As label compilations go, the Darla label has managed to turn their Little Darla Has a Treat for You series into one of the most respected and worthwhile collections in indie rock and pop. Not that every volume of the series or every song on the discs have been vital and stellar, but for the most part Darla’s comps have been chock full of great music by smaller bands working in the genre. And they’re cheap!
Vol. 19: Wake Up Gay in the Morning! continues that tradition with a collection of 20 tracks that will fill your stereo with some great under-the-radar music. As with any compilation, it has its ups and downs, but for your money it succeeds for more often than it fails. Collecting everything from the twee to the jazzy, there is a lot of variety on this album, and there’s sure to be something here that will prompt you to visit the Darla catalog for one of these band’s full-lengths.
Things kick off well with a breezy pop tune from the UK’s Saloon. One of Darla’s premier pop bands, this exclusive release of “Free Fall” sets the stage for twee-inflected indie pop to follow. However, Darla loads up the front end of the compilation with variety, and “Free Fall” transitions nicely into the Sinking Ships’ “You Can’t Push Me Away”, a tune that turns up the amps slightly into the power pop range. The amperage is ramped up even further with “Right Before My Eyes” by Canada’s the Snitches. A rollicking song that evokes a post punk guitar assault with brash, snotty ‘70s punk adolescence, “Right Before My Eyes” is definitely one of Vol. 19‘s highlights. The compilation continues to dip and sway, changing course and direction from track to track, and not letting the listener get lulled into a sense of complacency. Indie rock gets followed by acid jazz. Acoustic solo work and country tinged dirges rear their heads. Britpop is represented in various flavors, with Ludus bringing in a Blondie meets the Creatures death disco assemblage, The Stockholm Monsters harkening back to the Psychedelic Furs, Crispy Ambulance melding the Happy Mondays with the Fall, and Cath Carroll even bringing in ‘80s-inspired dance pop. Darla’s Manchester recruiters are obviously working overtime. Overall, the music represented on Vol. 19 is a smorgasbord of styles that covers a wide range of tastes.
The highlights are fairly easy to pick out, but may not be easy to find elsewhere (or outside of Darla’s online catalog at least). The aforementioned song by the Snitches is great and will cause punk and power pop ears to perk up, but other bands here are equally deserving. The acid-jazz groove of Japan’s Pfeuti is hypnotically addictive on “Surgeon’s Daughter”, with wailing saxophone competing against a funked-out wha-wha guitar, all over a slinky bass line. “Following Her Around”, the exclusive track by the mysterious Sprites is absolutely fabulous in its simple college rock, acoustic strumming glory. Perhaps the most “instantly familiar” song about an indie kid enraptured by an indie girl ever recorded, and dropping excellent cultural references at every turn, it’s already made its way onto one of my own mixes. Figurine’s “My First UFO” combines light glitchy electronica with a pop love song’s sensibility thanks to the remix available here. And I would be remiss not to mention Super Madrigal Brothers and the “Pastime with Good Company” track. A group whose mission is to construct short Renaissance compositions out of ‘80s video game soundtracks and then dub them together into mixed up pieces, “Pastime” is a song sure to evoke gamer geek nostalgia.
As far as failures go, Vol. 19 does have an unfortunate few. Both the songs included from Lowlights (“Lowlights”) and Sweet Trip (“Chocolate Matter”) suffer from the versions used. The track from Lowlights is another exclusive, a four-track demo sent to Darla featuring that displays a simple acoustic ballad aesthetic with hushed vocals. Unfortunately, as pretty a song as it is, the low-end production and ambling nature of the song makes its length ponderous and sucks some of the energy out of the compilation. Sweet Trip’s “Chocolate Matter” is an otherwise a noisy rock song with a great melody and some techno tone fun, but here it’s presented in an annoying “Lo Fi Mono Edit”, which warps notes and sounds like a forced, fake-garage attempt at fashion. Then there’s “Dreamin’” by the Photon Band, a perfect example of what happens when a clever idea is taken too far. Musically it’s a catchy pop-rock song, with great hooks and a memorable tune. But lyrically, the Photon Band has decided to play with all the “oohs” and “na na nas” that fill pop songs, creating a song built entirely of “la-ee-I-I-I-I” and “oh-oh” vocals. No other words. It’s funny for the first thirty seconds, but after an entire song it’s too much to listen to and comes off more as conceit than as wit.
But, as I said, as an example of recent music from one of the best indie labels out there, Little Darla Vol. 19 is as good as the best of its predecessors. You might only walk away with one or two songs that you absolutely love, but that’s the nature of a sampler. And with Darla, you’re almost always guaranteed to find something.