Time was once when compilations were more than commercially released mix tapes. In the ’80s the comp played a role more of cultural influence and iconography, each one representative of the formation of a new genre, as No New York did with no wave and C-86 did with, erm, C-86. Many Now That’s What I Call Music! albums have come and gone since then, but the comp seems to be enjoying a resurgence as an important medium, as albums like Run the Road, INVADERS and Golden Apples of the Sun have each represented the best of their respective genres and sound great as cohesive wholes, rather than a random sampling with mixed results. Kill Rock Stars, who never stopped making great compilations, offer one of their best in The Sound the Hare Heard, a 21-track new folk (not freak folk) primer curated by label head Slim Moon.
Obviously, the acoustic singer-songwriter thing isn’t new for Kill Rock Stars. They did put out two Elliott Smith albums, after all. But the brilliance of Hare remains fairly consistent, each song proving to be at the very least decent, and at best transcendental. Some of the lesser-known acts, such as Essie Jain, Owen McCarthy and Simone White provide their own lovely, stripped down tracks, and are welcome surprises among many of the other more popular artists, several of whom have released records on KRS or sister label 5 Rue Christine. One such artist is Imaad Wasif, who recently released his first solo record on Kill Rock Stars. His contribution, “Other Voices,” is dark and gentle, a curious omission from his album, considering its stark beauty.
One of the few artists represented here that could cross over into the “freak folk” realm is Wooden Wand, whose “Bones for Doctor Swah” is a psychedelic blues jamboree that’s, interestingly enough, one of the catchiest songs on the collection. Southerner Danielle Howle provides a regional contrast to the many Pacific Northwest acts, emitting a hot, humid summer depression rather than a rainy melancholy. And one would be hard pressed to look over the inclusion of the Colin Meloy bossanova “Lazy Little Ada.” While not as elaborate as Meloy’s work with the Decemberists, the song is a delightful and fun toe-tapper.
In addition to Meloy, there are a few names on The Sound the Hare Heard that are bound to attract a bit of attention, and for damn good reason. Devin Davis opens the record with “When the Angels Lift Our Eyelids in the Morning,” a fairly straightforward track, but one so heartfelt it moves anyone within earshot. Laura Veirs, meanwhile, takes her fuller, indie pop sound into a melody reminiscent of “New Slang” on “Cast a Hook in Me.” And then, of course, there’s Sufjan. His track “Adlai Stevenson,” soon to be released on Avalanche, is a brief but stunning outtake from Illinois that, unsurprisingly, is every bit as good as the songs from that album.
In the grand scheme of culturally significant compilations, it’s hard to say how The Sound the Hare Heard will fare. It certainly isn’t signaling the beginning of a new movement. And though it’s a showcase for many unknown artists, there are quite a few notable names here as well. I’m not even sure if I’d say that all of these songs have the same characteristics. But there’s one thing that’s very clear: it’s really, really goddamn good.
Various Artists – Tracks and Fields
Various Artists – Golden Apples of the Sun
Various Artists – Mile