2011 Holiday Gift Guide Part 3

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Attention shoppers: time for holiday shopping is running short – have you finished yet?

You know you can hear that announcement running through your mind as you read this, but that's okay, shopper. You're not the only one running frantically around the malls, big box stores, mom and pop shops, boutiques which claim to be haut mode but are really aesthetically questionable or even “antique galleries” (which are really just cleaned up barns, but no one wants to say that) shopper, there are hundreds just like you. We here at Ground Control feel your pain, and have saved some of the biggest possible sets – those ones with both a real “wow” factor as well as the hefty price tags that are impossible to miss – for last. Are you excited? Do you feel that the end of your Christmas shopping quest may be near? Well, let's find out….
Various Artists
Fifteen Minutes: An Homage To Andy Warhol
(Legacy/Sony Music)

Probably the most famous bit of philosophy that Andy Warhol ever uttered – ignoring the indelible mark he made on the realms of music and theater and art – was that, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Since the artist first made that proclamation in 1968, the phrase has been used to justify innumerable entertainment industry phenomena and other such passing fads. Since that time, while trends in pop culture have changed both dramatically and repeatedly, Warhol's phrase has endured; with only the units of measurement having changed. Those “fifteen minutes” became as many seconds and nanoseconds with the birth of the internet, and with the birth and subsequent explosion of online social media, has been rethought to become a matter of “everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” 

Times, social mores, values and entertainment – as well as the public's consumption of it – have changed. The public's perception of the world has been torn down and rebuilt/reinvented/redefined at least a dozen times over since Warhol bravely contained the public's general attention span to a numeric value, but that “fifteen minute” assertion has been one which has ensured that Andy Warhol remains an icon even now, twenty-four years after his passing in 1987. His artwork, images, ideas, disciplines and proclivities (as well as his opinions and views, by extension) are now displayed as exhibits which tour through children's museums and are taught to both high school and university students alike; in effect, Andy Warhol ended up proving his own assertion wrong as his work continues to be discovered by new minds daily. The work and the man remain inspiring and provocative too, as Fifteen Minutes: An Homage To Andy Warhol illustrates. Assembling a multi-discipline collection of work by eighteen artists, this 3CD/4LP box set is completely unique in that it attempts to offer complete experience of Warhol as well as his effect on pop culture and the arts, by showcasing the reach of his influence more than the work of the artist himself. In keeping with that spirit, each artist who contributed to the audio portion of this set (much of which is spoken word and ignores conventional song structures) also created a print of original artwork for inclusion with this (very) limited edition set; in effect, what buyers get is an experience quite unlike any other. 

The uniqueness of Fifteen Minutes is apparent right away as one scans the list of contributors included in the set. Rather than going the obvious route and tapping a big, star-studded cast of names that are regularly associated with Warhol and his Factory, there is clearly some desire to present something else – something genuine – here. On Fifteen Minutes, the usual suspects that one would expect to see attached to an 'Andy Warhol music collection' like Lou Reed, John Cale, Jayne County, Mo Tucker, David Bowie and Devo have been overlooked wholesale in favor of including Warhol's peers and contemporaries in the art community like John Giorno, Path Soong, Jeff Gordon, Ivan Karp and Yura Adams, with the only “full-time musicians” included being Patti Smith and Bob Dylan (of which only Dylan really contributes a conventional song). With that in mind, Fifteen Minutes would look like a dicey proposition to anyone right off the bat; a viewpoint that would only get more justifiable when they see the jaw-dropping price tag attached to the set. The deluxe edition is limited to eighty-five copies at $20,000 each, the slightly-less-limited edition retails for $600 – the extra $19,400 gets buyers the same music on the same formats, but gets autographed prints of the artwork, instead of replicas. Even so, it's hard not to be drawn in by the decadence and artifice as one trips through the music and flips through the art. In listening to the albums it's possible to pick out real grains of the influence that Warhol has had on both the arts and these contributors. Here, it's possible to find the blatant commercialism and vacuousness that Warhol was often accused of in the Sixties and Seventies in “Titles,” where Pat Soong simply name-checks the work in Warhol's sketchbook. There is a confrontational stance employed by Ivan Karp in “The First Time” reminiscent of the one Warhol had to have taken as he challenged artistic conventions with his Pop Art construct. There is a stark attractiveness to Patti Smith's “Edie” that perfectly sums up the subject of her spoken word piece, Edie Sedgwick, but there are sparks of Andy in it too somehow. There is a direct and bold edge in Smith's sibilance – in all of the dialogue that the contributors share here, in fact – that owes a debt to Andy Warhol's persona and public image. It doesn't sound at all supernatural really, but each of these tracks does echo Warhol, somehow.

