By Mark Richardson
Fifteen years is a hell of a long time in the independent record business. Love of music, professional integrity, handshake deals, and 50/50 profit splits are all well and good, but you're still talking about something that makes fronting money to obscure government officials you just met through e-mail seem like a sound financial investment. This was true in the best of times, when people actually had to spend money to hear music-- forget about the era of file-sharing. So for a label like Chicago's Thrill Jockey, founded in 1992, such landmark calls for some reflection, maybe a couple of parties, and a well-earned pat on the back.
The latter comes in the form of this lovingly packaged and limited-run box containing 10 7" singles, each featuring associated artists covering songs from the label's catalogue. The "label artists cover other label artists" approach is a familiar one, but it makes sense for Thrill Jockey, whose artist roster seems tighter-knit than that of other labels. Part of that is a regional thing, given that a sizeable chunk of the roster has Midwestern roots; and part of it has to do with demand for John McEntire as a producer and his Soma studios as a great place to make a record. But it seems as though Thrill Jockey artists also enjoy collaboration just for the sake of it; perhaps drawing inspiration from the jazz world, they like sitting in.
Thrill Jockey has long since moved on from its 1990s association with post-rock and IDM, and Plum, which mostly highlights more recent material, reflects that shift. Befitting the 7" single format, the set favors proper songs-- even if many of them are bent into weird shapes. Fiery Furnaces, for example, can write catchy tunes and fat hooks when so inclined, but they prefer to deliver the goods with a twist. How appropriate, then, that David Byrne, who has released film score work on the label, tackles the Friedbergers' 2007 anthem "Ex-Guru". He reveals the off-kilter shape of the song's structure with his own quirky diction, and also shows just how zany lines like "I burned all my clothes with eucalyptus juice" can sound. It's a major highlight here.
Archer Prewitt holds down the more traditional end of the spectrum with a faithful cover of the National Trust's "Mrs. Turner", a piano-led orchestral pop concoction with the melodic ease of a Harry Nilsson tune. His main band, the Sea and Cake, is represented on both sides of the tribute equation. Mouse on Mars take the original elements of the Everybody track "Middlenight" and subject them to some fairly conventional late-90s beats. It's just an OK remix, although the climax-- when Sam Prekop's voice peaks out as a choppy drone grinds away beneath-- has visceral appeal. The Sea and Cake offer a much more interesting version of Califone's "Spider's House", meeting the group halfway by featuring a ringing steel string acoustic, a rustic oddity in the former band's über-smooth world.
Speaking of which, Thrill Jockey's longstanding interest in bluesy, gritty singer-songwriter material finds its best expression in Califone. Their weary and wasted version of Freakwater's honky-tonk lament "Jewel"-- mostly just guitar, slide, banjo, and voice-- would have fit nicely on Roots & Crowns. Coming from the same direction but with a greater emphasis on Neil Young-informed classic rock, Baltimore's Arbouretum team with Beach House's Victoria Legrand for a hair-raising run through the urban jungle of Thalia Zedek's "Bus Stop". And Zedek also pays tribute to Freakwater, offering a loose, rootsy rendition of "Flat Hand". I was never a Come fan, and Zedek's voice never appealed to me, but she always brings focus and intensity to the table and this track is no different.
Of course, for many, Thrill Jockey will always be ultimately about Tortoise. They contribute a strange cover of Nobukazu Takemura's "Fallslake" that inserts acoustic drums and plenty of studio air around the electronics while reproducing the vocodered lead voice; the appealing sonics almost, but not quite, make up for the fact that this just isn't a very interesting song. Still, that the Tortoise track and a few other selections don't quite catch fire doesn't detract from the appeal of the set as a whole. Thrill Jockey has always courted artists prone to experiment, and they average more than 10 releases a year, so perfection is rather beside the point. Sometimes inspiration can get a little messy.