This is the last word in collections of Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers, with 116 songs spread over four CDs. That's probably 110 more songs than most listeners in 2009 know by Cliff Bennett and company, but that doesn't mean that this isn't a wonderful opportunity to discover the rest of that output, or that it all isn't highly worthwhile -- it is; in fact, Bennett's may well be the best undiscovered library in the EMI vaults. Bennett and his various bands recorded a massive amount of material and endured for years, consistently rated by their fellow musicians as among the finest R&B-based outfits working in England in the early '60s, without ever breaking through to major stardom. Even if you're familiar with much of their output before this set, you'll be truly amazed by the consistency of this set -- from the early '60s, doing some surprisingly authentic-sounding covers of Atlantic-style R&B and into the mid-'60s, covering Beatles material successfully, and right to the end of the decade with a harder sound, this was a first-rate outfit that boasted such luminaries as Frank Allen (later -- and still, in 2009 -- the bassist for the Searchers) in their lineup. The programming may seem a little strange, as the group's earliest singles, produced by Joe Meek, are relegated to the last disc; but those recordings (never mind the actual records) are so rare that people should take them anyway they can get them.
Bennett and company are usually credited with introducing home-grown R&B to the clubs in England, and early on they show the influence of various Atlantic and Vee Jay artists -- the later material, officially the work of the Cliff Bennett Band (featuring ex- and future Pirates Mick Green and Frank Farley) or Cliff Bennett solo releases, also kept pace with the developments in soul on this side of the Atlantic, which makes disc three of this set every bit as satisfying -- and perhaps even more so -- than the first platter, as Bennett and company successfully assimilate the mid- to late-'60s Motown and Stax/Volt sounds. The last disc is given over to the group's Joe Meek sessions -- which present the group doing a leaner, more generic rock & roll sound, heavy on the guitars, which wasn't really what they were about -- and various oddities, such as stereo mixes of songs best known (and heard) in mono; but even this platter has its virtues, as a distillation of odd corners of Bennett's output that are every bit as rewarding as the rest of this set. In short, there's not a bad cut anywhere on this nearly 300 minutes of music, and the mastering is impeccable, making this the best airing that Bennett's work is likely ever to get. The only flaw, if there is one, is the relatively disappointing booklet, which features notes that could (and should) have gone a lot deeper into the group's history and recordings.