Even though they're meant to celebrate songs, let's face it--most musical boxed sets wind up becoming coffee-table books. Thankfully, the five-disc The Life and Music of Richard Thompson is for the British singer/songwriter/guitar-hero what Tracks was for Springsteen: a compulsively listenable trove of unreleased work that complements, and often outshines, the artist's albums. But this is better than Tracks; the underpurchased Thompson has never suffered from Fat Elvis periods. Along the way through these 85 rarities, artfully sequenced by theme, there are ballads so stately that the mere act of listening to them feels ennobling, instrumentally intensive Vaudevillian goofs, dusky rockers and stormy live workouts, which taken together make Thompson's once-stated aspiration to combine Chuck Berry and Django Reinhardt actually seem humble. A highlights comp would have to include the should've-been pop-rock hit "Modern Woman," the airy twang of "Shady Lies," an unlikely definitive cover of Squeeze's "Tempted" and the Misfits-worthy rarity "My Daddy Was a Mummy" but would easily exceed a 70-minute CD-R. And the full color, 165-page booklet should do nicely for coffee-table enthusiasts.
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