Various Artists | Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (Sony Legacy)

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cd_love-train.jpgThis box amounts to a volume from a pop music encyclopedia, which is exactly what the discerning beginner tends to crave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do I know about Philly soul? Nothing. I won't pretend to be an expert on this set's titular sound. I'm in no way qualified to argue the minutiae of overlooked gems or over/underrepresented artists; a certain historical perspective is required for those types of judgment calls. However, my ignorance makes me perfectly suited to offer a beginner's perspective. And really, shouldn't sets such as these exist primarily to serve the beginner? Sure, there will always be a small subset of completists and ultra hardcore fans who will pick up these types of boxes solely for the liner notes or for one mono mix of an obscure single that peaked at #87 in 1962. But those folks, while important, are few and far between; nothing is worse than picking up a "best of" or "essential" collection that doesn't tell you why you should care more. The good news is that Love Train enticed me to find out all that you can about what went on in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Sound of Philadelphia is another detailed Sony Legacy release, spreading 71 songs over four well-stocked discs. It's an almost overwhelming amount of music, but since when it is bad to be spoilt for choice? I was surprised to discover how many of the songs were standards that I knew, or were covers that have worked their way into the modern pop lexicon, even if I didn't know the names of the tunes or their original performers. I was struck by the more lush and dramatic nature of the arrangements, far more stylized than the perhaps more instantly recognizable signatures of Motown. The way the romantic slow dance coexists with the high energy stormer, the party with the torch song, is remarkable.

The collection is especially adept at presenting the scene's bread and butter artists side by side with mid-range Philly Groove staples like the Delphonics, as well as with a few minor hits and lesser-known groups. Eleven tracks from heavyweights the O'Jays and eight by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes intermingle with single tunes by artists I'd never heard of, such as The Ebonys or Jean Carn. Even within the artists who receive the lion's share of the running time, there's a wealth of variety to be found. For example, The O'Jays' wonderfully paranoid (yet still utterly danceable) "Back Stabbers" is here alongside their simmering, passionate "Sunshine."

Love Train is to be commended for its breadth. It spans a quarter century, from 1967's "Expressway to Your Heart" (performed by the Soul Survivors) all the way to 1983's "If You Only Knew" (Patti LaBelle). Additionally, the chronological track list, while certainly not the most adventurous way to go, allows the newbie to clearly track the sound's evolution, from the somewhat more standard R&B of the late '60s to its late '70s/early '80s entrenchment in disco and smooth soul.

This box amounts to a volume from a pop music encyclopedia, which is exactly what the discerning beginner tends to crave. It whets the appetite for an in-depth exploration. The extensive liner notes facilitate this; they offer an intelligent history lesson, illuminating novices like me with essays, timelines, chart rankings and interviews with masterminds Thom Bell, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. If you're looking to get smart on the oft-overlooked Philly "scene," look no further. Now what do I know about the Philadelphia sound? A hell of a lot more than I did before Love Train. A | Mike Rengel

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