Posts Tagged ‘Legacy’

Jefferson Airplane / Jefferson Starship / Starship: The Essential

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

JeffersonAirplaneStarship_EssentialReissued two-disc anthology of San Francisco legends

Legacy’s two-disc Essential collection is actually a re-branded reissue of the 1998 Hits release, reiterating the same 35-track lineup and including Ben Fong-Torres original liner notes. If you pop these discs in your computer’s CD drive, you’re even likely to have the cover image of Hits pulled up by your media player. The set remains a good overview of “the band that transformed with the times,” from Jefferson Airplane’s scene-leading San Francisco Sound recordings of the mid-to-late ‘60s, through Jefferson Starship’s inheritance and evolution, and the Kantner-less Starship’s full-face turn to radio-friendly pop. The musical, social and commercial distance traveled from the Airplane’s earthy psychedelic jams to the Starship’s synth-laden ballads is itself a monument to adaptability.

The seventeen Airplane selections cover all seven of the band’s first run albums (nothing from their 1989 self-titled reunion is included), along with the single-only “Have You Seen the Saucers.” A few of their lower charting singles are absent, but other than “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” the Airplane was never a Top 40 success, and so the additional album tracks are more telling. Missing are tracks with early Airplane vocalist Signe Anderson singing lead, and even more noticeable is the lack of live material. Performance was an essential element of the San Francisco scene, and no telling of the Airplane’s story is truly complete without the stage interplay of vocalists and instrumentalists. Follow-on purchases of 30 Seconds Over Winterland, Bless Its Pointed Little Head or the more recent 6-CD anthology of vintage tapes can fill that gap.

Though the Jefferson Starship name was employed for Kantner’s 1970 sci-fi concept album, Blows Against the Empire, a steady band wasn’t formed until four years later for 1974’s Dragon Fly. This set skips the former album and picks up with two songs (“Caroline” and “Ride the Tiger”) from the latter. Though Dragon Fly went gold (and hit #11 on the album chart), it was the group’s next release, Red Octopus, that marked their real commercial breakthrough. Topping the album chart, the album spun off the Top 5 single “Miracles” and introduced a band who would have a ten year run in the Top 40. Most of Jefferson Starship’s biggest hits are included here, missing only their Top 20 “Winds of Change.” All eight of the group’s first run studio albums are sampled here; their two reunion releases (1998’s Windows of Heaven and 2008’s Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty) are skipped.

The group transformed yet again in 1984, into Starship, and found even greater success on the singles chart with three #1s: “We Built This City,” “Sara” and the Albert Hammond & Diane Warren-penned theme to the film Mannequin, “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now.” Starship landed two more in the Top 10, the latter of which, 1989’s “It’s Not Enough,” closes this set. Two more minor chart entries and a greatest hits album were released before the band morphed into a touring unit for vocalist Mickey Thomas. The six Starship tracks here cover all three of the band’s original albums, but omit a handful of lesser charting singles. This thirty-three track anthology provides a compelling picture of a San Francisco underground legend’s metamorphosis into a 1980s commercial juggernaut. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Martina McBride: The Essential Martina McBride

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

MartinaMcBride_TheEssentialNineteen years as a country hit maker, minus a handful of hits

Martina McBride’s first two-disc collection (complementing earlier single-disc anthologies, Greatest Hits, Playlist and Hits and More) covers a lot of ground: nineteen years of recording, nine studio albums, twenty-nine Top 40 country hits (including five chart-toppers), nineteen crossover Top-100 pop hits, and numerous duets and tribute appearances. But even with such impressive statistics, there’s essential material missing, including ten charting sides, six of which were Top 40s and one (“There You Are” from 2000’s Emotion) was Top 10. Her climb to stardom is abbreviated by the omission of singles from her early albums, particularly three sides from Wild Angels (“Phones Are Ringin’ All Over Town,” “Swingin’ Doors” and “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road”) that propelled McBride and Nashville into a much wider circle of fans. That said, what’s here paints a fair picture of how easily her music straddled tradition, modernity and pop.

