Various Artists: 50 (Saddle Creek)

The set features two songs each from 10 of their top artists—one old, one new and unreleased—and it will quickly revive your sagging faith in compilations.

By Laura Hamlett

All right, I’ll admit it: I’m a Saddle Creek whore. I’ve reviewed a release of theirs every month for the past three months, and I’ve put a Saddle Creek band on the cover this month. The truth is, I’ve never heard a Saddle Creek release I didn’t like. I have, however, been privy to an advance copy of their 50th release, a two-disc compilation entitled, simply, 50. The set features two songs each from 10 of their top artists—one old, one new and unreleased—and it will quickly revive your sagging faith in compilations.

Those who long for the goth-edged techno dance music of the ’80s will take instantly to the Faint, Omaha’s hard-hitting techno band who kick off disc one. “Worked up so Sexual” is reminiscent of mid-career Cure; Todd Baechle sings with a lazy loll, backed by an underlying buzz of synthesizers. Their second offering, “Take Me to the Hospital,” has more of a contemporary trance feel to it, with vocal distortions and a slower, more serious beat. Now It’s Overhead gives us “Wonderful Star” and “Dark Cycle,” and on both tracks, Andy LeMaster sounds like he would be just as comfortable singing country music. The second track is especially nice, a gentle and somber reflection about being caught in a depressive loop; vocal distortions heighten the solitary effect.

L.A.’s Rilo Kiley, hot on the indie scene, offer the country-tinged “With Arms Outstretched,” complete with end choir. “Jenny, You’re Barely Alive” is more indicative of the band’s indie rock strengths. Cursive’s offerings include “The Martyr” (from their 2000 release, Domestica) and “Nonsense,” both strong, both obviously Cursive with their sharply contrasting sounds and Tim Kasher’s deprecating wails.

The two tracks from Son, Ambulance provide a good introduction to the music of former Bright Eyes contributor Joe Knapp. Gentle innocence abounds in “A Book Laid on its Binding” from Son’s only full-length, 2001’s Euphemystic. “The Moral of Rosa, Parolee” has a darker feel to it musically, but the same lazy, youthful singing style as Knapp’s counterpart Conor Oberst. Oberst’s other band, Desaparecidos, begins disc two with “Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods)” and “Popn’ off at the F,” two tracks so strong that you realize the acclaim this Omaha folk-rock singer’s been getting is incredibly well deserved. Nobody conveys emotion and urgency the way this kid does; the music soars, crashes, and crescendos along with the message.

Tim Kasher finds his alter ego with the Good Life, a more straight-ahead keyboard-driven sound compared to his work with Cursive. Evoking the timelessness of Dick Dale is “I Am an Island,” an upbeat sound combined with a slice of hope. “Aftercrash” is a slow, techno-based number, but the voice is still unmistakably Kasher’s as he sings, “Drag me from this constant car crash/Pick out all the glass.” Athens-based Azure Ray, a female duo (also the other half of Now It’s Overhead), offer us “November,” a somber song that lives up to its name. “Beautiful Things Can Come From the Dark” also features the girls’ signature strings and whispery harmonies; if played outdoors on a clear night, you can believe the voices will reach all the way to the heavens.

Sorry About Dresden’s “Sick and Soar” is radio-ready, and while it seems a bit out of place on this indie-laden double gem, there’s no denying its catchiness. Matt Oberst’s scratchy voice is equally charming on “People Have Parties”; I still want to claim a Wire Train influence to their music, and it works. Recent Cursive addition (and Lullaby for the Working Class frontman) Ted Stevens fronts Mayday, and from them we have “Captain” and “Pond Love.” The former has the feel of an old sailor’s song; the latter is a song of love, more appropriately plucked out around the campfire after a hard day of riding.

Finishing the disc is Bright Eyes, the act who put Saddle Creek on everyone’s radar. For the uninitiated, the two tracks here—“Something Vague” from Fevers and Mirrors and the unreleased “One Foot in Front of the Other”—provide a glimpse into Bright Eyes’ sound. Whereas “Vague” is dreamy and dramatic, “One Foot” is a definite folk song. “I’m drinking the ink from my pen,” Oberst sings at one point—and maybe that explains the magic of his words and his voice.

Also on disc one are all of Saddle Creek’s online weekly movies from 2002.

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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