Compilation albums are often, at least ostensibly, held together by some sort of unifying thread. Albums provide a showcase for a nascent geographical scene, serve to associate bands with a similar stylistic inclination, or pay tribute to an artist whose work is considered groundbreaking. These common themes can tend to be both the album’s biggest strength and weakness. Bands that would not have made the cut based solely on the quality of their contribution are often included merely due to the disc’s other criteria — a fact which frequently causes the comp to be a hit-or-miss affair. That in our lifetime, vol. 2 has no such agenda should be a promising sign. It is the second installation in Boston-based Fenway Records’ ongoing series (volume three promises to focus exclusively on Boston bands) and merely represents label owner Mark Kates’ current favorites. The fact that five of the compilation’s 16 bands hail from New York City (along with the cover photo depicting the arrival of a 6 train at Union Square) seems to be less a conscious decision and more of a reflection of the prodigious amount of talent emerging from that area.
New Yorkers Radio 4 begin the album promisingly enough. “The Movies” seems to beat the rest of the city’s bands at their own game: angular guitars (I have to admit I’ve never fully understood how a guitar can be angular) and jerky rhythms worthy of Gang of Four rendered with a competence that separates them from many of their bandwagon-jumping peers. Unfortunately, the follow up by Minuteman (no, not the resurrection of D. Boon) begins like four-track bedroom noodling and ends sounding too much like Weezer for its own good. Straight outta Mexico, Joselo’s “Muerete” is another highlight sounding not unlike what I would expect from a collaboration between Caetano Veloso and Grandmaster Flash: lazily strummed acoustic guitars interrupted by turntable scratches. Longwave also does a fine job of representing NYC by combining Lower East Side grit with a distinctively British-influenced approach to texture. Unfortunately, Rival Schools, featuring Walter Schreifels (formerly of Gorilla Biscuits and Quicksand) with fellow hardcore alums via Youth of Today, Shelter, and CIV, have exchanged the hyperkinetic angst of their pedigrees for a mopey sluggishness that already seems dated by more than a few years. At this point it’s becoming clear that the program option on your CD player is a lifesaver.
About a third of the way through the album, the indie rock guitars and old-fashioned drums are scrapped for a detour into hip-hop beats and programmed electronics. Aphrodite and Schooly D., as well as Roundtable MCs, provide the hip-hop element while the Inflatablemen vie for a stake in the new electro scene but end up sounding like a pale approximation of Depeche Mode. The final third of the disc (we’re now back in rock ‘n’ roll land for those keeping track) holds a few remaining notables. My Morning Jacket’s “O Is the One That Is Real” features strained vocals, chicken scratch guitars, and idiosyncratic drums that sound as if they were recorded in a barn (and even after a few listens I can’t be sure but I think I like). There’s also former Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley’s consonant, whose contribution “Heaven” pits a quirky, hillbilly shuffle against obtuse lyrics for an overall effect not unlike R.E.M.’s early efforts.
If you’re feeling adventurous, there are much worse places to start than In Our Lifetime. But, as with most compilation albums, be prepared to sift through some silt to find the real gems. In an attempt to assemble a collection of music not constrained by any conceptual barriers, Fenway Records may have done a better job than they intended. in our lifetime, vol. 2 is erratic, frustrating, and sometimes exhilarating; in short, a pretty faithful representation of the state of music today.