[14 June 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Kill Rock Stars’ excellent 2002 compilation Fields & Streams was one of that year’s highlights, a snapshot of some of the best that indie rock had to offer at that moment in time. With such notable artists as Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Neko Case, the Mooney Suzuki, Stereo Total, Deerhoof, Erase Errata, and Mary Timony, not to mention dozens of more obscure acts, that double-disc set provided listeners with a wealth of material to explore. The Olympia, Washington label, by far one of the best and coolest record labels in America, promised a sequel to that compilation. Now, two years later (has it really been two years?), it’s here, another opportunity for anyone who’s interested in new music to find some new favorite bands.
Tracks & Fields might appear at first to lack such bands as buzzworthy as Yeah Yeah Yeahs were a couple of years ago, but once you settle in and give this diverse collection a few spins, you’ll discover that this new one has just as many gems as its predecessor had, or perhaps even more. Of the already established artists that are on this CD, they all deliver songs that their own fans will be clamoring to hear. Sweden’s Sahara Hotnights, arguably the best female rock band on the planet right now, offer up a fiery, spirited cover of the Ramones’ 1977 classic “Rockaway Beach” that is so good, it gives the original a real run for its money. Male Slut, which is essentially the four male members of Sonic Youth (Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, and Jim O’Rourke), contribute “Industrial Noise Blues”, a typically noisy, yet heartfelt tribute to their punk heroes, with Moore crooning at the end, “God bless Joey” (amen to that). Chapel Hill, North Carolina mainstays Superchunk supply a real treat in the upbeat, catchy rock of “Everyone Gets Crushed”, while Xiu Xiu’s “Clowne Towne” (originally from the band’s fantastic recent album) is given a riveting live solo treatment by Jamie Stewart on electric guitar and vocals. Stoner rock duo Jucifer provide a scorching live version of “Amplifier”, while punk veterans Gas Huffer contribute the fun “Release the Robots”. The most startling track on the entire album is the simply gorgeous “Peace in Detroit”, by veterans His Name Is Alive, as the band channels the ‘70s soul of Marvin Gaye while delivering a poetic treatise of their hometown: “Could this place ever be more than a wasteland? ... If the sun came up again, what would the light reveal?”
Of course, the real fun comes in discovering the more lesser known artists, which is the most rewarding aspect of this compilation project. “I’m Not Like That”, by Australia’s the Legend!, is unsettling in its bizarre beauty, the dual-bass duo of Dos’ “Make Her Me” have ‘80s punk vets Mike Watt and Kira Roessler offering a dark, gothic, vocal give-and-take, and the always prolific Billy Childish surfaces with “Pink 14”, performed with his band the Buff Medways. Spain’s the Charades serve up some bouncy new wave with the Farfisa-driven “The Only One”, while the weird, amusing art rock of the King Cobra’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” seems to channel both Yoko Ono and Wire at the same time. California electro rappers Gravy Train (think Peaches meets FannyPack) provide a live performance of the silly “Ghost Boobs”, and Semiautomatic offer a darker-tinged electro sound with “Search & Seizure”. Measles Mumps Rubella’s instrumental “Fantastic Success II” sounds like !!! (Chk Chk Chk), that is, if !!! had any restraint, while Dead Meadow’s “Golden Cloud” is absolutely beautiful, the combination of sitar and acoustic guitar creating some astonishing acoustic ambient music.
What really stands out on Tracks & Fields is the amount of excellent samplings of talented singer-songwriters and Americana artists. The enigmatic, burgeoning folk talent Devendra O Banhart contributes a demo version of his new tune “Poughkeepsie”, the tinny, lo-fi recording suiting his quavering voice perfectly, sounding like an old 78 RPM recording of a strange 1920s recluse. In direct contrast is the gifted Laura Veirs, whose “Icebound Stream” abandons her usual, sumptuous folk music into a more adventurous acoustic arrangement, sounding like Liz Phair (the Liz Phair of ten years ago) with a country tinge to it. “Begin to Breathe”, by Oakland, California’s Nedelle Torrisi, is entrancing, her lilting voice working perfectly with the gentle, Camera Obscura style arrangement. Cynthia Dall’s “Eric’s Song” revisits the wispy pop of Belly, while Brooke McAleer’s lovely “Inside Out” greatly resembles Juliana Hatfield, both in her self-deprecating lyrical style, and her charming voice. Critical darlings the Decemberists appear with “Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right”, sounding like a mix of alt-country and indie pop similar to the Shins and Destroyer.
With 41 tracks, covering more than two hours, I’ve only barely scratched the surface. You’ve got to hand it to Kill Rock Stars for their continual support of independent artists; not only do they reach into their very deep roster of talent, but they approach other musicians on other labels, as well as young bands with no record deals, seemingly open to anyone who has a good song that deserves some attention. They’re not out to greedily cash in on a gullible young band, they’re merely doing what they can to get the word out that there’s some great talent that’s always going unnoticed by the mainstream, and that indelible indie spirit is what ultimately makes a fabulous compilation like Tracks & Fields such a rousing success. Bring on the third volume!