The Phantom Tollbooth
June 1999 Pick of the Month

The Awakening Compilation, Vol. 2
Artists:  Various Artists
Label: Awakening Records
Length: 74 minutes / 18 tracks

Here's an idea so good that I really wish I had thought of it: a compilation of Indie artists. Whereas that may not sound clever, I  assure you the results are impressive. The story begins with two ambitious music lovers in North Carolina, Steve Reavis and Scott Sanders. They were probably just sitting around in a college coffeehouse, watching some unknown but gifted performer, when the virtual lightbulbs above their brains burned brightly with their now brilliant idea. "Why don't we release a CD of skilled, indie, Christian artists we've heard and enjoyed? You know, the kind that have somehow avoided being snatched up by some major recording label." The fruition of this enterprising thought was the first Awakening Compilation, featuring artists like Waterdeep, Mark  Williams, and Caedmon's Call. Volume One was such a big hit at the box office that a sequel was demanded.

There are three central reasons why the Awakening Compilations work as well as they do. First of all, these discs are virtual treasure troves of the absolute best indie talent anywhere. Secondly, the selected songs are top notch and delivered in a seamless and tasteful setting. Lastly, the compilation is extremely focused on folk and American roots rock performers. This focus creates a unified listening experience that avoids the dysfunctional mess you often find in more genre-jumping collections. You will be gracefully ushered rather than thrown abruptly from track to track. No skanking to any ska, moshing to any metal, or pushing and shoving to any punk here. Instead, you'll just be enjoying well-crafted folkish songs that are as likely to cause careful introspection as they are to get you singing along.

Given this focus, the latest collection is highly and delightfully diverse within this gentle genre. The loudest and best known band of the bunch are the critics' darlings Vigilantes of Love, who lead this pack of indie artists like experienced pioneers. They are represented by two excellent selections,  "Paralyzed" and "Opposite's True," from their 1998 release To the Roof of the Sky. The Vigilantes of Love have a full, more plugged-in sound than most of the rest of these artists, with Dog Named David and the Holland Rhythm Band being among the contenders.

The runner-up of the Phantom Tollbooth 1998 Best Indie Album poll, talented newcomers Filet of Soul, open the disc with the crafty song "Gravity" from their debut album Incommunicado:

        The time will come for me to fall
        I can't keep hangin' on this notion
        And on that day I will arise
        And I will walk across this ocean
        I've tried so hard but can't recall the place
        Where this all got started from
        But not I realize that there's no joy
        In going through the motions.

"Gravity" not only provides a perfect and upbeat opening track, but raises the question why this spectacular band that effortlessly mixes funk and folk isn't represented by another cut like many of the other artists.

With few exceptions, these songs are all literate, poetic pieces designed to provoke thought, encourage action, and inspire faith. The predominant instrument of choice is the acoustic guitar, but a few artists shake things up with a preference for piano. Among them, Karen Bradley offers an energetic romp of piano-driven rhythms appropriately called "Driven:"

        The time has come when the restless are on the run
        The church bell tolls for the children who have yet to come
        The churchman tries to build the fold
        But the people yawn for the words that become so cold

        What can I do for your soul?
        Fancy words and high positions surely fall.
        I stand with a common man
        I have been broken like him.

Sure to give the militant feminists more fuel for the movement, women are woefully under represented. But Southerners can be proud that most of these artists hail from below the Mason-Dixon line. One of the rare exceptions to the male Southerner rule is Threefold Cord from Massachusetts, who combine a  gutsy female lead with well-played guitar strumming on the stand-out cut, "Carry On." Look for this talented duo under the new name Zoubek and Bryant. "No Problem," one of the absolute best songs for singing along, comes from a talented Aussie, Paul Coleman. The strength of both songwriting and delivery on "One of These Days" proves that Kansas man Mitch McVicker's reputation as an established indie artist of repute is well founded.

In addition to the consistently high song quality, the entire project shows excellent production values. The entire CD is made to look like an old library book. The liner notes not only include a page of information about each artist or group, but lyrics for every song. Only the band photos could have been better rendered.

In her song, "Driven," Karen Bradley implores, "Does passion end where holiness begins?" This collection resoundingly says no by offering a thoroughly enjoyable experience that advocates godliness. Although some songs are a wee better than others, there are no stinkers in the bunch.  Most of all, here is further proof that some of the best artists are not necessarily the best known artists. This collection serves as an excellent calling card for a number of these virtual unknowns worth both a listen and a  label offer, should they condescend to one. Go Indies!

Steven Stuart Baldwin  (5/29/99)

Order your own copy at http://www.awakeningrecords.com
Awakening Records, P.O. Box 4353, Chapel Hill, NC 27515.  (888) 55-AWAKE

For the record, this is only the second 5 tock album I've reviewed this year.

This 18-track sampler is a veritable treasure trove of almost entirely unsigned indies with all the makings of an unforgettable night of live music in a coffeehouse setting. The thirteen featured artists might as well be a few feet from our candlelit table wowing the audience with their ability to overcome their little known status and take us on a journey to a place where life is not trouble free but the shadow the Savior casts covers all in its path. Kudos to the producers Steve Reavis and Scott Sanders for their care in showcasing each artists' talent through their choice of songs and personal comments in the tasteful booklet describing how them came across everyone from Filet of Soul to Holland Rhythm Band.
 
James F. Laverty   (6/21/99)