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

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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