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Review: Box sets from the Beatles, the Dead, more

Updated at: 11/19/2013 9:35 AM
By The Associated Press

Select box set reviews from The Associated Press:

The Beatles, "On Air - Live At the BBC, Vol. 2" (Universal)

"The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-70," by Kevin Howlett (HarperCollins)

Beatles fans, rejoice: More live rarities from the Fab Four are on the way to stores.

Nearly 20 years after the first volume of long-lost BBC recordings sold millions of copies, a second volume is here, and with it, a coffee table book with rare photos and heretofore unseen historical documents chronicling the band’s interaction with the BBC.

Like the first volume, "On Air - Live at the BBC, Vol. 2" is chock full of live covers of other acts’ hit recordings, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. The sound quality ranges from crystal clear to exceedingly rough. Not all of the 275 performances the Beatles did were preserved by the broadcaster. Some had to be tracked down from fans’ home recordings, but the raw exuberance of Paul McCartney screaming a hyper rocked-out version of the ballad "Beautiful Dreamer" is a historical nugget in its own right.

There’s tons of on-air banter between all four mop tops and their radio hosts, showing John Lennon’s wry wit and irreverence at an early stage in the band’s career. Outtakes of the band playing "I Feel Fine" are included, showing how the deliberate feedback introduction wreaked havoc with the BBC’s finely-calibrated equipment, causing a technician to ask for multiple takes.

The "BBC Archives Book" by Kevin Howlett, one of the leading experts on the Beatles, traces their meteoric early rise with rare photos and even rarer documents from the BBC, including the group’s original audition form, and an evaluator’s report afterward: "John Lennon: Yes. Paul McCartney. No."

And on the off-chance you have any money at all remaining after these two, the first volume of BBC recordings has been re-mastered and re-released as well.

_ Wayne Parry, Associated Press writer

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The Velvet Underground, "White Light/White Heat" 45th Anniversary edition (Polydor/Universal)

Who knew that the release on Dec. 10 of the 45th anniversary super deluxe edition of The Velvet Underground’s "White Light/White Heat" would come after the death of the band’s figurehead Lou Reed.

This concoction of live tracks, studio cuts and rare outtakes is probably the best eulogy that could be written for the rock genius, and as record sales spike for Reed’s solo material, fans and the curious should do themselves a favor and check out this box set.

Fans of The Velvet Underground will savor previously unreleased versions of their classic tracks such as "Beginning to See the Light" and live versions of "I’m Waiting for The Man" where you can almost feel the sweat dripping down your neck while at New York’s The Gymnasium in 1967.

What is striking but not surprising about the collection is the vast variety of the tracks, which epitomizes The Velvet Underground. The title track is chugging rock `n’ roll with distorted guitars and Reed’s nonchalant tones jumping between low and drawling and playfully high. "The Gift" surges in with spoken word, and "Stephanie Says" is so gentle and melodic it could be a lullaby, delicate drum beats laced with harmonizing vocals.

_ Sian Watson, Associated Press writer

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Grateful Dead, "Sunshine Daydream" (Rhino)

How many reviews of archival Grateful Dead releases begin with some variation of this sentence: If you only own one Grateful Dead concert, make sure it’s this one?

OK, so let’s get it out of the way early: If you only own one Grateful Dead concert, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for it to be Aug. 27, 1972, a benefit show released as the box set "Sunshine Daydream."

Amid the roughly 100 archival Grateful Dead releases so far, what makes "Sunshine Daydream" stand out?

First, it’s not just the concert, which plays out over three discs and features the Dead in their prime. There’s also the movie, filmed on a shoestring budget to capture the hastily organized benefit show to help support the Springfield Creamery, owned by Ken Kesey’s brother, in Eugene, Ore. Long available in previous edits as a grainy bootleg, the film is beautifully restored here on DVD.

The deluxe edition, available only through the Grateful Dead’s website, comes with a well put-together 30-minute documentary featuring interviews with many of those who were a part of putting the show together, including Merry Prankster and concert emcee Ken Babbs and counter culture icon Wavy Gravy.

_ Scott Bauer, Associated Press writer

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The Beach Boys, "Made in California" (Capitol)

With its bright yellow cover and yearbook-style format, the outside of The Beach Boys’ six-CD set "Made in California" already evokes a sunny California vibe. The music takes you all the way there, with a 50-year, career-spanning collection that includes home demos (complete with the band-member brothers arguing) and new arrangements of beloved hits. Accompanied by more than 30 pages of glossy vintage photos and interviews with the original sextet (Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and David Marks), "Made in California" is the ultimate collectible for any Beach Boys fan.

