Los Angeles public radio station KCRW has been long been regarded as one of the last bastions of sophisticated radio programming. Their flagship program, Morning Becomes Eclectic, provides an intimate live setting for artists ranging from PJ Harvey, R.E.M., and Joe Henry to Nikka Costa, Coldplay, and Lyle Lovett. The station has documented much of this history on its website, where you can listen to streams of previous shows, and in the record bins with Rare on Air and Morning Becomes Eclectic discs.
The current Sounds Eclectic disc runs the spectrum from good to transcendent. The show's strength is that even across radio waves, the performer's true charm and charisma are conveyed along with the music. In that light, there's nothing wrong with David Gray's rendition of "Babylon" (which is sparkling but ordinary) or Travis's "Driftwood" (which is thankfully livelier than the studio version), but they certainly pale beside some of their disc-mates.
The cut that really presses me back into my chair is Stars performing "Going, Gone". Delicate and aching, it rides a slightly hurried electronic pulse that could simulate either a heartbeat or a ticking clock to glorious effect. Neil Finn reaches back to an obscurity from his Crowded House days with "Throw Your Arms Around Me". Armed with just his acoustic guitar and his voice, he nails the song's giddy heart. Badly Drawn Boy, for his part, offers up the spry piano melody of "Magic in the Air". If you've been wondering what all the fuss is about concerning these artists, these tracks should settle the matter.
In a nod to the disc's excellent sequencing (something all too rare on compilation CDs), you can look at other songs in other ways. Beck's lopes through an enjoyable rendition of "Lonesome Whistle", but it's an old man's song sung by a man who is still fairly young of soul. Its flipside is Willie Nelson's "Healing Hands of Time", an old man's song sung by a man who's been through enough to know that a failed relationship needn't send you to the edges of the earth. Where a younger singer might have clenched the song in an over-emotive stranglehold, Nelson smiles through the lyrics like they're a comfort. All of these tracks (and more by Patti Smith, The Dandy Warhols, Shivaree, and others) are bookended by Yo-Yo Ma's gorgeous rendition of "Prelude: Bach Cello Suite #1 in G-Major" and Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Energy Flow". Both serve to put a stately wrapping on the proceedings, as if to say, "This may be pop, but it's serious music, and good music. You should listen up". If you've heard Morning Becomes Eclectic, it's a point that's nearly impossible to disprove.