Monday, December 23, 2013

The Deluxe Edition: The Compact Disc’s Ultimate Legacy

For years now, the tech-heads have been telling us that the compact disc is dying. Assuming that to be the case — CD sales are down, used CD sales have flatlined, vinyl LP sales are on the rise, and on-line downloads continue to dominate the market — maybe its time to pay tribute to the CD before it’s too late, and acknowledge a relatively short but productive life.

CDs ushered in radical changes in music packaging and consumption, from the artwork to the sound, and eventually to piracy. The growing pains, at least from the first two, were offset in large part by the sheer capacity of the compact disc. A typical LP was about 20 minutes per side, meaning maybe 40 minutes of music per album. Maybe less. A standard CD, meanwhile, holds about 80 minutes of music, which allows double LPs to be released on single discs, but also allows single LPs to be expanded by adding outtakes and alternate tracks from the original recording sessions, all on one disc.

This bonus material ultimately grew from expanded single discs to a proliferation of box sets and deluxe editions. Box sets did not start with the CD, but the smaller packaging and expanded capacity enabled box sets to flourish in the CD age. Box sets allow record companies to release an artist’s entire catalogue, or huge chunks of it — plus outtakes, alternate tracks, rehearsals, demos, and live versions — all in one tidy package. Box sets often include video DVDs, plus books with photos and detailed liner notes.

For those interested in a less sprawling and more focused package than the box set, there is the deluxe edition, usually a single album expanded into two or more CDs, jammed with extra material, including expanded liner notes. The deluxe edition is probably the CD’s greatest contribution to record collecting. There are some absolutely incredible and essential deluxe editions out there, including, in alphabetical order:

At Fillmore East, Eat A Peach and Brothers And Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band
Blind Faith
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by the Byrds
Eric Clapton and 461 Ocean Boulevard by Eric Clapton
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Layla by Derek And The Dominos
Copperhead Road by Steve Earle
What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye
Benefit by Jethro Tull
Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John
Burnin’, Catch A Fire, and Exodus by Bob Marley & The Wailers
McCartney, Ram, Band On The Run, Wings Over America and McCartney II by Paul McCartney
Damn The Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Exile On Main Street and Some Girls by the Rolling Stones
My Generation, Sell Out, Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia by the Who
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. by Dwight Yoakam

That’s a very incomplete but extremely impressive list, all highly recommended, with new reissues being added all the time. In fact, two essential deluxe editions hit the racks this fall: Moondance by Van Morrison and Muswell Hillbillies by the Kinks.

Originally released in 1970, Moondance is Morrison’s signature album and one of the best rock albums of all time, a bouncy, jazzy contemplation of spiritualism, mysticism and personal redemption. Self-produced, Moondance was Morrison’s first commercially successful album, and the first he released after moving to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1969. A top-rank vocal stylist who’d already recorded iconic songs with Them (“Here Comes The Night,” “Mystic Eyes,” “Gloria”) and as a solo act (“Brown-Eyed Girl”), Morrison’s vocals on Moondance are especially powerful, soulful and evocative, maybe the best of his storied career.

The reissue of Moondance is available as a four-disc set with a DVD, and a two-disc deluxe edition, the second disc of which includes alternate versions of eight of the original album’s 10 tracks, highlighted by a 10-minute “I’ve Been Working.” The entire album was remixed for HD and then remastered. The resulting sound is as exceptional as the music itself.

Muswell Hillbillies is a great overlooked classic. Coming at the end of a remarkable creative arc by the Kinks — an arc that also included The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) in 1969, and Lola Vs. The Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part 1 in 1970 — Muswell Hillbillies arrived in stores in 1971, the Kinks' first album on the RCA label, and if anything it only raised the creative bar on its predecessors.

In writing the songs for Muswell Hillbillies, Ray Davies used a pastiche of American roots music to paint a Davies family portrait centered in the Muswell Hill suburb north of London. The Davies moved to Muswell Hill from the working-class inner-city neighborhoods of London when Ray was a teenager, and they struggled to fit into the more middle-class environs north of the city. Those struggles are the narrative of the album. Alcoholism, incarceration, eating disorders, the plight of the working man, mental illness, Davies addresses them all with his typical penetrating humor and satire.

The bonus disc from Muswell Hillbillies includes three outtakes from the original expanded CD, plus three alternate tracks, one demo, two 1976 remixes, and three live tracks from the Kensington House in 1972. Among the gems on the second disc is the previously unreleased outtake “Lavender Lane,” a second track featuring the notorious Rosie Rook from the album’s title song. As is the case with the remastered Moondance, the re-digitalized Muswell Hillbillies sounds immaculate.

So that’s two more deluxe editions to add to your collection, classic albums with lots of extra goodies to digest. And remember, it never would have happened if not for the compact disc.

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