If you were born any time before 1980, chances are quite great that you have a small assortment of 45s sitting around on a shelf somewhere, collecting dust — a sad, nostalgic representation of your innocent roller-rink past before you underwent some sort of musical awakening. Most likely you have a couple of silly of-the-era novelty pop songs like “I Eat Cannibals” that held special appeal to you as a child, or maybe a few bona fide super hits like “Tainted Love”, or a drippy synth-laden rock ballad like Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face”, perhaps something more mainstream that you won in a contest — like one of those uncool Elton John tracks about blues or sad songs, and most certainly the sore thumb of your collection, an oldie that your sibling may have left behind when he or she went off to college, maybe that embarrassing radio staple about piña coladas. If you are any younger, you may possibly have at least one cassette single, like some random En Vogue song that you thought was kind of cool at the time but now realize was just a repetitive pop melody placed atop a killer James Brown rhythm track, or most certainly one of those early ’90s maxi-CD singles loaded up with gratuitous house dance versions, perhaps Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” or anything featuring Ya Kid K; yet those reeking corporate products don’t have the same musical intention or charm as that forgotten stack of 45s. The singles era has long since past… or has it?
Rough Trade, an indie institution in the UK with a long history of introducing challenging and intelligent pop music to the world at large, has recently strengthened their American division, and as such have released The Rough Trade Field Guide to Music, Volume One. Not simply intended as a promotional tool for the artists on their roster, the collection emphasizes the lost form of the single by virtually recreating seven “45s” — two tracks each by seven up-and-coming artists. The cover art features an assortment of band photos and single sleeves; in fact, most of the songs collected here have only previously existed as singles in the UK. As many of these songs have either not been housed on a proper album or were never intended for one in the first place, the languishing format of the single assured that most of them were played only once or twice on college radio stations and then buried into obscurity. Years from now they sadly won’t even exist in a time capsule of vinyl, dust, and paper sleeves, but by collecting them together on one anthology, Rough Trade is attempting to salvage them from so poor a destiny.
Of the seven artists covered here, the Fiery Furnaces are clearly the breakout stars. Listeners familiar with their critic-conquering second album Blueberry Boat will find these short doses of ’80s-influenced prog-pop entirely refreshing. “Tropical Iceland”, an effects-laden descendent of the buoyant Katrina and the Waves crossed with the artier Kate Bush, boasts the compilation’s strongest and warmest melody, yet it is “Single Again”, which kicks off the Field Guide, that makes the bigger impression. A deceptively upbeat tale of a woman caught in a pattern of abusive relationships, the song showcases the perfect blend of baroque arrangement and singsong melody that defines the band’s best work. Only one artist on the compilation has a larger name than the Furnaces’ Friedberger siblings — absentee Libertine crackhead Pete Doherty, who is featured here in rare solo performances with his backing band, Wolfman. While “Back from the Dead” stumbles along like the Up the Bracket outtake it probably is, “For Lovers” presents a romantic piano-and-strings ballad unlike anything the Libertines have recorded to date. Unfortunately, it eventually succumbs to pop-oriented repetition, but for a few minutes it manages a loveliness that belies Doherty’s tumultuous personal life. The low-budget video for the track is featured on the disc as an enhanced bonus feature; it is mostly footage of Doherty roaming and lip-syncing around old London in a typical hipster skinny tie and jacket ensemble.
The banner of ’90s techno-pop mainstays Cornershop is resurrected for a second time this decade to present a pair of sonic sculptures built around the alluring Indian vocals of Bubbley Kaur. Her performance on “Topknot”, though pretty, is heavily tied down by Tjinder Singh’s overly familiar tricks and traditional Indian flourishes. “Natch”, both spacier and funkier, thankfully gives Kaur’s alluring voice more opportunity to leap out of its environment. Scotland’s Aberfeldy introduce themselves with “What You Do”, featuring the sort of precious and tired ’60s indie folk-isms of interest to no one beyond 19-year-old university girls looking for a non-threatening musician boyfriend; the flipside, “Vegetarian Restaurant”, offers a much heartier performance, even if it does reveal songwriter Riley Briggs to sound eerily like Tim Finn. Another new band, Hal, offer the country-tinged “Worry About the Wind”, which actually sounds more like the blue-eyed soul of Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall produced to sound like ’70s radio. The Beatlesque “Out Tonight” tones down the soul and, subsequently, the interest factor. Finally, Eastern Lane appear to be a gang of AC/DC fans in schoolboy outfits attempting to break into the garage rock naughties (’00s). They give the compilation some extra rock thunder, but despite the hooks, “Saffron” feels as tired as a band aping Jet — who ape the Vines, who ape everyone — should sound. The acoustic “Take Me Lonely” is no better, just slower.
The Rough Trade Field Guide to Music, Volume One showcases seven singles. Running the gamut from hard rock to soul, from indie folk to ethnic dance, from novel pop to romantic ballad, it argues the merits of artists in small, definitive doses, a plea for the sustained life of the two-song single. As the full-length album begins to see its end in sight with the increase of bite-sized digital downloads, there is no better time to make the argument, and no better way to make it than with Art Brut, the final artist featured here. Full of energy, self-deprecating humor, sarcasm, and almost no sense of melody whatsoever, the bratty NME darlings who joyously and repetitively announce that they’ve “Formed a Band”, but that popular culture no longer appeals to them (“Bad Weekend”), are a perfect listening experience for about six minutes. After that, well … how many people actually bought Right Said Fred’s album?