Friday, February 09, 2018

Album Review: Stax Singles, Volume 4: Rarities & the Best of the Rest

What’s the best music the United States produced in the 20th century?  Candidates range from the songs forged at Tin Pan Alley in the early 1900s to the New York raps of Nas and Jay-Z in the ‘90s.  While I wouldn’t bicker with anyone who nominated Aaron Copland’s compositions, the salsa issued by Fania Records, Hank Williams’ pain songs, prime Kansas City swing, Meters-driven New Orleans funk or ferocious Chicago blues, my favorite sound is the earthy Memphis soul documented by Stax Records.

Released today, the six-disc boxed set Stax Singles, Volume 4: Rarities & the Best of the Rest contains a treasure trove of some of the finest music of the last 100 years.

The first three discs are essential for anyone who already owns The Complete Stax/Volt Singles (1959-1968), The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles: 1968-1971 and The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles: 1972-1975.  As Rob Bowman asserts in his liner notes, the first half of the collection consists of “75 B-sides released between 1960 and 1975 that are, by and large, better than most companies’ A-sides.”

Far from dregs, these B-sides are extraordinary.  Standouts include Bobby Marchan’s manic proto-punk “That’s the Way Life Goes,” Dorothy Williams’ rabid “Watchdog,” Booker T. & the MG’s elegant “Sunday Sermon,” the Soul Children’s devastating “Poem on the School House Door” and Shirley Brown’s uplifting “Yes Sir Brother.”  As I continue to enjoy these 75 life-affirming songs for the remainder of my life, I’m certain to embrace new favorites.

The less said about the fourth disc the better.  Appallingly wretched schlock like Billy Eckstine’s “I Wanna Be Your Baby” and the overwrought acid rock of Finley Brown’s “Gypsy” dominate the dated material culled from the Stax subsidiary Enterprise.  The 26 songs from the Hip imprint on the fifth disc are far more compelling.  Ranging from the Goodees’ berzerk pop freakout “Condition Red” to Cargoe’s power-pop gem “Feel Alright,” the disc contains plenty of worthy curiosities.

The boxed set returns to soulful form on the sixth and final disc with 22 exquisite sacred songs from the Chalice and Gospel Truth labels.  The Dixie Nightingales’ civil rights anthem “Forgive These Fools” and Pops Staples’ eerie “Tryin’ Time” are among the cleansing hosannas.

Aside from the completist-only dreck on the fourth disc, my sole objection to Stax Singles, Volume 4: Rarities & the Best of the Rest is the failure of the 78-page booklet to identify the A-side for each of the tracks on the first three discs.  I’ve been compelled to spend more time than I’d care to admit doing research at Discogs.  Even so, geeky inquests aren’t necessary to appreciate the indispensable set.  After all, it contains more than four hours of the best music ever made.

(Original image by There Stands the Glass.)

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