Various Artists: Matinee 50

Patrick Schabe

Various Artists

Matinee 50

Label: Matinee
US Release Date: 2003-09-02
UK Release Date: 2003-08-18

Matinee Records is one of the finer purveyors of indie pop currently in the game. Based out of California but specializing in primarily British music (with some Aussie and French bands thrown in for flavor), the label has made headway in bringing some excellent music to light and across the shores to the US. Although it's released a fair number of full-length albums since the label's inception in 1997, the majority of its releases have been singles and EPs featuring gems from its 28-band-strong roster.

To celebrate Matinee's 50th release, label execs decided to put together a collection of some of its prime artists into something of a label sampler. However, this one comes with a twist. Rather than glean the cream of the crop from prior releases, Matinee invited its artists to record their favorite songs recorded by other Matinee artists. The clever results are twenty tracks of Matinee bands covering other Matinee bands, a sign of solidarity and unity of purpose, and also a fun and quirky way to celebrate an anniversary.

Unfortunately, this presents a slight problem for me as a reviewer. Because I lamentably don't have full access to the originals for comparison and contrast purposes, I have to use a bit of guess-work in discussing Matinee 50. In most cases, cover songs are interpretations of the original work, and not 100% faithful duplications. Therefore I have no way of saying with any authority that, for instance, the incredibly great song "Between Delta and Delaware" -- originally written by Airport Girl but performed here by the Guild League -- is actually an improvement on the original, because I'm just taking a stab in the dark based on the fact that the Airport Girl offering here ("Three Sixty Degrees" -- a song written by the Windmills) has more backgrounded vocals than the Guild League's recording, something that would obscure the lyrical density of "Between Delta and Delaware". Confusing, no?

Thankfully, this doesn't really matter. The liner notes to Matinee 50 make it clear that the label is treating this like one long, hour-plus-long single -- the ultimate "split" disc, if you will. They've even catalogued Matinee 50 as a single, in spite of its length and variety. This isn't really a sampler, then, it's an individual piece to be considered on its own. And I can definitely pick out the highlights from that angle.

Matinee 50 starts off strong on its first three tracks, laying the groundwork for the kind of light, breezy, acoustic-toned indie pop that Matinee prides itself on (think Aztec Camera, the Smiths, the Housemartins, the Lightning Seeds, etc.). Gregory Webster ("Untidy Towns" [originally by the Lucksmiths]), Melodie Group ("Emmanuelle Beart" [Would-Be-Goods]), and the aforementioned Guild League all lay down some soft, jangly guitar pop tinged with fey, mod, British tones that would make Morrissey cry with joy. The offerings from Matinee stalwarts like the Lucksmiths, the Windmills, and Sportique are as typically strong as you'd expect, newcomers like Slipslide show the promise of the future, while offerings from the Visitors, Pipas, and Pale Sunday prove that even more electric pop fits into the Matinee mold with ease. Of course, Matinee's sound is pretty distinct, and in that sense, also uniform. Fey indie pop isn't for everybody, and if you're not into it then you're not going to find a whole lot a variety to make it worth your while. Me, I love this stuff, and Matinee 50 hits my sweet tooth in a charming way.

Not every track is a sure-fire killer, of course. But even those that get too close to ethereal and fey to remain focused sound like they're in good company on a collection like this. And again, it's difficult to criticize (or praise) properly with Matinee 50. I mean, the Fairways do a fantastic job with "Sunday, Lovely Sunday", but is it the strength of the band, or should Edson be credited for writing such a winner, or is it both? Similarly, the songs that are on the weaker side of this disc don't actually reveal anything about the band performing when it's not their own composition.

When you think about it, this is ingenious marketing. If you like a particular song on this disc, you're almost compelled to check out both the band who performs it and the band who wrote it. And with so many great tracks to choose your next discovery expedition from, pretty soon you'll be picking up releases from basically Matinee's entire catalog. Clever ploy or simple celebratory fun, the fact is that Matinee 50 is great because it achieves what it sets out to do. Much more than a label sampler, Matinee 50 is its own product, and it's all the better for it. Grab yourself a copy and see for yourself.

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