When it comes time to assemble a retrospective box set, record labels undoubtedly start by evaluating what material is available as well as possible production costs and revenues. Then they decide whether to spare no expense; to deliver a few modest extras; or, sometimes, to spare almost every expense and offer a barebones package. This last option may seem unfortunate for music fans but in certain instances, it can be the right choice not just for the record company but for consumers as well.
That’s the case with a new Rod Stewart box, The Studio Albums: 1975–2001, which collects all 14 of the LPs that resulted from the artist’s long association with Warner Brothers. (Well, almost all: as the title indicates, it doesn’t include his live recordings for the label; also missing is 1996’s If We Fall In Love Tonight, a compilation CD that incorporates 10 tracks you won’t find in the box, most notably a definitive and indispensable cover of Tom Waits’s “Downtown Train”).
There’s no book with this package nor, for that matter, is there even a booklet with performance and songwriting credits. (The latter, in fact, are incorrectly listed in the metadata of many of the CDs.) Don’t look for any outtakes, demos, or other previously unreleased material, either, or for a Blu-ray with documentaries or surround-sound mixes. Nope, all you get is a clamshell box with the original albums, none of which appear to have been remixed or remastered for this release.
If you’re a rabid fan, this may be disappointing, but for other listeners, it’s actually good news. Stewart’s Warner Brothers albums virtually all contain some superlative material, but they tend to be spotty affairs, with a bit of filler—or in certain cases, a lot of filler—mingling with the gems; and many people might have hesitated to opt for a gargantuan box with a price to match. Undoubtedly because it lacks frills, The Studio Albums 1975–2001 is selling on Amazon for about 55 bucks—less than $4 per disc. Given how much excellent material it does contain, even casual fans of Stewart should grab it at that price.
Granted, none of these albums evidence the consistent excellence of pre-Warner efforts like Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story. Stewart sings well throughout, but weak material and a focus on commercialism hamper many of these releases to varying degrees. So does a tendency to latch onto trends like disco and heavy use of synthesizers, which makes some of the tracks sound dated. Still, the box offers plenty of reminders that Stewart ranks among rock’s greatest vocalists, and every one of the albums includes at least a few winners. (Nearly all of these LPs made the top five in the U.K., incidentally, and most of them also sold well stateside. Major hit singles are sprinkled throughout the collection.)
Atlantic Crossing (1975), for example, offers a few throwaway rockers but also first-rate versions of Gerry Goffin’s “It’s Not the Spotlight” (with excellent mandolin), the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine,” and Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” plus a bona fide classic from Stewart’s own pen: the evocative and romantic “Still Love You.” A Night on the Town (1976), too, embraces more than a few standouts, such as Stewart’s “Fool for You”; “The Killing of Georgie Part I & II,” a kind nod to the gay community; and a terrific cover of Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest.”
Footloose & Fancy Free (1977) is more of a mixed bag: it delivers the vapid “Hot Legs” but also the lilting ballad “You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)” as well as “I Was Only Joking,” which profits from a compelling lyric about youthful mistakes and an exhilarating acoustic and electric guitar solo by Jim Cregan.
Things go downhill with the next few albums, but even those deliver some standouts. Blondes Have More Fun (1978) includes “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” a mediocre (albeit bestselling) disco excursion, but also the catchy “Ain’t Love a Bitch.” Foolish Behaviour (1980) is often foolish, but amidst such throwaways as “Passion” is at least one number that really does display passion, not to mention lovable guitar work and deftly written lyrics: the magnificent “Oh God I Wish I Was Home Tonight.”
The title cut of Tonight I’m Yours (1981) is as unabashedly commercial as “Hot Legs” but more listenable. Other highlights of this album include “Young Turks” and a cover of “Just Like a Woman” that captures the spirit of Bob Dylan’s original version.
You have to look a little harder to find bright spots on the next four CDs, but there are a few, even on Body Wishes (1983), arguably Stewart’s nadir, where the program features such guilty pleasures as “What Am I Gonna Do (I’m So in Love with You).” Camouflage (1984) offers the lightweight but likable “Some Guys Have All the Luck” while Every Beat of My Heart (1986) has the atmospheric “Ten Days of Rain.” Out of Order (1988) boasts the rocking “Lost in You,” the mid-tempo “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” and an excellent cover of “Try a Little Tenderness,” the 1930s song best known via Otis Redding’s rendition.
The music becomes more consistently interesting on several of the later releases. Vagabond Heart (1991) opens with the bagpipes-spiced “Rhythm of My Heart,” one of Stewart’s most imaginative efforts in years. Also here: a well-sung cover of Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow”; “The Motown Song,” featuring backup by the Temptations; and a spirited reading of “It Takes Two,” the Marvin Gaye/Kim Weston hit, performed with Tina Turner.
Spanner in the Works (1995) opens strong with a version of Chris Rea’s “Windy Town” and also includes amiable covers of Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You” and Tom Petty’s “Leave Virginia Alone” plus “Muddy, Sam, and Otis,” a tribute to three of Stewart’s musical heroes. When We Were the New Boys (1998) also has its moments, including the well-hooked title cut and “What Do You Want Me to Do?” where Stewart’s voice is front and center, with backup that features acoustic guitar and a Dylanesque harmonica.
Human (2000), which incorporates guitar backup by Slash and Mark Knopfler, is largely a misstep. Here, too, though, there are winners, most notably “Don’t Come Around Here,” an affecting duet with Scottish singer Helicopter Girl (aka Jackie Joyce), and the sweet “Charlie Parker Loves Me.”
Clearly, The Studio Albums box offers downs as well as ups. But as noted earlier, the downs won’t cost you much. And some of the ups are priceless.