Canadian indie rock celebrates the DIY aesthetic, both visually and aurally.
I don't know if this is an intentional move on their part, but I'll be damned if Victoria, British Columbia's Aaargh! Records isn't trying to be the McSweeneys Publishing of the indie rock world. Granted, Aaargh!'s got a ways to go to equaling McSweeney's cultural ubiquity, but they do a lot of little things right on their first ever musical sampler, Annual Year One, or The Goodly Graces We've Known and Shared.
For starters, there's that album title -- can't you just see it on the spine of a McSweeneys quarterly? Secondly, the Aaargh! Folks put a lot of care into their CD packet: It's clothbound, with liners notes that straddle the line between a turn-of-the-last century children's book and the liner notes accompanying Pearl Jam's Vitalogy. Thirdly, and most importantly, Aaargh! shares McSweeneys' dedication to left-of-center artists whose work deserves a larger audience. And while not all of the 20 tracks collected here will speak to you, there's plenty here to suggest a bright future at Aaargh!
There are only a few recognizable names on the disc. Carolyn Mark, who teamed up with Neko Case in the Corn Sisters a few years back, turns in one of the set's best tunes: the bouncy, alt-country "A Song For My Hairdresser". Meanwhile, Randy Bachman (of the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive) recorded the Bright Young Things' "Where the Wicked Go". These are both songs that can speak for themselves. As with any compilation, it's a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff, but there's not too much of the latter. And really, the only crime the lesser songs are guilty of is being nondescript indie rock. Tunes like the Ghosts' "Through a Frosted Window" or the Paper Cranes' "January in Eastern Europe" are enjoyable, but quickly forgotten. (Besides, one song is much too small a sample size to pass judgment on a band.)
As for the highlights, there's the boy/girl off-kilter power pop of Vincat ("Aberdeen"); the Andrew Bird-y "Pillow Talk in the Flames" from Chet; roots rock from Counting Heartbeats ("La Danse"); the Dirt On's urgent "Swan Dive", and the tongue-in-cheek closer "Aloha!" from Himalayan Bear. Who knew British Columbia was home to a Hawaiian guitar scene? And props to the Aaargh! crew for their sequencing. Rather than mix everything up, side A is the quieter, folksy side, and side B is the sunny, poppy side. Your experiences may vary, but I'm partial to side B.
To bring it back to the McSweeneys angle, Annual Year One is like spending an hour curled up reading the McSweeneys Quarterly -- you'll be exposed to some new artists and some new ideas in a well-crafted package. Don't like to read (or are tired of my McSweeneys analogy)? Think of this Aaargh! compilation as an hour of the best college radio station in British Columbia. That may be akin to being the best bullfighter in Alaska, but hey, there's no shame in either of those titles.