As many labels are suffering the bargain bin profit margins that have become standard in the streaming era, Bloodshot Records’ owners Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller have found the pendulum swinging in their favor. After 20 years of steady releases and catalog development, the rest of the country has finally caught up to their vision as this past year has been the Chicago-based label’s best — starting with the viral success of label mainstay Lydia Loveless’ cover of Ke$ha’s “Blind” and ending with an excellent celebration of Warshaw and Miller’s blood, sweat and tears.
While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records is a tight retrospective of Bloodshot’s output and the resurgent country landscape as a whole. The collection, comprised of covers from their catalog by the friends and heroes the label has amassed over two decades, is an exciting listen for both the uninitiated and well-versed. The lineup is impressive — Superchunk, Mike Watt, and Andrew Bird all make appearances — but the real power of the two discs is the quality of the original music. It is in the changing of hands across 38 tracks that the heart of Chicago country reveals itself as a genre unable (or unwilling) to be herded under the alt-country umbrella.
Bloodshot began as a way to collect the artists who were creating what Warshaw and Miller considered “Chicago country”. Amid the commodified wasteland of early ‘90s grunge runoff, they noticed that bands were mixing punk with the twang of classic Americana and figured it was weird enough to document and support. Their first release, 1994’s For a Life of Sin, was a compilation that featured a healthy roster of artists, from Jon Langford to the Handsome Family. The comp also clarified Bloodshot’s intentions: the label wasn’t trying to cash in on a trend, but it was interested in developing a home for these artists. This comp was a place they could all be found and find each other. It is this ethos that has informed Bloodshot’s best moments and often kept their artists from jumping ship to larger labels as things began to pick up momentum in their first 10 years.
Though there’s a definite loss of the DIY aesthetic when transitioning between For a Life of Sin and While No One Was Looking (understandable, as high-level production tools have become more widely available), the weariness specific to Chicago country still resonates on this latest Bloodshot release. It’s a genre that somehow doesn’t drag or grate on the listener by being too poetic or forlorn. It’s the hour or two at the bar after a long work day, slamming a few Old Styles before crashing and waking up at 5am to do it all again. There’s also very little pride — not that any of the voices are ashamed, but often Chicago country finds itself more akin to Chicago blues in this regard. Nobody is coming out on top, there are no illusions at work here. These songs have each been written as a means to cope, to consider all angles of the mess their songwriters find themselves in. But there’s a comfort in admitting your failures, a strength in being able to address your upper ceiling.
The covers on While No One Was Looking work least in a contemporary context when the lens is limited to the harder edges of the music’s recipe. Mike Watt’s cover of Jon Langford’s “Up to My Neck in This” is a prime example. The original is a measured straight shooter while the cover is inflated and too spacious in spite of Watt’s aging snarl. Some artists are able to pull it off, though. Diarrhea Planet’s take on the Waco Brothers’ “Dry Land” sounds right at home while the other Waco Brothers tribute, “Dragging My Own Tombstone”, features Ted Leo at his strongest in years. This track is possibly the most satisfying on the album. The original is respected, yet Leo’s singular vocal delivery and sense of syncopation bring patience to it.
For the most part, While No One Was Looking successfully serves its dual purpose of surveying Bloodshot’s last 20 years and providing the framework for where Rob and Nan’s homegrown genre is heading. As our national love of irony crests and recedes, Americana has found a new set of definitions in the last few years, owing no small thanks to the perseverance of folk-punk. Though we might be erring on the side of being too interested in craft, the stage is set for artists who have true roots to become more celebrated than ever. While many of the features on the comp have higher national visibility than the Bloodshot roster they are covering (excepting Neko Case and Ryan Adams), their comfort level with the material points to a resurgence of resurgent country. Any of the 38 songs could have been written yesterday and though much of the sampling is of Bloodshot’s middle years, the powerful relevance of nearly every single track on While No One Was Looking suggests that Warshaw and Miller’s gut feeling was right all along.