Of course, any discussion about Andy Warhol wouldn't be complete without giving an impression of the self-indulgent side to Warhol's character. This opulent side is the one which yielded motion picture works like Sleep (which starred John Giorno – who contributes one of the most solid tracks here, “Thanks For Nothing,” ironically) and is represented on Fifteen Minutes by the forty-minute discussion between Vincent Fremont and Brigid Berlin which takes up all of Disc Two. There's no doubt that there's no script for Fifteen Minutes' second disc as the conversation on it veers in every imaginable direction – from talk of Warhol's Factory to the internet to Max's Kansas City to Berlin walking seven blocks topless through New York to the excitement which surrounded the art world and Warhol in the Sixties and Seventies – with the natural flow and build of any conversation over coffee. In that sort of organic delivery, listeners will begin to flash on the films that Warhol made between 1963 and 1968 because it, like them is a true slice of life, in all its rambling, inchoate glory. It's true that Disc Two is not the easiest thing to hear if you paid for it – just as it wasn't at all thrilling to watch a man sleep on film for hours, or eat, or watch the New York cityscape as Warhol filmed it – but it is an interesting commentary on the nature of musical performance on records because Disc Two is perfectly naked reality.

It might sound confusing to read it, but “Naked Reality” is exactly what Fifteen Minutes shoots for in its presentation. This set is supposed to be a tribute/homage to Andy Warhol and it does work – but perhaps not in the ways that listeners have grown accustomed to accepting and consuming box sets. Fifteen Minutes presents the impact that the artist made on the art community as a whole – in visual arts, music, theater and film – and showcases Andy Warhol as a source of intangible inspiration, not as a cutout to be propped up in the corner and stared at. After absorbing all the work included in Fifteen Minutes, it's hard not to believe that the set is a perfect success; this is the kind of presentation that would certainly have made Andy Warhol proud.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Winterland (4CD Box Set)
(Experience Hendrix/Legacy/Sony Music)

As the boxes of material which Jimi Hendrix recorded for prosperity but never formally released continue to stack up, it's very easy to start taking them for granted. Think about it; the deluxe reissues campaign last year wasn't the first of its type; in fact, it was just the best in a series of reissue campaigns which have come along over the last four decades. As good as those reissues were, it's very easy to get jaded about reoccurring reissue campaigns like that; after all, the catalogue of material Jimi Hendrix recorded was finite and, eventually, reissues are going to repeat themselves.

With that in mind, listening to the Winterland box set will feel like the breath of fresh air which breaks both the monotony and proves that two versions of the same song aren't always the same.

Collecting together all three of the performances that the Jimi Hendrix Experience gave at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, CA on the weekend of November 10 – 12, 1968, shows fans just how consistent and solid a live band the trio was, but also how mercurial they could be when they chose. For example, the set lists for each night were very similar in many ways, but they also express growth from night to night, and no two performances of any one song are ever exactly the same; the three versions of “Foxey Lady” included here, for example are each recognizable as “Foxey Lady,” but none of them are interchangeable because there are little variations in each that, combined, make for a different experience. The same is true of the three takes each of “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze” (for which there are four performances here – two captured on the same day) and “Red House” – different parts manifest and are accentuated over others, which amount to something a little different each time.

With the knowledge that some of the sets do overlap through the Winterland box set, some uninitiated readers will scoff and say that the four-disc set is either redundant or unnecessary – an overstated explosion of minutiae which amounts to little more than a trifle. That's not true though; there may be repeated songs on this box set and they may have only been played days apart, but they are by no stretch  of the imagination the same.
Nevermind (Deluxe and Super Deluxe reissues)

