When the first CD boxed sets made their appearance in the late '80s, they seemed a sort of seasonal item, with great potential as Christmas presents but little sales potential during the warmer months. But as the re-issue market grew faster than even the most avaricious catalog managers could have imagined, it quickly became apparent that boxed sets are a year-round phenomenon. With that in mind, what follows is a look at a couple of recent offerings:
THE KING OF ROCK 'N' ROLL: THE COMPLETE 50'S MASTERS. Elvis Presley (RCA 66050, five CDs)
Regardless of where you stood on the Elvis stamp controversy, there's no arguing the fact that Presley's most vital years as a pop star were those between his discovery by Sam Phillips in 1954 and his induction into the Army in 1958. And that, as it turns out, is the focus of "The King of Rock 'N' Roll," a 139-song set
compiling "every original master take released during the 1950s," as well as a generous assortment of oddities and outtakes.
Admittedly, this isn't exactly terra incognito for longtime Elvis fans, many of whom might wonder why they should shell out $80 for yet another copy of "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel." But if sound is a consideration, RCA -- or, to be more precise, the re-issue production team of Ernst Mikael Jorgensen, Roger Semon and audio experts Dick Baxter and Paul Brizzi -- has done an impressive job of restoring the original power and clarity to these now-legendary recordings.
That was no mean feat. Hi-fi, remember, wasn't exactly a consideration when Presley began recording for Sun Records; back then, all that really mattered was whether the recording had enough impact and presence to come across convincingly on the radio. Yet these remasterings are nothing short of stunning, pulling such power from the performances that it's almost like hearing these records for the first time.
On "Mystery Train," for instance, it's amazing to hear the amount of detail that emerges from the murky, reverb-laden mix. Listen close, and you'll realize that what drives the song isn't the ghostly tension in Presley's voice, but the chemistry between his rhythm guitar, Scotty Moore's electric, and Bill Black's slap bass.
Likewise, what seems most striking about this remastered "Blue Suede Shoes" is how much Presley and his sidemen played like a band; when Elvis yells "Rock it!" they really do. And because the recording conveys all the vigor of a live performance, the music takes on an immediacy it hasn't had since the single first entered the charts.
Clarity does have its drawbacks, though. As much as the digital sound adds an edge to some tracks, it seems to take away from others -- particularly as Presley's sound drifted toward the middle of the road. Perhaps the most egregious example is "Hound Dog," in which the biting intensity of Moore's guitar solos is blunted by the hokey harmonies of the Jordanaires (it doesn't help, either, that some of their singing is out of tune). As the remastering makes plain, the added vocals are an irritating intrusion, and in some ways the first artistic misstep of Presley's career.
Still, for the hard-core Elvis fans, the real interest on this set won't be the improved sound, but the newly issued rarities. Among other things, "The King of Rock 'N' Roll" includes both recordings Elvis made for his mother, Gladys, in 1954, giving us a rare glimpse into the King's pre-rock sound (although, to be honest, the most amazing thing about these acetates is that Sun Records head Sam Phillips heard star potential on them).
There are also a host of alternate takes, offering such instructive outtakes as slow and fast versions of "Loving You" as well as unsuccessful tries at "Blue Moon" and "Reconsider Baby." But the most entertaining moments are a few songs recorded at the end of Elvis' first Las Vegas engagement in 1956, which not only show off his droll wit -- he keeps referring to "Heartbreak Hotel" as "Heartburn Hotel" -- but also the lithe authority of that early band. It's enough to make any listener wish he or she had been there.
THE SCEPTER RECORDS STORY. Various Artists (Capricorn 42003, three CDs)
These days, most album buyers think of record companies as massive conglomerates, corporations as bland and faceless as GE or Beatrice Foods. That wasn't the case when rock was young, however. Back then, some labels had such a distinctive identity that their recordings became almost a genre unto themselves, like Motown, or Sun rockabilly, or Chess blues.
That wasn't the case with Scepter Records, though, and perhaps that's why the label is unlikely to ring many bells with rock fans today. It isn't that the music is unfamiliar; indeed, as "The Scepter Records Story" shows, this little label was responsible for some mighty big hits, including the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" and the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie."