Downstream: A WeatherVane Compilation
Artist: Various artists
Label: WeatherVane Music
Time: 18 tracks/66:23

If you want to know where all the good underground acoustic music is...here you go. WeatherVane Music is a small, humble label dedicated to digging up the best folk, folk-rock, pop, country, and alternative artists to ever turn down their amps and unplug their guitars.  I'm not usually a fan of such mellow fare, but the songs on this compilation are well-crafted enough to catch my attention.  These artists enliven their picking and strumming with occasional electric reverb in the background, a varied and creative array of percussion, and bits of keyboard, strings, organs, and so on.  And they aren't run-of-the-mill, up-and-coming, still-working-on-the-quality-of-their-music, hoping-to-make-it-big-someday types of artists, which is the typical conception of "underground" or "independent."  Rather, they're experienced music-makers with well-established fan bases, who send out their songs this way because of the freedom and integrity they can enjoy with no record label breathing influence down their necks.  This is grassroots.

That's not to say they don't hunt down success, though.  Most of these guys tour often, sharing their tunes with whoever will listen, and the 10-page sleeve lays out more than enough connections to bigger names...past albums produced by Ric Hordinski (Over the Rhine) and Mark Heard, band members from Vigilantes of Love and Better Than Ezra, studio help from people who've worked with the Indigo Girls, Smashing Pumpkins, and Hole, background vocals by Victoria Williams...you get the picture.  The production is some of the best out there as well.  You can feel the strings vibrate against the fretboards, the bass and drums sending slight tremors through your coffee, the voices exhaling right into your ear (if you've got a good stereo, of course).

So, who's on the compilation?  Well, there are nine artists featured, each with two tracks.  One is taken from an already-released album and the other is an exclusive just for Downstream.  John Austin is probably the most well-known, with his Tom Petty-catchiness meets Vigilantes of Love-lyrical depth (similar voice to Mallonee also).  He's the rocker on the album. Robert Deeble put out an album in the Christian market a few years back under the moniker Days Like These; his eerie, cello and bass-drenched coffee-house sound is represented by "Rock A Bye" from that album plus a preview track from his upcoming release on Jackson Rubio.  I'm definitely picking up Harrod & Funck's latest album after being enthralled by the entrancing, soothing vocals and trailing psychedelic ending of "Your Voice at Tidewater."  Loni Rose, Erin Echo, and Claire Holley will satisfy the female singer-songwriter fans, each with a distinctive style and voice.  Loni's my favorite, even though some of her lyrics lack depth (She's looking for a "Real Man.").  She's the only one who seduces me with her unique, sultry-yet-childlike croonings from the new school of Jewel/Alanis vocals.  Spacefighter is the lone "band" here, playing punchy, strum-driven alterna-pop songs with big smiles. Rounding out the nine are California-country/folk balladeers Hughes & Wagner and the CCM-sounding Christopher Williams.

All of these artists are believers, but when it comes to their songs they're story-tellers and poets, not evangelists.  This is about good music, and the lives that infuse it with meaning.  There are no trite, candy-coated Christian themes, just songs about life.  And like life, you can spend a long time figuring the lyrics out, or you can get them right away.

The album cover has a picture of a rotund little man with a strange, sad face sitting on the bank of a stream, dipping an acoustic guitar into the water, almost like he's filling it up or washing it clean.  The beautiful earth--grained painting fits perfectly with the subtle--spiritual themes I take to be behind the compilation--simple musicians drinking the Source of life; instruments and talents cleansed by the flow; partaking of the living water not at the crowded and busy river but at a babbling brook in the quiet woods...downstream.

I usually fall asleep to acoustic music, but this kept me awake the whole way through and inspired me to search out quite a few albums by some of the artists here.  You may or may not be able to appreciate all of the songs on Downstream, but it will definitely open up your ears to some of the best acoustic music in the underground or anywhere.

By Josh Spencer

Amongst friends and acquaintances, I have a reputation for listening almost exclusively to music that none of them has ever come across. And amongst quite a few of them this has caused confusion, as they find it difficult to understand that anything of any quality can exist outside of the mainstream. This compilation is proof that they are wrong--a collection of eighteen tracks from nine artists of the committed, hard-working variety who elicit great  reviews but never seem to break that important sales barrier and get the attention they deserve.

Underpinning all the songs on this release are the acoustic basics that these artists rely on. The stripped-back atmosphere of an acoustic song brings the artist to the fore, for good or bad. Fortunately, the lyrics here are well-written, making good use of phrasing and often fairly introspective (but not to the exclusion of the casual listener). That is not to say that all the tracks are entirely stripped down. On top of the acoustic guitars and vocals are arranged various accompaniments; electric guitars are often incorporated, and keyboards help add to the ambience of many a song.

Their independence means that these artists are free in their songwriting. There are obvious references to faith-related concerns in many lyrics, and use of Christian imagery is found in a number of songs, but there is no ministry or evangelical agenda to be found.

It is difficult to pick standout tracks, as the flow here is unusually good for a compilation album. John Austin is every inch the established artist, as the production of his tracks shows, and Harrod and Funck drew me in with their light feel and tight harmonies -- definitely a pair I'll be watching. As a Victoria Williams fan,  her appearance on Robert Deeble's first track, "Rock a Bye," was a nice addition. Deeble is currently touring with Vigilantes of Love, and by the sound of these tracks he's sure to appeal to many of their fans.

As much as it flows, Downstream is not totally consistent, and there are a couple of tracks where the songwriting is not quite as complete, but those tracks are rare, and still strong when compared with most music.

Overall, this album suggests that WeatherVane Music will be a fine addition to the indie scene, supporting some excellent artists. If songwriting skill and hard work were the only gauges of success, these artists would be right up the top. Unfortunately, they still need to stumble across that 'big break.' In the meantime, they're certainly worth a listen, and this compilation's a great introduction to them.

By James Stewart