March 22, 2003

Various Artists "the great tomato singer-songwriter collection"

I like budget samplers. I like the idea of spending four or five dollars for a full-length record, especially if I've never heard many of the artists on it. If the record's not good, you can sell it back and only be out a buck or two, and if you do like it, then you've got a nice little record that gives you something to build on, to research. Some labels have made an art of this. If you're lucky, and the label's really loving, you'll get some great unreleased music as well.

This sense of exploration and curiosity led me to pick up Tomato Records' The Great Tomato Singer/Songwriter Collection. Okay, so actually it was Townes Van Zandt. See, I've always been curious about Van Zandt, but being short of cash, I wanted to hear a few songs first, to see if I'd like it. When I saw this sampler with four Townes tracks, I decided to opt for it instead of a Greatest Hits. Yeah, I know, you start with the greatest hits records first...but I know that the song choices on those selections are left to debate, and when a label puts many songs on a budget sampler for their catalog, it's pretty safe to assume that those songs will be choice.

There are eleven artists on this collection, and though most of the newer artists are lesser known doesn't mean that they're of lesser quality. Amanda Tree's piano-jazz songs, "Treasure Island" and "When I Find Your Beat" are gorgeous, interesting, and terribly original. Brenden O'Shea is much more traditional singer-songwriter, and he sounds great. Tom Barris sounds like an American Billy Bragg, and Eric von Schmidt protŽgŽe Chris Smither writes some great tunes, even if his voice teeters dangerously close to Dylan imitation. (Dylantation, perhaps?) The only artist that doesn't really work for me is Ryan Montbleau. "Already There" is a bland, reggae-tinged pop number, and though "Variety" is a pretty little number, Montbleau seems to come off as a bit too influenced by Ani DiFranco. Montbleau really highlights one of the problems of the singer-songwriter genre; a heavy reliance on the ideas of others. Still, he's not bad, though, and understandably enjoys a live following.

The classic artists, though, are what make this package a steal. Townes Van Zandt's three numbers, "For The Sake Of The Song," "Our Mother The Mountain" are beautiful, and the stunning "Colorado Girl" has quickly become a staple of my mixtapes. Eric von Schmidt, while not particularly my type of style, proves why Dylan loved his work, and "Joshua Gone Barbados" is a classic. While these songs are nice, the four archival tracks, Ledbelly's live take of "Midnight Special," Jimmie Rodgers' "In the Jailhouse Now" are scratchy and lo-fi, and are utterly beautiful for it. Johnny Cash's Louisiana Hayride take of "I Walk The Line" also taps into the man's magical power, but the track that made 6.98 seem criminal was the closing number. It's a live, Louisiana Hayride recording of Hank Williams, tearing up the audience (it sounds like Beatlemania!) with his classic hit, "Jambalya." I don't know if these are one-off appearances, or if they are from forthcoming disks from the Hayride (like their recent Elvis Presley disk), but I know that I've been transfixed by these little numbers.

While some of the newer artists on The Great Tomato Singer-Songwriter Collection are a bit questionable when it comes to "great," this is a solid, well-rounded disk of some really, really great music. If you've wanted proof that "singer-songwriter" doth not automatically mean James Taylor or John Denver. Tomato is a label with a historic past and a pretty interesting future. Spend a few dollars here, and enjoy some great music.

--Joseph Kyle

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