Boxed and ready

The cream of the season’s CD/DVD crop
By PHOENIX MUSIC STAFF  |  December 14, 2007


071214_helpTHE BEATLES | HELP! | Capitol | 2 DVDs | $135
The unchanging critical line on Help! has for years been that it’s in every way inferior to A Hard Day’s Night. That first Beatles film melds the beauty of silent comedy that Dwight Macdonald saw in it with the spontaneity of the French New Wave. Help! was Richard Lester’s attempt to put the Beatles in the same “Zap! Pow!” pop universe of Batman and 007. And that to me is what’s so moving about it. The Beatles aren’t trapped in dressing rooms and hotel suites: they’re trapped inside the pop creations they’ve become. Of course, all pop creations should be so luscious. The plot is a bit of hokum about Ringo wearing a great honker of a pinkie ring that marks him as the next sacrificial lamb of some mumbo-jumbo Eastern religion. The filming of the numbers (by David Watkin), particularly “Ticket To Ride” and “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” remains among the most elegant treatments ever given rock and roll. This is the first-ever home-video presentation of Help! in its correct aspect ratio. If you opt to spend the $135 for this set (rather than the standard two-disc version that goes for around $30), you’ll get a reproduction of the original shooting script, a hardcover book illustrated with production stills, and scaled-down reproductions of both the American lobby cards and the British poster. It’s an indulgence, but if you can’t fetishize the Beatles, who can you fetishize?

— Charles Taylor

This is the eighth in Columbia/Legacy’s “metal-spine” deluxe editions of Miles. Not all of them have been essential — the Jack Johnson and In a Silent Way extended those original albums way beyond usefulness. But for the most part, these ’72-’75 studio sessions (the last before Miles’s six-year hiatus) are ripe with exploding rhythm: a thousand wah-wah pedals set sail, and from guitar and cello and sitar to Miles’s trumpet, everything was plugged in, with two or even three drummers at a session, congas, tablas, a chattering rhythmic shitstorm. There’s plenty here that’s been heard before on individual albums, including the serene, uncharacteristic 32-minute dirge for Duke Ellington, “He Loved Him Madly.” But there’s plenty of new stuff that’s crucial, too, like “Chieftain,” which begins with a superfast, hard, relentless clave beat that Miles answers with fierce electrified blats and brays, as direct and speech-like as anything he put on record. Throughout, electric-bassist Michael Henderson lies back in the pocket while the drums push ahead, and all around is the collective shout.

— Jon Garelick


EMMYLOU HARRIS | SONGBIRD | Rhino | 4 CDs, 1 DVD | $75
Although her more esoteric recordings of the past dozen years have shed her of some previously loyal fans, Emmylou Harris has really never cut a dud album, a remarkable feat given that she’s released well over 20 of them. With the essential stuff already available on the three-CD Portraits box and the double-disc Anthology, Songbird is for the hardcore, a place where the leftovers gather. At four CDs and a DVD, the potential for abuse in a set subtitled “Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems” is high, but Songbird never goes there. The various collaborations — with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, Mark Knopfler, Gram Parsons, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, etc. — are smartly considered at worst and inspired at best, and the various outtakes and oddities, some stretching back to the beginning of her career, present something of an alternate Emmylou universe. The set is roughly divided into halves, with the first two discs offering up material from the Reprise-era solo albums that may have been overlooked. But it’s the other half, the sundry live tracks, appearances on others’ albums, etc., that prove Emmylou Harris has never put less than her entire being into anything she’s done.

— Jeff Tamarkin


As its title implies, this handsome five-disc set traces British art-rock eccentric Robyn Hitchcock’s solo career back to its genesis on 1981’s Black Snake Diamond Role, which was released a year after he dissolved his daffy new-wave act the Soft Boys (for the first time, anyway). I Wanna Go Backwards offers three of Hitchcock’s early solo albums — Black Snake, 1984’s I Often Dream of Trains, and 1990’s Eye, each padded out with bonus tracks — as well as two additional volumes of home-recording detritus indelicately titled While Thatcher Mauled Britain. The material prizes post-punk idiosyncrasy, though never at the expense of post-Beatles tunefulness: “The Man Who Invented Himself” bops along on a bright Rubber Soul beat that makes it clear Hitchcock never viewed history and the future as mutually exclusive propositions, but even the in-studio lark “Uncorrected Personality Traits” — a tight-harmony a cappella ditty about the dangers of indulging your kids — foregrounds hooks where others might’ve feared them. Most of the bonus stuff has languished in a vault for a reason, though highlights are there for the curious. Which Hitchcock has always been.

— Mikael Wood


The core Holiday discography from Columbia/Decca/Verve has been repackaged and re-released umpteen times. But even for those whose shelves already groan with Billie — like this year’s four-CD, 80-track Lady Day: The Master Tracks and Singles (Columbia/Legacy), which is itself drawn from 2001’s lavish 10-CD, 226-track The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia and should not be confused with Hip-O’s two-disc, 2005 Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection — this Rare Live set is essential. ESP-Disk, which is better known for its documentation of the pre-1972 avant-garde (especially Albert Ayler), here consolidates scattered live performances — concerts, clubs, TV, an exuberant, profanity-laced rehearsal with pianist Jimmy Rowles — as well as the seven tracks of music and dialogue from Billie’s role in the film New Orleans. Don’t expect the posh production quality of the bigs: the accompanying notes and discography are informative but bare-bones. Yet the sound quality is surprisingly good — and that includes the ambient noise, which ranges from a female fan at Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in 1941 screaming as Billie launches into her hit “Fine and Mellow” to an airplane flying overhead and all but obscuring “Good Morning, Heartache” at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival.

— Jon Garelick


RAMONES | IT’S ALIVE 1974–1996 | Rhino | 2 DVDs | $20
When you watch the Ramones perform “I Want You Around” outdoors in front of the San Francisco Civic Center in 1979, it’s impossible not to feel the same. How could sweet, gangly Joey, hapless Dee Dee, and curmudgeonly Johnny all be dead? Sure, the two DVDs of It’s Alive 1974–1996, the most comprehensive collection of Ramones stage performances so far, do provide a rush of nostalgia. But from a 1977 “Blitzkrieg Bop” at CBGB’s to a 1996 “Blitzkrieg Bop” at a Buenos Aires stadium, there’s no let-up in the exhilaration of their music. Even at the end, Joey spat out lyrics like machine-gun bullets, with an occasional tracer of irony. And nobody ever made a wall of Marshall amps growl with more purpose than Johnny. There’s so much fun and pure rock-and-roll spirit in their delivery — especially during early shows in New York, Austin, and Germany — that even after seeing all 124 of the song performances here, you want more. At the tail of disc one, you get it. The “extras” are interviews, three rare videos including the creepy “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” a goofy guest turn on Sha Na Na’s 1977 TV show, and five galleries of beautiful photos.

— Ted Drozdowski

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