When Now Wasn’t Soon Enough

Nowadays, anybody can become an armchair Anglophile. Scan the charts, YouTube the videos, study the Wikipedia entries, and any insomniac with a computer might make a better anthology than Rhino’s 16-year-spanning 78-track shrine to emphatically English guitar bands, The Brit Box. But when most of this stuff was new, you had to be self-sacrificing and insane enough to make your fixation more important than square meals or sensible housing or drugs or babies. It’s disconcerting to see a good chunk of one’s life reduced to an unduly democratic track listing bound to be P2P’d for free.

Like most genre anthologies, The Brit Box telescopes much of the distance between superstars and common people: Blur and Babybird alike get one track each. Some U.K. smashes are omitted in favor of U.S.-college-radio also-rans (hello Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Rodney Bingenheimer faves Birdland), while jangly guitar bands crowd out most dance-rock crossovers. This and the usual licensing complications means no Jesus Jones, EMF, or the Soup Dragons at the beginning, and no Beta Band, Robbie Williams, or Radiohead at the end. For every major band that epitomized an era or minor act with a brilliant moment (Rialto’s Spector-esque “Untouchable,” Silver Seas’ harmony-drenched “Service”), many others included here achieved U.K. credibility for reasons not audibly apparent: As former Select scribe Andrew Perry admits in his liner notes, Brits favor signifiers over chops. Between My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub on the shoegazer-heavy disc two, there’s rarely a melody, riff, or lyric worth remembering. Bleach, Five Thirty, Moose, and the Family Cat deluded themselves that the right sustain pedal could revitalize any tired Velvet Underground or Byrds rip. Certainly none of this lot could compete with Nirvana. Even the British press knew this: They embraced our grunge before we did. The subsequent Britpop avalanche—like punk before it—had to happen.

Or not. Whether it was synth-pop, hi-NRG, house, or the other club permutations that occurred between 1984 and 1999, U.K. dance music eclipsed the popularity and cultural significance of all but the supernovas included here. With Anglophilia once again a hip indie option and most electronica now in decline, it’s easy to forget how feeble much of this sounded back then next to the dance hits that typically outsold Brit Box fare like Cast, Marion, Kula Shaker, and other retrograde cash-ins. If the compilers dared to include just one British rave hit on the level of Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free (to Feel Good),” they would’ve blown away this crazy idea still maintained by the British music press that their serious rock is categorically more compelling or enduring than their scintillating pop. Sugababes and Girls Aloud have far better tunes than Pete Doherty, but you can’t find their CDs in our stores.

Given their hunger to hype, trash, and replace, the Brit media routinely serves as accomplices in the destruction of countless bands. While Oasis, represented by the admittedly sublime early single “Live Forever,” believed their headlines, Suede, Echobelly, Blur, Elastica, Pulp, Spiritualized, and Mansun—all of them far more clever—soon imploded in the spotlight. Ambitious American bands from My Chemical Romance to Modest Mouse now want to sound like Mansun’s 1998 prog-glam-psych-punk-metal extravaganza Six, but it’s likely that they never even heard of Mansun, because the British press typically shredded this willfully mercurial quartet before it could find a stateside audience. Britpop wasn’t built to last.

But memories will endure. The time I spent swooning over the Smiths, New Order, and their children will make up for the lack of my own, even if asserting this now seems as embarrassing as it is absurd. Obsession remains its own reward.


Oh, the Humanity

Hardly a collection of Harry Smith outtakes—although a number of his favorite songsters are represented—the 70 blood-chilling, ballad-heavy tales in People Take Warning! should dispel any sense of the good old days. Trains collide (with and without Casey Jones), planes crash (including the one carrying Will Rogers), zeppelins go down, buses plunge off bridges into ravines, levees break, schools (and prisons) burn, mines explode, and tornadoes wreak havoc. There are plagues, epidemics, droughts, and a slew of songs devoted to the great 1927 Mississippi flood. One disc concerns mechanical malfunctions, the second is devoted to acts of God, and the third belongs to the murderous. The effect is like thumbing through the gruesome old photographs in Wisconsin Death Trip or watching Fox 5 News or listening to Rudy Giuliani’s stump speech. “Crude and rudimentary pulp . . . the oral tabloids of the day,” writes Tom Waits in his appreciative introduction.

