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The past in boxes

(Krieg Barrie)

Music

The past in boxes

Anniversary sets bring back once-youthful voices

In Jack Finney’s short story “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime,” ghosts from a small town’s past—a streetcar, a horse-drawn fire engine, a phone call from the dead—inexplicably “flicker into existence again” as a way of standing athwart progress and yelling, “Slow down!” “Galesburg’s past,” writes Finney, “[was] fighting back.”

Something similar may explain the apparently insatiable appetite for 50th-anniversary box sets.

Among the half-a-century-old recordings being feted during this shopping season, none speak up on behalf of the past more eloquently than the Kinks’ Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (Sanctuary), Bob Dylan’s Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (Columbia), or Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? (Capitol). 

As with last year’s expanded The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur at 50 comes in a deluxe box and in various two-to-four-disc “bundles.” But although the box contains a 37-page book, assorted swag, The Great Lost Dave Davies Album, and rehearsal takes, alternate mixes, and demos, the slenderer editions have fewer distractions and therefore make it easier for fans (especially those whose appreciation hasn’t been blunted by exposure to the album’s previous reissuings) to focus on the wonders of what was for all practical purposes the last great Kinks album.

Those wonders include the much-anthologized “Victoria,” “Shangri-La,” “Plastic Man,” and “King Kong,” each a piece of evidence for the argument that while Ray Davies may never have “happened” without the Beatles, the imaginatively varied, distinctly British, and acutely nostalgic songwriterly “voice” that he found and nurtured throughout the second half of the ’60s belonged to him and him alone.

As far as singular voices go, however, not even Davies could touch Bob Dylan’s. And the voice with which Dylan was experimenting during the years chronicled on his new three-disc set was—and to this day remains—the most singular of his career.

Travelin’ Thru begins familiarly enough, with seven alternate takes from the stark, apocalyptically folky John Wesley Harding. But beginning with Track 8 and continuing throughout Discs 2 and 3, the voice that listeners encounter is the cigarette-free, countrypolitan croon that Dylan sprang on the world with Nashville Skyline and that he wouldn’t shed completely until Planet Waves four years later. 

That that voice is heard in informal duets with Johnny Cash for the bulk of Travelin’ Thru diminishes neither its strangeness nor the extent to which it tapped abilities theretofore unsuggested by Dylan’s recorded performances. Hearing Dylan improvise harmonies as he and Cash run and cut up through each other’s material and a smattering of country, gospel, and early rock ’n’ roll should forever end the canard that the man “can’t sing.”

Whatever canards may have dogged Peggy Lee, not being able to sing was never one of them. And, despite having logged more than a quarter century of hits by the time she released Is That All There Is?, the album (featuring orchestral arrangements from a young Randy Newman) found her in peak form.

The MP3-only “expanded” edition adds only three tracks, two of which are versions of the Leiber-Stoller-composed title track indistinguishable from the official one. But no one should complain. Based on Thomas Mann’s “Disillusionment,” the song could’ve just as easily been based on Ecclesiastes, so precisely does it express the hollowness at the heart of a life lived in vain.

And Lee, whether speaking the verses with cynical detachment or singing the refrain like a spectral cabaret chanteuse, dramatized the dilemma exquisitely.