At first glance, it may be hard to understand why any but the most crazed Led Zeppelin fans would invest in a set like "The Complete Studio Recordings" (Atlantic 82526, arriving in record stores today).
Granted, it does have pretty much everything a devoted Zep-ophile could want. It's a 10-CD set that includes every album in the Zeppelin discography but "The Song Remains the Same," a live album the band would just as soon forget. Otherwise, it begins with Led Zep's eponymous debut and rolls faithfully on to "Coda," with nary a stop or substitution.
But don't devoted Zep-ophiles already have those albums?
Well, yeah. So you might wonder why those fans would shell out the $129.98 suggested list price for albums they already have on the shelf.
True, there are some differences between this set and the CDs the fans already own. For one thing, every track was digitally remastered by guitarist Jimmy Page, who had no input on the remastering of the earlier CDs. For another, "The Complete Studio Recordings" comes in a fancy box with a lavishly illustrated booklet and far more complete recording information than the original album packaging.
There are also four bonus tracks tacked onto the end of "Coda," songs not found on the original version of the album. But to be honest, it's kind of a misleading bonus. Three of the tracks -- "Travelling Riverside Blues," "White Summer/Black Mountain Side" and "Hey Hey What Can I Do" -- were included in the 1990 boxed set "Led Zeppelin" (Atlantic 82144), a 54-song collection that was Page's first pass at digitally remastering the Led Zep catalog.
"Baby Come On Home," a near-forgotten outtake from the band's debut, is the "Studio" set's only genuinely new track. But even that isn't unique to the big box, since it also can be found on "Boxed Set 2" (Atlantic 82477, also arriving in stores today), a double CD remaster package on which Page spiffs up the 31 songs not included on the "Led Zeppelin" set.
In fact, not only do the "Led Zeppelin" box and "Boxed Set 2" include virtually everything that's on "The Complete Studio Recordings" -- the same songs, the same Page-improved sound, everything -- but they do so at a lower price. With "Led Zeppelin" going for $69.98 list and "Boxed Set 2" for $32.98, buying both would net all the same music as "The Complete Studio Recordings" for $27 less.
So why even consider the bigger set?
Two reasons: First, because it's so much prettier. And second, because it provides a more satisfactory way of listening to the Led Zep canon.
Looks, of course, may seem a pretty lame excuse to spend an extra $27, but not after you've actually seen the set. Rather than simply bung a bunch of jewel boxes into a frame that sits with the rest of your CDs while the box and book lurk elsewhere (a la Pink Floyd's "Shine On" and other sets), "The Complete Studio Recordings" goes for a more unified approach. Its box takes up only slightly more space than the old albums would, with the discs and book stacked vertically inside. And instead of jewel boxes, the CDs are packed two apiece in special display folders with inner sleeves that recall old-fashioned 78 albums.
But it isn't just a matter of seeing the music presented in terms of the original albums that makes this set worth the money -- it's hearing them that way, too. Because among the things Page's remastering brings out are the ways in which Led Zeppelin's approach to sound evolved in the course of its 11-year existence.
Not that you hear any more detail on the big box than you would on the other two sets. But you do hear those details in context on "The Complete Studio Recordings," and that makes all the difference in the world.
Listen, for example, to the way "Led Zeppelin II" plays with its soundstage, leaving Page's nastily distorted guitar to lick the far edges of the mix in "Heartbreaker," or Robert Plant's vocal to corkscrew dizzyingly through the climax of "Ramble On." Although both effects were in evidence on the old CD, the remix adds so much clarity and definition that it's like seeing Niagara Falls through a Viewmaster after having previously only seen postcards.
Next, slip into "Houses of the Holy" and marvel at all the textural detail that disappeared into the murk on previous CDs. "Dancing Days," for instance, is presented with immaculate clarity, as each individual voice in Page's guitar orchestra stands distinctly in the mix. Or marvel at the unexpected resonances that crop up in "No Quarter" as Page's distorted guitar rubs against the phase-shifted purr of John Paul Jones' electric piano, or as Jones' fuzz-edged synth bass growls in tandem with the woofer-rattling thwack of John Bonham's bass drum.
Then fish out "Physical Graffiti," and marvel at the muscular immediacy of the sound, from the punchy power of "The Rover" -- note the slightly vertiginous tilt the mix gives Page's guitar on the intro -- to the spooky swirl of drums, guitar and orchestra in "Kashmir." Never before has the sheer physicality of the band's sound been so crucial to the music -- or so vivid on CD.
These are subtle pleasures, to be sure, and not every listener will find them worth the extra expense. But if you've ever sat spellbound by the stereo, marveling that these albums could reveal new pleasures even after two decades of steady play, well . . . you'll probably wonder how you ever got along without "The Complete Studio Recordings."