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CD Mailbag - Reissue Special: Oasis, Refused, Billy Squier, Buzzcocks, Concrete Blonde, Cheap Trick, Jefferson Airplane

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Oasis - Time Flies: 1994-2009 - Legacy Recordings - Available Now

Part of the reason why I may have been so resistant to Oasis’ cheeky British charms in the 1990s was the sheer size of the hype that accompanied them, suggesting that not only were they the greatest thing since the Beatles, but better than the ACTUAL Beatles. After hearing only a bit of the music, the backlash was more convincing than the thing itself. But since I don’t live in England, where they’re still inventing new awards just to give them to Oasis every other week, I can dismiss all that as having happenned a long time ago, and listen again objectively.

And what do you know, they’re actually not too bad. I don’t know if they’re all that, but if you’re in the mood for a summer picnic sunshiney kinda vibe, the hit rate on this set is pretty high. This 2-CD collection culls all but one of their British single A-sides and adds “Champagne Supernova” for the Yanks (oddly, it was never a single in Britain). While the first disc includes most of their most famous tunes - “Wonderwall”, “Cigarettes And Alcohol”, “Live Forever”, “All Around The World” - I had more fun with the hazy psychedelia on disc two, in which the promise of melding together the entire history of English rock music is at least partially fulfilled. You can sit there and pick out a Pink Floyd-sounding part, followed by the T. Rex part, followed by a bit that sounds like the Jam, and it’s all got a Stone Roses beat under it. If you like most of those bands, it’s easy to bop along.

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An expanded edition available as a British import trades “Sunday Morning Call” for “Champagne Supernova”, staying true to the promise of a “UK A-sides collection”, and tosses in a DVD with all 38 of their music videos plus a couple of live clips, and a live CD from their end of days, recorded at the London Roundhouse in July of 2009. Vinyl junkies can also avail temselves of a 5-LP boxed set with the 27 A-sides.

Refused - The Shape Of Punk To Come - Epitaph Records - Available Now

Speaking of European bands from the nineties that came with heavy hype attached, here’s one that actually lived up to their promise for a few minutes. The Shape Of Punk To Come was a startling album on its release in 1998, and remains so today. Their key musical signifiers - the ominous tone, the extreme dynamic shifts, the occasional intrusion of electronics - might have become more familiar in time through repetition by their followers (the entire genre of Screamo could be classified as an unsuccessful attempt to deliver the follow-up to this one LP). But it’s still striking to hear a band that sounds like they really, truly, unironically MEAN IT like this one does. They even have a manifesto for liner notes, a hysterical multi-page polemic that quotes Thomas Paine, the kind of thing could only have been written by a young person who’s on a mission from God. Say what you will about people who are swept up in single-minded righteousness, that they’re annoying, incorrect or etc., but admit that they sometimes have an edge when it comes to playing rock music. The courage of Refused’s convictions, like Crass and the MC5 before them, gives them that extra kick that enables them to crawl out of the speakers and put a hand around the listener’s throat just like that girl from The Ring.

Epitaph’s 3-disc deluxe edition includes a CD of a well-recorded and properly explosive live show from Europe in the spring of 1998, and a DVD that includes their two videos as well as grainy camcorder footage of every song on the album from various fan-filmed bootlegs. But the big attraction is the inclusion of guitarist Kristofer Steen’s documentary Refused Are Fuckin’ Dead. The hour-long film goes into the “what” of the band’s demise, with footage from their disastrous final show at a basement party in Virginia, but leaves out a lot of the “why.” The same band that preached “reclaim art, take back fine art and culture for the people, the working people, the living people, and burn down their art galleries and destroy their fancy constructions and buildings” in their “very much for real” manifesto, can be heard to whine “I thought we deserved something better” (presumably, a show in a nice building), as their tour schedule continued taking them through the squats and punk clubs of Europe, over a nine-month period.

