Jonathan Takiff recommends some of the best box sets of the holiday season.
MEMORIES of the past are oft romanticized, recalled as grander than things really were. Ah, but with this year's crop of gift-minded music and video box sets culling great art from the past, history isn't just repeating itself. It's actually being improved upon!
Bruce Springsteen, "The Album Collection Vol. 1" (Columbia, 8-CD or -vinyl set): Google-search "Plangent Process" to learn about the magical sound-restorative technology at work here. Or just listen to the seven remastered albums from Springsteen's primo first decade of work, from "Greetings from Asbury Park" to "Born in the U.S.A." - and be blown away by how much fresher, brighter, tighter and more dynamic the music newly sounds on CD or vinyl. The Plangent Process digitally corrects for the "wow and flutter" of analog tape recording and playback, which muddies sound with speed inconsistencies and distortion. Any instrument that offers sustained vibration - like keyboards, saxophone, guitar and drums - is now revealed with much greater realism. Complex interplay is more evident and dynamic. And Bruce's vocals sound so much warmer, sweeter and intimate, you might wonder if he's gone "auto-tune" on us.
" 'Motown 25': Yesterday, Today, Forever" (Star Vista Entertainment/TimeLife, 3-DVD set): Most remember this special for the world premiere of the Moonwalk - Michael Jackson's impossibly effortless glide across the stage during "Billie Jean": the song-and-dance routine that crowned him the "New Fred Astaire." But OMG, there's so much more to (re)discover in this silver-anniversary celebration of Motown Records (and films). A still-in-his-prime Smokey Robinson works again with the Miracles and duets with Linda Ronstadt. Stevie Wonder tosses off a rich medley with a roaring band. The Temptations vs. Four Tops battle of the vocal groups is so smokin' it could start a bonfire. And how about Marvin Gaye, offering a musical history lesson (there's lots of that here) at the piano before launching into "What's Going On"? High point: Bonus feature of Gaye's rehearsals of the routine.
"Audrey Hepburn Collection" (Warner Bros.): Wonder where Michael Jackson got his moves and fashion sense? Check out Ms. Hepburn in all her gamin glory (circa 1956) in the Gershwins-scored film musical "Funny Face," slip-sliding and spinning on tippy-toes in a look-alike outfit with ankle-exposing capri pants, white sox and loafers, more than holding her own with co-star Fred Astaire. New Blu-ray package also shines up "Sabrina" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Such a charmer, she was!
"Looney Tunes Platinum Collection - Volume 3" (Warner Bros.): Up through the 1960s, a cartoon warmed up a movie-theater audience before the feature, with "Looney Tunes" reigning supreme. You can/should do the same at home with one of these 50 gems, featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Tweety, Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. The Blu-ray restorations are pretty as a picture; sound is best when the team is riffing on classical music themes. Prescreening recommended - not all are kid-friendly or politically correct!
Bob Dylan and The Band - "The Basement Tapes Complete" (Columbia 6-CD set): Heard first in hissy/distorted bootlegs, then in an official but truncated monaural set, Dylan fans can finally feast with good sonic stereo fidelity on all the goodies that Bob and the boys were cooking up as "demo" discs at Big Pink, mostly in the spring and summer of 1967 - a diverse crop of new songs and covers, actually, that would give rise to the eclectic musical movement now called "Americana." The trove comes with two essay- and photo-endowed books.
Ry Cooder - "Soundtracks" (Warner Bros): Another Americana pioneer, super guitar-picker/tunesmith Cooder (and friends like Los Lobos) mash up earthy acoustic music on this seven-disc set of movie sound tracks for such flicks as "The Long Riders," "Paris, Texas" and "Alamo Bay."
"Led Zeppelin IV - Super Deluxe Edition" and "The Houses of the Holy - Super Deluxe Edition" (Atlantic): Six pounds of Led per box! Starts with improved sound CD and 180-gram vinyl LP remasters of the rock landmarks. Adds dual format (CD + vinyl) bundles of rough mixes, plus a hardback picture book, a fine-art print of the cover and an HD-music download voucher. FYI: The same Jimmy Page-remastered music (including alt mixes) also can be had in double CD sets.
"Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show - The Complete Series" (Shout!Factory); "Mr. Ed - The Complete Series" (Shout! Factory); "The Jeffersons" Complete Series - The Deee-Lux Edition" (Shout!Factory); "The Red Skelton Show - The Early Years 1951-1955" (Timeless Media Group); "Secret Agent - The Complete Series" (ITV Studios); "Pee Wee's Playhouse - The Complete Series," (Shout!Factory Blu-ray):
The golden age of TV glows again, in these super-thorough collections.
Binge for a month on 11 seasons (33 DVD discs) of "The Jeffersons," Norman Lear's comedic take on an upwardly mobile, African-American family, fronted by Philadelphian Sherman Hemsley.
