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Various Artists, Aware Greatest Hits (Aware/Columbia)
Believe it or not, the likes of Matchbox Twenty, Train, Shawn Mullins, and John Mayer were not always the multi-platinum artists we all know and (some of us) love. Once upon a time they were all given a helping hand by indie label Aware and Aware Greatest Hits tells the story of how a bored accountant turned his daydream -- and the dreams of countless unsigned bands -- into reality. But despite the quality of artists on the album, the story doesn't necessarily have a happy ending, even for fans like me of Aware's brand of melodic US college rock. For the uninitiated, Aware Records was founded in 1993 by Gregg Latterman, then working as a CPA with Coopers and Lybrand, who found solace from the tedious world of number crunching by establishing an independent record label in his apartment that attempted to give a leg-up to the types of bands he liked and believed in. Latterman gathered together various unsigned bands and released his first compilation album -- which sold a healthy 20,000 copies -- before featuring artists such as Hootie and the Blowfish, Vertical Horizon, and Edwin McCain on his second record. The success of this record and its follow-up led Latterman to abandon both accountancy and a talent for ski instructing to pursue a music industry career full-time. Despite featuring a number of average and fairly forgettable bands during its history, Aware has, to say the least, had a pretty good hit rate. Five of the 14 artists on this greatest hits package were featured on the second Aware compilation while Aware's third release featured Tabitha's Secret's "3am", a song that eventually made Matchbox Twenty's career and is duly included here. Splendid acoustic versions of "Meet Virginia" and "My Stupid Mouth" by the Grammy-winning duo of Train and John Mayer are also featured as well as early tunes by more moderately successful bands Vertical Horizon and the Verve Pipe. Lesser-known acts such as Shannon Worrell, the Gufs, Cary Pierce, and Guster are also represented. All in all, it's a pretty good exercise in self-congratulation that becomes even more pronounced once the tracklisting reveals the massive radio hits "Lullaby" by Shawn Mullins, "Old Man and Me" by Hootie and the Blowfish and "Easy Tonight" by Five For Fighting.
The irony is, that for a venture originally set up to feature unsigned bands from "outside the vacuum of major label marketing and commercial radio play", these songs became so commercially exposed that even deaf grandmothers had trouble avoiding hearing them. Aware's artist development deal with Columbia Records catapulted the aforementioned acts to stardom and became such a part of that commercial/major-label vacuum that Latterman no doubt had to brush up on his accountancy skills to count all the dough that was rolling in. Although some music fans might not see cause for celebration in putting artists like Mullins, Mayer, and Train on the map, Latterman undoubtedly deserves credit for his efforts. For fans of the genre, there's no arguing with the quality of the bands he has gathered together and Aware Greatest Hits makes for an excellent listen. But part of me is disappointed that a record label set up as an antidote to the corporate machine of the music industry eventually became part of it. Then again, in a fiercely competitive business where the dollar is the bottom line, there are very few fairytale endings where everyone lives happily ever after.