US release date: 29 October 2001
UK release date: Available as import
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With releases by groups like Aroah, Migala, Emak Bakia, and the Clientele, the Madrid-based label Acuarela specializes in gentle pop music with a melancholy atmosphere that envelops you. The word "Acuarela" translates in English as "watercolor", a word that for many alludes to a similar mood of calm and reflection. The label's Acuarela Songs compilations come out of that crossroads between the mood of the label's music and the label itself: its name, who and what it is. For these compilations, musicians from across the globe were asked to write songs that incorporated "watercolor" into the titles, lyrics, or "spirit" of the songs. The compilations are a tribute to an independent label that's been putting out great music for nine years, yet they pay tribute in a circuitous way, without overt self-congratulation. It's possible to listen without thinking about the label at all, yet at the same the music is very much consistent with the vision behind Acuarela's other releases.
Between the two-disc Acuarela Songs and its three-disc follow-up Acuarela Songs 2, there is a wealth of exclusive songs by a diverse group of artists. All together there's 71 songs by 70 groups, and only two of the songs have been released elsewhere. The collections give a sweeping view of what's going on musically in the world today; while some well-respected or legendary musicians are included (Mark Eitzel, Paula Frazer, the Mountain Goats, Howie Gelb), the vast majority of the songs come from relative newcomers.
Acuarela Songs, the first of the two collections, has a distinctly "Acuarela" aura about it, even if a fair number of the musicians have never recorded for the label before. What I mean is that both discs are primarily occupied by songs that take melodic, introspective folk-pop and add an extra layer of atmosphere. The tone of the collection is mellow, gentle and pretty, evocative of the mystery of sunsets and oceans.
Opening with a slowly unraveling pop-dream from Amor Belhom Duo, the first disc then showcases a variety of sublime songs from the likes of Diana Darby, Knife in the Water, Greg Weeks, M. Ward, TW Walsh, and more. While many of the musicians seem to interpret "watercolor" as an expression of emotions in an impressionistic, hazy way or relate it to nature, a few use their songs to explore the ways that creating art can heal. Aroah's stark "I Row Across a Japanese Watercolor", for example, portrays painting watercolors as a way of escaping the complications of life and love. On the other hand, Doug Hoekstra's sentimental, Dylan-esque ballad "Watercolor Rose", one of the highlights of both collections, relates the idea of colors to the ways that we see our lives, to what we remember from the past and how we remember it.
Disc two of Acuarela Songs opens with a typically lovely song by the Clientele, one which transports listeners to a specific place and mood (much like a painting might). The disc then continues through an equally superb collection of songs, from Sodastream, Willard Grant Conspiracy, the Court and Spark, Tara Jane O' Neil, Norfolk & Western, and more, closing with a clear-eyed, late-night expression of hurt from For Stars. Like all of Acuarela Songs, For Stars' "Water's Colored" manages to evoke very particular feelings and places with a minimal of instruments, in this case just one guitar and one voice.
Acuarela Songs 2 takes the same concept and expands the vision even more. There's three discs, the songs are longer and the musicians even more varied. The general style is still mellow and pretty, yet there's more experimentation, more of a rock and roll edge, more electronic touches and, it seems, more darkness. There's also often an even more oblique connection between the word/concept of "watercolor" and the songs themselves. Windsor for the Derby opens Disc 1 with a moody meditation called "Logic and Surprise", evoking feelings of hopelessness amidst a mix of philosophical inquiry and synthesizers. That sets a darker tone which stays, from Thalia Zedek's "Never That Mean" (which starts, "Well your heart is like a bomb that's been set to go off / And I'll get blown up, that's for sure") to the rushed intensity of Experience's "All Diallo", to a disc-closing piano-and-strings haunted lullaby by Jacques. In between are melancholy instrumentals (by Natural Snow Buildings, Migala) and ballads (by Diariu, Amor), plus a unique Donovan cover by L'Altra and a splendid, hopeful-and-nostalgic folk song by James William Hindle.
Discs two and three of Acuarela Songs 2 similarly mix instrumentals with pop and rock songs. Throughout there are real gems from great musicians, such as the Zephyrs' lovelorn, spacious "Make Me Lonely" and a bizarre sound collage from Lee Renaldo ("Demons Music Part 3 (Nicolas Fucks Liza)").
As with the other discs in these two collections, there's also an assortment of groups who are absolutely new to my ears but whose songs entice me to hear more. Some of the highlights from the less familiar groups include P:ano's "Oh Them, They Died," a gorgeous, enigmatic waltz, Anamude's pretty, slightly off-kilter mystical fishing tale "Confetti in the Sea", and Timesbold's "Watercolour" a weary folk song with secrets.
Where Acuarela Songs is often like a journey into reflection, calm yet forlorn, Acuarela Songs 2 broadens the emotional scope to let in even more tortured feelings. The two collections together present not only a broad range of feelings and ideas but a real expanse of musical talent.