Given enough discipline and good taste on the part of those assembling a compilation album, anything is possible, of course. But mostly the sloughs of tribute albums and sound-track albums one sees are a waste of aluminum plating. (One notable recent exception: the lucid and complex Singles sound track; but then Cameron Crowe used to be a rock critic.) Local band compilations are often the worst of the worst. Asking listeners to wade through ten or a dozen tracks of questionable quality by often justifiably overlooked local outfits is a serious request indeed.
The most traditional of three new albums amassing local talents is Special Bear Exports, a beer 'n' radio-sponsored outing (similar to the WXRT-Budweiser Chicago's Pride of 1989) spawned by WCBR, the alternative rock outlet in the west suburbs, and Special Export beer. MVPs here are Urban Twang and Busker Soundcheck. Urban Twang is a snazzy country-rock outfit fronted by singer Trish Clausen. Clausen and guitarist Max Getzel wrote "Southbound," a song that went by me until I saw the band live. The song's not produced terrifically well, but I just love the guitar breaks. Busker Soundcheck's contribution is a loping, friendly tune called "This Ride Is Fun." There's also a blithe submission from the reliable Slugs, and a sardonic rocker from the Phantom Helmsmen, "Kids These Days." But the rest of it is pretty uninteresting.
The most outre compilation is No Smoking, Littering, or Radio Playing, a hugely eclectic 16-song effort put out by Northwestern's radio station, WNUR. This compilation gives a much more diverse (and, er, multicultural) view of Chicago music. There's sheer experimentalism, like Jim O'Rourke and Henry Kaiser's "Music Thru Channels" and Hal Rammel's "Sleeping Backwards" ("a solo improvisation on the electro-acoustic sound palette designed and built by Hal Rammel in 1991"); some relatively straight jazz (Santez and Sunny Murray's "Straight No Chaser"); rap (the fairly scabrous "Who's Kind of Town," by Reg E.C.); and of course the indie rock we know and love (Shrimp Boat's delightful "Oranges" and Burnout's bruising "Schemin' Love"). But with all the jazz and experimental music, the album is more a testament to the diversity of a metropolis than a fun listen.
More reliable, focused, and pleasurable is The Absolute Middle of Nowhere, Volume 17 on Limited Potential Records. This album feeds greedily from three of Chicago's biggest troughs: sludge (Godspeaks, 77 Luscious Babes), brattiness (the Lilacs, Rights of the Accused), and alternative worthiness (Shrimp Boat, Catherine, Smashing Pumpkins). It's rigorously high on quality: you might not like the Babes' rather retro guitar bashing and ranting, but you have to admit their contribution, "New Day," is a fine example of the form. And the largest and most impressive part of the record comes from those alternative bands: Catherine's dynamically tight and well-produced droner "End of Something"; Red Red Meat's fearsome epic "Flossie"; an even better Shrimp Boat song, "Pumpkin Lover"; and the Lonely Trojan's rave-up "Phil's Corner."
The album is the labor of love of Limited Potential's one-man operation, who goes under the name of Mike Potential. The record, he says, "is my dream compilation album. Every song was specifically chosen." The 26-year-old Potential began the label (slogan: "Indie Rock Can Suck My Cock") about five years ago with the Punkhouse EP by Screeching Weasel. "I can't say I'm proud of it," he says dryly. "The first thing I admit to doing was [the Poster Children's] Flower Power." Potential's ear has been pretty good all along. The Poster Children now have a record out on Warners; another Potential ally has always been Billy Corgan's superpsychedelicized Smashing Pumpkins, who have a new record coming out on Virgin. One of the things that has spurred sales of The Absolute Middle of Nowhere, Potential says, is its inclusion of the seven-inch version of the Pumpkins' "I Am One." (The album version is on the band's Gish.) The original Limited Potential single--released in a limited run of 1,500 copies--is now priced dearly in used bins. "The Pumpkins are collector-scum fodder," shrugs Potential. "I weasled Billy into letting me put it on the comp. It's certainly helped out a lot--we're selling a lot of records in places like Belgium because of it." The Pumpkins also helped get the record out by headlining a benefit concert. Even this doesn't ameliorate Potential's current ire at the band's front man. "Right now," Potential confesses, "I'm ready to blow Billy of the planet, mostly because he didn't invite me to his wedding. I'm personally offended."
How are sales? "It's doing so well that we can't afford to press any more," he says. "It sold so fast that the receipts on the initial shipment aren't due yet. It's at about 2,300 at the moment, and it could easily sell another thousand," he continues. "And that's without any sort of major distribution. the record's not even UPC coded. That's about as indie as you can get."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.