How do you have a label compilation album, if the label only has five bands signed on?
That's the first question that came to mind with Asmatic Kitty's "To Spirit Back the Mews," which compiles various songs by their bands with a lot of others that I have never heard of before. The answer lies in Asthmatic Kitty's 1999 founding in Holland Michigan -- apparently these people were all buddies, and now have contributed
It opens with Jason Brouwer intoning in a robotic voice: "Do you remember... that gum you liked... it's... coming... back... into style...?" Well, with that offbeat opening, it could be falsetto yodelling for all we know.
It includes three of the Asthmatic Kitty bands: the eerie, sad-eyed folk music of Sufjan Stevens, the cheery bouncy pop of Half-Handed Cloud, and the unsettling, sparkling folk of Liz Janes. Bunky and the Castanets are not in evidence here, although I'm sure they'll pop up in future compilations.
And backing them are quite a few talented bands: the offbeat guitar melodies of Roman Bolks, the rippling acoustics of Jason Brouwer, the rather limp harmonica country of Royal City, the foghorn mourning of Therefore. It skews a bit on the folky side, with slow tunes and only the occasional catchy hook.
But it's not all folk and country -- there is bluesy rock'n'roll from Con Les Dudes, angelic dreampop from Shannon Stephens. Lifestyles and Vistas win extra props for their roiling fuzzy rock'n'roll, sparkling stately pop tunes and lyrics about buying sushi. Exactly why don't they have a record deal yet?
And to add a sense of fun, there are little interludes like the opener -- "Chatty Midget" talking about popcorn, search warrants and wrecking your bike, Peter Mills making zapping noises, Marzeuki Stevens' weird noises, and the mini-melody of Lowell Brams. It adds some extra fun and cohesion to the compilation.
Some compilations dazzle you immediately, and send you scrambling to check out the bands on it. But "To Spirit the Mews" actually doesn't even sound like a compilation. Instead, it sounds like one big album, by a single experimental band that is trying out all sorts of sounds.
This can probably be attributed to the laid-back, mellow sound of all the various bands and musicians. The only weak spots, in fact, are when the sound gets too mellow and laid-back. Most of them, however, feature sparkling instrumentation, oddball lyrics, and little flourishes to keep things from getting boring.
"To Spirit The Mews" has a few weak songs, but is a fun listen nevertheless. Not only will it introduce you to the talented people at Asthmatic Kitty, but will also leave you yearning for the bands that are just pals with them.