Mix tape: Going way back
There is never a shortage of reissues flooding record shops – real and virtual – but recently there have been a few that are especially notable.
First up is the new multi-media reissue of Marvin Gaye's 1971 masterwork, "What's Going On," which celebrates its 40th birthday this year.
Ten years ago, Motown/Universal did a two-disc deluxe edition with the original LP, the much-discussed "Detroit mix," that had been ditched in favor of a glossier mix done in L.A., a couple singles edits and a 1972 concert at the Kennedy Center.
We didn't complain and we ate it up. But this new set, which features two CDs and a vinyl LP in a 12x12 package that mimics the original gatefold LP package, ups the ante.
The wax contains the Detroit mix and the first CD has the original LP, some singles mixes, a couple demos (including one from the 2001 deluxe package), and a few other oddities.
Disc two is packed full of some funky, bluesy instrumental sessions recorded in Detroit before Motown decamped to Cali, alongside some alternate versions.
There's a booklet with some new essays from Gaye biographers David Ritz and Ben Edmonds (the latter also wrote the notes for the 2001 reissue).
While all of this supporting material is fun and, in the case of the instrumentals, worthy of repeated listens, it shouldn't obscure the fact that in 1971 Gaye's ongoing rebellion led him to take on not only label folk, but to grab the reins and get his artistic vision pressed into wax.
And his vision was a musical revelation that argued passionately and eloquently for social justice and peace.
"I couldn't write another love song," Gaye said. "Whatever songs I wrote, no matter how difficult, had to break ground and drive me in a new direction."
And in the intervening years, it has become an inalienable truth that "What's Going On" remains one of the finest moments in American popular music history.
Across the ocean in 1971, a quartet named Queen was getting together. And 40 years later, Hollywood Records reissues Freddie Mercury and company's first five discs in two-CD sets.
While I quibble a bit with the reissues themselves, they offer a great reminder of how good a band Queen was. Often Mercury's flamboyant persona and THAT one song overshadow the contributions of Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon and the balance of the band's oeuvre.
Sometimes overblown, always cinematic – dare I say operatic? – Queen's style was always based on melody and interesting arrangements and there's no denying that Mercury possessed one of rock's most distinctive voices.
Then, consider that the quartet released five fine LPs in the space of four years. The debut arrived in '73, "Queen II" and "Sheer Heart Attack" followed in 1974, "A Night at the Opera" came in '75 and its companion piece, "A Day at the Races" arrived in 1976.
And with each release the band clawed its way quickly to the top. It's not hard to see why.
My quibbles? There are no essays that talk about what made the band, its music and its career special. The booklets could have been expanded to include these and more photos and memorabilia.
With the exception of the eponymous debut, which has a half dozen demos, most of the bonus material is recorded live. There are precious few outtakes and alternate versions that offer clues to how Queen wrote, refined and recorded.
But the "What's Going On" reissue reminds us that today's reissue is just that. Tomorrow's offers another chance to show a different side.
For now, I'm going to devour these ... and happily.
Finally, and entirely off theme musically, is a double-disc retake of Sebahoh's 1994 Sub Pop disc, "Bakesale."
I admit to having only paid marginal attention to this record at the time, but listening now, I realize that Sebadoh was ahead of me. What I mean by that is that songs like "Careful" are almost blueprints for the sound and style of a band I would come to love later: Idlewild.
The record was made at a transitional time for Sebadoh and yet it turned out to be the group's most accessible and one of its most critically acclaimed, too.
This gatefold digipak reissue has a fat booklet with commentaries from the band members (it's interesting to see how each reflects on the era and the disc), photos and track info.
Disc one has the original LP and disc two is the land of "extras," including related b-sides and EPs and a few demos, too.
Though it's nearly 20 years old, "Bakesale" was so influential that it still sounds fresh and relevant and I'm glad this reissue has rectified my ignorance of "Bakesale."
Marvin Gayes music is still missed. Imagine what more he would have created. With anti-war demonstrations raging across the country as his brother Frankie served in Vietnam, Gaye wanted to produce music with a message. Rockaeology at http://bit.ly/fIqvPt has the story of the innovative studio techniques, like dual lead vocal tracks, that helped make Whats Going On revolutionary.
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