Elaborate repackaging of classic records is met by this humble reviewer with mixed emotion. The music-first activist resists the cult of personality that copious bonus material seems to support. Do we need to hear each clumsy demo? Do I need my illusions of a group's glory years sullied by the fact that they sounded like shit live back then? Hardly. Do we need will.i.am re-imagineering (or whatever you call his specific brand of ruining things) songs we've heard so many times they show up in a drug test, as was done on the wholly unnecessary Thriller reissue? Never.
That said, I am an American and thereby a consumer and cannot help but appreciate an upgrade. Reissues almost always sound fantastic and drag some skeleton out of the grave for one more dance in the moonlight because, well, everything has something worthy to it, right? I submit three recent examples of the art of musical necrophilia courtesy of the fine upstanding virgule bracketed conglomerates listed below
Stranger's Almanac (Deluxe Edition)
In 1997, the consensus was that Young Turk Ryan Adams had lost the scent; how were we to know how further afield he would go as time wore on? Stranger's Almanac had nary a stitch of punk rock on its rhinestone stage outfit, and frankly allowed the boy to really shine. Listening to tracks like "Turn Around" now, you could almost interchange him with Robert Smith and you have The Cure Disintegration era. Much as I love the barenakedness of Heartbreaker, he is really in his element floating like a peach in his own syrupy environment. Phil Wandscher's guitar work is the real star of this record, adding thunderclaps and shimmering drizzle to Adams' rain dance. The album as a whole, though, is one wet blanket after another. All those sad songs are gorgeous on their own, especially "Dancing with Women at the Bar" and "Avenues" wallow in glorious depressive narcissism, but they wear a body out all stacked up. The big rock numbers fare better. "Yesterday's News" comes on with the delicacy of a SWAT team, and you feel like Adams is shouting "wait a minute see the pieces don't fit this time!" as he's being pushed in the squad car.
Live, Ryan Adams either drowns or swims the English Channel, and the live selections thankfully fall in the latter category. "Nurse with the Pills" all but knocks a full ashtray on you as it staggers out of the speakers. Ditto for the acoustic material, "16 Days" is as bright as a fresh black eye. As for the other five-hundred previously unreleased material, well sometimes there's a reason things don't get released. "Breathe" is an overwrought save-me rocker, "Theme for a Trucker" is perhaps more clichÃ©d and obvious than the title suggests, but if you wade around long enough, you come up with winners like their stellar reading of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" but otherwise, the second disc won't leave the case too often. Whiskeytown soon collapsed under its own weight after this release, and "Dreams" makes for a fitting closing credits number.
Street Survivors Deluxe Edition
(Geffen / UMe)
That infamous 1977 plane crash that took Skynyrd main man Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and vocalist Cassie Gaines happened on the tour for Street Survivors, and bits of that wreckage can be found in every southern rock song that came after it. Now, when someone yells "Freebird" at a show, I kinda wish the band would take the bait. In my youth in Louisiana, I resisted Lynyrd Skynyrd with all the power my asymmetric cut and Thomas Dolby albums could muster, and in adulthood, I've tried to fold them into the mix, and haven't had good results either time. Skynyrd was losing its edge on Street Survivors, the cornball "What's Your Name?" sounds like a song that a less mature band should have done, while "That Smell" is a drug epic parody only the world's biggest drug parodies could have come up with, and chances are, you've never heard of any of the other songs. For good reason, I might add, except "One More Time" rolls with just enough thunder that it might send you off for a second whiskey.
The bonus tracks here are largely different studio mixes that do little to help; they sound even thinner than the already tinny production on the record. The live tracks from a concert at Selland Arena do have some merit. They sound like shit too, but in the right way. "That Smell" sounds nervous and dangerous, and "What's Your Name?" rocks right off the rails at the end. This record, like all their records, if listened to for the first time, is unlikely make you a convert. If you are looking for indoctrination into the redneck illuminati, get thee a copy of The Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East, and hold my beer as I jump the General Lee through your third eye. Street Survivors, for better or worse, shows a band on its last legs, captured right before it tumbled over.
This Year's Model Deluxe Edition
I've come to the conclusion that Elvis Costello is never going to go away, in fact, everything he does is going to be routinely turned like a retiree's spring garden so I might as well quit fighting it. I went through the requisite Elvis Costello cycles: thought he was the greatest songwriter on the planet, started collecting everything he's ever done, then hitting a wall with him. Up to about a year ago, that swallowed whine of his would send me into a fit, barking "Yeah, but what about Graham Parker? What about Nick Lowe? Ian Dury?" to those in attendance, but a chance encounter with "Everyday I Write the Book" a song I don't; even consider one of his better ones, turned me around. Elvis Costello is pretty good, no matter which way you slice him.
On his second album, Elvis storms from his clerk's desk with unbearable tension boiling inside him. These songs twitch and twist, resisting being held. "The Beat" is perfect; he feels like he's almost ready to burst out of his skin but the restraint society has dulled him with is the only thing holding him intact. And, nobody beside Tom Petty should be more thankful for a crack keyboard player in their band. I saw Steve Nieve play with one arm in a sling once, and he still outplayed the main act Squeeze, even with himself sitting in on keyboards, and "Pump it Up" and "You Belong to Me" presented here are among of his finest moments. "Little Triggers" is one of Costello's as a songwriter. He manages to take some stock, outmoded (even then) doo-wop bullshit into uncharted waters. It's why Elvis Costello still matters and Billy Joel doesn't.
The live tracks and outtakes on disc two don't really hold a candle to the studio versions. The Attractions are in fine form, Elvis is full cock-of the-walk, but the real strength of This Year's Model is of the tensile variety. Those songs are contents under pressure, and the live numbers are all release. Worthy of a spin are the demo's that front load the bonus material CD. "Running out of Angels" is timeless on strident acoustic guitar, almost sounding like "On Broadway" at a couple points with Elvis cooing and preening like a peacock, and "Greenshirt" is a smart song that sounds smarter in that setting. Everything else is good, but hardly necessary; but when you are looking at the deluxe models of things, practicality is not your top concern.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com