Damn, I love sampler discs. They’re so clean, and shiny, devoid of any of the expectations that come with a long-player from a potentially great band. “The Album” hangs over most recordings like a specter, an ambiguous set of goals and mandates and promises that must be met and fulfilled. But a sampler disc is somehow pristine, completely devoid of pretension because it never strives to be more than what it is, and never has to. A collection of songs by a collection of bands, hopefully the best that a label has to offer in each category, a sampler is like a family photo shoot where everyone is smiling and has on their Sunday best.
For indie pop fans, one of the premier label sampler series has become the Parasol’s Sweet Sixteen releases. They’ve been reviewed here at PopMatters a few times over the years, the bands of the Parasol group have gone on to bigger and brighter futures (White Town, The Soundtrack of Our Lives), and the samplers themselves have featured song highlights from some of the finest indie pop bands on the scene, including rare and unreleased tracks. As a distributor and mail order catalog, Parasol has long been one of the finest sources of indie pop and rock around. But the Sweet Sixteen series gives Parasol’s family of labels (Parasol, Hidden Agenda, Mud, and Reaction) a place of their own to shine.
Volume 7 neither surprises nor disappoints in its offerings. Geoff Merritt, Michael Roux and the rest of the Parasol crew continue to display their unwavering adoration of Swedish pop, with some music from other northern European nations thrown into the mix. The overall sound continues to vacillate between pure pop, retro ’60s stylings, and some country-inflected tracks. And while Sweet Sixteen Vol. 7 doesn’t really show the Parasol group breaking ground into any vastly new territories, it adds further weight to Parasol’s solidified place at the center of indie pop in the US and abroad.
Things kick off with a superb track from Belgium’s Sukilove, the wonderfully rolling “As Long as I Survive Tonight”. The tinny-guitars and world-weary vocals give the song a slight alt-country cast, but the looping rhythms give way to sweeping, atmospheric choruses that reveal the pop song beneath. Complicated, introspective, and heavy on ambience, it’s a different tone to start off the sampler than has been used on previous releases, but it sets up a more contemplative Vol. 7 to come.
The next two tracks stick to the pacing and continue to unfold a more laid-back collection. Neilson Hubbard’s “Everything’s Starting” is a strummed-acoustic that floats on a subdued vocal and softly sweet lyrics over a mellow melody. The folk pop tune then gives way to a similarly mellow, but altogether different song in Nanook of the North’s “Spare Parts”. With a rattling snare drum setting the rhythm under gently plucked acoustic guitar, harmonica, and some soft keys, this call-and-response duet is a hushed affair until the choruses introduce strings to give it a big pop symphony feel.
After this laconic but pretty beginning, the disc really kicks in. The Wannadies are back and are represented by “Skin”, a muscular and crunchy power pop song that finally introduces some rock to Vol. 7. This is followed by the initially-dirge-like-but-finally-rocking “Strange Living” from the love ’em or hate ’em Menthol (how you can not love this song is beyond me, but, anyway ). Fringe-favorites Fonda turn up with a more recent track, the ebullient “Electric Guitars”, a summery pop song that finds Fonda sounding not unlike Belly and the like. Then a dose of snotty pop-punk gets injected by the Like Young’s “Snobs & Slobs”. While the band’s pedigree is sound (the duo is comprised of members of Wolfie and Busytoby), this is still one of the most forgettable songs on the disc, perhaps because it sounds so derivative.
Fortunately the disc skips back into a solid, enjoyable rock groove with Toothpaste 2000’s “Walking Out the Door” — solid guitar-pop with a touch of the garage rock aesthetic that keeps the louder and meatier side of this disc on its feet. If anything, the track sets up the one that follows it in perfect fashion. The newly-formed Reaction label was able to obtain rights to the old material from the Vertebrats, the early ’80s Illinois garage band that gave the world the oft-covered “Left in the Dark” (The Replacements, Uncle Tupelo). The inclusion of the Vertebrats’ “Diamonds in the Rough” on Vol. 7 is one of the few moments where the disc veers off in a new direction. Thankfully, the track highlights the strengths of the past, and you can almost see a young Paul Westerburg watching this band from the crowds of a tiny rock club.
The rest of the album wanders around the Parasol sound stable. Alt-countrified rock band Tractor Kings‘s “Gone to Heaven” is a bit of twangy tear-in-my-beer music that recalls the sadder moments of Wilco, while the Moonbabies swerve back to Swedish pop territory with shimmering guitars and a breezy, velour pop vibe in “Summer Kids Go”. Slipstream, featuring former Spiritualized member Mark Refoy, drops a big, spacey psych-rock song in “Healing Hands”, although it misses some of the vitality of his former band’s material. But Absinthe Blind, one of the current favorites around the Parasol offices, give us “The Break (It’s Been There All This Time)”, which is an ’80s new wave pop song of such prog rock excess that it defies easy categorization and doesn’t sound like it could have possibly been recorded this century. It also has the unfortunate effect of making Thirdimension‘s more traditional “Yes Equals No” sound a little bit predictable, but fans of Oasis-like anthems should sit up and take notice.
The remainder of the disc is a collection of pop for pop’s sake. Vic Conrad & the First Third, Mans Wieslander, Bettie Serveert, Club 8, Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror, Ronderlin, George Usher Group, and Marc Bacino all make appearances, and the amount of diversity among the songs here makes it hard to say they fit into a grouping, something that tends to happen at the end of Sweet Sixteen discs on a regular basis. That’s nothing against the songs themselves, though. An unreleased track by Wieslander, “Make Up”, has an incredible amount of tonal weight for a relatively light song. Bettie Serveert’s “Wide Eyed Fools” sound like it’s going to imitate Portishead’s slinky vibe, but then it explodes with brilliant pop-rock energy. For pure fragile singer-songwriter charm, Kevin Tihista’s previously unreleased “Missing You” is hard to ignore in all its breathy charm. Still, the others have a hard time matching the best of the rest of this disc, and by the time Sweet Sixteen Vol. 7 nears its 22nd song end, it’s hard to maintain the listener’s attention. George Usher Group’s “Nowhere” is nice, but unremarkable, Vic Conrad’s “See My Way” seems to thin in comparison, Ronderlin’s “Wave Another Day Goodbye” sounds a little too much like the Smiths, and while Club 8’s Karolina Komstedst sounds as gorgeous as ever, “Cold Hearts” is just too sleepy a song among all this pop buzz. You also get the feeling that Sweet Sixteen favorite Marc Bacino’s “Walking on Air” was added as much for the slurping milkshake and recorded “That’s it” as an apropos closer to the disc.
But, again, that’s the great thing about sampler discs! It doesn’t have to be full of continuity, or have a direction or an aim. It merely seeks to highlight good songs and good artists, and that’s something that Parasol has never failed at. If you’re not an indie pop fan, you might have a hard time enjoying Sweet Sixteen Vol. 7 or any of the acts on the Parasol family of labels. But if you are, you’re almost guaranteed to find one, two, three, or a dozen gems here, and plenty of acts worth exploring further. You don’t have to like the whole thing, because that’s not the point. And, besides, where else can you find 22 full songs for $5.00? I’ll say it again: I love sampler discs.