I had never heard of Pickled Egg. From Leicester, England, a label that prides itself on a reputation for "adventurous, independent and eclectic" discoveries and "artistic integrity over commercial success". Started in 1998 their artist roster has many "known names" from the "independent" recording world (Need New Body, The Go! Team, Daniel Johnston, Evolution Control Committee, Bablicon and Pop Off Tuesday) showing their knack for finding bands who are rising to positions of influence yet staying just low enough to dodge the general public's radar. Their credo is to tip the balance of the musical world to "quirky genius, bent tunefulness, noisy playfulness, jazz turmoil, inventive retro-futurism, and down right emotional heart-on-sleeve belief, hope and passion". Sounds too good to be true? Seems self-aggrandizing. Seems like a "come-on"? They set the mantle high with their manifesto. Showing a bit of tongue-in-cheek their explanation for the labels name, "only ever found at the bottom of grimy jars of vinegar on the shelf at the back of a 'chippy'. They are Satan's grenades. Pickled Egg".
When the compilation begins I am confused. I was expecting "quirky, weird, turmoil". What is coming out? A beautiful, slow, piano and drum melody with echoing vocals reminding me of Robert Wyatt. A brush of bass and sax turns this into a smart, sharp, nostalgic, beauty of a composition. Then comes the sweet Hammond organ, clarinet like Tindersticks but brighter and less moody but retaining a darkness. Nice. Really nice. The band is Oddfellows Casino, the song is Home Movie. Dram Bramwell is the singer-songwriter. From Brighton, England, he has worked with Kramer of Shimmy Disc. This is not what I expected from the look of this CDs and the self-touting. I am intrigued.
Need New Body's- Show Me Your Heart is what I was expecting. I knew this song but never by name. The low-tech, kiddie-piano, banging intro with maracas, then thundering drums, and the clincher, bass with the banjo. This is weird, rockin' fun. It ain't dumb. This is where the "college boy" comes back to the mountains and jams out with some of his hillbilly brethren and shows them good old boys what they dun' taught 'em in duh' big city. Dancey, up, odd and just what the label promised. If you listen to college radio you know this song. It is a great song. "Open up your rib cage show us your lungs. Show us how you breathe..." Watch out, these guys want you brains! Need New's second song, Mountainbreaker, that ends CD 2 enters with slow electronic, heartbeating bass that is nothing like what you have heard previously from them. Combining a repetitive and obscured rap sample, sounding like he is saying techno, it is a circus ride of bizarre melodies and piano strings, harmonium, banjo, blips, bleeps and country, carny, experimentation.
Evolution Control Committee is a Negativland spawn. They take what is there and and cut it and collage it. Rebel With a Pause is Chuck D rapping over Herb Alpert and the Tiajuana Brass. Hey yo, Flava Flav, boyeee. It sounds like they got their hands on the raw vocal tracks. It is far more slick than the first release by ECC, Rocked By Rape, in which they cut-up Dan Rather's new announcement to create a "tune" exploiting Rather's vocal schisms and word choices. "Rebel" is fun but it is a novelty. Well done and funny. Gladly It is a short one-and-a-half minutes. Any longer I would start to think it was at least, devaluing and at most, racist. It is a palette cleansing.
Silicon)(Bucktown is a really odd number. Chicago's Bablicon is the band and it is an eerie, jazzy, off beat and intricate composition. Intense and commanding it grabs you, like it or not. It is an uneasy listening but so good. Band members have played for a diverse group of others, Neutral Milk Hotel, Need New Body (Blue Hawaii-aka Griffin Rodriquez also produced Body's first album), Olivia Tremor Control, Kahami Karie, Stereolab. The song conjures up Frank Zappa in the complex and changing instrumentation and tempos. The feeling is live. Where Zappa relied on overdubbing and studio tricks to enhance his live performances Bablicon is more low-fi. It feels like they are in the same room performing as a group. Fender Rhodes piano, electric violins create a 70's jazz fusion feel while kazoos, pipes and clarinet make for a whirling arrangement that is weird and compelling. The same can be said for their two other tracks on CD 2. One a jazzy piano number and the second a cross between middle eastern music and a slow New Orleans funeral dirge. As hyped, I hear the quirks, the jazz and how bent this is with no sacrifice of craft or intelligence.
