The first album here, BLACK COFFEE, is representative of the Peggy Lee most listeners are familiar with, and it is available as a CD by itself, at a more affordable price. One of her very best albums, it is also one of her most purely jazz oriented efforts. Featuring Peggy's understated vocals in a small combo setting, I consider these performances to be "Essential Peggy Lee." There isn't a throwaway in the pack, including the four songs that were later added to the original BLACK COFFEE album.
SEA SHELLS is a little-known album of folk music. Strange to hear "the female Sinatra," as she's been called, do folk songs, and this is not an easy record to love, even for folk fans like me. It does, with patience (because there are no uptempo tracks here), reward repeated listening. Some of these musty old songs benefit from Lee's hushed reading. "White Birch And The Sycamore" and "Nine Thorny Thickets" are especially lovely. The arrangements are sparse; a couple of the "songs" are spoken (there are a couple of Chinese poems), and some are brief instrumentals. This record created a mood that stuck with me for a long time after I first listened to the entire album; my SEA SHELLS record was originally bought used, and is fairly beat up, so the pristine sound quality of this CD is most welcome. Of all Lee's records, this one sounds the most like Peggy singing to me in my living room, with her soft, intimate tones complimented by harp strums and delicate flourishes of harpsichord. Most unusual.
Because the first album is a 5-star essential, I can't give this collection anything less than that. Honestly, though, because of its limited appeal and its glacial pace, SEA SHELLS by itself would only get two, or three stars at most. If you are a major Peggy Lee fan who has somehow managed to get through life without hearing BLACK COFFEE, and you are curious about SEA SHELLS, by all means buy this collection!