Like others of her mid-90s class (which also included Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill and Patty Loveless), McBride benefited from both a canny producer (Paul Worley, in her case) and a renaissance of quality Nashville songwriting. Early on she sang hits penned by Kostas (“Life #9”), Gretchen Peters (“My Baby Loves Me”), Matraca Berg (“Wild Angels” and “Still Holding On”), Paul Kennerley (“Heart Trouble”) and Pat Bunch (“Safe in the Arms of Love”), threading a theme of empowerment through hits and album tracks like “Independence Day,” “A Broken Wing” and “This One’s for the Girls.” As Nashville crossed into the mainstream, so did some of McBride’s material and chart success; in addition to solo hits she found resonance with Jim Brickman (“Valentine”), Bob Seger (“Chances Are”) and Alan Jackson (“Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”). McBride’s stage singing (heard here in “Over the Rainbow,” drawn from 2003’s Martina) shows that her power, accuracy and emotion aren’t tied to the studio.

The set’s shortcomings could be pinned on the two-disc format and a desire to please both new fans and collectors. The former get an overview of McBride’s career and an invitation to delve into individual albums. The latter get duets collected from albums by Clint Black (“Nothin’ But the Taillights”), Jimmy Buffet (“License to Chill”) and Raul Malo (“You’re Only Lonely”), tracks scavenged from tributes, soundtracks and the Hallmark Valentine’s Day EP My Heart, and four songs introduced on 2001’s Greatest Hits. The result balances McBride’s chart highlights and catalog rarities, but a third disc (which Legacy has added in their 2.0 re-releases of Essential titles) could have picked up all the missing hits. This is a good starting point for those who’ve yet to enjoy Martina McBride’s brand of tradition-laced modern country, and a nice collection of non-LP tracks for those who are already fans. [©2012 Hyperbolium]

Martina McBride’s Home Page

Heart: Fanatic

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

Heavy Heart

From the opening guitar of the title track, Heart serves notice that they’re here to rock. Hard. After revisiting the band’s history with a box set, Strange Euphoria, and memoir, Kicking & Dreaming, the Wilson sisters seem to have gotten back in touch with their rock ‘n’ roll roots. The guitars serve up hearty power chords, the rhythm section (Rick Markmann on bass and Ben Smith on drums) is rock solid, and Ann Wilson’s voice can still rattle the farthest corner of an arena. What sets Heart apart from many other hard rock acts, and what’s always set them apart, is their mix of stadium-sized bombast and something more nuanced. Even with the band playing flat out and Ann Wilson singing at the top of her voice, there’s an emotional hook that reaches beyond sheer volume and power. The band’s able to bring the energy to more lightly-built songs like “Skin and Bones,” using tone rather than decibels to make their point. As on 2010’s Red Velvet Car, producer Ben Mink melds the band’s classic guitar rock with a few modern touches, leaving neither sounding out of place. Heart’s longtime fans, particularly those who favor the group’s self-written, hard-rocking sides of the ‘70s, will enjoy this album; so will anyone looking for a shot of rock ‘n’ roll. [©2012 Hyperbolium]

Heart’s Home Page

Taj Mahal: The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969-1973

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Extraordinary set of early rarities and a superb 1970 concert

This 2-CD set of previously unreleased material provides a superb complement to the previously issued Essential anthology. Where Essential set surveyed thirty-three years of Mahal’s immense catalog, this latest collection focuses on five years from early in his career. Those formative years found Mahal exploring numerous threads of the blues, including pre-war styles, as well as soul and funk. The first disc includes a dozen finished studio tracks that clock in at a generous 77 minutes. The recordings were made in Woodstock, Miami, the San Francisco Bay Area andNew Orleans, the latter produced by Allen Toussaint in rustic, drumless arrangements. The bands include 3- and 4-piece combos, as well as larger aggregations that feature the Dixie Flyers and a brass band. Jesse Edwin Davis’ guitar provides a strong, guiding presence on many tracks, and Mahal’s harmonica adds an expressive voice on a superb cover of Dylan’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” and a soulful instrumental version of “People Get Ready” titled “Butter.”

Disc two features a 1970 concert atLondon’s Royal Albert Hall. The live set features both original material and covers, including Sleepy John Estes’ “Diving Duck Blues,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” and a lengthy take on Robby Robertson and Garth Hudson’s pre-Band era “Bacon Fat.” Mahal starts his set – an opening slot for Johnny Winter and Santana – with a gutsy, a cappella version of the traditional “Runnin’ by the Riverside.” His stage manner is warm and welcoming, offering detailed introductions to his songs and drawing on the folk tradition of audience participation. His performances are backed by a superb four-piece that includes Jesse Davis (guitar), John Simon (Piano), Bill Rich (Bass) and James Karsten (Drums), as well as Mahal’s National Steel and harmonica.

