Never heard the Samples? Start here. Love the Samples? This definitive compendium includes a DVD of rare goodies. Hate the Samples? Better sit this one out.
The Samples may merit little more than a sidebar in the history of '90s music, but they've produced a body of credible mainstream rock that lovers of mainstream rock would be ill-advised to ignore, especially with the release of this authoritative and sweetly cherry-picked collection. The confusingly titled Very Best of the Samples 1989-1994 (does it purport to be the very best of the Samples, or merely the best from that six-year span?) assembles 17 of their strongest songs in a pleasing and not-quite chronological sequence. The group is still around, though not in the original lineup featured here, and nothing I've heard from the past 10 years leads me to suspect a post-'94 collection could ever hold a candle to this.
In 1990 the Samples got their first shot at fame when Arista Records reissued the Boulder, Colorado band's 1989 full-length indie debut. The time seemed right for the group's sunny, reggae-inflected classic rock: Arista was establishing itself as a label for the hip and the folkie (Eurythmics, Crash Test Dummies, a young Sarah McLachlan), corporate radio still played more than three styles of music, MTV still played music videos, the Dead were getting old, and today's jam-band culture did not yet exist. But so much that might have gone well for the Samples did not: Arista's promotion was unsatisfactory, MTV never played its videos, the grunge explosion obliterated Top 40 radio as we knew it, and the door to classic-rock radio stayed closed for good.
Firmly in pocket for the Samples, however, was the quality of their work and their commitment to live performance. From the outset, the Samples -- singer/lead guitarist Sean Kelly, bassist/vocalist Andy Sheldon, drummer Jeep MacNichol, keyboardist Al Laughlin, and (for that first brilliant record, anyway) Charles Hambleton on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo -- toured their asses off, building a following so big that by the mid '90s they ranked among the nation's top-grossing live acts even though they were all but invisible to the media. Their industry success helped pave the way for the greater successes of Dave Matthews (who's been known to cover the Samples' "Nature", a track included here), Phish, and Ani DiFranco.
By 1990 the Police had long since disbanded, of course, and just as solo Sting was dropping political themes from his music, along came the Samples with eco-politics to spare and a sound that distinctly recalled the Police, despite their vastly different melodic and harmonic sensibilities. Kelly's high, slightly breathy voice is one reason people make the comparison, but even more evocative is Jeep MacNichol's drumming. Like the Police's Stewart Copeland, MacNichol seems to live for nuance and could probably carry an entire show on his high-hat alone. And, like Copeland, MacNichol tunes his drums quite high, giving each skin a short, tight ring. His fills spill out effortlessly yet never upstage the songs, even at their most elaborate.
Also distinctive was Andy Sheldon's fretless bass, pulsing or lyrical as a song warranted. Kelly's pointed words and fiery guitar solos gave the songs teeth, especially live, while Laughlin (who wrote and co-wrote the music for many of the pieces in this collection) brought integral rhythmic and textural elements. The disc leads with the band's two greatest songs, "Feel Us Shaking" and "Birth of Words" (both from The Samples), but it's a strong and even listen across the set, from No Room's "When It's Raining", "14th and Euclid", and "Summertime" (1992) to "Little Silver Ring", "Still Water", and "When the Day is Done" (1993's The Last Drag). You'll hear evidence of the band's Achilles heel -- its persistent mundaneness -- in 1994's "Water Rush", but even there we're hearing a guitar-focused, almost hard-rock sound that's conceivably worth representing in a survey like this.
First pressings of the disc erroneously include the 1989 album version of "My Town" instead of a live version from 1992 as listed on the cover (which, if it's anything like the seven-minute-plus "meltdown" version released in '91, should be pretty amazing), but the label has promised to correct this.
The CD insert lists all 49 elementary-school students who contributed or potentially contributed artwork to the packaging but overlooks little things like lyrics, composition credits, production credits, engineering credits, recording studios, mastering houses, recording dates, release dates, notes linking specific songs to the album they're pulled from, and the like. And, while the booklet does match the names of the band members to their faces, listeners are left to infer who plays what instrument. If labels are looking for ways to keep people buying music instead of illicitly downloading it, as we must presume they are, it's astonishing to see them overlook fundamentals like these. But then, there's always the now-obligatory bonus DVD to fall back on.
The DVD provided with Very Best of the Samples is well above average, providing not merely a handful of music videos but a half-hour documentary produced in 1994, which includes a cameo of DMB violinist Boyd Tinsley soloing on a performance of "Feel Us Shaking". As DVD-ROM, the disc also offers a dozen 192 kbps MP3s for your hard drive, three of which are current songs from Sheldon ("Lone Wolf") and MacNichol ("Astroride", "Sugar"). Sheldon's track and one of MacNichol's also appear in the DVD-Video content's "where are they now" pages. You won't find these mentioned in the packaging, but Kelly's page features a strong live rendition of "Indiana" from his current Samples lineup, while Laughlin's page presents the zany "Underwater People" from the Samples' 1991 EP of the same name, a song that doesn't appear on the Best Of CD.
Of the "current" tracks, MacNichol's are by far the most innovative and hard-edged, while Kelly's "Indiana" suggests a greater emphasis on folk music than we hear in the post-Hambleton vintage material. Most notable among the other MP3s (demos, alternate versions, and extended/reworked live tracks) is "Always Out of Reach", a polished studio outtake from the sessions for the band's debut (which is now available through What Are Records?). "Always Out of Reach" is excitingly spare, with a playful, flute-like keyboard part and a start-stop groove that leaves plenty of room for MacNichol to ad-lib to his percussive heart's content.
Will this collection make any converts? It's kind of a moot question -- that, after all, is what the band's concerts achieve, as radio play is no more an option for the band in 2005 than it was in the early '90s, not counting the advent of digital satellite radio. What this collection does provide is well near every essential Samples song in a nicely remastered package, with enough extras to entice more than a few fans who already own the original releases. It's not every week that I need to hear the Samples, but whenever I do I'll be reaching for this set first.