Lounge into the lush harmonies on a cappella versions of "Can’t Wait Too Long," "Slip on Through" and "This Whole World." Dig the old radio spots from the 1960s and rare live studio recordings of "Wendy" and "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)." Boogie in your bikini to more than a dozen live tracks, many from `60s and `70s performances.

All the classics are here _ "California Girls," "Surfin’ U.S.A.," "Barbara Ann," "I Get Around" _ plus newer hits like "Kokomo," and some 130 songs in between, comprehensively illustrating the California band’s longtime and lasting impact on pop music.

_ Sandy M. Cohen, Associated Press Entertainment Writer

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The Ramones, "The Sire Years 1976-1981" (Rhino)

Break out your leather biker jacket and put on your best punk-rock snarl for this six-disc set from the genre’s American pioneers. All the songs that made you want to grow your hair long and play power chords are here: "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment" and "I Wanna Be Sedated."

"The Sire Years" comprises the Ramones’ first six albums: 1976’s "The Ramones," 1977’s "Leave Home" and "Rocket to Russia," 1978’s "Road to Ruin," 1980’s "End of the Century" and 1981’s "Pleasant Dreams."

Each album has its standout tracks _ the ones you loved back in high school or whenever you discovered these shaggy-haired New Yorkers.

The albums are presented with the original song order, cover art and arrangements, making the collection familiar, if beloved, territory. It’s nostalgic and comprehensive, but probably redundant for most Ramones fans.

_ Sandy M. Cohen, AP Entertainment Writer

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Various artists, "Released!: The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998" (Shout Factory)

The Amnesty International box poses an interesting question: is it best to see or just hear the music?

The "Released!" compilation of highlights from benefit concerts, tours and videos between 1979 and 2012 decides on the former. The 6-DVD set celebrates how music boosted the human rights organization, mixes in the message, and is well designed to help people navigate between performances.

That does, however, make the two-CD musical set seem slight in comparison, because people interested in portability of music can see many things that they are missing. It relies too heavily on a 1986 Giants Stadium show that hasn’t aged very well. Memo to Bryan Adams: It may seem like a good idea to have the audience sing the first verse of your latest hit in concert, but think of how that will sound on disc 25 years later. Annoying, that’s how.

Fortunately, there are genuine treats. Peter Gabriel’s’ reimagined "In Your Eyes" with Youssou N’Dour from Paris in 1998 is transcendent, as is Tracy Chapman’s stately "Fast Car" and Bruce Springsteen’s solo "No Surrender." The real star is Bob Marley, with three of the 30 songs covers of his compositions.

_ David Bauder, Associated Press writer

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Duane Allman "Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective" (Rounder)

Dig in and dig it, Duane Allman completists (you know who you are). The seven-CD set "Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective" doesn’t include every note Allman ever played, but it probably comes close enough.

"`Skydog" sums up the prolific guitar wizard’s tragically brief, sprawling career in comprehensive fashion, making it a testament to the depth and breadth of his incomparable talent.

The set was co-produced by Allman’s daughter, Galadrielle, born shortly before her father died in a 1971 motorcycle crash. Along with his best-loved music as a member of the Allman Brothers Band and Derek & the Dominos, there are samples of his session work with Hall of Famers Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, and with obscure artists such as Johnny Jenkins, Eric Quincy Tate and many, many more. On some cuts Allman solos for only a bar or two, but on longer breaks he sounds like no one else, channeling the blues, soul, jazz, country and rock.

Of the 129 tracks, 33 are either previously unreleased or unissued on CD, starting with three nifty 1965 recordings by the Escorts, Allman’s group when he was 18. What he accomplished in the next 6 1/2 years remains remarkable, as this set shows.

_ Steven Wine, Associated Press writer

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Woody Guthrie, "Woody Guthrie: Radical American Patriot" (Rounder)

Given Woody Guthrie’s restless nature, it’s amazing he sat still long enough to record five hours of songs and conversation with folklorist Alan Lomax.

Those 1940 sessions by the Library of Congress are included on the six-CD set "Woody Guthrie: Radical American Patriot." In some of his earliest recordings, Guthrie discusses his youth, the Dust Bowl, bankers, outlaws and life as a frontier troubadour. His snicker is a delight, while his retelling of family misfortunes during the Depression is wrenching. And when he lists famous Hollywood stars from Oklahoma with provincial pride, he sounds like someone’s slightly daft uncle.

Guthrie’s commentary provides fresh context to the music that made him America’s greatest folk singer, and many of his best songs are here, performed informally. Also included are his tunes commissioned to support the U.S. government, including 10 for an anti-venereal disease campaign.