Perhaps most amazing is that this entire set – both the studio and live tracks – is previously unreleased. Few artists ever record material this good, let alone in such quantity that they can leave some of it in the vault. Mahal is equally compelling in the studio as he is on stage, something few artists achieve; his studio recordings breathe freely and his stage work is lively but tight. Miles Mellough’s liner notes are detailed and informative, though a bit over-the-top in their devotion. Sound quality is good throughout, with the concert tapes sounding full and punchy – perhaps having Santana and Johnny Winter on the bill brought out the A-list live truck. This is a terrific find for Mahal’s fans, providing insight into both his studio process and the musical alchemy he brought to the stage. [©2012 Hyperbolium]

Taj Mahal’s Home Page

Paul Simon: Graceland – 25th Anniversary Edition

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Spectacular box set reissue of a landmark album

Graceland wasn’t Paul Simon’s first brush with pan-cultural music, nor was it even his first commercial success with such. But unlike the Jamaican, Peruvian and Latin influences of earlier hits, the South African bedrock of Graceland was as much a political statement as it was a musical adventure. At the time of the album’s mid-80s recording, a cultural boycott of South Africa was winding down but still very much in effect, and Simon’s recording in South Africa split those in the anti-apartheid movement, garnering support, controversy and protests. The album’s commercial success (it peaked at #3 in the U.S., topped the chart in seven countries, charted three singles, sold five million copies and won two Grammys), heavy touring and a filmed release of a concert in Zimbabwe, provided worldwide exposure and long-lasting career impact for Simon’s collaborators, but didn’t immediately sway opinion of those who felt the boycott should take precedence.

The album’s been reissued before, including a 2004 CD that added three bonus tracks, but this twenty-fifth anniversary box set is a deservedly plush reissue of a landmark. In addition to the original eleven track album, the set includes a second CD of six bonus tracks, a DVD of the 1987 concert film The African Concert, a DVD of the documentary Under African Skies, a 76-page oversized (8-1/2 x 11-1/2) book of essays, interviews, photographs and notes, a poster reproduction of the album cover and a thick yellow notepad that reproduces Simon’s handwritten lyrics and notes. All of this is housed in a box made from heavy stock with a canvas-like finish. The bonus tracks collect the three from the earlier CD reissue and add three more, including a pair of instrumental demos (“You Can Call Me Al” and “Crazy Love”) and Simon’s newly recorded nine-minute musical narrative “The Story of ‘Graceland’.”

The documentary Under African Skies provides terrific context, reminding listeners that the album was a product of Simon’s political and artistic daring (or, some might argue, his naivete), and a gambit that salvaged his commercial career from the disappointment of Hearts and Bones. By following Simon on a return visit to South Africa, one sees how the album represented a great deal more than a simple musical collaboration. The passions stirred by the album’s recording circumstances dealt out more than a few scars, and though they’ve healed, they haven’t disappeared. The film is augmented with extended interviews, and the DVD is filled out with period music videos for “You Can Call Me Al,” “The Boy in the Bubble,” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” There’s also a live video of the latter song performed on Saturday Night Live in 1986.

The second DVD includes the 90-minute African Concert, filmed in 1987 in Harare, Zimbabwe and featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Despite the joy evident in the performances, as well as in the audience reception, South Africa was still in the grip of apartheid, future president Nelson Mandela was still in jail, and Robert Mugabe had yet to reveal his later ways. The controversy surrounding the album is as much a part of its historical legacy as the music itself. The box set’s live and documentary material, insightful commentary and memorable peek into Simon’s work process add color and depth to an already rich work of art. For the millions who already own the album, the extras are worth considering, as the light shed by the annotation and detail turns the star into a supernova. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Paul Simon’s Home Page

Heart: Strange Euphoria

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Career-spanning 3-CD/1-DVD box set with many previously unreleased treats

There has been no shortage of hits packages for Heart, starting with 1980’s Heart’s Greatest Hits: Live, which at the time seemed to sum up a fading band’s run of commercial success. But with the release of 1985’s Heart, the Wilson sisters sparked a major comeback with their band, and by 1995, set off nearly annual production of anthologies and album reissues. In addition to single- and double-disc sets (including 1998’s Greatest Hits and 2002’s Essential), the band released a live run-through of their debut album on both CD and DVD. But as the band’s career stretched into the twenty-first century with Jupiters Darling and Red Velvet Car, and the Wilson sisters recorded solo and with their side-project, The Lovemongers, existing anthologies have fallen out of date.