On some level, those in charge of remastering Nevermind must have sensed that any alteration made to the album would require a very delicate hand – so listening back to the album now with the benefit of some digital enhancement reveals that the changes made have been few and tastefully done. Here, listeners won't find anything anywhere near as ambitious as the alterations that were made to Blizzard of Ozz at all, but fans will revel in “the little things” which do prove to be “just a hair different.” On “Come as You Are,” for example, listeners may be able to note a slightly spruced up and cleaner production placed of Dave Grohl's drums which causes the beat to almost feel a little jazzier (you can really hear the understated roll on the snare during the verses here). In that same vein, the growling bass tone on “Breed” is accentuated just a bit to made it punch just a little more and the hard-panning rhythm guitar figure during the bridge sounds positively agitated in a perfectly intoxicating way. Finally, it's now possible to hear what exactly is going on in the bridge of “Drain You” and the noxious mess that is “Endless Nameless” actually plays through like molten lava, rather than just implying that it could do that. Longtime fans will likely be able to pick up on all of those small facets of each song but, if they are able to do that, they'll also be able to pick up that not everything about this remastering is beautiful; because of “refreshed” mix, the guitar and drum parts during the verses of “Territorial Pissings” come off as muddled and crowd each other in the mix far too much and (for some ears) the intro of “On a Plain” is far too articulated for its own good. These slight shortcomings are forgivable but, with such care placed elsewhere, the alterations made to the mixes here feel like a little too much; while the changes work well elsewhere, they're too overdone in these two cases.

The second disc of the Nevermind Deluxe reissue is gratifying to hear. While the Smart Sessions have been available on bootlegs for years, the added dollars put into the production of this set prove to be a boon because the overall sound is clearer and better illustrate the initial forms of songs like “In Bloom,” “Lithium,” “Dive” and “Sappy,” and how much they changed by comparison to the final versions on the studio album. Listening back to them now (and this goes for the 'Boombox Rehearsals' included here too), long-time fans will finally have the opportunity to hear what the press always said about Cobain continuing to write, rewrite and generally alter lyric sheets regularly until the final tapes rolled. Lyrically, some of these songs (particularly “Breed,” “Stay Away,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Territorial Pissings” and “Lounge Act” bear little resemblance to their finished counterparts, which on one hand could be taken by some listeners as frustrating but, on the other hand, will cause relief in listeners that the final tapes rolled when they did; left to his own devices, Cobain may have inadvertently changed their favorite songs again before they were released, which may have taken away from their impact. 

In that way too, the impact of Nevermind may have been altered still further had one more set of hands not been on the album. On the Super Deluxe Edition reissue of Nevermind, the first release of the Devonshire Mixes that Butch Vig did for the band illustrate that the “slickness” Cobain lamented was not the result of Vig's work – it was actually a byproduct of Andy Wallace's efforts [Wallace's previous credits include work with Slayer, The Cult and Sepultura –ed] – the producer who was contracted to mix the album after sessions on it had wrapped.

It is worth pointing out that the changes Wallace made to Nevermind were small on an individual level, but fans will be able to point them out immediately and understand where the “slickness” complaints made by Cobain were actually coming from. The Devonshire mixes done by Vig are certainly more raw than the results fans have known on Nevermind for twenty years; on a comparative level, the mixes that originally appeared on the album as fans know it are far more even than those from the Devonshire mixes set. The differences aren't always a good thing (the mix of “Territorial Pissings” feels rough and incomplete because of the absence of one guitar part, and the bridge in “Drain You” comes off as really gooey and subdued), but some of the leaner mixes sound great, in some cases. In “Breed,” for example, the menacing vibe of the song is accentuated by the even bigger bass presence while “Lounge Act” just growls with the benefit of grainier production and “Stay Away” seethes; seeming more personal with the lack of vocal doubling through the verses (that “I'd rather be dead than cool” line really punches through here, and sounds revolutionary) before the meltdown at the end of the song seems to come on just that much hotter. It might sound silly to off-handedly say that the Devonshire mixes will give better insight into Cobain's remarks about the album, but they do just that and will simultaneously settle a lot of arguments among fans as well as give more fuel to the debates. 

For long-time fans, the Devonshire mixes alone will be worth the surprisingly asking price of the Super Deluxe reissue of Nevermind, but of equal value are the inclusions of all the B-sides from the Nevermind singles (most notably “Curmudgeon” and “Even in His Youth”) and the concert included here, captured on October 31, 1991, at the Paramount Theater in Seattle.

