With Thanksgiving and its troublesome lack of associated shopping (except in the grocery store) out of the way, it's time to dig into the real economy-boosting, conspicuous consumption-based holidays. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, then, are great occasions to get prohibitively expensive CD boxed sets from relatives who have long since stopped knowing what it is you like, or conversely, to give them to people whose musical tastes you want to influence. This fall, just in time for the holidays, out come multiple box sets worthy of consideration.
Tom Waits' Orphans isn't a career retrospective -- it's a three-CD set of tunes that were either as yet unreleased or came out on compilations, soundtracks and anthologies. His liner notes present the songs as if they're a collection of deformed science experiments he keeps lovingly corralled in a basement lab. The three CD's -- Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards each contain moments of greatness, from reverb-drenched rockabilly on Brawlers to spidery creepers like "Little Drop Of Poison" on Bawlers (a great CD all by itself -- Waits' ability to be sentimental without being cloying is one of his best talents). But Bastards, a veritable sideshow, is probably the standout, with the weirdest of the weird in residence -- his version of Kurt Weill's scathing "What Keeps Mankind Alive," from the Threepenny Opera, brings down the thunder in exactly the way that Waits' tortured rumble is meant to do. Outtakes and B-sides are, more often than not, obscure for a reason. Orphans proves that Waits' vein of originality and creativity is so rich that even the cobwebs in his dusty corners are shiny gold.
John Lee Hooker
Legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker, over the course of his half-century-plus career, was fortunate enough to see his influence recognized during his lifetime. As wild as bands like the Animals and the Rolling Stones got with their blue-eyed takes on the sound, though, nobody ever matched the menacing intensity of Hooker's hushed, rough baritone. He was a player who didn't need to be wild because everyone could tell he was bad. The 84 tracks contained on four CDs here are the first definitive collection of his work, the first three discs spanning his hard-to-wrangle career from the late '40s up through posthumous releases after 2001. The earliest stuff is probably the favorite of his most serious fans, but I was happy to see four tracks from his 1969 collaboration with Canned Heat represented. Disc four is all collaborations with his fans and inheritors, like Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt. I'd have preferred more early recordings, but it's by no means extraneous. And a concise but oddly evocative essay written by the several Hooker scholars who compiled the collection is a great read that's informative and emotional. The only thing that would improve this would be a DVD.
And in brief: Regal jazz legend Nina Simone's arresting voice was recently applied to a fresh canvas by a gang of well-known European DJs. The result is Nina Simone: Remixed and Reimagined (Legacy), a collection of her most powerful soul vocals (like "My Man's Gone Now" and "Go To Hell") laid over house and lounge beats with a hypnotic result. Popmeisters Rhino Records have opened the crypt and loosed A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box, a comprehensive (if not especially revelatory) collection of 53 tracks of first wave Goth sounds from familiar suspects like the Cure, Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy, with a bonus DVD of spooky music videos -- excellent for the sulky teenager in your life. Legacy's Waylon Jennings: Nashville Rebel spans his fiercely individualistic career from his first, Buddy Holly-produced single "Jolie Blon'" up through his untimely 2002 death, with 92 winners in all from the groundbreaking output of an outlaw who rarely missed his target. And in other exciting news, Shout! Factory has released The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited. In the early '50s, occultist, filmmaker and obsessive record-collector Harry Smith cobbled together the Anthology. This fall, producer Hal Willner put together this new 2-CD, 2-DVD set, which captures artists like Elvis Costello and Nick Cave singing the traditional and public domain murder ballads and church songs at a series of concerts produced in Smith's honor. Finally, Louisiana native and living-legend Buddy Guy's first career retrospective box, Can't Quit the Blues (Legacy/Silvertone), is out. At 70, he's a young pup among the electric blues artists who are his peers and influences, and you can hear the experimental climate of his '60s heyday in his wild, often improvisational style. This box has thorough liner notes from Anthony DeCurtis and three discs spanning his wildly diverse career, from electric frenzies to covers of primitive Mississippi blues. The real treat in the compact box, though, is a DVD featuring a 90-minute documentary and 11 unreleased live performances recorded between 1974 and 2004.