It’s a pretty fascinating peek into what happens when you base your aesthetic on total commitment, and make no allowance for the possibility of ever getting tired. When the group’s last show is stopped by the cops after just two songs, one of the members claims “I could have kissed them...it seemed like they were there to take care of us.” But as someone once said, it’s better to burn out than to fade away, and Refused burned as bright as anybody in their brief existence. This is a nifty collection of everything that made them special.

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Billy Squier - Don't Say No: 30th Anniversary Edition - Shout! Factory - Available July 27

Confession: this review is being written as the disc sits, still sealed, on the mantle where we keep the mail. It may seem unfair to write about something not yet experienced but, trust me. I have met this album before, oh yes. I even saw Squier live once, supporting Pat Benatar in the summer of 1981, right before this album became totally inescapable on rock radio, at a time when rock radio was also inescapable. It might be hard to imagine for someone who didn’t live through it, but in those pre-internet days, pre-MTV and home video even, for most kids, you didn’t have much choice if you wanted to listen to some music. You could play one of your albums, and teenagers were lucky if they had more than fifteen or twenty to choose from, otherwise you had to listen to the radio. Anytime more than three people were together, someone would want to crank the radio, one of the two “classic rock” stations in town, and you had to listen to what was on.

So even though I was perfectly aware that this was terrible, vanilla ice milk music blown up with an air hose to arena-sized proportions, and read his popularity as a signifier that popular music was heading toward a monstrous wrong turn (correct), I was nevertheless FORCED to listen to more Billy Squier music than any human being should reasonably have to endure in a lifetime, at a tender and defenseless age. And as a result of having endured this trauma, I would sooner slice my leg open with a shit-stained pocketknife than listen to Billy Squier music in my own home. It’s too much to ask.

But in the interest of providing consumer advice for those people unswayed by my expert opinion, who are maybe thinking it’s time to upgrade their worn-out vinyl copy, I will inform you that this version of the album does contain two bonus tracks - live versions of “The Stroke” and “In The Dark” recorded in 2009, at least twenty-five years past his prime. Lousy food, and such small portions.

Buzzcocks - Another Music In A Different Kitchen (Spkg); Love Bites (Spkg); A Different Kind Of Tension (Spkg) - Mute Records - Available Now

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I think it’s time we just give it up and declare the Buzzcocks the kings of English punk once and for all. Argument in favor: only band of their era to release three truly great albums in a row (maybe the Clash would have three great ones if you could take the duff tracks from Give Em Enough Rope and side four of London Calling out of existence, but you can’t), the one with the highest number of essential singles, and the one that was most influential in the most positive way. They’re also the most ageless, the least tied to that particular moment in time, and thus the most relevant today.

This is pop-punk in the form it’s still played today, but elevated. In a scene where love songs were considered silly and old-fashioned, they responded with the tenderest, truest love songs of the decade. Even their bleakest statements of futility like “I Don’t Know What To With My Life” and “Operator’s Manual” still ring with truth; they feel like manifestos even when all they’re declaring is confusion. The band had a mastery of song construction, the ability to take a pop hook and exploit its every textural possibility without losing momentum. They nudged into conceptual art territory on occasion, particularly on 1979’s A Different Kind Of Tension with its use of repetition and subtly shifting dynamics, but even their weirdest songs retained the propulsive energy of their hits.

With these new two-disc deluxe editions, you get the band’s complete studio releases during their United Artists period from 1977 to 1980, the three LPs plus all of the associated singles from their respective eras. Material from the bonus discs includes reasonably hi-fi demos of the songs as works-in-progress, Peel Sessions, instrumental backing tracks suitable for your karaoke machine, and a number of foaming live performances. While the demos are occasionally interesting, the live stuff is where the action is, proving what a tight little machine they were even as they were still learning to play. I think that’s Steve Diggle playing the bass on the first live stuff we hear, recorded shortly after guitarist Pete Shelley’s taken over vocal duties from the departed Howard Devoto, and it’s instructive to compare to the tracks that come immediately after, recorded just months later. You can really hear a hole in their early sound, which would soon be filled in by Diggle’s second guitar, as well as the fluid bass playing of Steve Garvey. You don’t get to witness the “eureka” moment where they transform into a whole different band, but you get to stand on either side of it and smile at the difference.

