This one-time wunderkind’s sheet-music-only Song Reader was a watershed moment in his career if not pop-music history. So it’s only natural to listen for echoes of its eclectic universalism in his first post–Song Reader album. It’s also pointless. Although the tempi have slowed way down and the lyrics have become uncommonly reflective (Mourning Phase would’ve been an equally fitting title), the melodies require—and receive—every bit of what’s (still) contemporary about Beck’s soundscape skills to keep from seeming like no big deal.
Anyone who doubts that these Scots are the best pop combo of the last 20 years need only invest in this collection of singles, remixes, and bonus tracks spanning the combo’s most recent decade. The catchiness, whether fast or mid tempo, never abates, and therefore the lyrics sink in or at least glide pleasantly by. And what do the lyrics say? A better question is what do they suggest: that colloquial elegance is not an oxymoron—and that it’s flexible enough to accommodate complex emotions, mixed and otherwise.
Tuneful and folky though it is, it’s hard to imagine this Coen Brothers soundtrack ever becoming as popular or influential as O Brother, Where Art Thou? For one thing, the actor Oscar Isaac is only moderately gifted as a singer, yet he sings or co-sings half the songs. For another Inside Llewyn Davis the film is as plodding and dull as O Brother, Where Art Thou? was fast-paced and clever. Will the previously unreleased Bob Dylan song attract buyers anyway? Nonesuch Records sure hopes so.
Folk, blues, gospel—Dave Van Ronk, who died in 2002, sang each with undifferentiated passion (a problem) and unmistakable enthusiasm (a tonic). These three discs capture him in his early-’60s, King of Greenwich Village prime, imbuing archetypes both roots-musical and existential. Unlike Bob Dylan, whom he befriended and helped launch, Van Ronk was an interpreter rather than a Voice of a Generation. Unlike the titular character of Inside Llewyn Davis, whom Van Ronk indirectly inspired, he had a big heart and a voice to match.
At first, Paul Simon’s The Complete Albums Collection (Sony Legacy) looks as redundant as other comprehensive boxes. It isn’t. As the poor sales of The Paul Simon Songbook (1965 pre-Garfunkel puerility) and Songs from the Capeman (Simon’s 1997 Broadway-bomb soundtrack) imply, Simon fans don’t automatically gobble up everything bearing his name. They still have, therefore, significant portions of his output to discover.
What they ignored usually deserved indifference. But by ignoring Hearts and Bones (1983), for example, they deprived themselves of discovering one of Simon’s most subtly articulate, musically artful, and emotionally acute albums. Still shy of having sold 500,000 copies—i.e., of having gone “gold”—it’s commercially outclassed even by Simon’s 1980 Hollywood-bomb soundtrack, One Trick Pony. Surprise (2006) and So Beautiful or So What (2011), for that matter, both of which are also better than One Trick Pony, haven’t gone gold either. If only by including them, The Complete Albums Collection serves a useful purpose.