Various Artists

Red, White & Rock

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This triple-CD set is very difficult to rate on a simple basis. In terms of sound, it's a five-star release with state-of-the-art mastering on just about every song included. But it's also got some flaws, starting with its conception, that sort of rule it out of the collections of 95 percent of today's CD buyers who care about the actual oldies content of the set. For starters, with all due respect to the producers, Red, White & Rock seems like the very worst kind of exploitation -- prepared in collaboration between WQED in Pittsburgh, PA, and Rhino Records, it was conceived as something of a musical statement of rock & roll Americana in reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, a feel-good collection for people who felt that they or their country had been victimized. Released a year later, it repackaged a lot of generally upbeat and classic rock and rock & roll; as a piece of exploitation, it wasn't so bad except perhaps that no one seemed to care much about it, the recording business having gone to hell in the interim, and listeners didn't need more copies of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" or the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" in their collections. Actually, the pity is that this is a great compilation without a real purpose -- had it come out in the beginning of the CD era, it would probably have sold half a million copies and perhaps double that, to collectors as well as casual listeners. But appearing when it did, after most of what's on it had been anthologized many times over, the content wasn't really very distinctive and the quality of the masterings, which is excellent, was not a selling point to enough people. If someone were just starting out listening to "oldies" radio for the first time in 2002 or later and wanted to own some of what they heard, this would be a great place to start. But as it is, 95 percent of its purpose has already been served by other releases (including many from Rhino), the association with September 11 aside. In its defense, for anyone in that position or someone who just wants a nice collection of solid pop/rock oldies with a twist or two (Carl Perkins is represented by "Dixie Fried" instead of the expected "Blue Suede Shoes") and some not-too-deep annotation, the sound is excellent and the lineup is as solid as anything released by Time Life or any rival organization. There are a few song choices that reflect the circumstances behind the box's conception, such as Diane Renay's "Navy Blue," but there are moments of knowing cleverness that will go past those unfamiliar with the history, such as juxtaposing "Only in America" by Jay & the Americans with the Drifters' "On Broadway" -- and the makers did avoid any temptation they might have felt to include "The Ballad of the Green Berets," which might've made the set seem totally bizarre in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq.

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