Epic/Legacy cures this problem with a 3-CD, 1-DVD set that expands across Heart’s entire recorded legacy, including hits, album sides, live performances, demos and rarities. And rounding out the Wilsons’ legacy are solo selections and a pair by the Lovemongers. All together, twenty of the CDs’ fifty-one tracks are previously unreleased, and the DVD serves up a fifty-five minute live performance recorded in 1976 at Washington State University’s television station, KWSU. The opening instrumental of this vintage performance, as well as a scorching version of “Sing Child Sing,” shows the group’s progressive colors, but as they kick into “Heartless,” it’s clear that Heart was ready to rock. Hard. With the band’s debut album just released, they had the goods, but not yet the fame the album’s hits would bring. The video’s lighting, camera work and mono sound are good, and the picture (including some primitive special effects) holds up well for something no one probably thought would become historically important.

The CD set begins the Wilsons’ very first single, “Through Eyes and Glass” recorded as Ann Wilson & The Daybreaks in 1968, and released locally on the Topaz label. Key elements of Heart can be heard in the elder Wilson’s voice and flute, though the brooding mood is more connected to 1960s ballrooms than 1970s arenas. Skipping ahead to mid-70s demos, it feels as if the gauze of ‘60s acid culture has been lifted. Even in this early form, “Magic Man,” crackles with passion in both the rhythm and vocals. There’s a healthy dose of neo-psych in the guitar solo, but the song is undeniably powerful and anthemic. Other demos, such as “How Deep it Goes” and “Crazy on You,” are closer to final form, with Heart’s signature blend of electric and hard-strummed acoustic in place on the latter. Ann Wilson had yet to unleash her full vocal power in these demos, but you can hear how the songs will push her to great heights.

Though the box set covers songs from all thirteen Heart studio albums, they’re presented in a mix of studio, live and demo versions. The disputed Magazine album is represented by demos of “Here Song” and “Heartless,” the first of which actually sounds more polished than its album release, and a live version of “Devil Delight” that appears on the DVD. 1990’s Brigade offers up a demo of “Under the Sky” that is truly compelling in its lack of big studio gloss. Other demos, like the acoustic-guitar accompanied “Dog & Butterfly” show off the Wilsons’ songwriting, rather than Heart’s instrumental and production talents. Although the band’s commercial fortunes began to decline after 1980’s Bebe le Strange, they returned to commercial dominance in 1985 with five singles from Heart. Chief among the successes, and indicative of the band’s changes, was “These Dreams.” Written by Bernie Taupin and Martin Page, and sung by Nancy Wilson, the sound traded in the band’s guitar rock for synth-dominated modern pop, and navigated the commercial winds for the band’s first chart topper.

Heart remained commercially vital throughout the ‘80s, with Bad Animals and Brigade selling multi-platinum and spinning off multiple charting singles, but artistically, their demos, such as the terrific “Unconditional Love” and “Under the Sky” often showed more earthiness and soul than their heavily-produced albums. The first-half of the set’s third-disc is devoted to non-Heart material from the Lovemongers, solo performances, and live and demo tracks that were never remade in the studio. With the big hair ‘90s receding in the rear view mirror, the Wilsons returned to the more organic rock and blues roots with which they started the ‘70s, and the demos show that they still had ideas other people couldn’t fathom as Heart material. The disc closes out with songs from the band’s last three albums, plus “Little Problems, Little Lies,” from Ann Wilson’s solo release.

Curated by Ann and Nancy Wilson, with notes that detail how songs and performances came into being, this is an artist’s view of their career, and one that may not completely agree with a fan’s perspective. The demos and live tracks provide new angles on well-known songs, and the video gives latter-day fans a peek at what they missed seeing and hearing live in the mid-70s. Someone looking for a recitation of the biggest hits in their original form is better off with a single-disc collection or a couple of original albums; with nearly two-dozen charting singles (including a handful of Top 10s) missing from the track lineup, this box is more of a supplement to a Heart fan’s existing collection than a place to start one anew. At over an hour each, the CDs are well stocked, and the live video is an unparalleled treat. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Heart’s Home Page

Willie Nelson: Heroes

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

New songs, western swing classics and contemporary pop covers

Willie Nelson spent nearly two decades with Columbia, starting with his 1975 breakthrough (and first chart topper), Red Headed Stranger. He bounced around a number of majors and indies through the ‘90s and ‘00s, and now returns to the Sony fold via the company’s Legacy division, an imprint known more for its vast array of catalog reissues than for new music. But as a heritage artist, it’s a good fit, as Nelson revisits material from his catalog, chestnuts from the ‘30s and ‘40s, covers of recent pop songs, and new titles from his pen and that of his son, Lukas. The results are vital, and surprisingly coherent, if perhaps not always tightly focused. Covers of Pearl Jam (“Just Breathe”) and Coldplay (“The Scientist”) intermingle with Western Swing (“My Home in San Antone” and a terrifically jazzy “My Window Faces South”), ‘40s weepers (“Cold War with You”), and newly written originals.

