Even if it were true that all music is readily available today, compilations like this would be as important, because context is important.
Retrospective compilations like this seem more important than ever. Why? In theory, today you can download the entire output of any band that ever existed with the flick of a finger. That’s more theory than fact, though; even if you don’t care about legality, some music will stay as elusive as ever, even strictly in download form. If you do care about legality; or about musicians getting paid something even for music they made decades ago; or holding a record in your hand; you soon start to dissect the whole argument, as more music is out of print than ever now that the major record labels and distribution channels have diminished.
Even if it were true that all music is readily available, compilations like this would be as important, because context is important. Say you stumble across a song from 20 years ago by an Australian band you know nothing about called the Sugargliders. You love the song, you listen to it again and again, learn the words and study them. You might decide to try and hear their other music. Say you find an album of theirs on a site somewhere and download it. You might keep going and find more. You might become a completist and take the time to find everything. Even then, do you read about the band, do you figure out what record came before what, do you really look at the whole picture of their career and what they accomplished? Maybe you do, but the further we proceed down this road, the number of people following it gets smaller.
So instead you have one CD, in your hand, that presents a neatly curated selection of the band’s material: a guide to the Sugargliders, put together for listening. It has liner notes with personal accounts of what the band was and what they meant to people (even the singer for one of your favorite bands, the Lucksmiths, poetically describing what the music means to him.) It has artwork. It’s something you can hold look at, as you contemplate the 10 singles and one LP the band put out and think about who originally held them and what they were thinking of.
An LP, a record-label compilation, is where I first heard “Ahprahran", the Sugargliders song most likely to be the one to make its way to you ears first. It is an absolute classic of the era: a simple, two-and-a-half-minute guitar-driven pop song with a melancholy tone and a minimum of lyrics. A portrait of student life that’s lonely but not maudlin: “And the lamplight shining to my heart / reminds me that I need a friend”.
The 19 other Sugargliders songs collected on A Nest With a View carry this same strangely hopeful approach to sadness and confusion. It’s shy music, in the singer’s delivery and the music’s lack of outward oomph, but the lyrics are more confident in their opinions than you would expect. It’s the mark of youth, perhaps: that certainty of conviction you can carry, whether you’re going on about love or society, even when your main endeavor seems to be a searching for something to hold onto.
The brothers who started the band, Josh and Joel Meadows, were 19 and 16 years old when they formed the Sugargliders; inspired, it seems, by the Smiths, Go-Betweens, Orange Juice and/or other similarly intelligent pop bands of their present and past. Now the Meadows brothers play together in the Steinbecks, another smart under-the-radar band of the sort that means so much to the people who it means so much to, and is invisible to others. The Steinbecks have a fuller, perhaps more rock-y, sound.
Since I came to the Steinbecks first, listening to the Sugargliders I’m constantly impressed, amazed even, at how much they do with such a spare setup. I get surprised by the guitar playing--how intricate some of it is--and by the lyrics--how pleasingly puzzling they can be, how much emotion they can get across with little phrases and images. An overriding quality of the collection is a tender optimism; it’s true even though in their songs they beg for confidence, wonder if they’ll ever learn from their mistakes. It’s a rare quality, the ability to make a listener feel like they're listening to something absolutely magical even though they know it’s just some youngsters finding their way into music. It's also music that can move you emotionally and physically (Tali White calls it, "Introversion I could move to" in the liner notes), a precious quality these days too.