Futures We Trust Will Be Okay

In 2002 Spain's Acuarela label put out a wonderful double CD compilation in which all the songs mentioned the label name (or its English equivalent, 'watercolour'). There was a terrific mix of artists on there, some of which I was familiar with (Clientele, Willard Grant Conspiracy, Mark Eitzel, Mountain Goats, for starters) and plenty I wasn't (Aroah, Greg Weeks, Dakota Suite, Emak Bakia, For Stars...) but came to be through constant playing. For sure it was one of the best collections of the year.

For 2003 then, Acuarela have decided to repeat the process, except this time they've extended it to a massive triple CD set. And despite the increase in scope, there's no slacking off in terms of quality: it's an eminently listenable downbeat collection. And see, that's the key thing right there: it's downbeat, left-of-centre, quirky rock that crosses language barriers with a marvellously measured and considered mood that is all classy black and white photographs of rambling urban decay, rugged rural landscapes and high contrast portraits of high cheekbones. There are fewer artists here that I'm familiar with than on the 2002 offering, but that's no great concern of course because it's always good to discover new delights. I do however recognise Windsor For The Derby, who open up CD 1 with a typically restrained cut of outrock melancholia. Similarly recognisable are Thalia Zedek, whose voice is always a welcome sound round these parts, and Jack (and indeed Jacques) who languish in their usual wine soaked splendour to great effect. Then there's the Bitter Springs, who have of course connections to the great Godard and to Last Party, and who incidentally sound terrific here with a gentle swing shuffle for smoky nightclubs. Or what about the lovely Zephyrs, whose 'Make Me Lonely' sounds just as you'd expect a song with such a title to, or Lee Ranaldo, whose 'Demons Music Part 3 (Nicolas Fucks Liza)' was originally recorded for an Italian theatre production in 2001 and which burbles and sqwuaks but sounds nothing like you (probably) expect?

Then of course there are all the artists of whom I have never heard, but who without exception turn in tracks to beguile and intrigue. There's the Potomac Accord, whose seven minute 'The Field Song' is an epic of languorous stretched out post-folk-rock. And there's The Sophie Drinker, who remind me of Scrawl at their finest (whaddya mean, you never heard of Scrawl?!), or Polar, whose 'A Cup Of Coffee' is kind of like Galaxie 500 hanging out with Superchunk (and yes, I AM aware I'm dating myself with these references; that most of the people making this music probably were still in primary school when Galaxie 500 were around, and know them as the band that the guy from Luna used to be in, rather than the other way around. Not that it matters, of course, it's just...). Plus a million others. Or, um, over twenty five, at least.

At thirty six tracks and not a duffer amongst them, Acuarela Songs 2 seems to already have the Tangents 'compilation of the year' award for 2003 in the bag. Or it would if the award existed, but hey...

Sticking with Acuarela (and you'd be silly not to, because it really has grown into a label of great class and stature), there's an EP by Greg Weeks. This Rochester singer-songwriter first came to my attention via the aforementioned Acualrela Songs 1 collection, to which he contributed the divine 'The Waves', and on this Slightly West EP he delivers another five songs that brood with the mood of Nick Drake or Leonard Cohen. It's not all what you might expect of your classic folk singer-songwriter either, because Weeks throws Moogs, Mellotrons, harmoniums and eerie string arrangements into the mix, emerging with a kind of somnambulist psych-folk that's all just a little unhinged. I bet you he's a Jandek fan.

On a similar trip, although altogether more solidly rooted with the sound of a delicately plucked guitar is Nick Talbot who, under the guise of Gravenhurst, has made one of my most played albums of recent weeks. Not that Internal Travels is new. It isn't: released in 2002 as a joint release by Talbot's own Silent Age records and Red Square, Internal Travels sounds resolutely old-fashioned, or should that be fashioned-old, and should that really matter anyway? All I know is that songs like 'The High Seas', 'In Your Room' and 'Song For Luke' are wonderful restrained sketches of bleary suburban landscapes that I'm filing up next to Arco, July Skies, Blueboy and Art of Fighting. Music for anyone who had a heart (broken by the sight of the mist hovering over the park gates).... I await the promised new recordings with baited breath.

The Playwrights too remind me of Art of Fighting, and more particularly of Deloris, although the Playwrights are from Bristol, and not Australia. Apparently they make a point of all wearing the same shirts when onstage (there are, I think, seven of them - what is it with these Bristol types that they feel the need to have large bands, and are the Playwrights about to morph into the Blue Aeroplanes? And do they have a dancer? And if not, why not?) which is alright by me, because there's always been a place for uniform in Pop. I mean, if it was good enough for the Subway Sect, it's good enough for me. Not that The Playwrights sound anything like the Subway Sect, but what the heck. I understand they recently played a show where they did a bunch of Pavement covers, and that's maybe a reasonable reference point as well, not that I really know Pavement beyond Crooked Rain, and certainly the new Playwrights single doesn't make me think of Crooked Rain, but whatever. Songs like 'Television In Other Cities', 'The Me Decade' and the lovely 'Do You Miss The War' (it's crying out to be sequenced on a radio show with Deloris' epic 'The Point In The War Where We Knew We Were Lost') are sweet reflections of pasts they don't even know exist that head strongly into futures they trust will be okay.

Now it's funny, but I hear echoes of Bright Eyes in a lot of places these days. Maybe this is coincidental. I don't know. But it has to be said that this Haiku album by Songdog does remind me of Bright Eyes. Or at least, Songdog's Welsh singer-songwriter Lyndon Morgans sounds so incredibly like Conor Obrest that at times it's uncanny. And like Obrest, you could say that Morgan is an originator of odd contemporary confessional Blues, although he's less confrontational, apparently less fired up by extreme NEED and, it must be said, at times he just sounds like he's trying too damn hard. Lyrically he's too measured, too considered; he makes too many 'knowing' references to cultural specifics for his own good, whilst musically it's altogether too smooth, too polite. Nowhere do you get the feeling that this is music that desperately needs to come out - it's rather music that knows its references (a drop of Nick Drake, a shake of Gram Parsons, a smattering of Nick Cave and a whole spadeful of anonymous alt-country bods one assumes) but that never really puts them together in anything other than a way that has you thinking 'this is okay... kinda...' And it is okay. Kinda. It's just not good enough to hold my attention, so by the time I hear Lyndon sing those opening lines about Pop Art lips and cappuccino skin, I'm thinking 'give it a rest', whilst simultaneously reaching for the 'eject' button and readying that Gravenhurst album for another spin.

© 2003 Alistair Fitchett