It seems like assembling a compilation on a roots rocker like Dave Edmunds would be an easy task. While his backing bands and production styles have changed, his musical aesthetic has remained essentially the same since he bolted from Love Sculpture and started a solo career in 1971 -- no matter what he did, he remained a passionate, devoted fan of old-time rock & roll, rockabilly, country, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, and Phil Spector. At first, he did this literally on his own, laying down every track himself for his first two records, and he did this to acclaim and success, including the surprise Top Ten hit "I Hear You Knockin'." By the mid-'70s, he hooked up with Nick Lowe and the two formed the core of Rockpile, a retro-rock new wave outfit that provided support on Dave and Nick's solo albums and toured as its own entity. During this time, Edmunds was a rare thing -- an interpretive rock & roll singer. He had an exceptional ear for songs, whether it was oldies or newer material by such contemporaries as Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Graham Parker; he made the new songs sound like classics from the days before the Beatles, yet he and Rockpile performed them with an energy and vigor that made them fit the new wave. Rockpile had a nasty split after recording their lone album, and Edmunds went through two enjoyably patchwork albums (Twangin' and D.E. 7th) before hooking up with ELO main man Jeff Lynne for 1983's Information. Like Edmunds, Lynne is also a lover of old rock & roll -- at their core, such early '80s hits as "Rock & Roll Is King" and "Hold On Tight" are Jerry Lee Lewis tunes -- but he had no compunctions about embracing the production of the time, down to the drum machines, phased guitars, and layers of synths. Perhaps since Edmunds was once a studio geek himself, this appealed to him, and he submitted to a makeover that made him sound like ELO and brought him hits, both on MTV and radio, leading to his first American Top 40 hit since "I Hear You Knockin'" with "Slipping Away."
While they gave him success, these records hurt him with his cult following and he never quite recovered -- he's only made two solo albums since -- and they make compiling a hits compilation difficult because they stand out like a sore thumb next to his prime '70s work. There's also the problem that Edmunds recorded for several different labels, so licensing becomes a problem. Rhino's 1994 double-disc compilation Anthology solved that, but it was hurt by too much Love Sculpture material and too much Jeff Lynne (cut off the first six and last six songs and it'd be a perfect compilation). Ten years later, Columbia/Legacy took their shot with the single-disc, 16-track From Small Things: The Best of Dave Edmunds, which also spans several labels, stopping when he left the label in the late '80s. The compilers recognized they had a problem with the Lynne material, so they've limited it to the two hits, but they're hamstrung by licensing, which dictates that they could only have two Swan Song-era cuts featuring Rockpile. Which means that big, big songs -- "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)," "Ju Ju Man," and the hit "Girls Talk" -- are here in latter-day live versions, which are pleasant but not a patch on the originals. To compensate, a few soundtrack-only rarities are hauled out -- "Stay With Me Tonight" from the 1987 soundtrack to Light of Day, "Do You Wanna Dance" from 1985's Porky's Revenge!, "Run Rudolph Run" from Party Party -- and while these are nice for collectors to have, they don't compensate for the lack of classic '70s and early '80s cuts. So, From Small Things winds up being less than the sum of its parts. It's an entertaining listen -- nothing here is bad; it's all good -- and its scope and ambition are admirable. It's just hard not to wish that the execution was a little better.