Bob Dylan And The Band: The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (Columbia / Legacy) It’s that time of the year when the holidays approach and treasured recordings make their deluxe and ideally box-setted appearance—and as far as record companies are concerned, the more iconic the artists involved, the better. Bob Dylan is about as iconic as it gets, and “complete” sets of little-heard, oft-mythologized recording are even iconic-er, so to speak. Luckily either the time is right or not quite all the barrels have been scraped, because the goods to be had on this 6-CD, 138 track collection of 1968 recoding sessions will make the jaws of some music fans drop to the floor. Sonically restored—relatively speaking—chronologically laid out from start to finish, and treading that fine line between collector-based anal-retention and happy-time listening, this is a really good “reissue” that errs on the side of completeness and respect for both the artist and paying consumer. It’s a welcome, long-in-coming joy to finally hear in legit, non-bootleg form that whole batch of Dylan songs many first heard performed long ago by others (Fairport Convention, Manfred Mann, McGuinness Flint & all their buddies) sung by the man himself. In a world where Dylan’s many albums seem continuously re-released in some form or another, the novelty itself is a novelty. Polished, packaged proudly, and extremely worthwhile.
Neil Young: Storytone (Deluxe Edition) (Reprise) Those who see Neil Young as recording certain “types” of albums—rockin’ (Rust Never Sleeps), smooth (Harvest), conceptual (Trans), countrified (Old Ways)—will file Storytone closer to Harvest than any other of his other albums, probably because it goes down smooth (whether in the acoustic or orchestral versions the Deluxe Edition provides), the songs are more emotional than observational, and it seems more “real” than a deliberate side project. Still, Young has recorded and released so much, it becomes difficult to hear any of his newer things, no matter how ambitious, as more than a function of how he’s feeling this particular month as opposed to the result of some life-changing artistic breakthrough—which takes some of the fun out of things. While the orchestral arrangements here are rich and well worth hearing, and Young’s had a history with strings from “Expecting To Fly” and “Broken Arrow” to “A Man Needs A Maid,” there’s not a single song that reaches those heights, whatever the intent. It’s fine, it’s interesting, it’s colorful, it’s all over the place, it’s got a song lyric in “Bite me now” that rivals his prior lyrical peak of “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no t-bone,” and it’s solid through and through. Very few lows, but considering the source, too few highs as well.
Calvin Harris: Motion (Columbia) Aside from making more money per show than anybody this side of the reunited Beatles—these EDM dudes rake it in big time—DJ types like Scotsman Calvin Harris make records, too. And this perfectly fine, eminently listenable, dandily good-timeish affair sounds like a whole bunch of records, depending on who’s dropped by. In this case it might be Ellie Goulding, Big Sean, Gwen Stefani, Tinashe, HAIM, John Newman, among others—he’s got a lot of friends, and could likely buy more if he needed them—but you’ve got to ask yourself: How many people will hear Gwen Stefani singing on “Together Here” and ask, ‘Wow, who’s that chick singing on this Calvin Harris record?” Meaning, ultimately, he may know all the right people, and he may make top dollar in Vegas—but some people are just meant to pull strings, have famous friends, and enjoy the world of astoundingly lucrative anonymity.
The Doobie Brothers: Southbound (Arista Nashville) While it sounds like an idea concocted in the depths of Marketing Hell, Southbound’s mutant Country/Doobie Brothers collaboration is bizarrely inoffensive, appropriate, and kind of OK. Take the three major vocalists of ‘70s heroes the Doobies—Tom Johnston, Patrick Simmons and Michael McDonald—throw in a batch of today’s hottest country stars (Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, the Zac Brown Band, Blake Shelton, etc.)—and rather than a slapdash howlfest, you’ve got a generation of Country types singing the music that they grew up loving. Alongside the Eagles and their long-haired brethren, and maybe Linda Ronstadt, it was that merging of rock ‘n’ twang that the Doobies (on Warner Bros.) and much of the ‘70s Asylum Records roster provided that grabbed today’s youngest Country singers and shoved guitars in their hands. So while brand new versions/duets of “Black Water,” “China Grove” and “Listen To The Music” weren’t high on anyone’s list of being needed, and more than a whiff of today’s reality TV scene pervades this thing, it could be many, many times worse.
Sylvie Simmons: Sylvie (Light In The Attic) An unexpectedly soothing and atmospheric album of songs, vocals and ukulele strumming by distinguished British writer Sylvie Simmons, who breaks that unwritten cardinal rule: Those that can’t, become rock critics and harbor deep and long-lasting resentments. This is very nice stuff; Simmons is aided here by Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, who produced the album in Tucson, Arizona, and emerged with an airy collection that might evoke all kinds of odd comparisons (Marianne Faithfull singing “Broken English” at 39 RPM; half of the female portion of the Incredible String Band, but tuneful) but really isn’t like much else you’ve heard. In her spare time, Simmons writes books that are critically acclaimed and, unexpectedly, quite good. That this has emerged on the Light In The Attic label—do check their catalog of fabulous reissues —brings up the plausible point that had this same album been newly issued in mono and credited to an obscure mid-‘60s flower child, the word “legendary” might be used by more than a few writers who’d swear up and down they’d purchased it back then. She’s not only good, she’s good.
Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (vinyl) (Concord) The rush to repackage nearly everything of any value in vinyl has led to some occasional tedium at today’s better vinyl emporiums; not everything is worth the royal treatment, and the merely good devalues the inarguably great. And inarguably great is what you’d have to call this new vinyl box—a 4-LP collection of the historical recordings made by the Bill Evans Trio at New York’s Village Vanguard in 1961, deemed by many to be among the most valuable in jazz history. A stunning snapshot of a piano trio working at near telepathic capacity—not a wrong or wasted note, not a single thing ajar, and the best-ever documentation of legendary bassist Scott LaFaro to be had—the box is thoughtfully packaged with extras, new liner notes, and lots more to look at while listening to music that is a half-century old but could not sound more contemporary.
Mick Fleetwood with Anthony Bozza: Play On: Now, Then, and Fleetwood Mac: The Autobiography (Little, Brown and Company) The second book to be had by Fleetwood Mac’s colorful drummer Mick Fleetwood is a good read, not only because he’s got a spectacular story to tell—the man has been on the scene making relevant music for a half-century—but because there’s a warmth and humanism to what he does, and the stories he tells, that makes him a very likeable, charismatic fellow. Here he talks much about the early days, the trials and tribulations of his band pre- and post-Peter Green, that odd period in the middle, and the soap opera that would come when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks came aboard in the mid-‘70s and serious sales—and drama—ensued at length. Fleetwood seems very much a good guy; his band, despite its rotating casts of characters, has never been less than interesting; and the time to see him may indeed be now, while he and the current “classic” Mac crew are out on the road touring, maybe for the last time.
Dick Wagner: Dick Wagner (Real Gone Music) Really good reissues are those unexpected ones you’re really glad someone thought of. And yet again, the Real Gone label does it right. Wagner, the late Detroit rocker who rose to fame in the Frost in the late’60s, formed celebrated cult band Ursa Major in the early ‘70s, and then made some significant noise with both Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. This album—released by Wagner in 1978 under the name “Richard Wagner”—is a largely unheard, missing piece of his career, and it’s much worth hearing. Wagner’s guitarring is unmistakable throughout—pretty much Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal-style picking—the songs are strong, and Wagner’s voice, on tracks like “Heartlands” and “Oceans” here, occasionally evokes no less than Elton John. It’s commendable, commercial stuff that might’ve clicked but simply didn’t. And now’s your chance to hear it.