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what a strange collection! a review from a huge Jackson fan
on October 28, 2004
Jackson Browne has delivered some of the finest music in history. Granted, his career has had considerable ups & downs, but he's managed to put out masterpiece records in different eras of his career. His winning intimacy and ability to really captivate & stir emotions from within a listener is unsurpassable.
As for this 2004 two CD compilation on Rhino... Wow, this really is a fascinating & somewhat bewildering compilation of Jackson Browne's music. The reason for this goes way beyond the mere track listing. All concerned should be aware that many of the songs here are featured in versions that are very noticeably different from the ones on the CDs of his individual albums. This begins with the very first song on the set, "Doctor My Eyes", which sounds like the somewhat "updated" version that appeared on the "My Girl 2" soundtrack and was also used on the previous compilation "The Next Voice You Hear". Some songs are mildly different, such as "Running on Empty" where some of the reverb has been removed, and "I'm Alive" sounds just like the album version except that the speed has been slowed down very noticeably. However, "Late For The Sky" and especially "For A Dancer" sound VERY different than they do on the "Late For The Sky" CD--each of them are given an extra dose of glossy reverb that doesn't suit the songs and takes away from their impact. The former, which again is also the version that was used on "The Next Voice You Hear", has Jackson having sometime in the '90s redone bits of his original vocal as if he's grown unhappy with his performance over the years, although most of the original vocal is left intact! "For A Dancer", on the other hand, sounds HUGELY different, with additional instrumentation going on at the beginning of the song that, along with the excess reverb, robs a great deal of the intimacy, plus the powerful build up of the original version is utterly lost. I don't know where these versions came from or how they ended up being used on here--it seems to clearly be a case of revisionism on Jackson's part. He's credited here as the compilation producer, so there's very little doubt that the inclusion of these "new" versions was intentional. There's no denying he's an obsessive perfectionist, and it's served him extremely well on his best songs/ albums, but on here it's gotten to the point where he can't seem to accept his own brilliance and can't help but tinker with the originals. This very fact makes this a fascinating collection for any diehard fan, but this set, as the title indicates, is supposed to represent Jackson's "very best", and this is utterly the wrong place to be including inferior versions of classics--that kind of thing should be left for an outtakes/ rarities collection.
Don't be fooled by the track listing thinking this set is all redundant. If you're allured by the phrase "original recording remastered", thinking you'll be hearing all the original songs sparklingly remastered, you're in for some big surprises. Even "Boulevard" doesn't sound as good on here as it does on the "Hold Out" CD, despite the fact that the brief "wrinkled tape" sound has been eliminated almost without a trace. On the positive side, his big soundtrack hit "Somebody's Baby" does sound awesome on here--the version from the "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" soundtrack CD sounds a tad washed out, whereas here, it positively jumps out at you.
This collection though just doesn't represent Jackson particularly well at all. The profound, tireless, at times desperate "trying to find meaning in life" side of Jackson that is an essential element to his enormous appeal is pitifully underrepresented on here. Any collection claiming to be Jackson's "very best" needs more songs of the caliber of the heartbreakingly beautiful "Sky Blue And Black" (which IS included). An enormous number of deeply brilliant songs from throughout his career--"Farther On", "The Fuse", "Of Missing Persons", "Call It A Loan", "Cut It Away", "My Problem Is You", "Two of Me, Two of You"--as well as "feel good" gems like "Everywhere I Go" and "I'm the Cat", and the moving political song "How Long", along with many, many others are left off in favor of drastically inferior songs such as the excessive (and uncharacteristic) rocker "Red Neck Friend", the satire-laden "Lawyers In Love", the frustratingly arena-rock-ish "Lawless Avenues", and the very slight "I Am A Patriot" which he didn't even write (Little Steven did). Plus, Jackson's version of "Take It Easy" (which he co-wrote with Glenn Frey) is clearly inferior to the Eagles version which had already become a hit before Jackson's version was recorded.
If you truly feel satisfied with this collection & feel it's all the Jackson you need, that's a real shame indeed, because it means his genius is very much evading you--this collection fails to really drive home what makes Jackson such a special artist. The thing that's really ironic is that, even if you're one of the unfortunate souls who doesn't really care about Jackson's genius and merely wants all of his radio hits (many of which are admittedly great) in one place, this set doesn't even succeed on that level, leaving off a whole bunch of them including "That Girl Could Sing", "For A Rocker", "For America", "World In Motion", "Anything Can Happen", "Chasing You Into the Light", and the aforementioned "Cut It Away".
All that said, who the heck in the right mind is going to be truly satisfied with this collection? I'm not saying I expected every great song he's ever done to be included--certainly I do realize that it would take more than 2 CDs to accomplish this task. HOWEVER, for a collection with this many songs (32, to be exact), it manages to painfully downplay his brilliance--the very haphazard track listing, plus the inclusion of tainted versions of classic songs make this far from an ideal introduction to his work for casual fans/ new listeners. Furthermore, Jackson Browne's best albums are conceived and sequenced with great care--in other words, he's an album artist, a fact that's even pointed in the Dave Marsh-penned liner notes.
So, where should you start with Jackson? Well, I'll provide this very simple, rough guide. If your taste leans more toward the easy-going country-flavored sound of early Eagles or Crosby, Stills & Nash, definitely "Late for the Sky" is the album to start with. If you're looking for something more electric, more bracing, and harder-rocking, try starting with "Hold Out" (represented here by only one song). If you have an ear that likes a "modern" '90s sheen (a younger listener perhaps), start with "I'm Alive". If you're like myself and are open to music that's of high quality regardless of time period or style, start with any of the three. Ultimately, any serious listener needs them all--each of these three records are considerably different from each other, but are masterpieces nonetheless, showing how Jackson has maintained all of his musical genius over the years. The standard CD issues of these albums on Elektra/ Asylum have overall excellent sound quality as well.
Jackson Browne is an artist you need to know, and this collection ends up being primarily useful for Jackson Browne scholars. As a listening experience, it undercuts his genius despite many excellent songs. All in all, this collection falls short of living up to its name.
(P.S. The version of this album I received actually did come in a jewel case, not the cardboard packaging others have complained about.)