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Exploitation of Sound Vol. 1
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Hero Recording Company (1999)
Length: 18 tracks/67:54 minutes

The self-proclaimed goal of Hero Music, a college town recording company located about 45 minutes west of Charlotte, North Carolina, is to produce high-quality underground independent rock music.  For the Exploitation of  Sound compilation, the team at Hero has assembled 18 tracks by twelve artists whose songs run the gamut from lively alternative pop and R&B to languishing folk and lighthearted parody.  At first glance, the company's goal would certainly seem commendable enough.  But the Exploitation release, like the great majority of compilation efforts, is highly uneven, its entries alternating between sparkling and substandard.

Perhaps the most detrimental factor towards the album as a whole is the large number of songs with relatively poor sonic texture.   "Lament" by the Ladybugs, for example, features a lethargic lead guitar track, placed so high in the mix that it ends up being virtually the only discernible instrument, together with a mumbled vocal track that sounds as if it was recorded from the next room.  And several other entries, like Four Man Furnace's "Rags," exhibit a mostly lackluster, overly muddy tonal attribute that automatically checks any potency they might generate by suppressing their high-end dynamics.  Of course, it's fair to say that Hero Records, like most independent labels, probably has a fairly limited budget to work with.  But, songs like Paul Stanfield's "Be Still," with its razor-sharp vocal delivery, shimmering acoustic guitar and full-bodied orchestral treatments, offer proof positive that the sound quality of independent releases like this one can indeed approach that of their major-label counterparts.

Further contributing to the dissonance of the collection is the wildly varying subject matter and tone of the song list.  To be sure, a bit of variety is certainly acceptable, and even expected, in multiple-artist compilation sets such as this one.  But, the earthy sentiment of numbers like Pedro the Lion's meandering "The Longer I Lay Here," with its recounting of "hookers or heroin" and "whiskey or gin," winds up being by and large incongruous with numbers like Carl Cartee's reverential and awe-filled meditation on salvation, "Where Would I Be."  And, compared to the original and thought-provoking content of Dirt Poor Authority's excellent "Hunger," the Roamin' Lonely's "Lately" appears uninspired by comparison, it's admittedly tongue-in-cheek humor (I'll just sit here and drink my wine/ Sure, I'd like to see you/ Someday when you die/ Til then, you can kiss my *** goodbye) nonetheless coming across more crude than amusing.

Even in spite of its overly uneven composition, the album still has several truly noteworthy entries in its roster. The aforementioned "Where Would I Be" by Carl Cartee effectively delivers the theme of God's mercy using a simple, yet open-ended query ("Where would I be/ If not for your grace?), and highlights Cartee's strikingly clear voice perfectly against an austere but exquisite classical guitar arrangement.  The soaring instrumental work in Dirt Poor Authority's "Fade Away" is the ideal foil for the song's achingly melancholy vocal delivery, with the lyrics ("A million miles still to go/... all I want to do is sleep/ a home of concrete and tires/ makes me laugh, makes me weak") striking the difficult balance between romanticizing life on the road and finding it entirely hopeless.  And perhaps the best song on the album is Black Eyed Dog's "Three More Hours," whose elements of folk, country and gospel are melded together seamlessly atop an intriguing combination of mumbled, yet heartfelt, vocals akin to a fusion of Michael English and Michael Stipe.  The banjo adds a stark, emotive quality to the song while the harmonica work beautifully heightens its lulling and wistful character.  All said and done, the Exploitation of Sound collection, like the majority of compilation albums, contains its share of both good and bad tracks, both occurring in about equal measure.  Nevertheless, collections like this one remain a convenient way to sift through a sizable slice of the ever-growing assortment of Christian artists in a single sitting.  And, songs like the ones listed above prove that there are usually at least one or two true gems to be found in the lot.

Bert Gangl 11/7/99

 

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