Music

Presents from the past

Rounding up some of 2008’s notable music reissues, just in time for the holidays

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U2

Boy
Four and a half stars
October
Four stars
War
Four and a half stars
Under a Blood Red Sky
Three and a half stars

U2

Reissues often feel like a label’s way of conning loyal fans into re-buying classic albums. But the deluxe editions of U2’s first three studio albums, along with the concert CD/DVD Under a Blood Red Sky, illustrate how best to repackage familiar tunes: 1980’s Boy, 1981’s October and 1983’s War feature remastered audio, restored artwork, extensive essays and bonus discs filled with rarities.

The sorrow of Boy and the somber reflections of October are now more pronounced, though neither differs much from the original. The War upgrade, however, is a must-have. Larry Mullen’s drums and Adam Clayton’s bass lines sound strident and crisp, while subtle nuances—gospel-choir echoes and guitar scorches on “Surrender,” dreamy ambient textures floating through “40”—emerge. With the improvements, it’s clearer how U2 evolved from a simple pop band into the sophisticated sound sculptors found on 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire.

Unfortunately, War’s bonus disc is the least essential. Though Francois Kevorkian’s mixes of “New Year’s Day” and “Two Hearts Beat as One” are fantastic relics, a sleek Y2K version of “Day” seems out of place. Boy’s bonus disc, in contrast, is a gold mine, from debut single “Three” to several bright-eyed live tracks. October’s bonus disc also contains great live cuts, along with non-album gem “A Celebration” and the brooding Common Ground remix of “Tomorrow.”

The Under a Blood Red Sky audio CD pales somewhat next to the deluxe reissues, but the accompanying video of U2’s 1983 Red Rocks show—long considered one of the band’s pivotal gigs—is worth viewing. –Annie Zaleski

Pavement

Pavement

Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Ed.
Four stars
Pavement

Pavement’s fourth album also ranks as its fourth-best; it can’t quite muster the intensity of Slanted and Enchanted, the immediacy of Crooked Rain Crooked Rain or the variety of Wowee Zowee. But for the ’90s indie icons, fourth-best still qualifies as damn-near essential, particularly given the bonus material appended to this two-disc edition.

The 12-song Brighten—the 1997 LP that spawned a couple of quirky underground “hits” (“Stereo” and “Shady Lane”) but was mostly given over to slower-tempo material requiring time to soak in—sounds vibrant as ever. It’s interesting to hear how Scott Kannberg contributions “Date w/IKEA” and “Passat Dream” seem to have influenced the indie-pop movement that followed. And, more than a decade later, Stephen Malkmus’ powerful closer “Fin” still elicits goose bumps.

The 32 extra tracks are, expectedly, a mixed bag. Pavement was always a great B-sides band, so those such inclusions—“Westie Can Drum,” “No Tan Lines,” “Harness Your Hopes”—shine brightest. Radio- and TV-session material like “Destroy Mater Dei” and two “Space Ghost” themes are slapdash but fun. And though it’s clear why BTC outtakes “Cataracts” and “Nigel” were destined to be just that, it’s doubtful anyone will complain about new Pavement material nearly a decade after the band’s split. –Spencer Patterson

The Replacements

The Replacements

Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
Three and a half stars
Stink
Three stars
>Hootenanny
Four stars
Let It Be
Five stars
Tim
Five stars
Pleased to Meet Me
Four stars
Don’t Tell a Soul
Four stars
All Shook Down
Three and a half stars

The Replacements are one of the most mythologized American underground bands of the ’80s, alongside hardcore pioneers like Minor Threat and Black Flag. Though they briefly shared the “punk” label with those acts, they cared little for politics and focused almost entirely on craft. Well, that and getting high. In fact, stories of their debauchery have nearly overwhelmed recognition of Paul Westerberg & Co.’s once-in-a-generation songwriting gifts.

The ’Mats could pen waterworks-inducing love ballads as easily as bratty adolescent anthems, and both styles are on display on these reissues, which span from 1981 debut Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash through 1990 swan song All Shook Down. Though they hadn’t yet figured themselves out on Sorry and follow-up Stink, angsty gems like “Customer” and “Kids Don’t Follow” show promise.

