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V/A - Tracks and Fields

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Artist: V/A

Album: Tracks and Fields

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Jul. 6, 2004

The 41 songs and bands assembled on Kill Rock Stars’ Tracks and Fields compilation don’t have a lot in common. Listening to the two discs takes you from gleeful amateurism, such as Shoplifting’s "Hegemony," to brilliant sheen, such as His Name is Alive’s "Peace in Detroit." Spanning the gap, appropriately, are unstudied live recordings of otherwise highly polished studio work, like Xiu Xiu’s in-concert take on "Clowne Towne." Rather than cataloging a particular style, or cataloging their own artists and those of its sibling label 5RC, Kill Rock Stars assembled a bunch of bands with diversity in mind.

As nobody will have much luck making a statement with a single song, particularly in the midst of 40 others, Tracks and Fields is an exercise in taste. Consequently, unless your taste happens to coincide exactly with the KRS employees compiling the album, you’re likely to find it a hit-and-miss affair. But who expects consistency from something like this? Provided that there are at least a few low-profile bands, and perhaps a rarity from the side project of a prominent one, then we can probably call it good enough.

Just good enough seems to be the idea, given the relentless balancing of styles on Tracks and Fields. By gosh, there’s bound to be something on here that you’ll enjoy. If college rock stalwarts Antietam (who’ve been around since "college rock" was a working turn of phrase) don’t peak your curiosity, then check out Need New Body’s half-assed genre hopping. If you’re not interested in Measles Mumps Rubella’s epic techno, then consider Laura Veirs’ rustic singer-songwriter work. If you’re not interested Gravy Train’s lowbrow electroclash, then go over to disc two to listen to Radio Berlin pick up the pieces of Rough Trade’s catalog from the early 1980s.

Playing to different camps of fans in just that way usually turns into a losing proposition, however. The only people likely to be pleased are the ones with the most broadly catholic of tastes. (And in all honesty anyone who likes both discs from beginning to end is probably the sort of person who’s not likely to be displeased by very much at all.) No, the appeal of Tracks and Fields comes not from its impeccable sequencing or its coherent take on the independent and underground music scene. Rather, it’s pedagogical.

These 41 tracks do for music fans what countless publications (this one included) also claim to do: bring dedicated fans news of bands they haven’t previously heard a single word about. But, it’s one thing to know of the pAper chAse or the Charades because you’ve seen the name or read a review; it’s another thing entirely to have heard them, to discover them out of the blue, as it were. If most of the music is mediocre or difficult to listen to, that just becomes part of the fun. Nobody cares enough to spend $17 on a compilation album unless they also like dodging its castoffs.

As if to thank the listeners for their trouble, Kill Rock Stars also throws in live versions and alternate takes from more high profile bands and projects. Male Slut (Thurston Moore, Jim O’Rourke, Steve Shelley, and Lee Ranaldo) offers "Industrial Noise Blues," which appropriately enough lies halfway between a blues song and a noise song. 5RC’s Young People contributes a slightly different version of "Valley" from last year’s War Prayers. Superchunk’s "Everyone Gets Crushed" is a pretty strong track for a one-off effort, but like much of what they’ve recorded in the past 10 years, it struggles to summon even a modicum of energy.

The real revelations are the last two songs on the album – Dead Meadow’s fine acoustic take on "Golden Cloud," and the Decemberists’ "Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right." Colin Meloy has said before that he’s not interested in being another pop songwriter complaining about relationships. That’s a shame, since he’s really good at it. His lyrics offer up an assortment of minor details that come off as an evenhanded assessment of what went wrong rather than abject whining: "I sat for a time by the valets in line, and I read what you wrote on the card / above a cowboy you drew a big talk balloon saying ‘try not to take it so hard.’" The backing track, a showcase for Jenny Conlee’s minimalist keyboards, also keeps the histrionics in check.

By Tom Zimpleman

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