This set isn’t the best introduction to Guthrie, and much of it won’t merit repeated listening. But it broadens our understanding of Guthrie, showing how _ as the title suggests _ the hard-traveling populist militant loved his country.

_ Steven Wine, Associated Press writer

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Nirvana, "In Utero 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition" (Geffen)

Nirvana was probably rock `n’ roll’s last truly unifying band, and it’s completely polarizing third album, "In Utero," stands as a puzzling final word from Kurt Cobain. Designed to send mainstream fans to the exits after "Nevermind" rewrote the rules, "In Utero" did just that as Cobain bared his conflicted soul.

The recently released 20th-anniversary super deluxe edition will do little to clear up the debate over where "In Utero" stands in the band’s very short history before Cobain’s suicide. Hovering somewhere between the spit-polish of "Nevermind" and the blue blowtorch flame of debut, "Bleach," Cobain remains inscrutable here, making people hum along to songs about alienation and withdrawal almost against their will.

The best moments in the three-CD, one-DVD set are the live ones. The box includes a CD and DVD of the band’s December 1993 "Live `n’ Loud" performance in Seattle, and the show serves as a reminder of just how powerful the band was. Cobain rarely smiles until the end, when he spits on the camera lens with an impish grin and then begins to trash the stage.

It looked like he was having fun, and it makes you wish he still was.

_ Chris Talbott, AP Music Writer

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Sly and the Family Stone, "Higher" (Epic/Legacy)

After a thorough listen to the "Sly and the Family Stone: Higher" box set, you’ll quickly realize they’ve made a lot of funky music, but not all of it is worth a second listen.

For every heart-warming "Everyday People," there is "Luv `n Haight," replete with corny horn work and a lackluster approach to funk. For each "I Want to Take You Higher," and its soul-lifting spirit, there is "I Just Learned How To Swim," which is Sly Stewart’s funk-tinged surf song that is fun. Maybe once.

That’s what you have in this reasonably comprehensive, four-CD collection that includes 17 previously (perhaps thankfully) unreleased tracks: a band bristling with talent and experimentation, which occasionally struck gold, and sometimes not.

Songs like "What’s That Got To Do With Me," about a love gone wrong, is epic in scope, with sweeping horn-driven crescendo interspersed with bits of dramatic pause and odd vocal insertions. If you like odd, this collection with be full of gems for you. Most Family Stone fans, however, will likely be content with a single disc of greatest hits by the funk super group, forgoing the filler.

_ Rob Harris, Associated Press writer

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Fleetwood Mac, "Fleetwood Mac: 1969 to 1972" (Reprise)

The first thing that comes to mind when mentioning Fleetwood Mac is their seminal album "Rumours." But the band’s pre-"Rumours" days are rich with bluesy offerings that are well worth revisiting on the new box set "Fleetwood Mac: 1969 to 1972."

The highlight of the four-album, vinyl collection is the first re-mastered edition of "Then Play On," Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 debut album on Reprise Records. This is a raw, young blues-fueled Fleetwood Mac and the sense of urgency to their music is on full display. The opening, bongo-backed track "Coming Your Way" bristles with pace and the all-out house rocker "Fighting For Madge" showcases guitarist Peter Green as a force to rival Eric Clapton of that era.

"Future Games" is another winning platter, though it presents a softer Fleetwood Mac. By 1971 we find them putting together the less edgy sound that would prove to be the backbone to their radio mainstay hits to come. "Fleetwood Mac: 1969 to 1972" aptly presents the formative years of one of the most successful bands in history.

_ Ron Harris, Associated Press writer

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Eric Clapton "Give Me Strength: The 1974/1975 Recordings" (Polydor/Universal)

When Eric Clapton returned to the studio in 1974 after a long break from recording and performing because of heroin addiction, he embarked on a rebirth as an artist with three major albums that showcased his vocal skills alongside his well-known talents as a guitar god.

"Give Me Strength: The 1974/1975 Recordings," repackages and remasters those two studio albums, "461 Ocean Boulevard" and "There’s One in Every Crowd," and the live album, "E.C. Was Here!" in a 5-CD, 1 Blu-ray set along with studio outtakes and unreleased versions of songs he recorded in that critical year.

The songs he recorded in this period are heavy into blues, gospel and reggae, but the live album revisits some of his killer rock guitar skills from his days with Cream and Blind Faith. Some gems in the set are actually when he’s the most muted, such as his dobro performance on "Give Me Strength" or the simple acoustic version of "Please Be With Me."

For fans of Clapton’s solo work, the set provides a detailed look at the turning point in his career and the music that brought him back to the stage.