Osaka, Japan's Pop-Off Tuesday have three songs on the two CDs of the Jar compilation. Unworldly is a Bjorkish, trippy and pretty song with a dower cast and takes a very dark turn. An interesting integration of acoustic and electronic instruments and two part harmony, Unworldly is a soundtrack to their own internal vision. I am unsure at moments what the lyrics are which inevitably makes comparisons to Cocteau Twins and Sigur Ros. Untitled, their second song in the Jar, has acoustic guitar, Asian and Celtic influences that weave parallel universes together in an sensitive and peculiar piece of listenable ear candy. The second Jar CD has 6/8 Sutura. This is more experimental with banging trash cans with electronic trick effects playing off the sugary harmonies. An interesting piece from a band that is crafting diverse, emotive and thoughtful sound plays.
Scatter have two songs, one on each of the CDs, and the first is exclusive to the Jar release, Go Down Joe Downey Pt. 2. This Glasgow ensemble and its revolving cast has a toy chest of instruments that they dive into for creating some very personal and moving pieces with a twisted, ethnic, bent. Go Down is Moroccan finger cymbals, recorders and percussions with screwy vocals like the female singer/songwriter Joana Newsom. Jazzy tones come through like Sun Ra's combination of jazz, brass and ethnic muttery. This are very tight yet fun, light composition's. The second track National Magic is like Sun City Girl's peculiar mix of free jazz, ethnic seasonings and whirling ragas. It is a musical free feast at the Hare Krishna house without the pedantic dogma and all the fun. Feast, dance, enjoy their effusive celebration.
With a loungey swagger creating movie soundtrack atmosphere, L'augmentation's D is for Dum Dum is a cheap organ keyboard and horns ditty. Fun and enjoyable you start to create a movie in your head aided by samples of falling rain and environments enhancing the visuals conjured upon listening. The band started in Birmingham covering the French pop of Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourge and other classic pop music shaping the band to make create a derivative, dulcet sound that shares in community with Birmingham bands like Novak and Pram. Their second contribution, Solieil is an lilting organ wash with fast jazzy drums. It is smooth but with a off-beat feeling like The Stranglers and Eyeless in Gaza playing in a french bar. Not as psychotic as Quintron it does have a touch of insanity. Soleil is the better of the two nicely made tracks.
An atypical long song (over six minutes) by Daniel Johnston, with his band Slow Death vs the Instant Coffin -Sinning is Easy has a haunting low-fi "bedroom studio" sound. Daniel whines in his signature sweet, stalker pleading. As with so many other insane geniuses it seems that he has found peace with God. Biting lyrics talk of how easy it is to sin, lie, cheat, and give in to human flaws. "Sinning is easy. You don't even have to try....you can't really know what love can do...you can't even feel. Winning is easy you just have to try". This is an instant Daniel Johnston classic! Edgy and taut the cheap recording only enhancing the bass and guitar that evokes the exhaustive vocal delivery. Drained, maybe drugged, it is passion in a box that has been clawed at for release. Gone is that naive and innocent positivity that was contained in those beautiful, creepy earlier "hits". The "speeding motorcycle" is running out of gas.
George's one song off Jar, The New and Better Heart, starts like Spiritualized's Cop Shoot Cop. Trippy and bluesy like a junk shot running through your veins to your tilting head, with a scream comes an abrupt change. Female vocals and organ make a space torch song. I hear Blood era This Mortal Coil, moody and love sick. The piece is short, leaving you to wonder what other songs George have brought us. Just a tease and taste.
Hassle Hound's Hallo to the Owl reminds me of Durrutti Column and Lemon Jelly. Electronic, sampled, collaged and highly listenable the track sparkles in this compilation. Like so many songs on this release there is true musical intelligence working. It is hard to tell what is played and what is sampled. There is a restrained epic quality. Listening you can feel that it is holding itself back from taking off into the stratosphere of an all out flighty soundtrack. An apt description as one band member makes his living with kites. The players come from England, Scotland, and Poland adding to the range of influence in this jazzy gem.
