If you listen to a lot of Americana and roots music, you’re probably familiar with Signature Sounds – if not by name, then through some of the artists on their roster. Based in Massachusetts, the label started as a local folk artist imprint and grew from there, expanding their scope to include musicians outside the folk genre and in a wider geographical area. If the importance of a label can be judged by its talent, then Signature has done pretty good in its twenty plus year existence.
Lake Street Dive were the critic’s darlings last year, and are one of Signature’s flagship bands at the moment, the group’s retro-infused jazzy roots-rock capturing the attention of record buyers as well as publications such as Rolling Stone, which named them 2014’s best new band. Chris Smither, Crooked Still (feat. Aoife O’Donovan), Caroline Herring, and Peter Mulvey are a few other well-known names that call Signature home.
With Signature Sounds 20th Anniversary Collection: Rarities From the Second Decade, the label celebrates its success in a unique way. The predictable route would have been a greatest hits / best of compilation, but instead the collection is composed of tracks previously unreleased, EP or single only, download only, and new recordings. These are not cast-offs or lesser works. Some rival the best a particular artist has released, as with the exhilarating “Tree in the Lung” from Winterpills.
There are 18 songs by 18 different artists here, so a lot of musical terrain is covered. What unifies them, makes them part of the same landscape, is a similar aesthetic and connection to the roots of the music – whether those roots lie in folk, bluegrass, country, jazz, or rock.
Parsonsfield, sounding here like early Jayhawks, takes the traditional “Moonshiner” and gives it a full arrangement including accordion, glockenspiel, banjo, and mandolin. On a faithful cover of Ernest Tubb’s 1960 country hit “Walkin”, Eilen Jewell conjures up the ghosts of Patsy Cline and other classic country singers of yore.
There are plenty of unreleased originals as well, including Crooked Still’s old-time, jazzy “Lovesick Red Stick Blues” and a new version of Chris Smither’s “Drive You Home” from his 2013 Still on the Levee sessions, marked by a shuffling beat and Smither’s deep, weathered vocals.
There are some twists and turns in the path: Joy Kills Sorrow take on the Postal Service’s electro-pop single “Such Great Heights”, totally transforming it with lush banjos and mandolins, finding the song’s true heart. Barnstar! does “Carey”, originally on Joni Mitchell’s classic Blue album, making it less folky singer/songwriter and more a raucous tavern sing-along.
And what of Lake Street Dive? “What I’m Doing Here” (originally only on a Record Store Day special release single) is a heartache-drenched torch song, carried by the soulful vocals of Rachael Price. The band also gives us a “secret” bonus track, a goofy “Signature Sounds Theme” hoedown. The track, short as it is, encapsulates the family vibe of the label. As Signature Sounds president Jim Olsen says in the liner notes, “Our artists tend to be friends and tour partners, which lends a real sense of community to the label.”
It wouldn’t be a longshot to bet that Signature Sounds will continue to leave their signature on roots music for another 20 years.