Those who were fans of Nirvana at the time the band was a performing band (read: those who caught a show – not those who are only acquainted with the DVDs and videos, which have been released since the break-up of the band) are aware that, as good as they could be live, they could also have tremendous difficulties with their sound onstage (Professional Sound Magazine likened the sound at one of the band's shows in Toronto to a pummeling meltdown), due in part to the fact that they often employed substandard equipment. The show at the Paramount suffered no such problems however, and fans will be thrilled at the experience they get from the complete show included on the Super Deluxe Edition of Nevermind. Here, listeners get a quintessential set list from the time period complete with a full performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (the show happened before the band got sick of playing the song), “School,” “Breed,” “On a Plain” and even an embryonic version of “Rape Me” – all with perfectly clear sound. Getting to hear a Nirvana concert of this vintage with this kind of clarity is a special treat in itself but, but even better, the set list leaves almost nothing to be desired. The fact that many of the great early cuts in the band's catalogue are here is a gift made all the better by the fact that the band is in very fine form.

Between the inclusion of the Paramount show, the Smart Sessions demos, the Devonshire mixes, the Nevermind B-sides, an enormous book of photos and a remastered rendering of the album, it can only be said that this Super Deluxe Edition really does capture Nirvana accurately, faithfully and completely, and not just at the moment the going got great for the band, but also all of the reasons why. There is no angle not covered or played perfectly here; this is exactly the treatment that this band, this album and the fans of both deserve.
Ben Folds
The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective (3CD)
(Epic/Legacy/Sony Music)

It's funny how time can pass and musicians can change/grow seemingly without notice until someone comes along, picks through the catalogue and selects a few pieces which illustrate what's gone on and what's happened beyond the shadow of a doubt. That's exactly what the three-disc version of Ben Folds' The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective does far better than its single-disc counterpart; where the single-disc delivers some of the hits from both Folds' solo career as well as that of the Five in a very utilitarian manner, the three-disc gives listeners a little more depth including some live cuts which illustrate just how far Folds has been known to re-arrange his work for a whole tour or even just a single performance (the version of “Careless Whisper” with Rufus Wainwright in tow is captivating and there's a magic in the West Australian Symphony Orchestra-assisted version of “Fred Jones Part 2” that is both unique and irreplaceable) as well as a generous helping (about twenty-two, seventeen of which have gone unreleased until now) of rarities.

Because of the amount of extra material included with the three-disc set, there would be no way to contend that it's not just for the biggest, most diehard fans (the single-disc has the hits and that would be enough for most passing fans), but those big, high-geeky, undying fans won't have anything to complain about here because the set really is just that good, does cover all its bases and does have enough material that even the biggest tape-trading-est fans have not heard to make it of interest. That sort of event is rare, but The Best Imitation Of Myself both acheives it and lives up to its name.
Pre-hiatus Deluxe Reissues (“Duh”, Trashed, Hoss, Double Platinum, Let's Talk About Feelings)
(Fat Wreck Chords)

The amount that Lagwagon has been allowed to get away with over the last twenty-two years has been nothing short of astonishing. In that time, the band has come dangerously close to breaking out and becoming the biggest punk rock band in the world – looking like they could very easily overshadow the likes of Green Day, Offspring and Rancid – only to go on hiatus and watch their own popularity wane. The band has released songs which turned out to be among their best – “Randal Gets Drunk” and “Alison's Disease” are perfect examples of this – but only appeared on compilations, never on any of the band's own albums. Other bands who have pulled similar tricks ave found themselves without a fanbase and without a record label, but that they've been able to pull it off like they have is a testament to Lagwagon's quality as both songwriters and performers. Now, after twenty-two years of such hi-jinx, the band has finally thrown their most devout fans a great big bone and released re-mastered reissues of their first five albums complete with previously unreleased demos, rarities and other such accoutrements, all once again released by Fat Wreck.

The records are great but, for those long-time fans still hanging on, the extra tracks appended to each reissue are the real gifts. On the “Duh” reissue, for example, listeners will find the Section Eight Super Big Demo – the collection of songs that Lagwagon recorded before they even had their name decided on – for a bit of context on the beginnings of the band (the early demos are lost skate punk anthems). Further, the reissues save fans from having to go and seek out the ill-fated compilations that the band either put out or appeared on (most of the band's Let's Talk About Leftovers comp appears throughout the reissues, as do the tracks contributed to myriad other compilations like Fat Music for Fat People and Short Music for Short People) in the spirit of economy. On each title, a pretty significant effort has been made to include a few songs that will thrill longtime fans, and the remastering job done (particularly to “Duh”, Trashed and Hoss) has been done with care; there are noticeable differences in the earliest titles which present a cleaner overall sound that is definitely worthwhile.

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