The Second Disc

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Review: “A&M 50: The Anniversary Collection”

with 4 comments

On its surface, it seems kind of crazy to make a compilation of tunes from A&M Records. There are plenty of labels with clearer narrative arcs: Columbia was a hotbed for melodic singer-songwriters in the ’60s and ’70s, from Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel to Springsteen and Billy Joel. Burgeoning soul fans started with Motown and graduated to Stax or Atlantic, depending on their region. ZTT was the place for avant-garde dance-pop/rock in the ’80s, much like Elektra was the source for dreamy West Coast folk-pop.

A&M, on the other hand, was an artist, trumpeter Herb Alpert, and a record promoter, Jerry Moss. Two guys working out of a garage. That’s the kind of narrative fit for Apple, not a label that facilitated everything from jazz-pop, British rock and New Wave to polished R&B and even a smidgen of grunge. In a weird way, the lack of narrative is almost a worthy narrative in and of itself – and it’s what makes A&M 50: The Anniversary Collection (A&M/UMe B0016884-02) a potentially vital compilation for your library.

And yet, the set misses the mark, obscuring that free-form narrative with a presentation that suggests uncertainty, as if this whole “A&M 50” venture was even worth it in the first place.

That’s not to say the set is bad. Remember, A&M doesn’t have the kind of market share a Motown might, so the deck is already stacked against the concept. But from a content perspective, A&M 50 excels. The three themed discs – “From AM to FM,” “A Mission to Rock” and “Soul, Jazz and More” – bring some sort of cohesion to the proceedings.

Disc One focuses mostly on the early years of the label, when Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 and the Carpenters were the stars of the A&M roster. Gradually, while the demeanor and ideology of pop artists would change, going from earthy (Cat Stevens, Joan Baez) to ineffectual (The Captain & Tennille, Chris de Burgh) to a mix of both (Amy Grant, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow), that devotion to pop hooks and inoffensive, of-the-moment production was always there.

Disc Two is where things get interesting. The (mostly British) rock scene A&M tapped into not only yielded some of the biggest hits on the label (The Police, Styx, Bryan Adams, Peter Frampton) but kept that smorgasbord mentality of A&M alive. This was a label that hosted guitar-heavy hitters like Procol Harum and Free alongside electronically influenced, wordplay-loving tunesmiths like Joe Jackson, Squeeze and Split Enz (all among the era’s most criminally underappreciated acts!). The two-song transition that closes this disc, Soundgarden‘s “Black Hole Sun” and Sting‘s “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” are whiplash-inducing in their dissimilarity, and easily the point where you might agree with this point of view – that variety was the whole point of A&M Records.

The third disc amps up the eclecticism even more. A&M wasn’t content to just give you “soul music.” There were your classics old (the Phil Spector-produced “Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles & The Checkmates, Ltd.) and new (a 1991 cover of The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” by Aaron Neville); real jazz (Jobim, Getz, Quincy Jones); some funky stuff (Billy Preston, The Brothers Johnson) and a few heaping helpings of poppy R&B (Jeffrey Osbourne, Janet Jackson, late-period Barry White). The disc earns its “and more” distinction by offering danceable tracks like “Crazay” by Jesse Johnson (formerly of The Time) and “Finally” by CeCe Peniston (unusually presented in its original album version, one of the few idiosyncratic decisions as far as which versions of songs appear on the compilation).

A&M 50 offers some fun discs, which is great. So what’s the problem? The set comes in a four-panel digipak, with a picture of Alpert and Moss and a brief essay (which nobody is credited with writing). The writer and producer credits are consigned to the inner panels, with little information outside of that. It’s very plain, and altogether a bit lacking. While a full-on box set approach might have been a tough sell, a double-sized digipak with a nicely-designed booklet should be less of a luxury and more of a commonality with sets like these.

Ultimately, it’s that lack of “luxury” which fails to elevate A&M 50 past a “Now That’s What I Call Three Sampler CDs from a Particular Label!” level. This was a fun idea that demanded better execution. Alpert and Moss may not have had a unifying goal when they founded that label out of their garage, but they had something worth showing off. It’s a shame that this concept didn’t quite get its due here.

Written by Mike Duquette

September 6, 2012 at 15:56

4 Responses

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  1. Hey Mike, thanks for this! I couldn’t agree more that this set could have been a heck of a lot more than it turned out to be!

    I also think it’s worth mentioning that the set is mastered so loudly that even a non-audiophile might be inclined to turn the volume down!

    I can’t help but be inclined to defend some of the choices, though, particularly on that first disc. I’d hardly characterize the Captain and Tennille as “ineffectual,” if not for their six Top 10 hits in a four-year period, then for their splendid songwriting (courtesy some of the greats – Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Bruce Johnston, and even Toni herself) and production. And it’s doing a disservice to Carpenters, Brasil 66, Chris Montez, Burt Bacharach, the TJB and We Five to call those early, seminal acts merely “inoffensive,” when the A&M “AM radio” sound was an influential, much-imitated-but-never-duplicated one.

    All that said, there’s no doubt that A&M’s legacy deserved a more effective celebratory compilation. Ah well, maybe in another 50 years. But for now, who else was grooving on Lani Hall’s thankfully-back-on-CD “Sun Down” with those sublime backing vocals from Herb Alpert himself? The reappearance of this gorgeously-sung, lyrical rewrite of “Muskrat Love” ALMOST justifies the rest of the 3-CD set! 🙂

    Joe Marchese

    September 6, 2012 at 16:17

  2. Mike
    Couldn’t have said it better myself – A & M was consciously or unconsciously part of many people’s lives in the last century and really deserved better – the lack of annotation makes it less interesting to collectors – while the package makes it really a 3-disc sampler. A piece of important music history relegated to K-Tel status.
    This reply also allows me to bring up another topic – the incredible advances in remastering by the gurus at Universal, Sony, Ace, Bear Family etc. (but not Demon Group) which provide timeless classics (and obscurities) with unheard of advances in dynamics and transparency – in some instances comparable with moving from mono to stereo. Overall a major advance but with the downside of making other items in one’s CD collection decidedly stale. First I replaced my vinyl LPs with CDs that were not properly equalized. Then I went through HDCD, SuperAudio, 24 bit remasters and SHM-CD and gold versions and these new remasters, particularly from Nick Robbins and Duncan Cowell at Sound Mastering, Vic Anesini at Sony and Jurgen Crasser at BF, sound better than any previous versions.

    Mike Williams

    September 6, 2012 at 16:24

  3. When I popped in these discs, Gracenote came up with no results. I spent nearly two hours researching info that should’ve been in the liner notes!

    Gregg Alley (@Galley99)

    September 6, 2012 at 17:50

  4. ” ‘Two guys working out of a garage’ is a narrative fit for the Beatles?”

    …….

    “Ohh. THAT Apple.” 🙂

    JG

    September 7, 2012 at 15:08


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