THE GUESS WHO -- The Ultimate Collection (RCA)

When it comes to Canadian artists, few can top The Guess Who. They were the first group out of Canada to have a gold single, and their music paved the way for future Canadian acts to follow. However, stability within the group was lacking. The band went through several personnel changes over the years. The most successful lineup consisted of Burton Cummings on piano & lead vocals, Randy Bachman on guitar, Jim Kale on bass, and Garry Peterson on drums. The three CDs on The Ultimate Collection cover material from the band's RCA catalog only.

As a major Guess Who fan, I can't help having mixed feelings about this compilation. It's great to finally have this music on CD here in the US, but it comes at the cost of unacceptable amounts of tape hiss, and too much bass. Unfortunately, they recorded the songs on less than state of the art equipment, and it's painfully obvious when you hear the tracks on CD. Executive producer Don Wardell told me that they tried to clean up the hiss using CEDAR noise reduction on "These Eyes." After two failed attempts, they decided to leave the masters 'as is,' rather than lose the ambiance of the original recordings. Some songs were faded out early to make the hiss less noticeable.

Disk one starts with "These Eyes" and works its way through most of the hits."American Woman" suffers from major tape hiss--which actually changes audibly eight seconds into the song. "Undun" has a cool 10-second piano intro on the original album that most people have never heard. This is the kind of thing should be included in a collection like this. Instead, the producers used the same version that appears on every Guess Who compilation ever released. On a positive note, disc one also includes some great album tracks, like "Proper Stranger," "8:15," and "Coming Down Off the Money Bag/Song of the Dog" from the Share the Land album.

The second disc contains the best material overall. Live at the Paramount is covered by three tunes-- the excellent "Truckin' Off Across the Sky," "Runnin' Back to Saskatoon" (the single version, rather than the much better album version) and "Glace Bay Blues." Since the latter two songs follow each other on the original album, they should have just left them alone. Instead, they switched the order of the songs, and chopped off the entire intro to "Glace" (the song now starts with the vocals) in what is best described as just poor editing. Like disc one before it, there are still a lot of great tunes on disc two. Songs like "Rain Dance," "Albert Flasher," "Heartbroken Bopper," and Cummings' biting commentary on the music business, "Those Show Biz Shoes," are all highlights.

Overall, disc three is probably the worst of the set, although there are plenty of killer tunes there too. Once you get past "Clap for the Wolfman," you get "Road Food," "Attila's Blues," "Star Baby," "Musicione" and "Glamour Boy" all in a row. For the real fans, it doesn't get much better than that. There are four songs each from Flavours and Power in the Music, although some of those should have been left off in favor of album tracks. However, they did include "Dreams," one of the most beautiful songs ever written by Cummings.

During the process of scouring the vaults for the master tapes, they found the coolest tracks on the whole compilation--rehearsal takes for "Lightfoot," "No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" (with different lyrics), and "American Woman" (where Bachman screws up the guitar lick in the middle of the song). It's a shame that the producers didn't go after more of the 'rare' cuts. However, due to the condition of the master tapes, those tracks will probably never see the light of day.

The Ultimate Collection could have been great. Overall, it's a decent selection of songs and it's great to have this stuff available on CD, but the sound quality is disappointing. If you have a copy of Track Record (the previous Guess Who compilation), hang on to it. The sound quality is better, the liner notes are MUCH better (each song has comments from Cummings, and original Guess Who producer, Jack Richardson), and it contains songs not found on The Ultimate Collection.

© 1997 Steve Marshall