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The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932, Volume 1 (6 LP 180g) Box set, Import
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Grammy Award Winner, 2015 - Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package
Paramount Records was formed in 1917 with little fanfare and few prospects. Its founders ran a Wisconsin furniture company, knew nothing of the music business, and wanted only to produce records as cheaply as they could with whatever talent was readily available to them. By 1922, and on the verge of bankruptcy, its white owners embarked on a radical new business plan: selling the music of black artists to black audiences. This move, paired with equal parts dumb luck, opportunism, chicanery and a willingness to try anything, paid dramatic dividends.
By 1927, Paramount was the most important label in the so-called Race Records field, selling hundreds of thousands of records. And by the time it ceased operations in 1932, it had amassed a dizzying roster of performers still unrivaled to this day, spanning early jazz titans (Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton), vaudeville songsters (Papa Charlie Jackson), the first solo guitar bluesmen (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake), theater blues divas (Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters), gospel (Norfolk Jubilee Quartette), masters of Mississippi blues (Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James) and the indefinable other (Geeshie Wiley, Elvie Thomas).
The Rise & Fall of Paramount, Volume One takes the form of a curated exhibit of words, images and music with Paramount at its fulcrum, all housed in a lush handcrafted cabinet that harkens back to the wunderkammern, precursors to the modern museum. Crafted as an object to keep and cherish for a lifetime, its form is designed to reveal evidence of the hand at work, to bring out the tactile richness of hand-sculpted woods and metals, and to meld the rough-hewn with the earliest burblings of American modernism in the 1920s. Its multi-format narrative tells the curious tale of the only pre-War record label to capture what America truly sounded like in the 1920s, in all its multitudes.
Each amazing handcrafted set contains:
-800 newly-remastered digital tracks on a forged metal USB drive shaped like a Victrola stylus
-200+ fully-restored original ads and images
-6 x 180g LPs w/ hand-engraved metal leaf center labels on burled chestnut vinyl
-Deluxe large-format hardcover art book: 250 pages, narrative with full-color plates
-Encyclopedia-style reference manual: 360 pages, field guide to artists & repertoire
-Handcrafted elements: rich woods, lush upholstery, and custom-forged metal hardware
-Track & Image App: First-of-its-kind music and image player app, allows user management of 800 tracks and 200+ original ads, housed on custom-made USB
"What is best about America is in this box." - Jack White
"One of the damnedest musical objets d'art ever seen." - Nashville Scene
"Unprecedented." - Rolling Stone
"Wondrous. These recordings are no less than a blueprint of what has become American music. At once, it is a history lesson, a dance hall, a bandstand, and a smoky blues parlor, all tucked neatly into one sturdy box. This is the Cabinet of Wonder, indeed." - Pitchfork
Top customer reviews
The packaging is outstanding (Solid hardwood box patterned after what I believe is a Victor Model 50 portable record player) and the material inside more so. A treasure trove of goodies to look though, both on the usb fob and the printed material. Others have detailed that, so I'll skip it here.
It is well packaged in a very sturdy cardboard box and cradled in ample amounts of styrofoam - so my fear of possible shipping damage was for nothing. My only real nitpick was that the labels on the lps had some issues around the edges. I had to flatten some back out and there was a little tearing even before I did this. That was rather disappointing in such an expensive collection - but I am happy to say it was my only disappointment. I was afraid the usb fob would be cheap, but it is actually screwed together and seems sturdy enough. It seems obvious enough, but I should mention that if you do buy this, back up the usb drive as the 800 songs are really the main focus of this fine collection. All the songs on the lps are on the usb drive.
Finally, if you are not familiar with vintage recordings from the 1920s, you should listen to some before you plunk down $400+ dollars (there are loads available - the Yazoo is among the best). It is an acquired taste - and the sonic quality is shocking to those who aren't familiar with it. It also helps to consider that 800 songs is about 35-40 cds. At the current price of quality reissues that's about $350 - even without all the historical material included in this fine set.
This amazing “box set” (well it comes in a “handcrafted” box – more on that later) is another such project of White’s. It was released last month on the TMR site (at a much lower price than here – though that is subject to change) and today it becomes available on Amazon. There are many components to the set for which White enlisted the help of collector/author Alex van der Tuuk, who authored the book “ The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records”. As the Amazon description reads, the set includes:
800 newly-remastered digital tracks on a USB drive shaped like a victorola (MISSPELLED) key
200+ fully-restored original ads and images
6 x 180g LPs w/ hand-engraved metal leaf center labels on burled vinyl
Deluxe large-format hardcover art book: 250 pages, narrative with full-color plates
Encyclopedia-style reference manual: 360 pages, field guide to artists & repertoire
Handcrafted elements: rich woods, lush upholstery, and custom-forged metal hardware
Track & Image App: First-of-its-kind music and image player app, allows user management of 800 tracks and 200+ original ads; housed on custom-designed USB
To my knowledge no actual product was provided to the press. Press were given access to audio streams of the 800 tracks on the USB drive (some of which are also on the six vinyl Lps ) as well as PDFs of the printed materials. So my review is based on sampling those materials.
I spent a couple of days listening to all the audio tracks and was fascinated by the variety of the material. As is stated in the “Introduction” to the set – which is, ironically hidden near the end of the 360 page “Field Guide”, and just before the various indexes, - the producers did not attempt to include ALL of Paramount’s releases. This is a “selection”, and there will be a Volume 2 in late 2014. As the music style varies – gospel, sermons, blues, jazz, - so does the sound quality. The transfers were made by sound engineer Chris King (who usually does amazing work) but some of the original discs were really worn and very noisy. But others sounded great!
The recordings on the USB drive are all MP3s. There have been discussions on various newsgroups since the set details were announced as to the quality of an MP3. But, in this reviewer’s opinion – the fidelity on Paramount is so low that I doubt I’d hear any difference if the files were FLAC. The software built into the USB allows the listener to sort the 800 songs by recording date, Matrix number, artist and title.
As I noted, the “Field Guide” is thick and presents a separate page and bio (with graphics) of each artist. It looks like an old record catalog which provides a list of the recordings for each artist. This is followed by that “Introduction” and then various indexes.
There are also individually printed “ads” though I was only able to view .pdfs so I can’t comment on size or quality – though I’m sure they are high. No source of these images, nor the images in the “Art Book” are provided and I’ve confirmed that they did not come from rare blues record collector John Tefteller, who acquired a major ad collection about 10 years ago – that was considered the largest in the world. Sources of the 78s included here is also not provided.
The one part of this “box” that interested me most is the 280-page “Art Book” which contains a narrative. The .pdfs of the book available to journalists were grouped 6 pages to an images and so it was not possible to read the text easily. I’m told that the quality of the paper and binding is high. I would expect this of White.
As I noted above, all the parts are placed in a felt-lined “hand-crafted” box. But since the set was produced in an edition of 5,000 they are obviously machine made. (Note that the 5,000 is the same production run of Rounder’s recent “Woody Guthrie – American Radical” set.). With the 800 recordings of various genres and sound quality, I’m not sure this is a set most collectors will play all the way through or really return to that often. At the high price, I’m guessing that many sets will be purchased for “investment”. But technology changes quickly – remember when the floppy disk and CD (before the DVD) were used for data storage? So who knows the future of the USB? If there is a positive to the production of this lavish set, it is that it might introduce a younger generation to these legendary (as well as obscure) performers.
As I said there will be a Volume 2 in Fall 2013 though there is no inkling of what recordings will be included or what reproduced ephemeral materials will be provided.
I hope this (rather lengthy) review is both informative and helpful.