Album Reviews: The Proper Way to Reveal the Sound of the Past
By Milo Miles
Three releases that do a superb job of preserving and explaining historic recordings.
The jumble of ways to hear music nowadays makes an annoying and confusing racket. Right away I need to list the three releases I’ve found that do a superb job of preserving and explaining historic recordings. First is The dB’s, I Thought You Wanted To Know 1978-1981 (Propeller), which is previously unreleased material. Next is It’s a Good Good Feeling—The Latin Soul of Fania Records: The Singles (Fania), which covers 1967 to 1975. And finally Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap (Smithsonian Folkways), which collects an entire style of music in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Must do a side trip into the land of grumble & grouse to note that the state of reissued music has never been worse. Every week I receive torrents of notices about the Anniversary Edition (10 years, 20 years, 30 years, on and on) of some famous album. This annoys me because it’s merely a way of cramming merchandise into the market. Of course, if you use “anniversary” as the reason to write about a work, the result can be nothing but PR. Another rising reissue trend is “collectible vinyl.” The appeal eludes me — don’t people know what a pain it is to store and play LPs? (If they’re meant to be played at all, that is.) My next biggest gripe is that, more than in the past, it seems there’s widespread failure to understand that some old albums are obscure for a reason: they’re no damned good.
The transition to the dB’s album is easy because it’s a lovely incarnation of another type of release that usually gets the stink-eye from me: “for fans only.” You do not want to use I Thought You Wanted To Know as an introduction to the band. Start with Stands for Decibels (1981) and work your way down the discography. If you reach a correctly civilized appreciation of punk and power-pop mixes you’ll be ready to savor the new album at the end. Highlights include primeval version of prime songs (“Dynamite”), delightful oddities (“What About That Cat”) and ace cover versions (Time Has Come Today” and — yes! — “Tomorrow Never Knows”).
Top reissues can deliver surprising revelations. Initially, the It’s a Good Good Feeling anthology seemed to be an off-base idea to me. Fania was more associated with jazzy jams and albums than singles. But whammo – the first time through the four CDs I became reacquainted with how much reflective pleasure and hip-wiggling fun could be had from tight pop-single arrangements. The package is about the size of a 45-single and includes a nicely written introduction to the label by Dean Rudland and a scrumptious selection of performer photos and concert advertisements. Boogaloo, Baby!
This year’s perfect present for a music nut who wants to read and listen to a full college-class worth of information and artistry is Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap. The set contains 20 essays that cover hip-hop’s convolutions of politics, sexuality, culture histories, and style statements. The sumptuous hardback book included also has notes on every track on the nine CDs and I learned something from every one of them.
The music selections begin with what I’ve always considered the first undeniable rap/hip-hop single, “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by The Fatback Band, and by the end of it you will recognize a music form that deserves a solid, permanent monument in DC. Plus, you feel like waving it in the air and hollering “See – it can be done right.”
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.