_ Kristin Hall, Associated Press writer

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Van Morrison, "Moondance Deluxe Edition" (Rhino)

Full disclosure: "Moondance" was my wedding song.

Van Morrison’s seminal 1970 album of the same name, now re-mastered as a one-, two- or four-CD and Blu-ray audio package from Warner Bros., sounds as crisp and swing-danceable as it did when it hit the airwaves 43 years ago. If you fancy yourself a music fan and don’t own the album yet, you have no excuse. If you’re a fan of Van the Man, the deluxe edition will probably blow your mind.

Only true audiophiles with a way to listen to music that doesn’t involve ear buds will appreciate the re-mastering, but there are 50 unreleased session recordings here, including a piano-heavy version of the title track and six takes of "Brand New Day." It’s a trip to hear Van Morrison try out different tempos and vocal styles for "Into the Mystic." Also included, a previously unreleased song that didn’t make the final album called "I Shall Sing."

Overall it’s a rare look inside the making of an album that Rolling Stone ranked as No. 65 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

_ Rob Merrill, Associated Press writer

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Tears for Fears, "The Hurting 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition" (Mercury/Universal)

In the three decades since Tears for Fears’ artfully styled and earnestly composed "Mad World" was released to radio, the single holds as much relevance today as it did in March 1983.

So, too, does the entire album "The Hurting," the pop-friendly but synth-inspired record that band co-founders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith spent many months perfecting as they dabbled in the studio and experimented with different musical styles. Indeed, coming back to this album after the passage of time underscores the layers of wordplay and sense of accomplishment the pair had in their youth and affirms their place among that generation’s songwriters.

Listening to the CD, now _ through a lens of growing from a teenager to adult _ songs like "Memories Fade," with its focus on growing older and knowing when to let go, have a particular resonance. So, too, does the single "Pale Shelter," with the original 7-inch version included, that flows with an inspired intensity and longing.

The band has assembled an impressive collection of remixes, live sessions and of course B-sides, which packs the four-disc (three CDS and a DVD) set to the brim with bonus material, details about the songs and a the band’s 1984 show at the Hammersmith Odeon.

_ Matt Moore, Associated Press writer

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Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald, "The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)" (Mosaic)

The eight-CD collection "The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)" could be subtitled "A Star Is Born," offering the most complete documentation of the historic collaboration between legends Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb.

An inexperienced, naive Fitzgerald made her recording debut with drummer Webb’s big band in 1935 just months after the homeless 17-year-old had won Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Within two years, her star overshadowed her mentor’s as she became prominently featured on most of the band’s recordings. After Webb’s death in 1939, she led the band under her own name for two years until launching the solo career that would make her "The First Lady of Song."

The 187 tracks (three previously unreleased) include early hits that remained part of her repertoire for decades such as "You Have to Swing It, Mr. Paganini," which offered her earliest attempts at scat singing, and "A Tisket A-Tasket," the swinging nursery rhyme that became her first No. 1 single. Webb’s repertoire included many forgettable novelty songs such as "Coochi-Coochi-Coo" and "The Dipsy Doodle," but Fitzgerald overcame the material with her joyful interpretations, innate sense of rhythm and perfect pitch.

_ Charlie Gans, Associated Press writer

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Herbie Hancock, "Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988" (Columbia/Legacy)

The chameleon-like Herbie Hancock has always been able to thrive in stylistically diverse musical environments as evidenced in the 34-disc box set "Herbie Hancock: The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988" that represents probably the most prolific and influential period in the jazz keyboardist’s career.

During these years, Hancock enjoyed a rare level of commercial success for a jazz musician as exemplified by his two platinum albums: the jazz-funk fusion "Head Hunters" (1973) featuring "Chameleon" and "Future Shock" (1983), which used scratching, drum machines and synthesized keyboards found in hip-hop and yielded "Rockit," the music video for which received major MTV airplay. His studio-made electronic albums used cutting-edge technology _ including ever-more advanced synthesizers and new electronic instruments such as the piano-guitar hybrid Clavitar to create original soundscapes.

Hancock also sparked renewed interest in straight-ahead acoustic jazz with his V.S.O.P. quintet that reunited his bandmates from Miles Davis’ classic mid-’60s _ with Freddie Hubbard and later a young Wynton Marsalis filling the trumpet seat _ for a series of live recordings.

This collection’s main appeal is the inclusion of eight albums previously released only in Japan, including the acoustic-electric solo album, "Dedication," `’Flood," a live Head Hunters band recording, two albums with former Davis bandmates, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams that are Hancock’s only piano trio albums, and V.S.O.P.’s only studio recording, "Five Stars."

_ Charlie Gans, Associated Press writer

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)