Various Artists: Victrola Favorites

Disparate gems in a dazzling hardback full of sublime visual paraphernalia: makes most 21st century music seem shapeless and masturbatory, and its packaging crass.

Various Artists

Victrola Favorites

Subtitle: Artifacts From Bygone days
Label: Dust To Digital
US Release Date: 2008-01-22
UK Release Date: 2008-02-04

Anyone unfamiliar with Dust to Digital’s output should begin exploring their marvelous catalog right here. Meanwhile, the converted won’t be even slightly disappointed with this delightful release. Rob Mills and Jeffery Taylor of Climax Golden Twins have compiled an exotic two-disc feast from their collections of 78 rpm records, sleeves, needle tins, labels, promotional material, photographs, and other archaic ephemera. The fabulous hardbound book alone is worth the price of admission and is printed on museum quality wood-free paper.

We tend to imagine that we are rather sophisticated these days. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but with sophistication a certain weary attitude may arise. For example, we think we know what blues and jazz music sounds like, what constitutes “world” music (the worst title of all manufactured genres), or that the things that make us laugh are somehow superior or evolved. The 48 selections on Victrola Favorites are a slap in the face of such smugness, traversing the globe and providing an opportunity to sit down (in parlor, with pipe, slippers and favorite relaxing intoxicant optional), and listen to sounds that defy categorization. Pleasantly, some of the more bizarre ones are from close to home (if you live in the USA or UK, that is). I am reminded of the series “Abroad in Britain” wherein Jonathon Meades illustrated that the exotic can be found at home. Meades meant that there is always plenty of interesting art, architecture, and other manifestations of cultural exotica in our own backyard, if we take the time to look. Nevertheless, there is something deliciously lazy about having a palatable and safe representation of "otherness" brought into our living room.

In a collection as consistently good as this one, favorites will depend upon individual taste and mood. For me, the scratches on Frank Ferera’s “The Farmer’s Dream” grant the piece a romantic charm, part of which comes from its revealing the technological limitations that generations of musicians must always overcome. St Gun Khin May’s piece reminds me of Angels in The Mirror (a splendid compilation of music from Haiti). This track is psychedelic bliss of the highest order and makes a mockery of the stylized psych-guff of pop bands like the Coral and their ilk. “The Thingamajig” by Johnnie Lee Wills and his boys rings like a rousing bell; it is sheer genius, as is the “traditional West Indian stomp” of “Willie Willie Don’t Go from Me” by Harold Boyce and the Harlem Indians. From Japan and Thailand, to Greece, Egypt, Persia, Burma, and Portugal and beyond there is nothing to disappoint. The variety, good humor, and the visual treats in this set arguably outstrip other excellent compilations such as The Secret Museum of Mankind and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

The packaging of Victrola Favorites is fantastic and built to last. While I do feel that the discs slip out of their holes a little too easily, that is the smallest of gripes. Within the hardback book are hundreds of memorable images: warnings about the effect of poor fidelity upon young ears, photographs of music “missionaries” bringing technology to far-flung global points (maybe in return for local sounds), extraordinary labels, wacky advertising, gorgeous shots of performers, and other mind-blowing designs. All of which illustrate that the term “primitive” can all too often be mistakenly attributed to unusual sounds and scenarios. The Chinese bamboo flute solo or the unreconstructed comic turn such as “Two Liquorice Drops in Jail” might seem primitive to some ears. The 78rpm players used to originally play this shellac might seem prehistoric and cumbersome compared to mobile digital technology (certainly the sound issuing from a 78 player I bought three years ago had people rushing into the street in horror). The claims in the snippets of early advertising may seem embryonic and ludicrous. In the end, though, isn't a persistent inability or unwillingness to try and appreciate a wide range of music and art more primitive than any of that?

In a way Dust to Digital made a rod for their own back with the release of the absolute classic of sound and physical presentation that is Goodbye Babylon. As with that unparalleled package, on Victrola Favorites it matters not one jot the race or skin color of the participants and there’s no half-baked attempt to divide artists arbitrarily. The compilers simply put what they feel sounds good together and, almost unfailingly, it works. In an ideal world we could turn on the radio and hear such variety and richness. Until we achieve Utopia, this is as good as it gets. A set like this reminds me why I bother to listen to new releases

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