Review: Various Artists – “Sweet Records Presents: Soul Is Never Discouraged”

The liner notes that accompany the Sweet Records compilation Soul is Never Discouraged have a kind of rebellious spirit to them that could get a smile out of Marx and Engels, were they still around to read them.

“We are trapped in a world of karaoke queens force fed to us by the wonders of modern technology,” one of the statements reads. “We stand back and watch the genocide of music occur before our very eyes … dictated to by those who cast harm upon the free world, who care not about us but for the fruit of our hard work … it is time to stand up and be counted.”

With an introduction like this, you find yourself waiting for something revolutionary or at least volatile, the kinds of middle fingers that Steve Albini seemed to be giving to mainstream sensibilities every time he unleashed a barrage of guitar noise in his Big Black days.

Well, get comfortable because you’ll be waiting for a while. The 16-song collection — composed largely of bands from the northeast of England — not only embraces the style and strut of American radio-friendly rock, it veers dangerously close to embracing the genre’s accompanying formulas in all their predictable glory. There’s an interesting range of bands on the CD and it would be unfair to say that all of the participants are on the familiar road to becoming Matchbox 20 or whatever nameless band is currently climbing the charts. But, all of the revolutionary manifestos notwithstanding, that’s how most of the record seems to feel.

Bands like The Volts, Parklandsway, and The Secret Channel stand out as strong contributors by making up for what their guitar-heavy, verse-chorus-verse approach may lack in sheer energy. Their songs are admirable and spirited, not quite groundbreaking but a step or two above merely listenable.

Fans of The Foo Fighters (or other acts that have taken indie voices and made them more commercially viable) could go for some of this, as could those who were taken with the early rumblings of -= ready for the market-friendly cliche? — the Seattle Grunge Revolution. (You’ll swear that songs like Parklandsway’s “Foundation 54” were recorded by Jack Endino back in ’89 or ’90.)

On the other hand, some of this material just can’t seem to rise above its formulas or familiarity. Steve McCusker, formerly of Haven, tosses his hat into the ring with a watered-down ballad that, even with its obvious recording limitations, tries to throw multiple vocal tracks and uninspired piano into the mix. Columbus Dixon, Venetian Love Triangle, and Stone Coda go a similar route, wringing much of the vitality from their songs with vocals that falter because you feel like you’ve heard them before.

After all, why listen to indie rock with a singer who sounds like he fronts Hootie & The Blowfish or Bon Jovi if you could just go and listen to Hootie & The Blowfish or Bon Jovi? It may be invigorating live, but on the disc it sounds flat. This is especially a shame for a band like Venetian Love Triangle who, in their instrumental moments, hint a bit at Eleventh Dream Day.

The more atypical or imaginative songs on Soul is Never Discouraged fare better, especially compared to what surrounds them. Deletia’s “Ur Right, Ur Wrong” is a jangly but still smooth affair, an indie-pop song — in The Smiths tradition? — with bright guitars and sugar-sweet backing vocals in the right places. Though the recording of the drums seem a little out of whack, Spiral Bound’s “Call it Out Again” is a bouncy and fun little offering, the type of rock song propelled forward by swaying guitars and aggressive drumming. The Psychedlic Breakfast’s “Uncontrollable Soul” is a welcome interlude in the proceedings, a spacey tune that could have been recorded among the synth-heavy pop of the mid-80s. The Cheesemakers’ “Higher Than You” — which closes the record — is jangly piece of power-pop with a chorus that sounds like it was written by a stadium rock act.

The best track on the CD, however, may be Deponeye’s “Insane FM,” which segues from a slow introduction pockmarked with quirky electronics to full-blown verses with big guitars and big vocals. Laconia’s “This is My War” may follow as a close second, a more moody power-pop number that hits in best marks during its quieter moments, when it allows its vocalist to sing over a creeping guitar number and a bass line that just slithers in the background.

Ultimately though, despite some of these high points, the disc tends to be defined by its strained attempts at capturing the million-dollar hook. If you like more straight-forward takes on indie rock, Sweet Records may have some candy for you to sample. Those looking for an untapped musical scene with revolutionary ideas and experimental iconoclasts might want to look elsewhere. In their search for airtime on commercial radio, some of these guys may never be discouraged. – Delusions of Adequacy, June 16, 2003

About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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