino offers that band’s debut, Speak and Spell, which Clarke wrote before quitting the band, along with their 1990 commercial breakout Violator and the record that should’ve made them stars (and did, among the more moody of my high-school friends), Music for the Masses.

Getting back to that turning-point theme, we have a crucial moment in the career of Willie Nelson. A three-disc set, the self-explanatory Complete Atlantic Recordings, bundles a slew of unreleased tracks (and a 1974 live disc that debuted in a 1993 box set) with two of Willie’s best LPs, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. Both falling more or less into the “concept album” category, they crystalized the sound that would make Nelson a superstar as soon as he left the label and cut Red Headed Stranger for Columbia.

A second box celebrating a pair of essential albums is dedicated to Gram Parsons: The former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother made only two records in his tragically short solo career, GP and Grievous Angel, which have long been shoehorned into a single-CD release. In The Complete Reprise Sessions, they’re restored to original form, right down to little cardboard replicas of their original LP packaging. (Rhino has also just released a DVD of Fallen Angel, a documentary bio by Gandulf Hennig.) Each album gets bonus tracks, of course (including audio interviews with the singer), and a third disc rounds out the set with alternate versions of classic Parsons tunes like “She” and “Still Feeling Blue.” That third disc is a lot like Goodfriend, in fact — it just took an about 15 years longer to move from the hands of privileged collectors to a record store near you.


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