In quiet and unassuming fashion, Santa Monica, California's KCRW has kept the faith in promoting good music. Their morning show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, is an intriguing mix of new music and in-studio performances by everyone from Jeff Buckley to Beck (basically, it seems like there's no artist this station can't get if it asks). The show and station exert a huge amount of influence, especially for a public radio station. The station's been releasing collections of their in-studio performances for several years now (under the former heading of Rare on Air). The CD's are a collector's dream due to the wealth of previously unreleased performances, but they also give the listener a chance to see what these bands have got when it comes to playing in an intimate setting.
On this newest disc, Chris Martin of Coldplay probably takes the biggest leap. His band's breakthrough hit, "Yellow", is still inescapable, largely due to the catchy simplicity of the song's guitar riff. Here, Martin strips the song down to a stark piano base and lightly croons. The approach takes the song back to its probable genesis as a sketchy demo in Martin's bedroom. After repeated listens, I'm divided on whether it really works, but it's a refreshingly different version. In a similar vein, Nick Cave offers a straightforward rendition of "Into My Arms". Only Cave could get away with an opening lyric like "I don't believe in an interventionist God", but pretty soon the love song pulls you in with its Gothic sincerity.
Another band that benefits from a stripped-down approach is R.E.M. Their version of "I've Been High" sheds the studio dressing found on Up in favor of a much more direct approach. The song's definitely better for it; Michael Stipe's vocals take on a plaintive urgency that hasn't been heard much since "Everybody Hurts". Dido pulls off a similar trick with "With Me"; the song's still rooted in a percolating rhythm track, but her delivery is appealingly small and intimate.
Pretty much everyone on Sounds Eclectic Too succeeds. Cousteau's "You My Lunar Queen" is epic and sombre, Air's "Radio #1" is suprisingly propulsive, Zero 7 delivers a torchy "Distractions", and Shelby Lynne's "Jesus on a Greyhound" fairly leaps from your speakers without Glen Ballard's studio treacle to bog it down. One of the biggest surprises is Julieta Venegas's "Casa Abandonada" -- a mix of traditional accordion, rock drumming, and vaguely Bjorkish vocals with more than a little creepy Tom Waits vibe. I'm totally unfamiliar with her, but her thoroughly modern take on Mexican pop is intriguing, to say the least.
That's probably the greatest virtue of the KCRW discs -- that element of potential surprise that rests within each one. While the Morning Becomes Eclectic venue is certainly a showcase for some major acts, it's also a haven for the smaller bands on the fringes. The station's Most Requested list (at the time of this writing) features two bands I've never heard of, and two more I've never heard -- it's exciting to know that at least someone's looking at music programming as a continuum of possibilities and not as merely slots for product to fill. Here's hoping that KCRW keeps releasing these collections for years to come.