Small Is Beautiful was the title of an influential book on economics by E.F. Schumacher. There is art that applies that same credo. It’s the idea that a carefully crafted, not widely distributed, un-ostentatious, humble, “small” piece of music, with its own personality, may mean a lot to a small number of people, like a small business versus a national chain, or a handcrafted piece of clothing versus a mass-produced one.
If the German electronic-music label Morr Music is in its own way an institution by now, its sub-label A Number of Small Things is the corollary homemade outlet. “Small” in this case also refers to length and content, since the exclusive product is 7” vinyl singles, each featuring two or three songs. A 7” is a quick snapshot, a blurry Polaroid, here and gone, enticing more than fully satisfying. The two-CD set A Number of Small Things: A Collection of Morr Music Singles From 2001-2007 is a frame for those pictures, collecting all 17 singles that the label has released so far, roughly but not strictly in reverse chronological order, from 2007 to 2001. That backwards time-travelling approach fits with the instant appeal of a 7” and the deeper rewards of a two-CD set. At the start you’re hit with the newest latest sounds, but then also given time to meander and explore.
The oldest tracks, on disc two, are also generally the most abstract and mysterious. It’s where vocals only occasionally float over dreamy electronics, where electronic arranger/composers work with rhythm and groove but also melody and mood. It’s where Morr Music legends like ISAN, Styrofoam, and B. Fleischmann reside, and where a couple Lali Puna remixes can sneak stealthily into the mix. Atmosphere is a major component of the appeals of these contributions, as it is of those on the first disc, as different as many of the tracks are in approach. Those newer tracks are more direct, more conventionally ‘pop’, though no less interesting. There’s UK one-man-band Butcher the Bar, with his whispering croon gliding and then attempting to hold time still, to hover forever in the moonlight. There’s the Icelandic mini-orchestra Benni Hemm Hemm, with two two-song singles, one of which pairs a progressing instrumental theme with a hymn sung by Jens Lekman. The Florida electro-pop duo Electric President also offers four tracks, all shy but also clever, in sound, style, and title (e.g. “Wearing Influences on Our Sleeve-Less T-Shirts”). There are selections by Iceland’s Seabear and the UK’s Seavault. Masha Qrella, of Berlin, puts an affectionate, though slightly ominous, spin on Roxy Music’s “Don’t Stop the Dance” and “Saturday”, by fellow Berlin residents Komheit.
The collection overall includes several examples of the cover song that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is another sense of word “small”, the way someone sings one of their favorite songs just for the heck of it, not to make a grand statement or try to reinvent the original. One plotline through the two CDs is the humble interpretation of a song, famous or unknown. In addition to Masha Qrella singing Roxy Music and Komeith, there’s John Yoko, aka Lali Puna, taking on the Magnetic Fields and Smog. There’s Isan “redoing” Erik Satie. Seabear puts an almost lounge-pop, or at least ‘50s drive-in, spin on the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”. Seavault does Ultra Vivid Scene and Altered Images.
A Number of Small Things taps into the same level of imagination and craft that are the hallmark of Morr Music as a label. Having all of the 7” singles themselves would be neater, an art collection of sorts. This is the representation of that event, a reminder but also an almost-as-good recreation of the experience. In an era when small endeavors are everywhere, they’re easily lost if not documented. This is the archive, the memory, of one such action, of one series of small creative acts.
- Various songs Streaming audio