The album’s guests include Merle Haggard, Jamey Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price, and in a bit of stunt-casting, Snoop Dogg. Nelson’s voice is more lined with frailty than in his prime, but his idiosyncratic phrasing plays well with the cracks in his tone. He’s joined by his son Lukas on eight of the album’s tracks, which is a bit much of the junior Nelson’s higher, more nasal voice. More impressive are Lukas Nelson’s original songs, including the father-son duet “No Place to Fly” and the painful memories continually resurfacing in “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her.” The elder Nelson’s two new originals include the honky-tonk “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and the western gospel “Come on Back Jesus,” each describing an element of Willie’s faith. Nelson’s still raising hell, albeit in a quieter, more personal way, and drawing on more than fifty years of writing and singing, his music is aging gracefully. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Willie Nelson’s Home Page

Johnny Cash: Bootleg Vol. IV – The Soul of Truth

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

A saved Johnny Cash proclaims faith and salvation

This is the fourth volume in a series of official bootleg releases that document lesser-known material and previously unreleased recordings from the House of Cash studio in Hendersonville, TN. The 51-tracks focuses on Cash’s songs of faith from the 1970s and 80s, and collect the rare 1979 double-LP A Believer Sings the Truth, the withdrawn 1983 album Johnny Cash–Gospel Singer, and an unnamed, previously unreleased gospel album. Additional tracks are culled from 1984’s I Believe and, most important to collectors, is the inclusion of five previously unreleased session outtakes (disc 1, track 25 and disc 2 tracks 23-26). Cash is joined variously by his wife June, sisters-in-law Anita and Helen, daughters Rosanne and Cindy, and son-in-law Rodney Crowell, and the sessions are typically light and upbeat as Cash works through traditional hymns, folk songs and a few contemporary tunes, such as a Dixieland-tinged arrangement of Billy Joe Shaver’s “I’m an Old Chunk of Coal.” Cash sounds at peace with his life in these sessions – a saved man, rather than a sinner wrestling with dark temptations – and the mood is reflected in a clean production sound. If you’re looking for a tormented soul wrestling with his demons, check the back catalog, but if you want to hear a saved man proclaiming the fruits of his faith, this is a fine collection of testimony. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Elvis Presley: Elvis Country (Legacy Edition)

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Elvis caps his remarkable comeback

Recorded in 1970 and released in 1971, Elvis Country was the culmination of a remarkable career resurrection. Starting with his 1968 Comeback Special, Elvis went on to reel off the brilliant From Elvis in Memphis (and the second-helping, Back in Memphis), the smartly constructed Vegas show of On Stage, and the studio/live That’s the Way It Is. He capped the run with this 1971 return to his roots, branding these country, gospel, blues, rockabilly and western swing covers with authority. Elvis showed his genius was rooted in his passion for music, which encompassed everything from the early rockabilly of Sanford Clark’s “The Fool” (written, surprisingly, by Lee Hazlewood) to the then-contemporary hit “Snowbird,” as well as classics from Ernest Tubb, Lester Flatt & Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran.

Recorded in RCA’s famed Studio B with Presley regulars James Burton, Charlie McCoy and Chip Young; the newly assembled studio hands included several players from the Muscle Shoals powerhouse, and the sessions were produced by Felton Jarvis. The arrangements ranged from loose, down home country jams to Vegas-styled orchestrations, and hearing the variety back-to-back, one quickly realizes how easily Elvis transcended the musical boundaries between his ‘50s roots and his glitzy ‘70s stage shows. Much like the 1969 American Studio sessions in Memphis, Elvis’ enthusiasm and musicality directs the assembled players and provokes top-notch performances; he leads the crew through a rocking workout of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and brings “Tomorrow Never Comes” to a volcanic climax.

