Absolutely the Best

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Absolutely the Best is a series title for mid-priced compilations released by Fuel 2000, but it sets a standard that the Odetta entry is unable to meet, even though the material the album contains is valuable. It would be difficult to assemble a true Odetta best-of, because the folksinger's recordings, which, paralleling the folk boom, were extensive from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s and have been sparse since, and covered the labels Fantasy (1954-1955), Tradition (1956-1957), Vanguard (1959-1962 with releases continuing into 1963), Riverside (1962), RCA Victor (1962-1965), Verve Folkways (1966-1967), and Polydor (1970). Despite numerous catalog acquisitions and company mergers, these recordings still resided with several different competing companies as of 2000. But the sole concern here is the Tradition material, which consists of a total of 31 tracks that originated on two albums, Sings Ballads and Blues (1956) and At the Gate of Horn (1957). Tradition was a small folk label founded by Patrick Clancy of the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, who sold it to Bernie Solomon of the low-ball reissue label Everest in the early '60s. Solomon, an expert at repetitious, poor-quality reissues, put it out on records like Odetta (Everest, 1963) and The Best of Odetta (Tradition, 1967), and has since licensed it for subsequent reissues such as Best of Odetta: Ballads & Blues (Legacy International, 1994). Rykodisc made a deal with him in the mid-'90s and resurrected Tradition, reissuing both of the original LPs on CD. Absolutely the Best is yet another repackaging of the same material, an 18-track disc excerpting 11 tracks from Sings Ballads and Blues and seven from At the Gate of Horn. On it, an Odetta in her mid-twenties (despite the deceptive pictures of her on the front and back covers of the CD) gives mesmerizing performances of traditional folk and blues standards in her trademark contralto, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar or singing a cappella. (Bill Lee plays bass on the tracks from At the Gate of Horn.) These are good performances, and any folk fan should have some version of the Tradition recordings. But the album's title and its artwork make promises the music itself does not keep.

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