Founded in 1972 (under the call letters KCMU), the Seattle-based KEXP is regularly cited as a prime example of what listener-supported radio could be. Its mission, quoted on the station’s web site, is “to culturally enrich people’s lives, provide listeners with a meaningful experience and to become the nation’s most significant eclectic music station.” Toward this end, the station records upwards of some 370 live music programs a year, ranging across the genres of rock, pop, rap, world, jazz and experimental music, drawing from major label acts, independents and unsigned artists.
Yet unlike many listener-supported stations, KEXP makes no attempt to represent a particular local scene in its fundraising premium. Live at KEXP is not particularly Seattle-centric, though Death Cab for Cutie kicks in a single lapidary pop song in “Crooked Teeth”, Band of Horses interpret their lovely “Funeral”, and unsigned Skullbot give us the disc’s only metallically sludgy rocker. From close by, there’s ex-Olympians / current-Portlanders Sleater-Kinney with “Jumpers”, the Decemberists from Portland, and Lyrics Born from San Francisco. But if you’re looking for a good summary of music in Seattle and nearby, you’re out of luck.
You’re also not likely to catch any bands ahead of the curve, since the emphasis is clearly on the ones that have already made it. In fact, among other things, Live at KEXP is a good way to hear trendy bands you missed the first time. There’s a solid but not revelatory cut (“Insistor”) from the moment’s Tapes ‘N Tapes, and, if you’re really behind, a knock-out version of MIA’s “Galang”. The best cut by far comes from Gang of Four, the dark, stalking menace of “What We All Want” definitively stomping the band’s myriad imitators, including the Editors, who sound downright anemic by comparison later in the disc.
Yet unlike, say, a fundraising comp from New Jersey’s WFMU, there are very few little-knowns to knock your socks off. The liner notes make much of the fact that Skullbot had only a MySpace page before recording at KEXP, and that the musicians were teenagers, but it’s the only band like that. More established bands stick close to their recorded versions, turning in note-perfect renditions of songs you may already have. Surprises, covers, unexpected passion, poor recording quality — all the things that make radio-station comps so endearing and frustrating — are absent. It’s like a greatest hits collection from artists who have appeared on KEXP.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Almost everyone will find a handful of songs that they enjoy here — and one or two they don’t. (I could have done without Zero 7’s hyper slick “Home”, personally.) And, it’s helpful to remember that KEXP is doing a very good thing here. You have to assume that many of the 370 artists their DJs recorded last year did not have major label contracts, froth-at-the-mouth indie cred, or massive audiences. They just chose the most popular ones for the fundraiser. As Seattle hip hop duo Common Market puts it in “Connect for”, “Let’s connect for / The chance to support the amateur / Connect for / revival of the viable / Connect for / the sake of the kids if nothing more / They can’t afford to face another closed door.”
So, you buy Live at KEXP: Vol. 2 for the music and also for all the future music that the station will be bringing to the air. Originally intended as a fundraising premium, the disc is offered to listeners who pledge at $100 or above. Like its predecessor, Live at KEXP: Vol. 1, it will become available only second hand in the commercial market — and buying it there violates the whole purpose of the CD, namely to raise money for KEXP.