The most spectacular tabloid topical is Bill Cox’s two-part report from 1935 on the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, “The Trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann.” Cox is also represented by that same year’s “Fate of Will Rogers and Wiley Post,” but Hank Sapoznik-—who co-produced this elegantly packaged item together with Christopher King—credits Vernon Dalhart’s 1925 “Death of Floyd Collins” (guy trapped in cave) with jump-starting the craze. Although old news by then, the Titanic was the disaster supreme; People Take Warning opens with Hi Henry Brown and Charlie Jordan’s 1932 blues: “Some was drinkin’/Some was playing cards/Some was in the corner prayin’ to their God.” Other tributes include Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt’s specially dedicated 1913 recording of the Hebrew prayer “El Mole Rachmin,” Ernest Stoneman’s cautionary “The Titanic” (1924), and three from 1927: medicine-show minstrel Rabbit Brown’s lively “Sinking of the Titanic,” Frank Hutchison’s phantasmagorical “The Last Scene of the Titanic,” and William and Versey Smith’s sensational, sanctified skiffle-beat “When That Great Ship Went Down,” one of only two songs here overlapping the Anthology of American Folk Music. For attitude, however, it’s hard to top the Dixon Brothers’ affably punitive 1938 “Down with the Old Canoe.”

People Take Warning is heavier on hillbilly than blues or gospel, which accounts for a certain sing-song monotony if you listen to all three hours in a single sitting. In his notes, Sapoznik makes the provocative observation that murder ballads and disaster songs were largely targeted at whites. That’s particularly apparent in the third disc, which includes only two race records, bad-man ballads both: the great Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis’s 1927 “Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee” and Piedmont guitar picker Willie Walker’s 1930 “Dupree Blues.” The inference is that the ongoing social disaster of being African-American in America was not something to merchandise on records.


Worry About the Government

When Britain’s hep world-music emporium Soul Jazz last investigated Brazil in 2006, the cover of their Tropicália set depicted cops wielding batons. And for good reason, as that ’60s art-film-theater-poetry-music movement—beautiful while it briefly bloomed between the Summer of Love and May of ’68—soon found itself crushed under the military dictatorship’s boot. The police locked up singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in an undisclosed secret prison, then deported them to London. Who wouldn’t distance themselves from tropicália after that?

But just as the notion of “amor” was subterfuge to the empire of “Roma,” a bronzed couple nuzzle on the cover of Brazil 70. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the set opens with “Amor,” by clear Kiss precedents Secos e Molhados, rocking feather boas and silver-faced androgyny. Throughout, the compilation depicts just how MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) navigated the void left by tropicália and the omniscience of the government’s stringent board of censors. The exchange was a tricky one. This strain of pop, evergreen and agog, was rendered mostly by long-haired, free-loving desbundos (dropouts) at the periphery of society. Popular among Brazilian youth, the music insinuated freedoms that neither the artists nor their audience quite possessed. Trickier still was that the military dictatorship twisted MPB to its own nefarious ends (a similar fate befell Pelé and the Brazil ’70 fútbol team), making it serve as a cultural export showing that all was just peachy down south.

Drawing from such a fertile musical culture for the compilation, Soul Jazz would be hard-pressed to muck it up (though they have in the past with their lackluster U.K., NYC, and Brazilian punk comps). While it’s tough to call “essential” any overview of MPB that wholly excludes Milton Nascimento’s indelible Clube de Esquina, this breezy, exhilarating, succinct set is damned close to perfect. The old guard of tropicália (Gal Costa, Rita Lee, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Tom Zé) all make appearances, eschewing the psychedelic-era Beatles influence that coursed through that music movement, and instead amalgamating funk, hard rock, and hand-drum-heavy Brazilian folk. The real surprises, though, are heretofore unknown (to me, at least) acts like Ednardo e o Pessoal do Ceara, Raul Seixas, and Jards Macale. And how better to be introduced to the pleasures of Novos Baianos? This collective jammed indigenous samba, frevo, choro, and prog-rock while simultaneously maintaining a communal farming co-op and their own fútbol team, making North American “collectives” seem rather pale in comparison.


Funky Drummers and Orchestral Masterminds

I’m an old-school fool who’ll steal a 45 (that’s a record, son) over a compact disc any night of the week, but when labels push lushly packaged CD compilations encompassing dope, hard-to-find original albums, I can only say, “Um, pretty please?” Such is the case with a long-overdue duo of two-CD sets that illuminate two master musicians who to this day continue to mess up genres and make music.