Today's kids should delight in the talking horse "Mr. Ed," who clearly knows best, and the surreal multimedia twisting of kiddie TV wrought by Pee Wee Herman - by far the glossiest (and sometimes even educational) show of this bunch, in its enhanced Blu-ray finessing.
A black-and-white TV-era-spawned Red Skelton is the circus clown of the crew, while Phil Silvers' conning weasel of an army sergeant and his motor pool of second bananas owe their schtick to vaudeville and burlesque.
Patrick McGoohan (better known for "The Prisoner") serves admirably as the Secret Agent man - a Brit bringing down baddies with wits rather than fists.
Flat-panel TV sets
Rather go HBO-nobbing? All-inclusive boxes of "The Sopranos" and "True Blood" can be hauled home this holiday. Each costs more than a pint of plasma.
Frank Sinatra - "London" (Universal): Sparked by the Voice's rarely heard (on thesse shores) "Great Songs from Great Britain" album, the Sinatra clan's gathered that lush ballad set, plus four lengthy U.K. concert recordings, into a themed, three-CD plus DVD gift-set offering. Special fave: the "Live at the Royal Festival Hall" videodisc combining an intimate (with sextet), black-and-white Sinatra show from 1962, then his 1970 return (in living color) with big band and our own Princess Grace as serene hostess.
The Allman Brothers Band - "The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings" (Mercury/UME); "All My Friends - Celebrating the Songs & Voice of Gregg Allman" (Rounder 2-CD + DVD): Aptly timed to the retirement of the Allman Brothers Band, the six-CD Fillmore folio expands on the two-disc concert album that awakened millions to their jamming country/blues/rockin'/jazz glories. Package boasts all four shows played the weekend of March 12-13, 1971, plus the group's June 27 performance that closed the fabled New York theater.
Recorded recently at the Fox Theater in Atlanta (Allman's home turf), "All My Friends" is also a hearty farewell from the usual suspects (Warren Haynes, Tedeschi-Trucks, Widespread Panic, Allman Bros.) and significant others, including Eric Church, Trace Adkins, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal, Keb' Mo' and Dr. John.
"The Midnight Special" (Star Vision/Time Life, 6 DVD): The '70s Wayback Machine also has summoned up this pioneering music series, which kept NBC-TV and viewers lit late (it actually started at 1 a.m. Saturday mornings!) Talent bookings all played live - rockers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, the Cars, Sly & the Family Stone, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, Crystal Gayle, Barry White, the Miracles, Rufus, the Village People and Chic. Philly's talent pool was well-represented, too - Hall & Oates, Todd Rundgren, Jim Croce, Billy Paul and (then-resident) Janis Ian.
"REMTV" (MTV/Rhino 6- DVD): Fifteen-hour R.E.M. marathon of globe-spanning performances reminds how indebted this rock band was to MTV, and how the channel once was a force in breaking/building acts.
Joni Mitchell "Love Has Many Faces" (Rhino): Her voice sadly shot from smoking, the artpop queen reorganizes her glorious past into themed CDs - "Birth of Rock 'n Roll Days," "The Light Is Hard to Find," "Love Has Many Faces," "If You Want Me I'll Be in the Bar." A Mitchell-penned essay and artwork dress the folio.
"Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection" (Warner Bros.): One of the weightiest of film auteurs ("Dr. Strangelove," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Full Metal Jacket," "A Clockwork Orange," etc.) earns a first-rate Blu-ray salute with eight films, documentaries and a 78-page book.
"Uncompromising Expression" (Blue Note): Blue Note jazz label celebrates 75 years with this telling collection of funky, gutsy, blues- and gospel-groovin' ditties once released as "singles." But breathe easy, BN devotees. Many tracks in the five-disc collection are unabridged album versions.
"The Marx Brothers TV Collection" (Shout! Factory); " 'Mork & Mindy' - The Complete Series" (Paramount); Monty Python - "Total Rubbish" (UMe); "Monty Python Live, 'One Down Five To Go' " (Eagle Vision Blu-ray):
Spread lots o' laughter with the kings of anarchical/surreal comedy and their spiritual offspring. Groucho, Harpo and Chico are seen in series' of their own, as drop-ins on the Milton Berle and Jack Benny shows and acting on the "General Electric Theater" (hosted by Ronald Reagan). Not on par with their lunatic films, but fun. "Mork" captures Robin Williams at his alien wackadoodle (1978-82) prime. "Total Rubbish" combines all nine U.K.-released Monty Python albums in a slipcase with special book. And for just deserts, also pile on this summer's surprisingly well-done "MP Live" reunion spectacle at the O2 arena in London.
Ho, ho, ho!