When reissue label Light in the Attic re-released the first two Betty Davis albums last year, they did something very stupid. They only did CDs. Some genius, noticing this, immediately bootlegged the things on vinyl (which I bought). Now, in early 2008, about 10 months after the CDs came out, the label has gotten wise and has pressed the albums on wax (with nicer packaging and bonus 7"s).
For a split second, I thought: "wouldn't it be nice to have these beautifully packaged, legit LPs?" But, you know what? These records actually are not that great. Now, let me tell you my one insight into human nature: everyone thinks the thing that only they know about, or only they have, is much better than it really is. Extremely rare is the "long-lost masterpiece" that lives up to the hype. We were all much more excited about "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" before they, you know, really existed.
Luckily, there is a built-in psychological counter-action to the deflationary effect of finding out something does not live up to its hype. This is the joy of tastemaking: "You've got to hear it!" When something is in the vaults, this enthusiasm belongs to the few; when something finally comes out, we all get to join in. "Is it as good as everyone says?" "Yeah! It's great!"
How am I to tell whether a new discovery is truly great or only marginal? One would think we could rely upon reviews, but this turns out to be the least-reliable sphere of all. What we need is historical perspective and a kind of long-term judgment. It is not accidental that these things are lacking in American culture.
Here's a good write up about the disappointment of hearing Betty Davis' albums re-issued:
"Her music is a lot more fun to read about than listen to."
"She was, point blank, an awful singer."
"The vocals might matter less if the music were consistently inspired. But few of Davis' grooves really stick. Partly you can blame the singer: Davis often ignored the beat entirely."
"Claims that her albums belong in the first rank of the funk pantheon are deluded. Such claims aren't unprecedented, of course. Think of the mid-'90s vogue for exotica, fueled by CD reissues of forgotten kitsch by Esquivel and Les Baxter, or of R&B/rock guitarist Shuggie Otis, who in 1974 made a wan little album called Inspiration Information that was hailed as a lost masterwork by dint of a 2001 reissue on David Byrne's label, Luaka Bop. That Esquivel, Otis, and Davis became their seasons' misguided icons of lost virtue isn't something we should hold against them. Their tepid music, though, is something else."
What I like about this write-up is the historical perspective, which is two-fold: 1) What we might call a canon of funk music, against which Betty Davis can be judged as a quality, and 2) a remembrance of other hyped "lost gems," the fate of which can now be viewed serenely.
The #1 thing that happens in a record store in NYC in 2008 is that someone recommends to me a reissue of a record I was not previously aware of. Some of these records will be fantastic (the Roky Erickson "Evil One" 2xLP), some of them will be just fine (the Betty Davis albums), and some of them I will listen to once and file away (oh how many!).
The point being, we all would rather "discover" a mediocre $18.99 reissue than buy the $3 Stevie Wonder album which towers above it. Myself included. This might be taken as the central question of this blog in its entirety.