Years before Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his Afrika 70 juggernaut attained iconic status trailblazing Afrobeat throughout Lagos and the world (raising all sorts of hell in the process), another sax-playing Nigerian bandleader was already forging his own brand of booty-bouncin’ Afropop. True, here in the U.S., Orlando Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode is no household name (firstly, you’d need a sizable house), but to crate-diggers worldwide he has long been worth getting all dusty-fingered over. Julius began churning out breakbeat-laden singles in the early ’60s with his 10-piece band, the Modern Aces, and when in 1966 they birthed their first long-player, Super Afro Soul, he demonstrated his uncanny skills at bridging the Atlantic by mashing Latin percussion, high-life guitars, r&b horns, and a nascent funk attack—all particularly showcased on “Ijo Soul,” a song strikingly similar to James Brown’s mega-hit “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Which came first? Sorry, do your own homework.

Residing in Ibadan, Orlando used his orchestral prowess to attract musicians from all over, including one trumpet-wielding Fela Kuti. Fela, freshly returned from London and looking to get his own mojo working, frequently sat in, soaked up Julius’s juice, soon traded trumpet for sax, “borrowed” a few Modern Aces, and formed the Koola Lobitos, the band that would hammer out the sonic blueprint for Afrobeat before Fela’s infamous Afrika 70 officially catapulted it. This reissue seeks to steal a bit of that original mojo back; a second disc, subtitled Orlando’s Afro Ideas 1969-72, adds select tracks from Julius’s three subsequent albums.

Afrobeat, of course, would be nothing without its furiously distinct beat, and this beat would be nothing without its father, longtime Kuti cohort Tony Oladipo Allen. An octopus-like polyrhythmic machine, Allen was to Fela and Afrobeat what Melvin Parker/Jabo Starks/Clyde Stubblefield were to James Brown and funk: These drummers simply deepened and changed the pocket of popular music forever. Unlike JB’s funky drum corps, however, Allen (who had helped Kuti jump-start the aforementioned Koola Lobitos) successfully grabbed the spotlight by securing his own record deal, releasing four solo LPs from 1975 to ’79, the first three (Jealousy, Progress, and No Accommodation for Lagos) utilizing Fela as co-producer and sideman, the last (No Discrimination) self-produced with his own band, the Afro Messengers.

All four records are lovingly presented here. Because they’re mostly instrumental and lack Fela’s agitprop lyrics, Allen’s efforts were often dismissed by detractors as “Afrobeat-lite.” (Oh, you don’t like “Funky Drummer,” either? Okaaay.) But Fela’s obvious aesthetic—like Mr. Brown’s in all JB side projects—permeates each “song.” And the drumming? Well, one can only agree with Kuti’s proclamation that “Tony Allen sounds like five drummers at once,” able to paint the rhythms of juju, highlife, jazz, soul, and funk onto one glorious Afrobeat canvas.


Miles Smirks

The title of the six-CD Miles Davis Complete “On the Corner” Sessions box set is misleading, and that’s good. So far, only one of his Complete Sessions packages has lived up to its name: 2003’s Jack Johnson
set really did contain raw, fragmented takes that producer Teo Macero spliced together to create the side-long jams (“Right Off” and “Yesternow”) that made up 1970’s original A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way boxes, though, did nothing of the kind, instead placing those albums in a broader context, surrounding them with contemporaneous studio work (cuts from compilations like Big Fun and Water Babies) and previously unreleased material. Each set covered a period of about a year, maybe 18 months, during which time Miles and his band were laying down many more tracks than Columbia’s release schedule could handle. The five-CD Jack Johnson box covered only a few months in early to mid-1970.

This On the Corner set, by contrast, gathers all the worthwhile studio recordings Miles made between 1972 and 1975. And yes, it includes raw versions of jams that were later edited to become 1972’s titular album—a relentless, seething masterpiece that’s been my favorite Davis disc since I first heard it as a teenager in the late ’80s. But it also piles up tracks from Big Fun and the 1974 double album Get Up with It, along with the one-chord, rare non-album single “Big Fun/Hollywuud” and about three hours’ worth of previously unreleased studio tracks that are the equal of, if not better than, the ones we Miles freaks have been obsessing over for years already. This is especially true of the new material on discs three and five, where the band Davis formed in 1973 (saxophonist Dave Liebman, later replaced by Sonny Fortune; guitarists Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas, and Dominique Gaumont; bassist Michael Henderson; drummer Al Foster; and percussionist Mtume) had solidified through hard touring and was ready to spit fire in the studio.

