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Various Artists: Urbs in Horto: A Chicago Indiepop Compilation

Michael Beaumont

Various Artists

Urbs in Horto: a Chicago Indiepop Compilation

Label: Johanns Face
US Release Date: 2003-04-29
UK Release Date: Available as import

Compilations like these are always a mixed bag. Especially ones that consist of bands that are all on the same label. The label already, presumably, has money and time invested in these, often times, dodgy artists, so they must be showcased lest they rot in indie obscurity. Often times, however, many of these groups, sadly, should not have been signed to begin with. Many were no doubt benefactors of drunkenly inspired A&R hacks out on a nighttime bender, thinking that this shambling excuse for a bar band is actually the second coming of T-Rex, when in reality the "majestic solos" and "charismatic front man" merely present further evidence of the thrilling effects of double G & Ts.

Urbs in Horto (it's Chicago's Latin city motto meaning "City in the Garden") is no exception, unfortunately. Presented to us by Chicago's Johanns Face Records, the sampler is a very mixed bag, consisting of songs of stunning beauty and aptitude, and soul-drenching mediocrity at the same time. Unfortunately, the mediocrity outweighs the quality by about 3:1, but the handful of worthy songs contained herein are extraordinarily good.

Things start off promisingly enough with a spoken word piece, and a nice enough power pop song from Light FM. Unfortunately, Light FM's lyrics do not do their crunchy, hook-laden music justice. In fact, so ridiculous are the lyrics to "Stormtroopers" that the song actually contains the line, "I'm a Stormtrooper / Looking for my Death Star". Oh dear.

After a so-so offering from Tenki, the CD really hits its stride with no less than five straight excellent songs. The best of these, by Butterfly Child, Hushdrops, and M.O.T.O., are arguably worth the price of admission alone. Hushdrops gets it started with the adorable pop anthem, "Emily". Encased in slapback reverb vocals and a lushly sung chorus, it's quite the pop gem, but holds its place as the album's highpoint only for the length of its own composition as Butterfly Child quickly follows it up with the astounding "Girl on Fire". Butterfly Child is actually Belfast-born Joe Cassidy, who has since relocated to the Windy City. And what a welcome import he is. With a lilting cello, driving percussion, beautiful string section and just the right touch of strummy acoustic guitar, "Girl on Fire" is just a perfect pop song. Encompassing the subdued grandeur of the Shins and the autumnal melancholy of Billy Corgan's best ballads, it is quite a calling card, and a very promising introduction to Cassidy's work.

Longitude and M.O.T.O., next on display, offer up some excellent, lo-fi, Brian Wilson-inspired indie rock, with M.O.T.O. really delivering the goods. Unfortunately, the sound quality on M.O.T.O.'s "Now" is abysmally bad, but it gives the cut an interesting textural appeal all the same, as it contrasts nicely with the brilliant surf-pop melodies, making it sound as if you've uncovered a lost Beach Boys 7" from 1964. Longitude's "More Awake Now Than Ever" is more indie and less pop, but the lead singer's Brian Wilson falsetto is a nice touch, making a good-but-not-great tune more memorable.

Unfortunately, it's all downhill after that, apart from Archer Prewitt's (of Sea and Cake fame) jangly, horn-laden, "Here We Go". Many of the remaining tunes are simply of the decent-but-not-special variety, but a few of them, like Written in Sand's "UFO Disaster" are just that, a disaster. "UFO Disaster" is an abysmal song and one that infects the rest of the compilation to the point that it would almost make me hesitate to recommend Urbs in Horto at all, lest Written In Sand benefit from its sales. But one can only hope that they can learn from their label-mates, and in time redeem themselves properly.

For the bargain price of $10.00, Urbs in Horto is probably worth the money for the aforementioned gems alone. However, if you happen to see it gracing the bins of your local used record shop for five bucks, pick it up immediately. Butterfly Child, Hushdrops, and M.O.T.O. deserve the right to vie for your record-spending dollar. And you, I hope to presume, deserve their frighteningly good songs.

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