[16 April 2013]
In just 10 years, Toronto’s Arts & Crafts has become Canada’s pre-eminent source for indie music, if not one of the world’s biggest indie labels. Sure, there are great bands on Paper Bag and Idée Fixe has put out some good albums in recent years, but Arts & Crafts is the unqualified runaway success story. And it all happened rather quickly—the label literally struck gold with the first thing it released. Conceived by Jeffery Remedios—an executive at Virgin Records Canada—and Kevin Drew—of the band Broken Social Scene—the label was started as a means to distribute Drew’s band’s sophomore record, You Forgot It in People. Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know what happened: Pitchfork gave slavish press to the album by means of a very enthusiastic review, creating a stir of demand before the record was even released Stateside, and both the band and the label was swept up in a swell of buzz and hype. Not a bad first outing for a label that was cooked up in a basement apartment.
You Forgot It in People, of course, now retains classic stature in the Canrock and international indie rock canon, and the label became a clearing house for related BSS projects, tangibly or otherwise, with Drew, Stars, Feist, Amy Millan, Brendan Canning, Jason Collett, and Apostle of Hustle (ie. Andrew Whiteman) calling the label home for their various outings. Of course, the label branched out and started signing other acts, but its success can be also measured in its innovations: it was one of the first record labels to launch its own digital record store, and, in 2008, the label opened up a Mexican office (the first North American indie to do so) so it could not only extend the reach of its own roster, but distribute records by the likes of Pavement, Sonic Youth, Beach House, Fleet Foxes and Yo La Tengo to the Mexican marketplace. Clearly, Arts & Crafts has graduated from the basement—and did so a long time ago.
There are a number of things happening to celebrate the label’s 10th anniversary – a short fiction-writing contest, a special photography exhibit, a fashion collaboration, and more; but the main one is what I’m about to discuss at some length: the label is releasing a two-disc (or four LP version for vinyl purists) retrospective containing both its “greatest hits” and rarities, not unlike the kind of compilations Matador Records and Kindercore Records have put together in the past to celebrate certain milestones in their evolution. And here it is. And it’s generally solid. Now, there are some real head-scratchers—absent from the previously released material is Feist’s “1234”, which is probably the label’s biggest hit, and also noticeably missing is Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”, despite its inclusion in at least a couple of movie soundtracks. So think of the first disc (or first two albums, for you vinyl lovers) as a kind of mix tape that the label put together of its own personal likes and biases.
And it generally works as a road map of how the label evolved (it’s even bookended—you might even say, anchored—by two Broken Social Scene songs, “7/4 (Shoreline)” and “Lover’s Spit”): from a label that catered to the whims of a collective, to expanding its world view and roster to include acts from Montreal (the Dears, Young Galaxy, Stars), even if those acts were generally tentatively connected in some way to the Broken Social Scene universe. Eventually, Arts & Crafts conquered the world: the label eventually signed Europe’s Los Campesinos! and Australia’s Sally Seltmann, who initially recorded under the New Buffalo moniker. So the “greatest hits” portion of the collection, which runs 16 songs long, is an apt taster for what the label has done in a decade, even if the various BSS spin-offs are arguably a little over-represented. (Not sure if we really needed to hear Apostle of Hustle’s seven-minute “Folkloric Feel” again, or if Feist, as great and successful as she is, needed two songs here.)
What works best about this disc is the undiscovered talent that you may not have been aware of in the roster. In fact, my favorite song on the whole disc is one from a band I’d never heard of before—Zeus’ rather Small Faces soundalike “Are You Gonna Waste My Time?” With more than 50 albums under its belt, chances are there’s something that you will have missed by the label, so this compilation serves as a great way to discover stuff you might have overlooked the first time. Additionally, it becomes apparent that there’s a big, brassy indie rock sound that the label specializes in. Hearing this collection, the line between Broken Social Scene and Los Campesinos! becomes a lot less blurred. To that end, this collection is instructive and has a useful utility. One could quibble that the songs haven’t been fussed with – Broken Social Scene’s “Lover Spit”, which closes the first disc, still has a bit of the intro to its You Forgot It in People follow-up track, “I’m Still Your Fag”, tacked onto it. Another sore point is that, even though the songs are bunched together so that they have a similar feel, the flow of the mix still isn’t all that pristine: the chamber pop of Stars awkwardly gives way to the power pop of Zeus, and the straight-ahead rock of the Stills opens up to Feist’s folksy “Mushaboom”. Overall, though, part one of Arts & Crafts: 2003-2013 is an effectively fawning look back at the label’s most successful acts.
Where things get really interesting, though, is on the second CD, which features unreleased tracks, B-sides and former iTunes exclusives. Naturally, there’s a You Forgot It in People-era unreleased song from Broken Social Scene in the form of the rather unfortunately titled “Deathcock”, which is nevertheless still good to hear, as BSS is currently parked in hibernation, so something “new” (and I use the term loosely, as the song’s a decade old now) from the band is welcome. And Los Campesinos! offer a scorching track in “Allez Les Blues”, which is pretty caustic and sounds like it might have been too much for Hello Sadness. It’s the covers, though, that are particularly invigorating.
Apostle of Hustle contributes a version of Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug” that re-imagines the pop tune as a bluesy and gritty rock number, which makes it quite something to listen to, believe me. Ra Ra Riot provide their take on Sparks’ “Saccharin and the War” with swooping strings, and it’s a delightful stomp. But, perhaps best of all, is the Feist/Constantines collaboration on “Islands in the Stream”—the Bee Gees-penned ‘80s crossover hit for country artists Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton—which is transformed into a slow dirge of loss and longing. In fact, out of all the songs here, the only one that misses the mark is Drew’s “Apology”, and only because it meanders on for more than 12 minutes, easily making a case for being cut from his first solo album. Strangely, this disc of bonus material feels more unified than the first disc, which may have something to do with the overall theme of being castoffs; the songs feel more off the cuff and looser generally. Point is, though, there’s some great stuff to be had.
So the hits here greatly outshine the misses, and Arts & Crafts: 2003-2013 is generally not a bad way to spend about two and a half hours worth of time, getting to know the label in more intimate detail. The label’s story is one of tentative steps from one band’s particular sound into something more world-wise and inclusive. That more than half the songs on the previously released disc can be traced back to the lineage of Broken Social Scene and its various offshoots is telling, but it’s the other half of the story that is arguably more intriguing, even if it hasn’t gobbled up the ink in the underground music press the way that Broken Social Scene has. Arts & Crafts: 2003-2013 is a pretty good decade overview of Canada’s preeminent indie record label, one that—while not chronological—tells its own story in its own way, and is a cause for celebration. While the label’s signature group is now on an extended hiatus, that means that the next little while might be particularly interesting, as it struggles to rebrand its identity without its prestige act—creating a void that might be irreplaceably filled. Still, as a look back in the rearview mirror, this collection and compilation is welcome and largely unforgettable. It may be lacking some of its biggest songs, but it comes across as a homemade love letter to itself that fans of the various groups represented on it will find something to easily adore. I guess that’s why the label calls itself Arts & Crafts.