And so, we come to the most common of albums: the label sampler. Sometimes, they're a boon of good music, sometimes, they're simply bust, opting instead for previously-released songs and/or soon-to-be hits of albums that are mere days away from release. Some labels release killer samplers: Darla, Parasol, Fat, Lookout--all of these labels have samplers you can trust. Others haven't quite caught the hang of it, though. Merge Records's quickly become a trustworthy label; in fact, they've only released one or two clunkers over the past few years.
The greatest aspect of Merge Records' newly-formed Survive and Advance series is the sheer quality of the music. Out of fourteen tracks, only eleven of them are previously released, and though it might be tempting to dismiss some of these "unreleased" tracks as leftovers (two of them are 'demos' of already released songs; in Spoon's case, the song was previously available in mp3 form; Crooked Fingers' "Angelina" is a live version recorded during a radio show, and M. Ward's "Fearless" is from one of his earlier albums), they don't really take anything away from the general kick-assness of the rest of Survive and Advance. The highlights are from longtime label stalwards; Lambchop's "Heavy Metal Trouble Girl" proves that it's been too long since the last Lambchop record, East River Pipe's "Hypnotized" is a stunning track that should have been on their newest record and Matt Elliott's "Brunlette Espagnol" makes up for--and sounds nothing like--his difficult solo debut. The album tracks, too, are incredibly strong; Matt Suggs' "Calm Down," Essex Green's "The Late Great Cassiopia" and
It seems strange for a Merge sampler without the genius of Stephin Merritt, and ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, and still-there bands Spaceheads and Pram seem to be sadly missing from the fun times of Survive And Advance. It's true that you can't include everyone, and though Merritt and Trail of Dead have moved on to bigger labels, that whole sense of family will (hopefully) always assure them a place at the Merge table. In theory, at least. Still, Survive And Advance is an awesome little sampler from an awesome little label--and nice 'n' cheap for all you broke-ass college slackers.