Universal's 2009 triple-disc set Memorial Collection and its two-CD companion, Down the Line: Rarities, effectively act as a substitution for a reissue of the six-LP 1979 box The Complete Buddy Holly, long a holy grail item among rock & roll fanatics. That set never materialized on CD for various legal and logistical reasons, so bootleggers stepped into the void, assembling a ten-disc set that went far beyond the original vinyl box, and then as the original recordings crept into public domain in Europe, year-by-year chronicles started to pop up over there. These satisfied the needs of completists in a way Universal's twin 2009 CD sets may never, as there are too many missing alternate takes, apartment tapes, and demos -- not to mention live cuts, which are virtually absent -- but for hardcore fans who are less obsessive, these two releases are far easier to absorb than the bootleg, which gets weighed down in historical minutia that obscure the big picture.
Spanning 59 tracks over the course of two discs -- nearly as many songs as those on the three-disc Memorial Collection -- Down the Line concentrates on boiling that minutia down to its essentials, to get the best of the alternate takes, demos, and "Apartment Tapes," or at least to find the music that fits the broadest audience. Again, this concentrates on studio, not live, sessions and it follows the same trajectory as Memorial Collection, beginning with Buddy's duets with Bob Montgomery and ending with a selection of highlights from his solo acoustic recordings in his New York apartment (many of which are also heard on Memorial). Down the Line adds detail and color to the story, digging deeper at Buddy's country roots -- the earliest cuts here sound downright hillbilly -- and spotlighting the Crickets' lean rock & roll via several selections that strip off all the overdubs, leaving behind just their propulsive jangle. Where Memorial Collection invites pure marvel at Buddy Holly's rapid progression, Down the Line hints at the work behind it all, the conscious editing and development of his sound and the cheerful record-plugging at radio sessions (there's a wonderful sequence of "That'll Be the Day" specially recorded for various prominent DJs), and this can make for fascinating listening. However, like a lot of archival releases of this nature, Down the Line requires some attentive listening: when alternate takes begin to pile up upon each other, it takes some serious attention from serious listeners to sort it all out. Naturally, there are some immense rewards here, lying in small details and flat-out knock-outs, like Buddy's slow, sexy reworking of "Slippin' and Slidin'," which is further proof that Holly was an inventive interpreter in addition to being a singular songwriter. While this set doesn't require intense concentration and Herculean patience the way that the bootleg The Complete Buddy Holly does -- that is strictly the province of fanatics -- Down the Line cannot be appreciated without a concentration that goes very, very deep: it's something for serious rock & rollers who fancy themselves scholars.