Cuts like “Jabali,” “The Hen,” “Hip-Skip,” and “What They Do” are based around fairly straight-ahead funk-rock grooves, anchored by Henderson’s thunderous, dub-as-Zen basslines and Foster’s metronomic, Kraut-rock-meets-metal drumming. Lucas plays one chord like he’s backing James Brown or Earth, Wind & Fire; Mtume pitter-pats around the edges, adding ’70s ghetto Afrolistics; the three lead players solo in their own styles. Cosey, a Chicago-based guitarist who backed Muddy Waters on the much-loathed Electric Mud several years before joining Miles’s band, was a post-Hendrix flame-thrower whose playing—frequently from a Buddha-like seated position onstage—prefigured both Eddie Van Halen and Greg Ginn. Miles, for his part, was as deep into the wah-wah pedal as his ax man in these years, sputtering out shimmering ribbons of sound and the occasional piercing stab.

Ultimately, though, On the Corner still stands alone in Davis’s discography, neither illuminated nor softened by the presence of all this other stuff. It’s a throbbing hive of clatter and blare, a sonic portrait of a place I’d never want to live. It kicked off his final sprint through the studio and across the world’s stages prior to his 1975-80 retirement, but it was a singular gesture, a combination “fuck you” and “welcome to my world.” It was also Miles’s final album-as-manifesto until 1986’s ice-cold, almost all-electronic Tutu, another album I love dearly.

Perhaps this previously unreleased studio material was buried because Miles didn’t feel it represented the band at its best. Certainly, none of it has the balls-out ferocity of Dark Magus or the disorienting, Afro-psychedelic power of Agharta and Pangaea (two concerts recorded in a single day). Some of it’s almost . . . ordinary, in a Funkadelic-meets-Louis-Armstrong-at- Hendrix’s-gravesite kind of way. Maybe Miles figured if he couldn’t spin your head all the way around Linda Blair–style, better to just get back on the road, blow the walls down, and let archivists dig this stuff up when he was gone and past caring. That’s what happened. And while I can understand that way of thinking, I’m damn glad this music’s finally slinking and strutting out into the daylight.


Jamrock Revisited

Chalk one up for the old farts mourning the days when riddims were slow- pumping and juicy, lyrics tough and high-minded. Freshly minted reissues of Alcapone’s impeccably timed toasts on 1971’s Forever Version, the Lone Ranger’s equally keen rhythmic sensibilities throughout 1981’s On the Other Side of Dub, and Culture’s thundering reggae gospel on 1977’s Two Sevens Clash—three collections of Jamrock too raw, too original for most of the world to get the first time around— now aim to give the world another chance.

Studio engineer King Tubby rendered a tremendous service when he pulled the vocals on simple two-track recordings in and out of the mix, thereby inventing dub and leaving space on the instrumentals for sound-system deejays to provide their own lyrical commentaries. Studio One owner “Coxsonne” Dodd captured the results on wax, and Forever’s “combination” tracks (singer–deejay duets)—Studio One mixes released for the first time on CD—showcase not just Alcapone’s irresistible rude-bwoy drawl, but also seminal riddims like “Nanny Goat” and tantalizing melodic bits from the likes of John Holt, Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis, and Leroy Sibbles.

One reggae generation later, along came the Lone Ranger, spitting halfway between posh Britspeak and to-the-bone patwah. True to his name, he rode solo, his “ribbits, bims, and boinks” precluding the need for a singer’s sweetening. But it was the ’80s, and a crack pipe knocked him out of the saddle. What’s amazing, though, is that Other Side doesn’t begin to hold the string of other boomshots the Ranger produced during his brief spin on Planet Reggae, like “Love Bump” and “M16.”

Culture lead vocalist Joseph Hill was on board from reggae’s early glory days, and seemed destined to last forever until he passed last year at 57 while on tour. His group flew just under the radar, but this 30th-anniversary reissue of Two Sevens re-introduces one of the most transcendent roots-rock albums ever. Hill’s anecdotal accounts of human struggle from a humble Rastaman’s POV, delivered in a grainy, pitch-perfect baritone, enshrine a glorious moment in music history, one that will hopefully enrapture a few young farts along with the old ones.