Hootenanny saw the band come into its own (check the defiant “Treatment Bound” and the effectively sincere “Within Your Reach”), while 1984’s Let It Be eclipsed the Beatles album of the same name through perfectly realized testaments to young-adult suffering like “Sixteen Blue” and “Unsatisfied.” Outtake “Perfectly Lethal” is almost as good, and the bonus material is also compelling on Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, the band’s first two major-label albums. Tim contains studio sessions with Big Star legend Alex Chilton, highlighted by the desperately gorgeous “Nowhere Is My Home.”

Some critics contend the ’Mats fell off with their final two albums, but 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul is a wonderful piece of amped-up existentialism, while laments like “Sadly Beautiful” and “Merry Go Round” make Down worthwhile. –Ben Westhoff

Neil Young

Neil Young

Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House
Three and a half stars

Recorded days before the release of Neil Young’s eponymous solo debut, this crystal-clear before University of Michigan students is particularly notable for Young’s nervous banter. His voice crackles, and he stumbles for words at first, but before long he’s making fun of former band Buffalo Springfield and delivering hilarious anecdotes about subjects like “diet pills.”

Though fans have doubtlessly heard live versions of many of these songs before, the audience hadn’t. It’s thrilling to experience Young’s early renditions of “Expecting to Fly,” “The Loner” and especially “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” played on acoustic guitar with no backing. –BW

R.E.M.

R.E.M.

Murmur [Deluxe Edition]
Five stars

The deluxe edition of R.E.M.’s Murmur isn’t packed with rarities; it’s just the Athens, Georgia, band’s 1983 debut coupled with a soundboard recording of a concert from that year. But thanks to audio restored from the master tapes, Murmur 2008 is essential for both fans and novices. The sonic boost highlights Bill Berry’s percussion contributions—shimmering rhythmic color and rock-steady drumming—and the honeyed contrast between Mike Mills’ choir-boy harmonies and Michael Stipe’s shy, plaintive wails.

The concert recording (widely available as a bootleg for years) almost sounds too clean to be R.E.M. Still, the show underscores the energy the band drew from Berry’s beat-keeping and Peter Buck’s spring-loaded Rickenbacker jangle. –AZ

Genesis

Genesis

1970-1975
Three and a half stars

Forget “Misunderstanding,” “Invisible Touch” and “I Can’t Dance” (if you’re able). The only Genesis one needs to own is contained in this seven-CD/six-DVD box chronicling the band’s creative peak: the years Peter Gabriel held the microphone for Britain’s prog-rock pioneers.

1970-1975—which follows the 2007 releases of 1976-1982 and 1983-1998, both featuring former drummer Phil Collins on lead vocals—compiles the early albums Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in all their keyboard-fraught, lyrically perplex, song-times-long-enough-to-roast-a-turkey-to glory. The set also includes a rare-tracks CD, along with DVDs featuring surround mixes of all the music, lengthy interviews and concert footage from the period.

It’s a tidy package, but if you’ve read this far, odds are you already own the original material, the previous remasters of which sound pretty decent. So the question becomes: Do the box’s extras justify a price close to $100?

Probably not. The music, particularly the primo cuts—“The Musical Box” off Cryme, “Watcher of the Skies” and “Supper’s Ready” off Foxtrot, “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” “Firth of Fifth” and “The Cinema Show” off Selling and a fair portion of Lamb—is well worth owning, but the surround mixes and bonus cuts will feel wildly superfluous for anyone not still playing D&D in the basement. And while the video footage, particularly that focused on Gabriel’s colorful costumes and theatrical stage persona, entertains, most owners are unlikely to revisit it often.

Surprisingly, the band interviews are the most compelling new aspect of 1970-1975, and not in a Behind the Music, he-said/he-said way (though Gabriel’s exit is dealt with in some frank detail). Mostly, Gabriel, Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett provide useful insight into songwriting and recording, while, curmudgeonly poking sticks at their best early works. It’s almost enough to prompt a cash outlay for 1976-1982 simply to carry on the thread. Almost. –Spencer Patterson

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath

The Rules of Hell
Three and a half stars

The Ronnie James Dio-fronted lineup of Black Sabbath gets the lavish box-set treatment on The Rules of Hell, a nice companion to 2004’s Black Box, which collected all eight studio albums by the Ozzy Osbourne-led original lineup. Dio took over for Osbourne in 1979, in a move that must have seemed doomed to failure at first. But against all odds, Dio and original members Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward (later replaced by Vinny Appice) went on to create two classic albums that came close to rivaling the band’s best early work.

