In the world of dining and drinking there are usually two types of "sampler" platter. The first is an eclectic mix of the menu's offerings, arranged in small portions to satisfy diverse tastes, with little helpings of a variety of delectable items. Then there are samplers that offer different brands of the same basic thing, like a vodka sampler for example, catering to those who know what they like, but are looking to try variations of the same in order to pick a few favorites.
Label samplers are surprisingly similar. The Deep Elm samplers are a good example of the latter, designed to appeal specifically to indie rock/emo fans who perhaps haven't had the opportunity to dive into some of the bands in the label's stable. Parasol's Sweet Sixteen samplers are an excellent example of the former. Although loosely grouped together under the heading of "indie pop", the bands featured on the Parasol, Hidden Agenda, and Mud labels offer a wide spectrum of sounds to the listener. The twenty savory morsels offered on Parasol's Sweet Sixteen Volume 4 are each gourmet delights of their own, but for the sake of categorization they could be arranged on a platter in small groupings that will appeal to a whole party of music lovers.
Like large, tender, and filling chicken strips dominating the plate are the power/guitar pop bands, with tangy barbecue power dip for those who like a little zip and mild but zesty ranch guitar dip for those of the mellower persuasion. On this side of the plate you'll find the excellent "Nevermore" from the Parasol family's favorite band, The Soundtrack of Our Lives. One glance around the Parasol website reveals just how much stock the label places in this group, and one listen to this track will prove why. Equally impressive is the offering from Autoliner, whose "Misunderstood" is one of the most catchy and rollicking tracks on the collection. Mark Bacino's "Downtown Girl" has that punchy power pop sound that makes bands like the Mockers and Material Issue so much fun to listen to. More reserved, but no less enjoyable, are the slightly low-key efforts from Lasse Lindh, The Melody Unit, and Signalmen. And if you've ever needed convincing that austerity and guitar pop can be married in beauty, look no further than Adam Schmitt's incredible "Overdone". A quiet yet emotionally powerful song that melds Michael Penn and the Judybats, this is certainly one of the highlights of the disc.
Sitting comfortably next to the chicken strips with their own sense of power are the spicy buffalo wings of the rock/pop offerings. White Town's "Make the World Go Away" delves into nearly-goth territory, with its driving bass and deep rhythms, but like goth-poppers the Mission UK, never gives up the melody in favor of the dark side. Leader of the Green Pajamas, Jeff Kelly, offers up a track from his solo release, and although the tune sounds very similar to ex-Failure frontman Ken Andrews' solo act, On, "Cruel Velvet Sea" is awash in lovely fuzzy guitars and an imminently hummable chorus. Parasol employee Angie Heaton comes in from a different direction, playing a stripped-down electric guitar with sparse accompaniment to great effect. "Teach Me" sounds like Sheryl Crow meets the Waitresses in the best possible sense. Also something of a rocker, Fonda's take on the classic "Love Child" gives the song a quicker tempo, a bigger bass underpinning and full-on funky guitars.
The ever-popular mozzarella cheese sticks of acoustic pop are present and accounted for as well. Neilson Hubbard breathes new life into the Howard Jones classic "No One is to Blame". Slowing the song down a notch, Hubbard uses nothing more than an acoustic guitar, a xylophone (or vibraphone?), and his hushed, stretched-thin vocal styling to reveal the true poignant beauty of the original. More fey is the album closer from Jenifer Jackson, "Since You've Been Away". The cassette-recorded home demo provides a nice contrast to the slick production of most of the other tracks on the disc (more on this later). Although hovering on the verge of guitar rock, Absinthe Blind's "Antarctica" is more or less acoustic in its earnest, sensitive college rock feel. The only downside to the acoustic selections is that, much like cheese sticks, there's never enough to go around.
Also in smaller portions for the earthy appetites are the fried zucchini sticks of country-tinged pop and the fried mushrooms of psychedelic pop. Chitlin' Fooks' "Not Enough Tears" is a lovely Americana-drenched ballad of lost love, while Jack Logan and Bob Kimbell's "Nothin' But Sky" wafts on the airy pedal steel and acoustic arrangements that made their 1998 team-up, Little Private Angel, so lovely. Starlet's "When Sun Falls on My Feet" might sound more like the Church than country, but the sounds here are reminiscent enough of the American Southwest to qualify. For the psych set the excellent "Music Becomes Vibration" from the Witch Hazel Sound adds that sunshine smile that underpins the majority of Hidden Agenda bands, and the Orange Alabaster Mushroom provides a trip through their garage-acid landscape in "Valerie Vanillaroma".
Finally, like a nice desert or aperitif to finalize the dining experience, Todd Fletcher's June and the Exit Wounds offers a rough mix of the pure pop "Where I'm Taken". Parasol's best selling artist, June and the Exit Wounds is the perfection of pop that Ben Folds has striven for all these years. The lovely piano here should give Mr. Folds room to pause.
Without beating a metaphor to death, let me just say that Parasol and company prove with this sampler why they're at the top of the game when it comes to supporting the best of the best in indie pop. They also continue their tradition of promoting the European pop Renaissance, specifically of the Swedish variety. The band getting top billing with the lead off track is The Soundtrack of Our Lives, who hail from Sweden, but the inclusion of Starlet and Lasse Lindh (well known for Club 8 and Waltz for Debbie collaborations) are also excellent representatives of their country's strong pop heritage. And since Chitlin' Fooks are a Dutch/Belgian combo, the fact that the Europeans in general have been producing some of the best pop out there has obviously not passed the Parasol family by. This is, however, a truly international affair, with strong tracks from both sides of the Atlantic.
There is really only one thing that could be listed as a problem with this collection. In the track ordering there is a decided slump towards the end of the disc. This has less to do with the quality of the songs, which I would argue are all great on their own merits, but more on the production values. Beginning with the Orange Alabaster Mushroom's "Valeria Vanillaroma" and continuing for the rest of the disc (the tracks by Signalmen, Jack Logan & Bob Kimbell, and Jenifer Jackson), there is a muddled quality to the production, in part due to the fact that Parasol opts for low-key (and hence lo-fi) songs to carry the album to a close. "Valerie Vanillaroma" in particular has almost indistinguishable vocals. Jenifer Jackson is let off the hook for the same problem by dint of her recording being a demo, but the combined effect is to make the album top-heavy. This could have been eliminated by mixing in some of the muddier tracks with the more slickly produced numbers.
With Parasol's Sweet Sixteen Volume 4, the Parasol family of labels has gathered some of the most impressive songs by some of their top artists in one blissful place. I literally listened to this CD for weeks on end without changing discs and never got tired of it. They've also managed to make this disc a worthwhile purchase in its own right by including demos, unreleased tracks, and sneak previews of upcoming releases in the offerings from White Town, Adam Schmitt, Neilson Hubbard, June and the Exit Wounds, Angie Heaton, Mark Bacino, Fonda, and Jenifer Jackson. That the Adam Schmitt song might otherwise has gone unreleased forever makes this album's existence a blessing.
If you're familiar with Parasol, Hidden Agenda and/or Mud, then you already know they produce quality music by excellent artists. You'll still love this disc for itself. If you're unfamiliar but a fan of indie pop at all, then go out and track this one down. It's a sonic feast for everyone, guaranteed to appeal to a host of appetites, and also capable of allowing you to pick and choose until you've tasted everything. And like any good appetizer, it only leaves you hungry for more.