Big Eyes' Becherovka starts with quivering violin and acoustic guitar. It reminds me so much of a song that I am kicking myself to remember. Arrrgh! A bit like Bill Ding's-A Gun and a Box of Bullets, with a less evil mind and heart, it is another beautiful and emoting selection from this CD. Again, this track flirts with soundtrack scoring.
The Go! Team are rising to some underground and college radio acclaim. Working the trend toward bright, authentic and upbeat pop-positivity like Polyphonic Spree, Go! Team makes songs for future sports. Less syrupy than Spree they are just as infectious and less dogmatic. The song The Ice Storm has a chilly feeling like prancing through a sparkling snowfield of lights and stars. A hint of darkness keeps this song from feeling like maple candy, so sweet and crystalline that your teeth hurt. Yet again, a song that is more of a soundtrack and visually inspiring than a pop tune.
Farina's exclusive track, Just One/Still Three, is a beautiful and romantic, brooding pop piece. The warbling guitar solo's remind me of Nick Saloman's Bevis Frond and the romantic side of Tuxedomoon. Confessed influences are Morricone, Peter Perrett (The Only Ones) and Talk Talk, I hear tinges. This is a well produced and arranged composition. Displace on CD 2 is also a romantic number. Soft piano and harmonium and bird sounds mix with the wind and birds in the trees outside of my home to weave itself right into a life mix, natural and flowing.
Matt DeBellis is the band Caruso. Making music from North Carolina he has singles on Crustaceans and Reptiles and on the Pickled Egg label. He scored the Egg deal by sending a 50-song demo entitled, Don't Ever Send More Than Four Songs on a Demo. Spanish Boys on CD 1 is short, neat sound collage that starts as 4-track guitar and then turns to low-fi beats and keyboard. It is an eerie little track that almost flawlessly flows into 4tRECK's, Pong Ping (unreleased). Bright and up and a hint of tribal drum it is another neat and interestingly crafted pop tune with eclectic sounds and soundtracking.
Mountain Cheer by 100 Pets sounds like Robert Wyatt and the female vocals of Chumbawumba. Slow and brilliant this is an evocative and well composed piece that seems folky and then adds a 70's Pink Floyd keyboard bridge. Another great track on a compilation that is turning out to be far mellower and less weird than one may have thought from the lead-in.
The first CD ends with a weird, recorder piece with metal bar banging percussions with an ethnic spice by Volcano the Bear (exclusive to the comp). Asian and Middle Eastern it is a one minute vignette of cultural exchange that leads into the ending track by Savoy Grand. The Moving Air is a trembling, sweet and sad song. Lightly operatic and brooding like tone of Another Day from This Mortal Coil fronted by Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. It may be a bad sound comparison but it works as a sweet end to musical journey through a compilation loaded with intelligent craft.
The second CD is a fine accompaniment to the first CD. Most bands on the first appear on the second. Others, like; Zukanian, Now, Butch Fuego, La Bleu, Guliver and Dragon or Emperor, appear only on CD2. The music on this volume is of the same quality and feel of the first volume but with a more experimental edge. Sometimes discordant, never unlistenable, there is some great work to be absorbed. The musical theme is jazzy, irreverant, eclectic and artistic, as promised.
Compilations are tricky. Most, suck. Let's face it, there are perhaps two or three good songs on a compilation and the rest are filler. How many compilations are regarded with the same stature as your favorite albums by a single band? Not many. Not knowing anything about this label, Pickled Eggs, may have been an asset to my experience. This is a GREAT! comp. Two-and-a-half hours of beautiful music that is highly listenable while being off-beat and smart. I have not found one track to be a "stinker". With the music world struggling to find its next wave or trend, Pickled Egg has created a label that lives up to its own promotion and standards of avoiding trend and carving out its own niche of the highest artistic order. Rarely is art so listenable and experimentation so approachable.