Rules collects those two LPs—1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules—along with the forgettable 1982 double-live album Live Evil and 1992’s Dehumanizer, which reunited Dio, Iommi, Butler and Appice after a decade apart. The remastering is great, with full, rich sound even on the rougher Live Evil. Each disc has extensive liner notes, and the slipcase packaging is simple but elegant.

Heaven and Mob, which effectively combined Dio’s soaring voice and penchant for florid fantasy lyrics with Iommi’s dark, meaty riffs and Butler’s pounding bass, are must-owns for heavy-metal fans, but the other two releases are much less indispensable. Dio isn’t quite cut out for singing the Osbourne songs on Live Evil, and Dehumanizer is about half a good album. For the Sabbath faithful, though, this package shines a deserved spotlight on the underrated second act of one of rock’s greatest bands. –Josh Bell

Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison

The Soul of Rock and Roll
Five stars

The Soul of Rock and Roll is an old-school four-disc box—chronologically presenting essential tracks and unreleased outtakes, capturing Roy Orbison’s full legacy, from Sun Records to the Traveling Wilburys.

What Orbison, the most slighted of rock’s founding fathers, lacked in comparison to his peers is easy to list: the charisma of Elvis Presley, the performance abandon of Jerry Lee Lewis, the cool (and uncanny ear) of Johnny Cash. What Orbison did have was that voice, which does not seem entirely human—a four-octave wall of sound ending in a falsetto that grips the heart. Orbison helped write many of his best tracks—“Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” “Running Scared,” “Working for the Man,” “Blue Bayou”—in which he carefully modulated the drama of that big voice until the right moment, the way a rocket takes off.

Unlike other Orbison anthologies, Soul does not take the cheap way out. The most famous versions of his classics are here, with latter-year remakes only included when relevant. Though his Sun period is essential listening, Orbison picked up producer Fred Foster and landed his biggest hits (like “Oh, Pretty Woman”) during his time on Monument. His final recording years found him produced by the likes of Don Was, Jeff Lynne, Rick Rubin and T-Bone Burnett, and posthumously, even Brian Eno worked with an Orbison vocal to produce one of the set’s 107 tracks.–Richard Abowitz

Mission of Burma

Mission of Burma

Signals, Calls, and Marches
Four stars
Vs.
Four stars
The Horrible Truth About Burma
Three and a half stars

Best American rock band of the 1980s? Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen and R.E.M. would score well on that test, but even Peter Buck might check the box for Mission of Burma, the Boston band that welded ferocious punk, angular post-punk and cerebral experimentation into a sonic force that—with apologies to Fugazi—hasn’t been matched since the mighty Burma’s way-too-premature 1983 demise.

Matador Records’ glorious trio of reissues retells the story of innovation not just by way of music but also through informative liner-note interviews with members Clint Conley, Roger Miller and Peter Prescott and producer Rick Harte, along with significant photos and preserved documentation (one gripe: info about tape manipulator Martin Swope’s specific contributions would have seemed appropriate).

The project also beefs up MOB’s live resumé, appending a DVD of concert footage to each CD, which means you no longer have to imagine fans stage-diving during “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” or Miller singing and playing guitar while wearing the rifle-range headphones that couldn’t prevent his hearing damage from ending the group.

Still, the main draw remains the hit-you-in-the-gut Mission of Burma songbook, from seminal first single “Academy Fight Song” (now the leadoff track on the disc containing 1981’s Signals EP) through 1982’s widely varied first-and-only full-length Vs. to the never-studio-recorded cuts (and killer Stooges and Pere Ubu covers) on posthumous live compilation Horrible Truth. It all adds up to an expertly considered, near-comprehensive look at a career that deserves nothing less. –SP

Death Cab for Cutie

Something About Airplanes
Four stars

Death Cab for Cutie

This 10th-anniversary reissue makes for less active listening than more recent DCFC releases, but the trademark gravitas, dynamics and restless wistfulness exist in raw form, waiting for the band’s musicianship—and discerning indie mopes—to catch up with Death Cab’s unassuming ambition.

