There undoubtedly are some artists from days gone by whose out-of-print recordings haven't been reissued in the past year, but I'll be damned if I can figure out who they are. Because of the continuing popularity of the compact-disc revolution, a startling panoply of material is descending upon us--much of it obscure enough to puzzle even the most knowledgeable pop fanatic. For example, Deram Records, a Polygram subsidiary, recently shipped me a lavish, two-CD set entitled The Best of Caravan, featuring a group that I didn't know existed until I was holding the package in my hand (Caravan, I subsequently discovered, was a late-Sixties British act that's part of the same family tree as the progressive-rock band Soft Machine).

For those of us too stupid to realize that we can spend our extra income on things other than albums, this onslaught of music products is something to be cheered--yet the willy-nilly appearance of those products in retail outlets implies that many record companies simply are putting out anything and everything in their vaults without bothering to investigate whether anyone in his right mind would want to hear them again. There is, however, a notable exception to this rule: Rhino Records, which has expanded from a small used-record store south of the UCLA campus to an emerging music-business powerhouse. Rhino currently has a new-music subsidiary label, Forward, that has earned only middling returns; the sales of recordings by critically well-regarded signees such as Todd Rundgren and NRBQ have not justified its investment. But that hardly matters to executives at Rhino, which has become the most aggressive--and probably the best--reissue company in the country. Discs bearing the Rhino imprint are not always exceptional, and many are notably overpriced, but they all stand as proof that having good taste is the best revenge.

Associating this quality with Rhino might seem strange to those who recall that the label first gained notice for putting out goofball records such as "Fish Heads" by Barnes and Barnes, a twisted duo that includes singer/actor Billy Mumy, formerly the easily agitated tot on Lost in Space. Far from abandoning these roots, Rhino still flaunts them by putting together collections such as the new Musical Depreciation Revue: The Spike Jones Anthology. Jones--the Elvis Presley of novelty music--is a bizarre figure, remembered if at all for cuts such as "Der Fuehrer's Face," a World War II vintage sendup, and the dopey chestnut "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)." But listen a little closer to Jones's gleefully anarchic musical deconstructions and you'll hear sounds that influenced acts such as Devo and the Residents. These tunes are jokes, glorious jokes, that Rhino's forty-song, two-CD set, complete with a picture-filled booklet and liner notes by Dr. Demento, preserve with the care they deserve.

This approach has been extended lately to other types of music, thanks to licensing agreements between Rhino and megalabels such as Atlantic and RCA. As a result, the Rhino catalogue has been growing ever more eclectic. Early 1994 offerings include volumes three and four of hip-hop and electric funk collections issued under the moniker Street Jams; featuring performances by such all-but-forgotten artists as Full Force, Roxane Shante and Doug E. Fresh, these discs are notable improvements over their predecessors. Also of note is the impressive Foundations: The Keith Jarrett Anthology, part of Rhino's attempt to make available the finest selections to be found in Atlantic's jazz library, and Stellar Fungk: The Best of Slave, Featuring Steve Arrington, a long-needed overview of a Seventies act that got little attention outside of the R&B community but in its own way provided as many funky moments as anyone this side of the Gap Band. The inclusion of cuts from leader Arrington's post-Slave group, Steve Arrington's Hall of Fame, is only one example of how Rhino compilers manage to place the music--music they obviously love--in something akin to a historical perspective.

This is not always the case, as is shown by another new release, The Best of KC & the Sunshine Band, a group whose moronic party anthems are actually becoming more enjoyable with the passing of time. The disc contains no biographical information at all, because of its inclusion in the Rhino Special Editions budget series. What's budget to Rhino may not be budget to you, however: Even Special Editions albums are sold for more than the average lower-cost platter, and in the case of KC, those who care can probably find most of the songs on the Rhino release somewhere else for considerably less dough. That may be the case with other Rhino items as well: The company is not shy about making aficionados pay the price for its grade-A procedures. Fortunately, Rhino gives you something in return for a higher charge--a reasonable guarantee that you're buying something you'll want to listen to.

Which is more than I can say about that Caravan album.


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