The next three weeks of Critic's Picks are being devoted to new boxed-set collections: multi-disc packages that usually surface at holiday time. But given the unavoidably seasonal tone of the music that pervades these compilations, releasing them at the height of summer seems appropriate.
This week, let's examine a new three-disc set from Shout! Factorythat gathers every A and B sides of every 45 rpm single released over the pitifully brief recording career of soul legend Otis Redding.
Packaged like a book, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection is made to resemble a dossier with entire pages devoted to replicas of the record labels from each side of each recording. There is minimal annotation beyond that, which is the set's only fault. Recording locales, dates and personnel — some of it is incomplete due to the fact that exact data on the sessions wasn't always maintained — is all crammed together on a single page.
But you tend to forget about such specifics once the music begins. This is a collection that starts with 1962's These Arms of Mine, one of Redding's most impassioned recordings, and moves on from there.
The 70 songs within this package collectively define what made Redding's music so absorbing. His voice maintained gospel-esque intensity, a sense of sheer stamina that worked like a pressure cooker under the sleek but powerfully soulful arrangements executed by Booker T and the MGs and the Mar-Keys. Sometimes the steam was let loose in hearty increments, as shown by hits like Sweet Soul Music and Hard to Handle. Mostly, although, the key to Redding's vocal charm was control.
There is also the matter of Redding the songwriter. Sure, he enjoyed covers, as shown here by the single version of Sam Cooke's Shake, which Redding hot-wired into a staple of his live shows. And, yes, perhaps his greatest recording, the almost operatic That's How Strong My Love Is, was written by Roosevelt Jamison.
But Redding wrote or co-wrote many of the colossal tunes on The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection. Among them were These Arms of Mine, I've Been Loving You Too Long, Mr. Pitiful, Respect (yep, Aretha Franklin defined the tune, but Redding was the scribe and cut it first), I Can't Turn You Loose, I've Got Dreams to Remember and, of course, (Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay — the mammoth crossover hit Redding cut a mere three days before the 26-year-old died in a plane crash in December 1967.
The history here is vast. But what remains so powerful about this set is how complementary forgotten B-sides like Something Is Worrying Me and I'm Depending on You sound next to the hits. You also sense how effortless the classic R&B flow is especially throughout discs 1 and 3, as well as in disc 2 segments dominated by 1967 duets with Carla Thomas.
Collectively, this is a sound that can still ignite any summer.