Now is the time of year to find the gift that says "I intend to maintain friendly relations by giving you this object and hope you will give me something of equal or greater value." To this end, nothing beats box sets and DVDs. If you've already given the Dylan box set, try these:
Click here to listen. Talking Heads'Once in a Lifetime makes a point about box sets before you even open it: It is proudly ungainly. Designed by Stefan Sagmeister and Matthias Ernstberger, the box set is a hardcover book, 5 1/4 inches tall (fine) and 17 inches wide (holy cats). (Pity the person who mails this to someone for Christmas.) The book includes 13 essays, three by Byrne, one each by Frantz, Harrison, and Weymouth, and others by fiction writer Mary Gaitskill and Rolling Stone's David Fricke. The archival photographs are extensive and unfamiliar enough to make you feel as though you've never seen a decent photo of Talking Heads, and Bob Ludwig's lucid remastering is the holiday spirit itself, especially for those of us still waiting to hear Remain in Light remastered. The song selection will explain the band adequately to anyone who doesn't know them, and the rarities are all worthy. (Example: an alternate version of Fear of Music's"Cities" with different lyrics, louder synthesizer, and even louder bass.) If it peters out at the end of the third CD, what doesn't? An additional DVD contains all their videos, including Byrne's short film for "Once in a Lifetime," which looks both ancient (image quality) and depressingly advanced (concept). Bum note: The cover paintings of nudists by Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov resurrect the hideous "Ha, ha, look at the average people who don't ironize their experience, so we'll do it for them" condescension that Byrne started on True Stories. It's the worst part of Byrne, and it became one of the worst threads in '90s culture. Once in a lifetime is too much for that crap.
Space Is the Place is a 1974 film just issued by Plexifilm on DVD, and it is, improbably, a pretty good introduction to the jazz musician Sun Ra. A pianist who wrote arrangements for big-band leader Fletcher Henderson in the late 1940s, Ra went on to form the Arkestra, legendary purveyors of ferocious playing, ritualistic spectacle, and shiny skullcaps. Ra's massive discography never settles—traditional horn charts crumble into full-bore improvisations that rumble through time signatures and harmony, and his bad records are as common as good ones. Space Is the Place contains a half-hour live Sun Ra concert fleshed out to a full-length black nationalist sci-fi movie. The movie opens with Ra in an Egpytian headdress, talking to a robed figure with a mirror for a face. Ra has determined it's time for black people to leave Earth, and he proposes to "teleport the whole planet here, through music." (The otherworldly "here" is footage filmed in Golden Gate Park.) Cut to a Chicago gangster strip club in 1943 where piano player Sonny Ray (Ra) disobeys orders and starts pounding out atonal clusters. People flee! Glasses break! Smoke emanates from unknown places! It's an effective and cheesy dramatization of the recurrent hostility toward free music. Director John Coney keeps the spectacles flowing, and the saturated colors, ecstatic noises, and ideology reinforce a rich sense of possibility. We eventually see the live show, but the narrative silliness is better: Sun Ra's yellow-breasted spaceship; sex with nurses; tarot-card sessions in the desert; and Ra's interstellar recruiting speeches: "You're not real. If you were, you'd have some status among the nations of the world. So, we're both myths … that's what black people are—myths."
Palm Picture's Directors Label has issued three DVD collections of music videos, one each by directors Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry. Gondry is best-known for directing videos for the White Stripes, Björk, and Daft Punk, and his collection comes with a mission statement—"I've been twelve forever." The work backs up this idea. His images feel unchecked by repression, like a child talking about his dreams at the breakfast table: Björk's gorilla dentist extracts a 3-foot-wide diamond from her mouth, which she brings home in a giant tank. Daft Punk's keyboard and guitar lines are "acted out" by disco dancers and skeletons. And most famously, White Stripes' "Fell in Love With a Girl" is a performance clip rendered entirely in Lego. The extensive interviews with Gondry reveal how complex and precise the planning for these videos is. Instead of using science as a selfish, useless strike against mortality, Gondry uses the rational and methodical to bring the irrational and numinous to life. What if you could carry a car down the street? What if your suit was made of drums?