Pop recordings now cluster around opposite size poles. At the Lilliputian end of the scale, songs are reduced to two minutes or less, a miniaturization brought about by the dominance of streaming: the traditional three-minute length required by radio is losing its appeal.
Meanwhile, in Brobdingnag, the outings are getting more and more strangely swollen. Boxes and reissues are full of dozens of recordings. Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol 2: The Years of Recovery (1968-1971) is an example. A five-CD survey spanning just four years into Mitchell’s career, it has 119 tracks and lasts five and a half hours. Comprised of demos, live performances and studio releases, it follows the equally lengthy preamble to last year’s first volume, which took us right through to the release of Joni Mitchell’s debut album. This ends with the arrival of his masterpiece from 1971 Blue.
Most acts do not have the depth of art to support such succinct accounts of their professional lives. Mitchell, however, is an exception. Her box set opens with a rejected song she wrote in 1969 for the John Schlesinger film Midnight Cowboy. Singing over her guitar in an overwhelming voice, she issues a beguiling warning about the dangers of New York. Later that year, she performed at Carnegie Hall, which is among the live recordings. “Oh, look at that,” she said, marveling at the great hall as she applauded him. The rising star has taken Manhattan, the city described as the graveyard of dreams in her Midnight Cowboy song. ??
Metallica’s gargantuan tribute to their self-titled 1991 hit album, also known as The black album, makes Mitchell’s archive digs brief. The deluxe version of the re-released heavy metal classic spans 193 tracks, lasting 12 hours, although there is also a more modest 39 track edition.
The original album was remastered by famous engineer Bob Ludwig; it has a full and resonant sound, although the quality was not bad to begin with. The Deluxe Edition contains endless ephemera, including practice recordings of guitar parts and studio drops. “Let’s do another one, right now,” a voice said at the end of take 15 of “Enter Sandman.” Showing unusual restraint, the set switches to a recording of take 35. ★★★ ☆☆
Radiohead Kid A Mnesia is a joint reissue of their 2000 album Child A and its follow-up in 2001 Amnesiac, with an additional disc of unreleased material from the recording sessions. A pivotal moment for the group, when they almost broke up before reinventing their sound electronically, the two albums are superb. Made at the same time, they were originally intended to be released together, which makes their association appropriate. However, neither has been remastered.
The late appearance of fan favorite “Follow Me Around” stands out in the disc of unreleased recordings, a guitar-led bluesy number on alienation whose old-fashioned qualities were evidently deemed unsuitable for the new direction of Child A and Amnesiac. The rest of the unreleased tracks are entertaining but insignificant – a case of too little rather than too much. ??