Various Artists: Little Darla Has a Treat For You, Vol. 21
A label widely beloved by the few that know it, Darla may not have enjoyed the kind of widespread success given to imprints like Motown and Stax, but like those legendary underdogs, Darla knows the value of establishing a strong identity. For its part, this l'il label conjures up a mythical version of southern California with more romance than anyone since Brian Wilson has applied to it. Rather than wedding scenes of surf and sand to intricate harmonies, though, the talented artists in Darla's stable tend to employ dreamy electronica with any number of other influences tossed into the pot. Despite their differences, nearly every act on the label hones in on a blissful, spacey mood in which joy, melancholy, and outright goofiness all share the same beach towel.
This sounds like a good time, and by golly, it surely is. Volume 21 of Darla's sampler series, Little Darla Has a Treat for You, is another buffet of songs that are as fun as all get-out. And sure, the hardcore Darla sampler fans are striking up their debate as we speak, saying that this latest disc is no volume 11 and that it used to be about the music, man, but anyone else who has or hasn't picked up one of these Little Darlas before (i.e., everyone) should find that they get more than their money's worth considering the 17 tracks and low, low price.
By this point, the skeptical reader will be saying to him -- or herself, "This sounds swell and all, but is this one of those samplers that you never actually listen to, or does it pull of the miraculous feat of being listenable despite its inherently patchwork nature?" I can certainly relate to this brand of skepticism, and I daresay that even with my sunny bias towards this series, I can't help but suspect that Darla has to let the occasional schizoid sampler slip out, but if they do, they haven't done it on my watch. Volume 21 holds together just fine in spite of the fact that the artists featured therein come not just from So-Cal, but also from Leeds, Lansing, Mexico, Brooklyn, Berlin, Argentina, Toronto, Queens, Denmark, and Scotland, to name a few places.
If there's a structural flaw to this disc, however, it lies in a surfeit of what seems like its strength -- its unity. Paul Haig's "Ghost Rider", an electro-rockabilly number, is certainly weird enough to stand out, and Boyracer's Strokes-esque "Where to Place Your Trust" is quite fine, but too many of the other songs blend into each other. The long instrumental passages float by with plenty of charm and style, but none quite make you want to rush out and buy an album by the artist. The previous entry in this series featured more distinctive entries, highlighted by the Wake's "Town of 85 Lights", a real knockout both for Wake fans eager for the imminent comeback and for those who simply wanted a hummable song on their Darla sampler. That was a special case, of course, but it would've been nice to see some of the extended instrumentals trimmed or replaced entirely.
But that quibble is easy enough to forgive. More grudge-worthy is the presence of Pale Horse and Rider, a group that should be not only removed from the Darla roster but forcibly excluded from ever making music again. Overlooking for the moment that they don't fit in at all with the admirable artists huddled under the Darla banner, PH&R simply don't write or perform music well, plodding away at acoustic guitars like the guy at your local coffee shop whom the clientele barely tolerates. Worst of all, this is the third Darla album I've come across that has been pockmarked by these untalented hacks. The other two were the last Little Darla and a tribute album to Donovan. If your resume includes ruining a Donovan tribute album, then perhaps it's time you hung up your rock 'n' roll shoes. Everyone else on this sampler can continue making music with my blessing.