(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)
Ramones: It’s Alive 1974-1996 (Rhino Home Video)--The Ramones weren’t the first or even the best punk band. Such titles, their inaccuracy aside, only obscure what the Ramones really were: the greatest American rock-and-roll band of all time. Several of the thirty-three “chapters” on this almost comprehensive, two-DVD set were shot by amateurs and are so technically deficient that even diehard completists won’t select the “play all” option twice. (The two 1988 Rochester Institute of Technology performances are the worst, but the Austin, Houston, Chicago, and, alas, CBGB material ain’t so hot either). But the best is great enough to make imagining who the Ramones’ competition was, is, or might ever be seem futile. Start with Disc One, Chapters Thirteen-Fifteen (four from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, three ace Leave Home lip-synchs, and half the legendary 1977 London New Year’s Eve show respectively). Then proceed to Disc Two, Chapters One-Three, Six-Ten, and Twelve (twenty-four songs from mostly European TV shows, 1978-85). Conclude with Chapter Eleven, which proves that, for nine songs at the 1982 US Festival anyway, American audiences had as much common sense as the rest of the civilized world. Rating: Four motor heads out of five.
The Rat Pack: Christmas with the Rat Pack (Capitol)--Caveat emptor: Most of these performances have been released before. And with Sammy Davis, Jr., singing only three songs (Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin split the other eighteen) and Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford nowhere in sight, the billing is obviously manipulative. But it’s always heartening to recall the days when singing Christmas songs with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other was not a politically incorrect hat trick. Rating: Three-and-a-half golden rings out of five.
Eddi Reader: Peacetime (Compass)--The main difference between this Eddi Reader album and the ones that washed ashore via Warner Bros. distribution in the ’90s is drums and original material: the older albums had both, and this one has little to none of either. (Seven songs are “traditional” Scottish folk ballads.) The main similarities are Reader’s unerring ear, her quietly desperate agnosticism (“Prisons,” “Should I Pray?”), and her stunningly beautiful voice. Rating: Four fairground attractions out of five.
The Receiver: Decades (Stunning Models on Display)—I’ve been waiting for three months now for the charms of this moody electronica to wear thin, only to find myself more charmed all the time. Imagine Yo La Tengo without any mad-guitar rave-ups and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Casey and Jesse Cooper are up to: minor-key melody fragments in (and atop) which Casey’s voice and an electric piano (as opposed, say, to a synthesizer, although there may be one or more in here somewhere) create a mystically wintry haze so captivating that you won’t even notice how lame the lyrics are unless you log onto thereceiverband.com and read them yourself. Rating: Four daydream believers out of five.
Jim Reeves: Anthology (RCA Nashville/BMG Heritage)—You want subversive? How about a quaintly playful Western-swing ditty called “Beatin’ on the Ding Dong” delivered with the same stoic dignity that characterizes the bulk of this forty-song testament to late-night romantic misery? And how about wrapping that misery in singing and instrumentation so suave that even housewives and truckers who’ve never heard of Leonard Cohen will end up swallowing whole a sorrow that’s every bit as heavy as his? In the dark night of Reeves’ musical soul, it was always three A.M. Rating: Four tenders are the night out of five.
Relient K: Let It Snow Baby … Let It Reindeer (Capitol/Gotee)--Half rip-off, half revelation: The five songs not on 2003’s punky Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand (included here in its entirety) suggest that, unlikely as it seems, meaningful new Christmas songs remain to be written. If “Merry Christmas, Here’s to Many More” and “Boxing Day” are merely solid filler, the Narnia-inspired “In like a Lion (Always Winter)” is a simpler yet richer musical adaptation of C.S. Lewis than anything dreamt of in the philosophies of Steve Hackett or the 2nd Chapter of Acts. Overall, though, the jarring juxtaposition of the punky and the reflective suggests maybe Matt Thiessen should re-read the fifth chapter of Luke. Rating: Two-and-a-half calling birds out of four.
Diana Ross: Last Time I Saw Him (Hip-O Select)--This got lost back in 1973, and, no, it’s not spectacular enough for this lavish two-disc, alternate-version-enhanced treatment (quadraphonic mixes, anyone?). It does, however, catch Ross with her guard down, trying on style after style in search of a perfect fit that she almost finds in a handful of numbers better suited to Helen Reddy or Dusty Springfield, comes nowhere near in the one about not caring about money or Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” and eventually locates in, of all things, “Turn Around,” written by Harry Belafonte long before anyone knew he was a nutcase. Rating: Three-and-a-half ladies singing the light browns out of five.