Crate-Digging Archive: Various Artists – Art Core Volume One

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

Originally published sometime in early 2009. Presented here with some revision.

(Tooth & Nail, 1995)

Not, you know, the actual cover.

Remember when Tooth & Nail had good artists on their label? Gone are the days when Joy Electric, Starflyer 59, MXPX, Luxury, Morella’s Forest, Chatterbox, Stavesacre, and Sal Paradise released relevant records, and even though some of these bands are still together, it’s fourteen years later, and I’ll argue that the only decent bands on the roster are Starflyer and MewithoutYou. There are a lot of bands I feel icky about, style-over-substance emo and warmed-over skate punk – Underoath, The Almost, Mae, freaking Family Force 5 – shudder. It’s one thing for distinctly Christian record label to have shed the standard CCM trappings of the 1980s and early 90s Christian music scene for more adventurous genres, as Tooth & Nail did in its heyday, but it’s quite another for it to release middling records by bands whose sounds have actually crept into and in some cases define modern worship. That rock-n-roll is in the pews now, kids. It ain’t rebellious anymore.

So it’s with some fondness that I revisit this, the first of two Art Core volumes the label released in the late 1990s to showcase new and overlooked songs by established artists, as well as discoveries by the label’s artists and A&R team of new bands and possible label additions. Volume One was instrumental in opening up different musical paths for me. Unfortunately, not all of these artists have aged as well as I’d’ve liked – some of the stuff sounds awfully dated. The first four tracks are still great though. I’ll present the entire tracklist here with thoughts on the individual songs.

  1. Joy Electric – “Sorcery.” I love this song – it’s perfect for the Halloween season. Spooky synthesizers and bouncy rhythms meet distorted guitar or pseudo-guitar. Joy Electric can get super-saccharine in both sound and message, and it’s nice to hear them get down and dirty here. Fits in perfectly with their darker We Are the Music Makers period … which is right about when this compilation was released.
  2. Roseblossom Punch – “Sowing in the Sun.” The main reason why their song “See It in Me” on Art Core Volume Two annoyed me so much – this song’s so much better. Straight pop, but not boring. Aaron Sprinkle was the guitarist for Poor Old Lu, and his Roseblossom Punch outfit did nothing but disappoint in their releases. This was the first song I ever heard by them. It’s also the apex. Bummer.
  3. Starflyer 2000 – “Leigh and Me.” When Starflyer 59 decides to do beautiful, they really knock it out of the park. “Leigh and Me” is a slow-dance classic, with vibrato reverbed guitars and gently brushed drums offsetting guest vocalist Leigh Bingham from Sixpence None the Richer. (Yep, the band that redid “There She Goes,” as well as original “Kiss Me.” They’re famous!) Her repeated chorus plea of “It’s always you” is heartbreaking.
  4. Lance Alton Hemingway – “Evangeline.” Hemingway was a singer-songwriter that disappeared as soon as this compilation came out. I mention the term “singer-songwriter” carefully, as the subculture as a group tends to put me off. Lance, however, has the vocal chops, songwriting ability, and arrangement skill to pull it off. And although this song could’ve been shorter – it would have been a great three-and-a-half-minute song, yet it’s almost six – new instruments or textures pop up in key places to keep my attention.
  5. Julie Band – “A Little Nothing.” My first thought when the Julie Band came on: “I remember this being better than it is.” It’s simple, ramshackle, upbeat, backporch folk. Problem is, there’s a band like this at every college. Couple of guys meet a girl in the theatre department, think she’s got a pretty voice, enlist her to sing in their band. You can even picture what she probably looks like – just bland. Same as the music. Pass.
  6. Dear/Deer – “Hidden Beauty.” I don’t think anyone knows how they spell their name – the band couldn’t seem to decide how to do it. The vocals are buried in this thick, shoegazy track, heavily inspired by the Brits, notably Ride and Swervedriver. It’s not bad, but it’s a little long.
  7. The Waysect Bloom – “Subsidize.” I had a similar reaction to this song by The Waysect Bloom and its Volume Two counterpart as I did to Roseblossom Punch’s

    The only version of the cover I could find, too crummy for the slideshow.

    contributions. I really liked this song, but I really hated their song on the subsequent compilation. As for sound: it’s easy to picture a KMFDM/My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult hybrid (but not Stabbing Westward), the industrial rhythm and distorted instruments and vocals adhering to that late-80s/early-90s Wax Trax sound. The band disappeared as quickly as they were introduced.

  8. The Sirago 17 – “Bedspins (Mustang Version).” Nice guitar effects. I thought we were going to have a Julie Band-girl voice situation, but fortunately the double-tracked harmonies kind of save it. Still, it sounds like second-rate Morella’s Forest. I liked this one a lot better when I first heard it back in high school, but it still sounds OK now.
  9. Luxury – “When the Curtain Falls.” I always hit the skip button when the album reached this song, as it was so slow and sparse and I wanted action! It’s aged better than I expected it to, but maybe I’m just getting old. I threw on Luxury’s The Latest and the Greatest album not too long ago and it wasn’t as good as I’d remembered it, which was a real disappointment. Luxury straddles that line between Britpop and American indie, and as such it makes sense that I liked their style back in the day.
  10. Havalina Rail Co. – “Dominique’s Library.” I had friends who were into this band, but I never was. This song’s OK, but it sounds like Man Man with a worse singer. Man Man’s way better.
  11. MXPX – “Suggestion Box.” I always liked MXPX, and this is one of their better songs. Straight up mall-punk with a nice breakdown. Also kind of breaks up the mid-temponess of the album.
  12. Superchrome U.K. – “Going Down.” Wow, this guy wants to be Morrissey. And to not change tempo, or much else, for 6:48. This song lost me early.
  13. Almonzo – “Pancake Batter Girl.” I have no idea what their going for with the title of this song – does the band know a girl who likes pancake batter so much that they had to write a song about her? I can’t imagine pancake batter tasting very good, so I’m not sure if this is a compliment. If it is, it’s a weird one. The vocals are decidedly nondescript, and the lyrics aren’t very illuminating, but it’s got a nice guitar tone and only lasts for two and a half minutes. It’s hard not to like for that amount of time. Almonzo was yet another band that disappeared without a trace after their song was included on an Art Core sampler. Maybe these comps are cursed for up-and-coming bands.

RIYL: The 1990s. The whole decade.

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2 responses to “Crate-Digging Archive: Various Artists – Art Core Volume One

  1. I know I’m really behind the times, what with this article being a year old. But if anyone (including the author) is interested, there is another write-up on Artcore Vol. 1 found here on a snazzy little Tumblr that’s reviewing each T&N release in chronological order. Some interesting insights found within.

    P.S. I agree with you in saying that the label isn’t nearly as great as it once was.

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  2. ha, interesting! i’ve got a couple starflyer reviews under my belt here too, as well as the 2nd art core volume. thanks for the note matt!

    i was pretty wrong about the julie band, wasn’t i? jason martin’s future wife, julie … she’s certainly not bland-looking, nor is she as boring on bon voyage releases as she is here. my take on the song stands though. 🙂

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