Under the Radio
hich human extreme best depicts the typical mixed CD-R user? A Caucasian, backward-hatted, Hollister employee who crams 82 minutes of Yellow Card, Steve Miller Band, and A Perfect Circle into a decorative, graphic-designed, Sony blank disc? Or perhaps a grad student whose latest MP3 collage includes PiL b-sides; rare, early Modern Lovers; and an EP from that new Teutonic microhouse producer?
The CD-R institution can either be rebuked for its failure to cherish the album as unified wholes and not providing musicians with their financial dues, or it can be exalted for providing the music seeker with knowledge that would otherwise be inaccessible. Whatever your burned CD worldview, it goes without saying that few would turn away from making money off compiling a mix CD. Of course, few have attained the standing to do so but, apparently, the Casio-wielding leader of Grandaddy, Jason Lytle, is one of them.
The bands featured on Below the Radio tend toward the indie (not indie) genre: Beck, Pavement, Snow Patrol, Blonde Redhead, and the like. It’s a compilation typified by lots of acoustic guitars, conservative synthesizer riffs, major keys, and white guys— Beulah, Little Wing, Earlimart, Golden Boy, Giant Sand, and Home make up much of the rest of the roster.
While most of the material on the compilation is of decent quality, Lytle’s intent to introduce the musical gems he excavated from the dense, indie dirt, comes up a bit short. Taken as a whole, the epic build-ups and generic choruses gradually lose their power over the disc’s length. It doesn’t help that many of the artists seem to believe that adding two or three extra instruments to a final mix will compensate for a lack of a hook, melody, or ingenuity—nine-instrument arrangements abound, but curiously always seem to find a place for a simplistic synth lead.
On “Color Bars,” Ealimart pays their usual close attention to layered arrangements, spreading speaker-switching electronic percussion, reversed tracks, and strings over a piano-driven chord progression, but the band fails to deliver much more than a mediocre build-up of generic indie rock. Snow Patrol also puts in a great deal of compositional effort, featuring an arrangement that begins with Fire Show guitar dueling and subtle backing strings, but the track, “Run,” loses conviction with its dramatic verse-chorus dynamic shift and needless longevity. The same goes for Home’s home-recording style production 90-second introduction, which predictably bursts forth into pristinely produced indie pop. These complaints are intrinsically petty, but they are endemic to the proceedings: a majority of the material presented on Below the Radio lacks individuality.
While the overall collection is lacking in substance, several quality tracks can be found. Giant Sand’s “Bottom Line Man” is among them, beginning with a World War II lounge piano intro that’s joined by closely mic’d snare rattling and a speech-sung melody that favorably recalls Lou Reed’s Berlin material. Also centered around a piano figure, Blonde Redhead’s “For the Damaged” spotlights Kazu Makino in one of her finest moments, as she pours a gorgeous melody over an equally inspiring acoustic guitar accompaniment. Pavement provides an additional highlight in “Motion Suggests”, a track from Wowee Zowee that entertains nicely with its lazy circus organ and signature lo-fi guitar licks.
Grandaddy’s own track, “National Anthem”, borrows its title from the band’s assumed idols and would fit nicely in a future Old Navy commercial. Like many of its Below the Radio brethren, it’s hard to justify the attention the song receives. Which makes, in general, the purpose of Lytle’s compilation a bit perplexing. Thirteen tracks most listeners could already download for themselves and one original composition? That’s a mighty expensive single.
Reviewed by: Kyle McConaghy
Reviewed on: 2005-01-06