Navigating the homogenized fog of commercial radio can be perilous, but Los Angeles-based public radio station KCRW-FM is a beacon of individuality and independence. KCRW—which bypasses the majority of NPR’s nationally syndicated shows in favor of its own original music programming—has long been L.A.‘s premier source for new music trends, continuing to diversify its reach and satisfy its audience while contemporaries like the fabled KROQ-FM have fallen from grace. Although KROQ still carelessly abuses the phrase “you heard it here first”, in reality it wallows in shallow commercialism, feeding off KCRW’s scraps, mistaking bandwagoning for prescience.
KCRW’s hallmark show is Morning Becomes Eclectic, hosted by station music director Nic Harcourt. Each weekday, Harcourt plays a strong assortment of new music, accented by live performances during the final hour. It’s been said that the key to an artist’s success is a few minutes of airtime on Harcourt’s show, and it’s easy to see why: Franz Ferdinand, Damien Rice, Sigur Ros, and Coldplay have all benefited greatly from Harcourt’s interest (Rice and Coldplay received their first US airplay on KCRW). While Harcourt’s tastes are sometimes criticized as too “safe” for those championing the cutting edge (in addition to a soft spot for the anthemic, he has a knack for breaking artists that go on to become adult contemporary mastheads: Norah Jones, Pete Yorn, and Dido, to name a few), he’s right more often than wrong, and displays unabashed passion for the music he embraces.
Sounds Eclectic 3 is the latest installment in a series of discs to highlight performances from Morning Becomes Eclectic’s in-studio hour (this compilation spans 2002-2004). While it does not consistently represent the wide spectrum of Harcourt’s guests, Sounds Eclectic 3 offers a cross-section of the station’s recurrent favorites. The disc is, like Harcourt, both adventurous and singularly routine: little-heard nuggets like Iron & Wine’s cover of the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” sit next to more predictable fare like Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”. The collection could use more hard-to-find selections like the Iron & Wine track; bands often use Morning Becomes Eclectic’s platform to perform alternate versions of album tracks, as well as unreleased and cover songs.
There are some stripped-down acoustic renditions scattered throughout Sounds Eclectic 3 that lend a sense of the show’s laid-back formula. Steve Earle delivers a solo performance of “Jerusalem” that’s easily as moving as the original. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood elastically strum through the frenzied “Go to Sleep”, Paul Weller runs through a bluesy take of “Amongst Butterflies”, and the Flaming Lips reimagine “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” as a fragile piano ballad.
The less essential tracks are those that don’t stray far from the original albums. The Polyphonic Spree’s Magical Mystery Tour fanfare “It’s the Sun”, Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”, My Morning Jacket’s “One Big Holiday”, and a loose, less atmospheric “Untitled” by Interpol, while all performed well, aren’t necessary as alternatives to the versions already owned by fans.
The involvement of KCRW and Harcourt in nurturing the careers of fledgling and established artists alike is undisputed, even if it’s not palpably acknowledged in every corner of the country. The Sounds Eclectic volumes allow those artists to reciprocate for the sake of the station, boosting its profile while offering fans some tracks that aren’t available elsewhere. Unfortunately, Sounds Eclectic 3 doesn’t even begin to illustrate the scope and depth of KCRW’s many musical bloodlines and blueprints. It’s merely a promotional item that somehow manages to undersell an enviable radio format. Now that the station streams its programming online (and even features streaming video of the live performances), listeners all over the world can share the privilege that Los Angelenos enjoy daily from their cars. Sounds Eclectic 3 isn’t nearly as impressive or satisfying as the station it represents; unless you are bound by allegiance to one of the 13 artists featured, skip the disc and proceed directly to the station instead.