Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2007
Rhino Box Set Round-Up
Heavy metal, Brit pop and the Summer of Love As the holidays near, here's a reminder of the obvious: Box sets make great gifts; single CDs don't. These days, more than ever, CDs feel slight and disposable, but box sets are hefty and sustentative. They're also quite expensive, which makes them an indulgence, the type of gift people normally wouldn't buy themselves. One company in particular has earned a reputation as premier box set compilers, Rhino Records. In the past they've crafted excellent collections of goth, punk and '80s alternative music, but this year their output has been a bit more hit or miss. Let's take a look at three of their biggest releases this fall: The Heavy Metal Box The packaging is fun, at least at first. The box is shaped like an amplifier, complete with a volume dial that can be cranked up to 11. That's good for a quick laugh, but it's not exactly an efficient design, since the CDs are housed by a thin cardboard sleeve that leaves a lot of wasted space. The tracklist gives as definitive an overview of metal's first 25 years as any metal compilation before it, ending at 1991, about the time grunge-rock dethroned the genre (even if grunge itself was short-lived, metal suddenly seemed vain in a post Kurt Cobain world). The '90s were a tough time for metal, but the genre has experienced a resurgence in recent years, and a bolder box set would have included a final disc of some of the current bands that are keeping the genre relevant (Opeth, Mastodon, Isis, Lamb of God, etc.) The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze and Brit-pop Gems of the Last Millennium Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote a lengthy critique of this set, lambasting it as scattered and illogical. The set, he argues, is predicated on the dubious claim that there was a definitive "British" sound and there's no real logic to the tracklist aside from chronology. He's right: The set can be maddening at times, especially when it can't decide whether it wants to compile singles or rarities (James is represented by "Laid," Oasis by "Live Forever," but Blur and Elastica by little known album cuts). The music itself, though, is great—especially for Americans who weren't exposed to some of the below-radar acts from the '90s British explosion—and the book of essays and interviews, is as thoughtful and entertaining as we'd expect from Rhino at this point. Love Is The Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970 If Rhino sometimes falters when working with hits, it still excels at compiling rarities. The latest installment in their ongoing Nuggets series, Love Is The Song We Sing looks at psychedelic rock from the Bay Area around the Summer of Love, and while plenty of familiar names pop up, especially in the set's final half (The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Janis Joplin), the set is dominated by forgotten acts: Beau Brummels, Sons of Champlin, Mourning Reign, Chocolate Watchband, Frumious Bandersnatch. An even more detailed than usual booklet helps explain who some of these groups were. The mood is relentlessly upbeat—it was, after all, the Summer of Love—and the selections are so obscure that the audience for this set is pretty much limited to the most ardent neo-hippies and musical historians, but that's what makes Rhino's best releases so great: They focus on pleasing the narrowest target audience possible, and do a hell of a job at it. Anybody who just wants a broad overview of the '60s can buy "The Wonder Years" soundtrack.