Various Artists: Death by Salt: A Slug Magazine Compilation
As he drove through America thinking about his native land, John Steinbeck lamented in Travels With Charley: In Search of America that years of radio and television were flattening out all the regional accents that he grew up loving. Although there may not be many people left to mourn the passing into the sands of history of this or that twang, it's only right to express some analogous regret for what radio and TV have done to music. TV has almost certainly wreaked more havoc than has done anything good, but radio allowed great music to spread far and wide to anyone able to plunk down enough cash for a receiver. But to broadcast the best music means determining which music is best, and when the power to choose is concentrated in the hands of a few (as it is now), the downside of radio becomes very apparent. Priceless works by the Beatles, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, and Creedence Clearwater Revival are preserved through their broadcasts on oldies stations every day. But equally wonderful music from the same era -- like Big Star, the Flamin' Groovies, and the Sonics -- has been relegated to the purview of collectors because the powers that be have determined that such artists don't belong on their play lists. In short, it's dangerous to have a centralized authority saying what is and isn't great.
In such a hazardous environment, where homogenization beckons from every corner, where can the rugged individualist turn to? Why, to Utah, of course. Our 45th state can now boast that in addition to producing Orrin Hatch, it has produced a 'zine compilation, this one entitled Death by Salt and put out by sorta-venerable Slug Magazine. It gathers together a whopping 59 songs over the course of three CDs, all of which at least have the potential to represent the great state of Utah. But why should anyone bother checking out anything in this state? After all, it doesn't seem to have much going for it besides having the highest peaks on average of any state, in addition to mountains of Mormons. Can Utah rock, too? Well, yes, and from the limited evidence available on Death by Salt, they do it with distinction. For sure, not everything on the comp is gold, but the modest price is justified by plenty of solid entries from bands like Red Bennies, Silvox, Redd Tape, and Purr Bats, the last of whom wins the award for best song title with "Bird Shit Bombs".
But a favorable ratio of good songs to bad songs is only half the appeal. The other half stems from the approach of Death by Salt. Being grouped not by genre but geographically is a daring and sometimes pretentious gesture, hinting as it does at definitiveness, but Death by Salt manages to find some common threads among its 59 entrants without ever striking upon something as banal as a "Utah sound". Rather, a Utah attitude flickers just brightly enough here to give a sense of unity to the proceedings. As with the impossibly hip Omaha bands currently warming hearts nationwide, there's a bleakness to the groups on Death by Salt, but it's coupled with a sense of possibility that -- to put it perhaps too romantically -- springs from the emptiness all around them. Utah is nowhere, but being nowhere is liberating too. It doesn't sound like everywhere else, and you don't have to be a legendary author trucking around the country with a poodle to appreciate something like that.