Music All Ears 

Christmas in August

For some reason, the last month or so has seen a deluge of the kind of lavish, ridiculously cool, or outright desperate products that record companies usually reserve for the Christmas season, when the families of obsessive collector-types are looking everywhere for that one thing their loved one doesn't yet own.

Why now? Has the MP3's ascendancy forced labels into a ticking-clock race to emphasize the tactile pleasures of record collecting? Are they worried (unnecessarily, judging from this recent wave) that they've already sold their most appealing back catalog material? Whatever the reason, record-store customers are looking at some pretty interesting artifacts on new release shelves this summer.

Take Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box, a various-artists survey from Rhino. Following the lead of similar Rhino boxes chronicling the '70s and '80s, the set pushes the boundaries of packaging: Its baggy plastic cover is filled with real coffee beans, and its middle is belted by a ribbed-paper sleeve familiar to all drinkers of hot to-go beverages. It's a cynical name and package for a cynical consumerist era - a self-defense tactic against the complaints that will inevitably be directed against it. How can its seven discs not contain "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? How can it give so little weight to, say, electronica or Brit-pop and so much to outright crap? Answer: "Whatever. Just be happy you now own 'Unbelievable' and 'Baby Got Back.'"

Rhino is back on solid ground, though, with the goofy fun of Weird Tales of the Ramones, whose three CDs and one DVD were assembled by Johnny Ramone before his death last September. An 85-track collection containing healthy chunks from every stage of the legendary punk band's career, it comes packaged like one of the great EC Comics of lore. Even better is what's inside: little tributes from cartoonists ranging from Jaime Hernandez, who tells of the band's culinary adventures, to Jordan Crane, who elegantly explicates an ever-changing lineup.

Johnny Cash has been the subject of too many compilations to count, but the new The Legend (Legacy) is a real standout: Its four discs stretch from Cash's Sun Records heyday to the year before he died, and they're organized intelligently, with one disc of standards, one with guests, one for top-level hits and one for the runners-up. It's a great basic catch-all or introduction to a singular musician: The milk-the-collectors extravagance comes in the limited-edition version being released next week, a $300-plus affair that includes a hardback book, a lithograph, a DVD biography from 1980, and a fifth CD containing Cash's first-ever radio appearance.

Following, as usual, in her husband's massive shadow, June Carter Cash also gets a new tribute this month. Keep on the Sunny Side (Legacy) begins with the eponymous Carter Family classic but devotes most of its two discs to the years she spent with Johnny.

A contemporary of the Carter Family got his long-deserved due recently, three discs tucked into a faux-cigar box like a pistol hidden under the bar. You Ain't Talkin' To Me (Legacy) does for Charlie Poole what Legacy once did for Robert Johnson: It plucks him from the world of cognoscenti-only appreciation and makes it clear to casual observers how central this banjo-plucking hillbilly outlaw was to the evolution of country music. If this box isn't on a ton of top-10 lists come January, I'll smoke the photo-filled liner notes.

music-allears-796_330jpg
Charlie Poole, left, and Stereolab
recently got the box-set treatment.

Unlike Poole, Stereolab doesn't need any record company fighting for their place in history. But fans could use some help keeping up: Most of us don't have enough dough to keep pace with the group's singles, EPs, and import-only releases. Enter Oscillons from the Anti-Sun (Too Pure), a sweet little three-CD/one-DVD set that gathers most of the non-album tracks that have escaped the 'Lab. For fetishists, the set even includes stickers replicating the artwork from each release. (We'll never catch up, though: Just last week, the band announced plans to issue six new songs as seven-inch vinyl and internet downloads ...)

Finally: It isn't competing with any of the above for package-design awards - in fact, it gets demerits for the way it shoehorns discs in on top of each other - but Heaven Must Have Sent You (Hip-O) can brag that it offers more jump-up-and-down gems than any two run-of-the-mill box sets combined. This history of Motown's Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team shows the common thread between the title tune, "I Hear A Symphony," "Heat Wave," "Reach Out I'll Be There," and dozens of other classics from such singers as Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, the Four Tops, and the Jackson 5. Paired with the recent documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, this would brighten up almost any music-lover's Christmas tree. In the four months between then and now, listen to it yourself.

By John DeFore


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