The Avant Angels of Doo-Wop

Rich with comic falsettos and pop blues, the four-disc Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection gives us a portrait of (mostly) African-American singers as they tried to decide what was more frightening: Judgment Day or unexpected telephone calls. Started in 1953 by James and Vivian Bracken, a husband-and-wife team more concerned with art than the bottom line, the Chicago label benefited early on from the presence of such bluesmen as Pee Wee Crayton—whose 1956 “The Telephone Is Ringing” features a girlfriend who dials up Pee Wee to command, “Clean house, Daddy, your mama’s comin’ home to rock”—and Jimmy Reed, owner of a blues style that stuttered but never stumbled, as on the 13-bar “You Don’t Have to Go,” a No. 5 1955 r&b hit.

There’s plenty of blues here, from Eddie Taylor’s “Big Town Playboy” to Elmore James’s “It Hurts Me Too,” but Definitive Collection makes a case for doo-wop—Vee-Jay’s other specialty, as evidenced by the Spaniels’ 1954 “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite,” the label’s first hit to cross over to white teenagers—as sexy avant-garde vocal music. The El Dorados, teenagers from suburban Chicago, charted pop and r&b the following year with “At My Front Door,” a primal celebration of groupiedom. “Keep your little mama off my street,” lead singer Pirkle Lee Moses warns, as the falsettos preen and the group delivers lines such as “Whomp-whomp-dooday-whomp-a- whomp-whomp” as though their sex lives depended on it. They might act like they don’t want that young girl knocking on their door, but the performance is pure come-on.

By the time Vee-Jay went under in 1966, the label had released the Beatles’ first American singles and the Four Seasons’ “Sherry,” itself some kind of demented doo-wop. Unable to pay royalties, the label lost both groups in 1964, and so the Honeycombs’ “Have I the Right,” with its yelled chorus and Joe Meek production, stands as the only British Invasion hit represented here. No matter: The collection presents a version of soul music that includes Gene Chandler’s whimsical “Rainbow” along with more conventionally conflicted songs such as Jimmy Hughes’s Muscle Shoals–recorded “Steal Away.” On disc four, the label flounders around, Billy Preston’s “Billy’s Bag” coexisting with Hoyt Axton’s Dylanesque whine on “Bring Your Lovin’,” while Little Richard’s “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me” pits egotism against harsh reality. Which means it’s a blues after all.


Californian Democracy

One of the all-time classic questions of rock music is, “Where is Sly Stone?” With the funk icon’s habit (no pun intended) for turning up late (or not at all) to live performances back in the day—and his consequent disappearance from the public eye entirely by the mid ’80s—it’s long been a damn good question. Such a good question, matter of fact, that folks under 40 might not be out of line in asking, “Who is Sly Stone?” Last month, on April Fool’s no less, the 64-year-old maestro played Vegas with a band calling itself the Family Stone, reportedly singing hits for nearly an hour. They have a Montreux gig lined up for July. Beginning with a brief showing at the 2006 Grammys, despite no small amount of apparent bodily ailments, Sly Stone is slowly returning to lay a few questions to rest.

The Collection answers everything else of consequence. A timely box set of seven remastered albums ranging from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1967 debut A Whole New Thing to the ’74 last gasp Small Talk, this anthology, with the usual accompaniment of fawning liners, rare pics, and B sides, provides detailed blueprints on how to construct a dirty-funk bomb. The late James Brown never withstanding, the soulful rock fusion in the sonics of N.E.R.D., Betty Davis, Martin Luther, Rick James, Labelle, and thousands of everyday-people funkateers
selling homegrown joints on all trace their syntheses back to the Family
Stone, from Freddie Stone’s manic electric guitar on “I’m an Animal” to the pioneering slap bass of Larry Graham Jr. corralling “M’Lady” (both from the long-overlooked Life) to the straight and narrow.

It began when former Autumn Records a&r man Sylvester Stewart ditched his DJ gig in San Fran to wave his freak flag with a newly formed, newly signed multicultural, unisex band. The Family Stone stood for the flower-power spirit of the Woodstock days like former Uptown a&r man Sean Combs embodied 1990s hiphop arriviste attitude. Living the zeitgeist, Sly was among the first to trade his psychedelic drugs for coke (and later “from coke to pep,” according to Fresh‘s “In Time”), setting off his creative slide. But first came 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the enigmatic masterpiece of both the Family Stone and an era straddling hippie idealism and Vietnam disillusion. It’s sadly hard to imagine any of Sly’s progeny—OutKast, for example—crafting something as nakedly litmus-like for the Iraq era. For the meantime in-between time, we’ve got The Collection. Who’ll be first to start the Internet petition for Sony to compile Sly and the Family Stone: Live at Woodstock?