Concrete Blonde - Bloodletting (20th Anniversary Edition) - Shout! Factory - Available July 13

Listening to this album brings me right back to the summer of 1990. In the two years right before grunge hit it big, there was an odd moment in commercial alternative rock where no one seemed sure what was coming next, and weird things that didn’t fit into any specific genre would occasionally get thrown at the wall. Concrete Blonde broke out with this, their third album, right at the time, when it was possible to gain attention despite their inability to be pegged: was this a goth thing, or a “classic rock” band, can we call it metal? None of the above?

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This lack of affinity with any of the scenes going at the moment it was made may also be the reason why the album still sounds good today. And of course there’s Johnette Napolitano’s voice, a versatile instrument that manages to invoke just about every great female rock singer you’ve ever heard while remaining uniquely her own. I’m still not sure if the chorus in “Caroline” reminds me of Stevie Nicks or Patti Smith, which is usually not such a hard call. Guitarist James Mankey is equally shifty, playing multi-layered, ultra-precise Lindsay Buckingham licks on the ballads, and conjuring the smoke of hell for the heavy ones. And while the “dated” production remains an issue for some, I love the fact that Napolitano and Mankey picked Chris Tsangarides to produce them based on his track record with Thin Lizzy. It does sound like a classic rock record, the kind of thing you should still hear on KLOS even though you never do.

Shout! Factory’s reissue adds six bonus tracks of b-sides and live material that I actually enjoyed even more than the original LP (only the drum-machine driven French version of the title track fails to impress), including “Roses Grow”, containing Napolitano’s stab at smoking MCs; a smoking-hot run-through of their gnarliest fast one, “The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden”, and a simmering take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” Even if you still own it, worth getting just for the new stuff.

Cheap Trick, Jefferson Airplane, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash - Setlist - The Very Best Of: Live - Legacy Music - Available July 13

The live album is a revered tradition for just about every artist that was big in the seventies - quick, think of a big rock or country band that DIDN’T have one. And for most, the ensuing years have inevitably led to the release of box sets or “deluxe editions” with unreleased live things among the bonus tracks. Legacy’s Setlist series is an attempt to compile a mix-tape from all the available sources including the most famous ones like Double Live Gonzo and Unleashed In The East, along with the lesser-known releases, and sometimes even throws in a few things from the vault for good measure.

What’s interesting is, they don’t attempt to recreate the artist’s Greatest Hits collection. If a band has five or six really well known songs, their Setlist disc will probably include two or maybe three of them, among a lot of other stuff that won’t be as familiar to the casual fan. I like Cheap Trick pretty well, I have Live At Budokan, Expanded Edition as well as their first four albums, but I never bothered to pick up their box set or special edition CDs, so a lot of this is new to me. Since the sets are announced as being priced for the “budget-minded consumer” (Amazon has ‘em for $7.99), the hardcore fans who already own ¾ of the material but need the couple of unreleased songs won’t have to feel too badly put out by the purchase.

Of course “unreleased live material” from these bands could potentially include tapes of their most recent reunion tour. But in this case, the previously unheard material is generally from the artist’s vintage period - Jefferson Airplane’s are from San Francisco gigs in 1966 and 67, and sound just fine. We didn’t get to check out the series releases from Ted Nugent, Blue Oyster Cult, Judas Priest and others but based on the overall quality of the discs we sampled, I’d say they’re likely to be worth the bargain price. These are the kind of discs it would be fun to find at a truck stop in the middle of a long trip, when you’re sick of all your CDs. Cheap, sometimes surprising, and generally enjoyable; I look forward to the next series.