The original album tracks are knit together with snippets of “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago,” a gimmick that some listeners find irritating, and which wreaks havoc on shuffle play; the complete take is included in the bonuses. An earlier CD reissue expanded the track count from twelve to eighteen, and this double-CD pushes the total to twenty-nine, including all six earlier bonuses. Disc two opens with the third-helping of the Nashville sessions, previously released as Love Letters from Elvis, and adds three more session bonuses: the singles “The Sound of Your Cry” and “Rags to Riches,” and the album track “Sylvia.” The broad range of material on Love Letters doesn’t always connect with Elvis’ legacy as tightly as that on Elvis Country, but Elvis is in fine voice on each track, and the assembled players are sharp.

Everything here’s been issued before, but pulling together session material previously spread across singles, albums, box sets and latter-day compilations has created a superb recounting of the last chapter of Elvis’ incredible comeback. Not included are the eight Nashville tracks released as part of That’s the Way It Is. A third-disc with banded versions of Elvis Country (minus the musical segues, that is) would have been a great addition, but even without it, this is an excellent expansion upon previous standalone reissues, and a terrific complement to the Legacy editions of From Elvis in Memphis and On Stage. The remastered discs (by Vic Anesini) are housed in a tri-fold digipack with a booklet that includes liner notes by Stuart Colman and terrific photos. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Neil Diamond: The Very Best Of Neil Diamond – The Original Studio Recordings

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

An oddly sequenced collection of Diamond’s diamonds

As anyone familiar with Neil Diamond’s career knows, he’s had more hits that could possibly fit onto a single CD. But drawing across his stints on Bang, Uni, Capitol (for which he recorded the soundtrack to The Jazz Singer) and Columbia, this twenty-three track set shows Diamond’s maturation from Brill Building songwriter to hit-making singer to worldwide superstar to reinvented elder statesman. Of course, given the set’s non-chronological programming, you’ll only hear the actual arc of his artistic development if you reprogram the tracks as 12, 4, 9, 10, 16, 21, 20, 18, 6, 11, 21, 7, 5, 13, 8, 17, 2, 14, 1, 3, 15, 22, 23, 19. If you play the set as-is, you’ll start near the end of Diamond’s hit-making career with 1978’s “Forever in Blue Jeans” and spin through a few other 1970s releases before jumping back to 1966’s “Cherry, Cherry.”

Given the focus on hits, it’s easy to excuse the great album tracks left behind, but the inclusion of lesser sides in place of the hits “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” “Longfellow Serenade” and “Heartlight” is surprising. The mix of Top 10s, Adult Contemporary hits (“Beautiful Noise”), low-charting singles that were hits for other artists (“I’m a Believer” and “Red Red Wine”) and latter-day sides with Rick Rubin (“Pretty Amazing Grace” and “Hell Yeah”) covers the breadth and depth of his career, but the muddled timeline and interweaving of mono Bang-era tracks with modern stereo productions is without obvious purpose. Segueing from the 1980’s “Love on the Rocks” to hard-rocking guitars of “Cherry, Cherry” is awkward, as is the mood shift from 1972’s “Play Me” to 1967’s bubblegum-soul “I’m a Believer.”

Despite the set’s odd characteristics, Diamond shines as a talented songwriter who learned early on how to write a hook, and a dramatic vocalist with a memorable voice. He’s been well-served by arrangers and producers who fit his voice into a variety of contexts – guitar-charged rock, organ-backed soul, contemporary pop and huge productions that echo the operatic grandeur of Roy Orbison. Diamond’s song-by-song notes are peppered with interesting recollections and generous sharing of credit with his many exceptional co-workers. It may surprise casual fans to find that he co-wrote with Marilyn and Alan Bergman, was produced by Robbie Robertson, and recorded several of his biggest hits in Memphis at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio.

Noting the missing chart entries, as well as the terrific list price, this is a good single-disc sketch of Diamond’s career as a hit maker, but it’s only a sketch, and only a sketch of his hits. It balances his years at Bang (seven tracks), Uni (seven), Columbia (six) and Capitol (three), and plays well for those wishing to relive the artist’s most familiar songs. The two Rick Rubin-produced cuts, “Pretty Amazing Grace” and “Hell Yeah,” show Diamond still vital and growing in his fifth decade of recording. Still, a career as rich as Diamond’s can’t really be condensed onto one disc; even the three-disc In My Lifetime left fans arguing about what was missing. A more complete picture of Diamond’s early years can be heard by picking up The Bang Years: 1966-1968 and Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings… Plus!, and his Columbia years are well represented on original album reissues and several anthologies. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Neil Diamond’s Home Page