Songs of Free Love and Hate

Somewhere, it’s the witching hour, and a sad sack is holding on for dear life while Leonard Cohen, with his brooding, monochromatic voice, sings, “Well I stepped into an avalanche/It covered up my soul”—the opening line on “Avalanche,” the opening track on the masochistically delightful Songs of Love and Hate. Released in 1970, the lyric can be interpreted as a post-Altamont statement of lost innocence, but more likely it was a far more personal cry from a man disillusioned by his fledgling career as a singer-songwriter.

Three years prior, on the heels of the Summer of Love, Cohen released his debut,
Songs of Leonard Cohen
. He was 33, a late age to come to the game, though it was—not so ironically, for a religious zealot who in ’96 was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk—Christ’s age at passing. But Cohen’s nouveau folk, which bucked the genre’s trend of earnest protest, benefited from his maturity. The album also introduced Cohen’s long line of lady friends living out the repercussions of “free love.”

It was followed, in ’68, by Songs From a Room. Cohen’s tune had changed from casual to political. Songs like “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” and “The Old Revolution” were obvious admonishments of the Vietnam War. But it took a deep thinker like Anthony DeCurtis, who wrote the liner notes to these three reissues, to draw parallels between Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”

A celebrated poet and novelist in his native Canada even before he released his first album, Cohen’s subsequent musing on avalanches was probably a reaction to the commercial reception—or lack thereof—of his first two albums. Come to think of it, “reactionary” is the perfect theme for these reissues, since the majority of these songs are thinly veiled indictments of the ’60s. Other than the liners, what’s new here are five previously unreleased songs, including less morbid versions of “Bird on the Wire” (originally called “Like a Bird”) and “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” But only “Store Room,” a perky (for Cohen) number about the Man take, take, taking without consequence, proves a real breakthrough. Beyond that, it’s all packaging—a curious homage to the antithesis of superficiality.


The Triumph of Soul’s Second-Stringers

If the spirit in which soul music was made seems now as irretrievable as a cheap Saturday night out, the aesthetic charge of even the second-rate stuff can still be tremendous. A Northern soul favorite like Elvin Spencer’s “Lift This Hurt,” one of 40 tracks on the two-disc Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation, comes across as amusingly suave. An accurate Jerry Butler imitation, it’s a summation of formalist soulfulness, and gets as close to greatness as Nate Evans’s Chi-Lites tribute “Main Squeeze.” Pretty near, in other words, but somewhere outside of spitting distance of the real soulsville.

Twinight collects the forgotten products of a forgotten label. Before its 1972 demise, the Chicago imprint boasted just one hitmaker, Syl Johnson, who eventually defected to Memphis’s Hi Records. Stax 50, on the other hand, marks Concord Music’s new proprietorship of the label by chronicling the most famous productions and lease jobs of the famously doomed soul enterprise. Disc one begins and ends with Carla Thomas, the saucy, self-possessed foil to Otis Redding’s tramp. Early Stax, like the Mar-Keys’ wobbly “Last Night” and Rufus Thomas’s riff-tune “Walking the Dog,” sounds canny, oblique, and unconcerned about any aspect of the world that doesn’t feed its own silliness. But it’s the post-blues reality of Eddie Floyd’s curlicued 1966 hit “Knock on Wood”—and the experimentalism of Isaac Hayes’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”—that point toward a future the label couldn’t hope to realize.

Booker T. and the MGs’ “Time Is Tight,” the instrumental that leads off disc two, qualifies as supreme art if only for Al Jackson’s drumming, which stretches tight a line for the other musicians to grab hold of. First-rate, for sure. But returning to Twinight, Renaldo Domino’s “Two Years Four Days,” a 1971 single, lays out a vision of domestic bliss so overwhelming that Domino can’t bother with poetry. “Oh, baby, when I had to leave you/I thought that our marriage was really over/Now I’ve served all my military time/I’m still the same soul-sweet guy,” he sings. The song rejects the heroic, and suggests it’s the sweet second-raters who are welcomed home with open arms.