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V/A - Survive and Advance, Vol. 1

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Artist: V/A

Album: Survive and Advance, Vol. 1

Label: Merge

Review date: Aug. 5, 2002

Label samplers remind me of those Ponderosa buffet-style restaurants I used to beg my mom to take me to when I was 12. There was just something so inviting about a place where you could take a little of everything you like, where you don’t have to risk ordering a single portion of something that might turn out to be inedible. But now that I’m a bit older and a tad wiser, I’ve come to understand why my mom hated the damn place: a certain quantity can never make up for a want of quality. 20 different vats of mediocrity will always yield 1 unimpressive meal, however diverse its makeup.

Merge Records has a cornucopia of fine artists on its former (The Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.) and current roster who all have an impressive history of releases – East River Pipe, Lambchop, Crooked Fingers, Portastatic and The Ladybug Transistor just to name a few. Unfortunately, Survive and Advance is less an introduction to the best work of these artists as much as it is a collection of B-side-esque material that for one reason or another didn’t make the cut for a release. And while I imagine that this might be a great thing for the occasional Merge aficionado (i.e. someone who owns and enjoys the bulk of the catalogue – does that person even exist for a label this size?), the rest of us are stuck with our fingers to the scan button, looking for that one unreleased Annie Hayden cut, for example. Of the 14 tracks, three of them are from previously released albums, while 7 of them are previously unreleased, and 4 are live tracks (some of which sound like they were recorded by that guy you knew in high school with the basement full of self-produced Phish bootlegs – bad). It’s just frustrating to think that someone might pick up Survive and Advance and be turned off by the relatively charmless “Silver Shoes” by the Radar Bros. and therefore miss out on their last 2 excellent full-lengths. The makers of samplers seem to forget the old truism that first impressions actually do matter.

As you might have guessed by this point, a critique of a sampler depends on the audience you imagine: it depends on how much the buyer or listener has invested in the thing. For someone who gets Survive and Advance free in the mail, it’s great - nothing to lose, a lot to gain (the knowledge that some previously unknown but interesting bands exist, or maybe an otherwise unprocurable live version of your favorite song). For someone who spends 12 bucks in a store (don’t do this - it can be had for $6.50 on Merge’s site), it sucks – even if you do get turned on by the peppy opening Imperial Teen track (which I did not), you still could have bought the whole album for the same price and are now left with a CD you can’t listen to all the way through. You’re left with mix-tape material.

Songs like Lambchop’s live version of “The Puppy and the Leaf” and the Ladybug Transistor’s “Nico Norte” typify the live material Survive and Advance: either the track is weak by means of its own internal problems or because of its shortcomings as a bootleg. The former, for lack of a better description, just doesn’t seem like a good song. It represents the biggest problem I have with Lambchop – far too often a reliance upon the combination of tinkling piano with over-sentimentalized lyrics produces a kind of triteness that recalls a Disney / Randy Newman score. The Ladybug Transistor track is the best example of a good song captured poorly – it sounds like listening to a live web stream of a concert on cheap Radio Shack computer speakers (i.e. there’s no midrange, only soupy bass and tinny treble). Any benefit of listening to a live recording should be the organic quality, a certain kind of excitement, which is absent from studio material. “Nico Norte” might have that energy, but a poor mix obscures it. (Post-rockers the Spaceheads, however, are served much better by their live version of “Atmo” which closes the disc.) Also unimpressive are the selections for Annie Hayden, Portastatic and Crooked Fingers. Although I’m not an expert on the catalogues of any of these artists, I can definitely attest to the fact that these songs don’t do their talents and their histories justice. It’s not hard to imagine why they’re not on the much more rewarding full-lengths by the artists in question. However, there is a reason to hope that survival and advancement might not be a completely depressing prospect: Spoon’s “Small Stakes” from the upcoming album “Kill the Moonlight” (due Aug. 20th) represents what can be nice about samplers. It’s a track that was actually good enough to be included in a real release, and therefore serves more as a movie trailer than as a TNT late night feature. It gives you more than a single track – it gives you something to be excited about in the future.

So…it’s only fair to point out that Survive and Advance does have its moments (its tater tots in the buffet, that which makes return visits worthwhile). Some of the notable winners include a great David Kilgour song from his “Cracks in the Sidewalk” tour EP (even if it lasts only a measly 1 minute and 30 seconds!) It captures perfectly Kilgour’s insistence that some perfectly reverbed vocals and a loud in-your-face acoustic guitar is the strongest weapon of the modern-day troubadour. Further research yielded that his 2001 full-length on Merge A Feather in the Engine has even more neo-folk gems. East River Pipe’s “Machine Man” kicks a significant amount of ass, even for the New Jersey native, who should be recognized as the new millennium’s king of the low-fi/home-recorded aesthetic domain. Power pop fans will be turned on by the guitar-driven hooks of Ashley Stove’s “Amen Grasshopper” which can also be found on the album All Summer Long, much like fans of Stephen Merritt’s velvet singing voice will be turned on by The Gothic Archies’ “Smile: No One Cares How You Feel.”

Hey, maybe if you’re a Ponderosa person and if music is like food to you, Survive and Advance will satisfy. But I still maintain that sometimes it’s not such a bad idea to spend all your money in one place, and get something that you’ll like in its entirety.

By Jeff Rufo

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