To Spirit Back the Mews: An Asthmatic Kitty Compilation by Various Artists (Review)

90% of this comp is filled with beautiful, lo-fi treasures.
To Spirit Back the Mews - Various Artists

I hate to admit it, but I was a little overwhelmed when I started looking at this compilation. I mean, we are talking about 80 minutes and 35 songs here. That’s enough to give anyone pause. Add to it my natural skepticism of compilations, even when they are from a label whose output has been as novel and interesting as Asthmatic Kitty’s. But 35 songs?!?

I rarely have high hopes when it comes to compilations. I hope to find a few good gems, a few artists that will suddenly become must-haves, or a hidden treasure from an already familiar artist. But with those treasures, I trust I’m going to have wade through a lot of filler, either bands that I couldn’t care less about, or songs that feel like toss-offs or contractual obligations. And with To Spirit Back the Mews’ opening track, a goofy 40-second ode to chewing gum, I steeled myself for the worst.

That’s when the treasures came rolling in.

True, there’s a fair amount of filler on here. Some tracks, like the Chatty Munchkin offerings, feel like inside jokes or the product of late-night recording sessions. Or, even worse, padding. But such songs are vastly outweighed by good stuff. And it really makes no sense to harp on a handful of tracks when 90% of this comp is filled with beautiful, lo-fi treasures.

For example, Sufjan Stevens’ “The First Full Moon” or “I Can’t Even Lift My Head” takes the bubbling electronics of his wonderful Enjoy Your Rabbit and places them in a more song-based structure. The result, especially on “I Can’t Even Lift My Head,” resonates with soulfulness and humility. Jason Brouwer’s “Run Me Out of Town” recalls Pedro the Lion’s intense honesty, though with a more acoustic, ballad-driven sound. Shannon Stevens impressed me a whole lot with her contribution to Absalom Recordings’ compilation, and any fan of Beth Orton, Amy Annelle, or even early Velour 100 would be right at home with “More To Speak Of.”

Liz Janes’ “Guitar Guitar” (one of the finest tracks from her Asthmatic Kitty debut) finds her gritty, bluesy vocals underscored by more of Sufjan Stevens’ giggling, squiggling sounds. It’s an interesting combination, but one that completely works. And Birthday Cakes’ “Song of Sparrows” sounds like some old-timey ballad updated with programmed drums, cello accompaniment, and hints of slide guitar (and lyrics like “Put a flowery wreath upon my head tonight/When the evening comes I’ll braid your hair so right/Watching lusty wolves prance lonely through the night/Night will fall just like a silken blouse”).

But most of these artists I’ve known about for some time, especially Sufjan Stevens. So what about those gems out of left-field? Well, there are the two ambient pieces from Lowell Brams, especially the aptly titled “Bells.” Its ballet of gentle, rhythmic tones may seem a little odd when compared to the lo-fi likes of Half-Handed Cloud or Lifestyles&Vistas. However, it feels like one of the most essential tracks on the album. Therefore’s “Kedge” delivers an eerie sound collage of droning woodwinds, metallic scrapes, and static-laced field recordings in the same vein of Lucid and After the Flood’s evocative soundscapes.

But the album’s most valuable offering, or at least the one that hit me the most, has to be The Welcome Wagon’s version of William Cowper’s “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood.” Perfectly capturing a rustic folk sound that seems better suited to wax cylinder than CD, Vito and Monique Aiuto’s simple rendition packs more emotion and honesty than any aisle of “Songs 4 Worship” CDs. And if you know Cowper’s tragic history, lyrics like “Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be ’til I die” hit with a whole new impact.

Asthmatic Kitty has proven be a fairly interesting label, but also a somewhat inconsistent one. Some of their releases have completely floored me (Sufjan Stevens being a good example), whereas others have left a less convincing impression. But I have no such qualms with To Spirit Back the Mews. Sure, the law of averages dictates that any compilation has its lacking moments (especially when you’re talking about 35 songs). But when you take To Spirit Back the Mews as a whole, there’s nothing lacking whatsoever.