Album review: It's super-deluxe box-set season
Of all the cash-grabbiest things an established rock act can do, little is more cash-grabby than the release of a super-deluxe box-set reissue of one of their beloved albums. Aside from presenting an opportunity for another round at the till for a work that has long been tapped for as much profit as it's capable of providing, it's also a surefire way to garner tons of press and attention while providing rabid fans scraps from the table that weren't worthy of release the first time around.
Or, another view is: they're awesome. What could be cooler than fleshing out a seminal work with tons of demos, live versions, reprints of poster art, books, doodads, whatsits and so forth? If you're into a record, super-deluxe reissues are a new way in, a fresh angle, an enlightening glimpse into the creative process that allows the listener to peek through the curtains at their favorite artists, hard at work making a masterpiece.
Of course, both of these things can be true. These box sets can be — and often are — delightfully illuminating documents akin to the special features on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray of a cult art film, ones that most people have no interest in, but that die-hards will salivate for. They can also be totally cynical, totally pointless, and stuffed with garbage that no one needs to hear more than once, if even that.
Recently, a new batch of rock classics were re-loosed upon the world: The Beatles' self-titled 1968 effort (commonly known as "The White Album"), The Kinks' "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society" (which was released the very same day as the Beatles' record), and Metallica's "...And Justice For All." All of them, critical darlings and/or fan favorites in their original incarnations. But what of their new presentations? Is there anything there to justify their presence in the marketplace?
Short answer: yes. Each one is a thrilling journey through the creative minds of great songwriters and game-changing bands, even if there are times that the journey gets rocky.
The Beatles box is the most unique, as it contains a brand-new mix of the original double-album by Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George) that is as astounding as the "Sgt. Pepper" one that came out last year. It's crisp and clear, filled with moments that refresh the songs in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. If that weren't enough, there are four(!) discs of early versions, studio jams and so on. It's fly-on-the-wall heaven.
The Kinks' record is a remaster, so it basically sounds the same as the original, with some shine on it. Unlike the Beatles' box, this one features both the mono and the stereo versions of the record, each with its own merits, but the real treasure is the raft full of b-sides and outtakes, including demos and interviews. It makes the case anew that Ray Davies was one of the great pop songwriters of his (or any) era.
Then there's Metallica. "Justice" is a stone classic, odd production and all. The demos show that James Hetfield could come up with the riffs, but it was his chemistry with drummer Lars Ulrich that brought them to life as songs. To see the progression of these tunes from cassette home demos to practice tapes to fleshed-out arrangements to rough mixes to final versions is fascinating. Furthermore, it's amazing to hear them taken out on the road in a series of live recordings, some of which are janky and don't do Ulrich any favors in making him seem like a less-sloppy drummer than his legend says he is. (Yep, it's even fascinating to realize on the "Justice" box that the band at their peak could be a trainwreck at times, live.)
Fairweather fans, stay away. You don't need to hear a rough mix of "Breadfan" or an early take of "Glass Onion." Rabid boosters, however: Happy Thanksgiving. It's time to feast.
Artists: The Beatles, The Kinks, and Metallica
Albums: "The Beatles," "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society," "...And Justice For All"