Kompilation by Various Artists (Review)

Full of examples of why Kranky is one of the most essential — and consistent — labels currently out there in indie-dom.
Kompilation - Various Artists

A few weeks ago, a guy came up to me at a concert and asked me some questions for a school project he was working on. The project dealt with post-rock and the sorts of people who listen to it. He asked me what shows I’d been too, where I bought music, what bands I listened to, and what labels I followed. For that last question, only one word really had to be said — “Kranky.”

Perhaps moreso than any other label, Kranky has become intrinsically associated with the amorphous genre called “post-rock.” Their roster reads like a virtual “Who’s Who,” and just like the genre can seemingly be anything to anyone, their musical output has ranged considerably, from the glacial atmospherics of Labradford and Stars of the Lid to the apocalyptic stylings of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, from the left-field experimentation of Philosopher’s Stone to the grooves of Out Hud and Strategy.

It’s an impressive and diverse roster to be sure, and sure evidence of what is perhaps Kranky’s true legacy as a label: their ear for artists and releases that are both artistically challenging and also quite accessible. They’ve somehow managed to straddle the line between the avant-garde and the masses, appealing to one end of the spectrum without distancing the other.

Kompilation is by no means a comprehensive compilation, and in fact, neglects a few of the label’s more well-known artists, e.g., Labradford, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Low (who have recently jumped ship to Sub Pop), and Windy & Carl. The compilation focuses on the label’s post-2001 output, and works its way backwards as you go through the tracks.

Stars of the Lid bookends Kompilation with “Even If You’re Never Awake” (taken from their upcoming album) and “Requiem For Dying Mothers Part 2” (taken from 2001’s The Tired Sounds Of…). “Even If You’re Never Awake” is simply gorgeous and is some of the most compelling stuff I’ve heard from the Texas duo. Building on the languorous drones present in “Requiem,” they’ve added a stronger melodic sense to their music, and the results are quite haunting.

Mark Nelson’s Pan-American also contributes two tracks, “What Do They Dream?” and “Inside Elevation.” The latter is taken from Pan-American’s finest album to date, this year’s outstanding Quiet City and the former is exclusive to this release. Like the Quiet City material, it too is meticulously composed — a 9-minute piece that seems to be in a perpetual state of fading away, from its eerie opening notes to the softly ebbing drones and crackly bursts of static that serve as its core.

Christina Carter’s “Silhouette” brings a folksy, acoustic facet to Kranky’s catalog — although “folksy” might not the most accurate term. Carter doesn’t play her guitar so much as simply slap her pick against the strings with seemingly no pattern or structure, and yet the overall piece feels anything but random. Growing’s 12-minute “Primitive Associations/Great Mass Above” is an epic composition full of tranquil field recordings (birds, oceans, etc.), shimmering guitar filaments, and exotic percussion. It’s not exactly the most involving track, but serves as a lovely enough sonic backdrop.

It should be too surprising that The Dead Texan’s “When I See Scissors I Can’t Help But Think Of You” is reminiscent of Stars of the Lid (Dead Texan’s Adam Wiltzie is half of Stars of the Lid), However, the track is far busier than your typical Stars of the Lid track — relatively speaking that is — with guitar drones drifting alongside tinkling pianos and breathy vocals. And Loscil rounds out the first disc with “Sickbay,” one of the stronger tracks from First Narrows, and one very much in the vein of Pan-American’s more recent efforts, though nowhere near as minimal or glacial.

Disc Two opens with a track by Charalambides, one of the more “love em or hate em” groups on Kranky, it seems. Yet another track that sprawls past the 10 minute mark, the song is rather shapeless and directionless, as caterwauling female vocals swoop and dive amidst lazy, suspended guitars. I know some people have dissed on Strategy’s Drumsolo’s Delight. The comparisons to Pole’s glitchy form of dub (think CD 2) are readily apparent within the opening seconds of “Drumsolo’s Delight,” perhaps painfully so for some — but I find it to be a rather enjoyable background track, and the same goes for the album as a whole.

Out Hud has been one of the real highlights of the Kranky roster within the past couple of years, and “Dad, There’s A Little Thing Called Too Much Information” is a perfect example why. Combining Gang of Four’s brittle guitars with irresistible dance grooves, cacophonous techno, and slabs of noise, the track is easily one of the catchiest and funkiest things ever released by Kranky, and only makes me all the more anxious for the band’s followup to S.T.R.E.E.T.D.A.D (due out sometime next year).

Speaking of groove, Fontanelle’s “Monday Morning” is an epic pysch-rock piece that manages to get down while also streaking high across the stratosphere. Seemingly random blips and bleeps flitter across sparse bass notes and scattered percussion, but the track slowly builds up steam as wah guitars and swampy, Tortoise-y textures begin rolling in. Soon, the track is off and running, giving nods to both krautrock and Isaac Hayes as it continues on its off-kilter bearing.

Finally, Jessica Bailiff’s solo offering, “Swallowed,” proves to be a touch more interesting than the earlier track from Clear Horizon (Bailiff’s project with Flying Saucer Attack frontman Dave Pearce). Bailiff’s breathy voice seems lost amidst curtains of strummed acoustic guitars (reminiscent of Soul Whirling Somewhere, for some reason), light drones, and harp-like flourishes, slowly wandering about and invested with a certain sense of wide-eyed wonder at the sonic surroundings.

All in all, this compilation is an absolute steal, especially considering it costs less than an EP and that there’s not much filler at all. If you’re unfamiliar with Kranky, or are simply curious about this whole “post-rock” thing that’s been going around for the past couple of years, than this is an almost necessary purchase. It’s full of examples of why Kranky is one of the most essential — and consistent — labels currently out there in indie-dom. And even if you’re an obsessive Kranky-phile and have already heard everything offered by the label — and I know you’re out there — it’s worth getting if only for the Stars of the Lid preview and the exclusive Pan-American track.

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