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Mediocre music

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Tried to get through an entire CD these days? Good luck. Thanks to ever-expanding digital technology, more music than ever — up to 80 minutes — can be crammed onto a single compact disc, and plenty of folks are taking advantage of the possibilities. They include Prince (75 minutes), Red Hot Chili Peppers (Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 74 minutes), and Madonna and Kenny G (Erotica and Breathless, each 70 minutes). So don’t worry if you start playing one of these discs and then do your daily chores; it’ll still be prattling away on the stereo when you return.

Of course, music fans should get their money’s worth, especially if they’re paying twice as much for a CD as they once did for an LP. But the downside is that albums are becoming too damn long and way too padded. Take Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which includes three mighty fine singles, ”Under the Bridge,” ”Give It Away,” and ”Breaking the Girl.” But you have to wade through 14 other songs, some of them terrible, to hear the hits. The album could easily have contained one-third less music and been a tighter, more cohesive work. Like other recent releases, it is the equivalent of a two-record set — and just try to remember a nearly perfect double LP.

The rise of the CD has also led to some seriously unbalanced albums, especially now that LP sides are a ghost of the past and albums are conceived as seamless start-to-finish listening experiences. Several years ago, producer Don Was said he was recommending that his clients put their best songs at the beginning of a CD. It makes sense — what pop or rock fans among us can concentrate on an entire hour-plus CD without a break? — and some superstars seem to have taken the hint, with mixed results. Erotica builds up a decent head of steam during its first half but dribbles out almost immediately thereafter. Even U2’s first-rate Achtung Baby starts out strong and drifts into a bit of musical swampland toward the end.

Perhaps the pop world should take a hint from country, where (because of royalty restrictions) albums almost never go beyond 10 tracks. A few recent pop and rock CDs with that exact number of tracks — Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew, the Utah Saints’ eponymous album, Neil Young’s Harvest Moon — have not suffered at all from their comparative brevity. When it comes to overlong CDs, there is one consolation, though. Thanks to remote control and programming functions, listeners can now take an album’s sequencing literally into their own hands and skip over all the bad stuff. Take that, filler tunes!

Oops, time to get back to work and dig into that new Gary Puckett and the Union Gap anthology — all 20 tracks of it. Oh, man — exactly where is ”Young Girl” on this thing, anyway?

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