Concert staples “Amputations,” “Pictures in an Exhibition” and “Fake Frowns” appear on the live bonus disc (recorded in Seattle in 1998), which also features a straightforward take on The Smiths’ “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” with Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson on vocals. –Julie Seabaugh

White Zombie

White Zombie

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Three stars

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie brings together the entirety of White Zombie’s recorded output, spanning its 1985-1996 existence. Best known for metal tunes like “Thunder Kiss ’65” and “More Human Than Human,” White Zombie started out as a completely different sort of band, coming out of New York City’s noise-rock scene. Singer Rob Zombie (then known as Rob Straker) and bassist Sean Yseult, along with a succession of guitarists and drummers, self-released a series of albums, EPs and singles in the vein of bands like The Melvins and The Jesus Lizard.

This early material (making up almost half of the four-disc set) is interesting as a curiosity, and hardcore fans will be excited about its inclusion, since those releases have been out of print for years. But it’s not until halfway through Disc 2 that anything remotely resembling the familiar White Zombie sound emerges, when singer Zombie starts utilizing his recognizable deep, gravelly drawl (before that, his vocals are generally screechy and much higher).

When guitarist Jay Yuenger shows up at the beginning of Disc 3, the band comes into focus. Major-label releases La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1 and Astro-Creep: 2000 set the template for a host of copycats, as well as Zombie’s subsequent solo career. Their bottom-heavy, groove-oriented sound is both intense and playful, augmented with the band’s signature sound clips from B-movies. Both of those albums are worth multiple listens, but one run through the earlier stuff will probably be enough for most. –JB

Liz Phair

Exile in Guyville
Two and a half stars

Liz Phair

When, early on the DVD included with this 15th-anniversary edition, Liz Phair shrugs off the opportunity to detail just how her debut album really was, as legend holds, a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the set sacrifices its chance to be anything other than a transparent cash grab.

The video disc—the principal extra on a reissue that otherwise offers only three bonus audio cuts—relies on rudimentary lighting, hideous angles and poorly miked sound, and takes long detours into the minutiae of the era’s Chicago indie scene, which has little to do with the female-empowering barrier-breaker that is Guyville itself. Worse yet, the redux strips the lo-fi pillar of its understated nuances, forcing Phair’s previously low-mixed vocals into the foreground and into our face.

Odd that excerpts from Phair’s famous (and still officially unreleased) Girlysound tapes weren’t included in lieu of what was tacked on: reggae atrocity “Say You” and a throwaway instrumental collage. Even the one decent new discovery (“Ant in Alaska”) can’t compare with anything on the 18-track original, a classic worth seeking out in its untampered-with form. –SP

The Individuals

Fields/Aquamarine
Four stars

The Individuals

With smarty-pants lyrics and blissed-out melodies, Hoboken, New Jersey, geek-chic outfit The Individuals developed a strong regional following in the early ’80s. Danceable, intelligent rock songs like “Leap of Faith,” “Our World” and “My Three Sons (Revolve Around the Earth)” helped pave the way for bands like R.E.M., with whom they toured.

Only problem was that The Individuals released just two records, 1981’s Aquamarine EP and 1982’s Fields LP, neither of which has ever been available on CD—until now! –BW

Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon
Three and a half stars

Warren Zevon’s first disc is his five-star masterpiece: an acerbic, nasty, heartbreaking, sleazy and funny vivisection of ’70s Southern California culture. Warren Zevon was the dark end of the street that the disc’s producer, Jackson Browne, walked.

The oft-anthologized “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Mohammed’s Radio,” “Carmelita,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and “I’ll Sleep when I’m Dead” are highlights, but so are the less familiar “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” and “Frank and Jesse James.”

It’s all remastered in superior fashion to any previous release, offering up clear, thick and beautiful sound. But Disc 2, which contains embryonic versions of the same material, plays like a lesser version of Preludes, a 2007 collection of the late songwriter’s early efforts. It’s a pity a live concert from the period was not included instead. –RA

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