There was nothing like the Robeson sound, ever. To describe his deep, rich, perfectly equalized instrument is futile. Go instead to "Balm in Gilead," the opening track, and see if you can listen to the last pianissimo phrase without falling to pieces. Robeson was at his best when the music was slow and the words contained spiritual or social messages. Faster, lighter fare like Kern's "I Still Suits Me" or Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" find the serious-minded singer out of his element, lacking irony and swing. "Old Man River," though, gets a simple, dignified treatment. It's Songs of Free Men, though, that will just keep Robeson's artistry rolling along, especially in Sony's astonishing transfers.
Back in 1990, Texas songwriter Butch Hancock staged a massive, six-night event entitled No Two Alike, wherein he played six straight evenings at Austin's Cactus Cafe. In the process, he recorded 140 of his own songs without repeating one. He then released the output later on cassette tapes. The reason for citing Hancock in a Paul Kelly review, particularly this one, is simply to establish the only precedent for this wonderful eight-disc live box set, the A to Z Recordings. Between 2004 and 2010, the revered Australian songwriter would perform his now legendary A to Z concerts, during which he would play two (largely) unplugged sets per evening for four nights, performing many of his songs, all in alphabetical order.
Though billed as a Paul Simon anthology, Sony's 19-song Ultimate Collection features nearly as much Simon & Garfunkel material as it does his solo work. Ranging from the duo's early-'60s breakthrough folk hit "The Sound of Silence" to Simon's 1990 percussive, Latin-flavored single "The Obvious Child," this set is focused largely on the more titanic tracks of his career. Displaying his range equally as a singer ("Still Crazy After All These Years") and a songwriter (the Art Garfunkel-led masterpiece "Bridge Over Troubled Water"), it's difficult to choose highlights, as almost all of these songs are career highlights and many are widely recognized as iconic classics of pop music. While it would be nice to see some representation of Simon's excellent solo releases of the late '90s and early 21st century, it's tough to argue with the selections offered here.