Down to the Promised Land is a kick in the pants for music fans, a thumb in the eye of naysayers and a great big moonin' the board rooms of the music industry establishment, which has repeatedly rent itself asunder in the last half-decade, while the Bloodshot insurgents firmly planted their battle-frayed flag on territory as diverse as antique country, punk twang, bluegrass with attitude and new old soul. Ladies and gents, Bloodshot Records is five years old.
With this two-disc anniversary collection, Bloodshot revisits the treasure-trove approach launched memorably in its landmark 1994 debut, For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country. The following year, the label proved it was not only bad, but nationwide, with a 1995 compilation of artists it found fighting the good fight all over the U.S. Hell-Bent: Insurgent Country Volume 2 introduced Tempe's Grievous Angels, among others, to new fans as far as the aggressive little upstart label could reach. Emboldened by the response to these volleys, Bloodshot took the battle to Nashville itself with its 1996 collection, Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley (a.k.a. Insurgent Country Volume 3), an in-your-face survey of country and rock artists just under the nose, but way under the radar, of the Music City monolith.
Bloodshot's fifth anniversary compilation doubles the dancin'-shoes fun, and whiskey-soaked, self-inflicted pain, of its earlier platters. Besides entries from its current roster (which now boasts country punk blueblood Alejandro Escovedo, as well as longtime label mentor Jon Langford of the Mekons and nouveau media darling Neko Case), the 40 tracks include cuts from artists who have just been passing through, like Elektra's Old 97's, who got their start on the Chi-town indie; Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams, who's set to release a solo record on the label this September; and Robbie Fulks, back in the Bloodshot fold after an ugly stint with Geffen. Party invitations also went to friends old and new -- notably The Handsome Family, achieving some long-overdue success after five releases on Carrot Top; and The Texas Rubies, who haven't been heard from on record since the very first Bloodshot comp.
The result is, of course, a mixed bag, with something for everyone to love or hate. It's blended as painstakingly as the best home brew, though, so its flaws help account for its considerable character, in part because they surface in unexpected places.
Glimmers of brilliance often emerge from the more surprising entries, like The Texas Rubies, who made their mark on the Chicago club scene before Bloodshot's time with such witticisms as a rap take on Guy Clark's "Home Grown Tomatoes" and tongue-in-cheek hillbilly originals like "That Truck," their contribution to A Life of Sin. On Down to the Promised Land, though, the duo delivers an a cappella treatment of Jean Ritchie's "Blue Diamond Mine," with chilling West Virginia hills harmonies delivered with the sharpness of a pick ax.
Rookie Nora O'Connor debuts with a cover of Tom Waits' "Looks Like I'm Up Shit Creek Again" that proves him a better country songwriter than even he likely thought he was. The track is so strong that Bloodshot fearlessly sequenced it after British New Wave icon Graham Parker's rendition of the Waco Brothers' "See Willy Fly By," backed by the raucous Wacos themselves.
Another surprising gem is the solo entry from Whiskeytown's Caitlin Cary. Singing George Jones' "Please Take the Devil Out of Me," she shows a range of tone and emotion that puts her in a league with Case, if not quite within reach of Kelly Hogan on any ordinary day. Hogan's own track, a cover of Paul Burch's "13 Nights," is unfortunately not on par with her own recent release, the wonderful Beneath the Country Underdog.
Covers in this set are played purely for fun, with artists frequently plumbing each other's catalogues, or those of people you'd never expect. The Sadies, for instance, back the Mekons' Sally Timms on a Handsome Family tune, "The Sad Milkman." Sugar Free recording artist Chris Mills and Lambchop's Deanna Varagona work Escovedo's "More Miles than Money"; both the Meat Purveyors and Rex Hobart cover songs by their Kansas raunch-grass labelmates, Split-Lip Rayfield. Hazeldine, on the other hand, delivers a punishingly intense, gender-bent rendering of "Unforgiven," attributed to the obscure Lazy Sunday Dream. The Unholy Trio, a side project of Freakwater bassist Dave Gay, performs Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" as if for a Saturday-night dance in a Show Low bar.
About half of Down to the Promised Land unveils never-before-released original material, some of it sterling. The Yahoos' "Oh, Chicago" is a chugging rocker in the '70s Little Feat tradition; Tucson's Giant Sand nails the Bloodshot culture in "Hard on Things," with a lyric depicting a regular bull of a guy who can make a china shop out of anything; and Ryan Adams tosses in the slam-dunk single, "Monday," a song with hooks six ways to Sunday.
Never the one to be too optimistic (he's depicted in the liner notes "promoting" his favorite product: Tums), Bloodshot co-founder Rob Miller still considers himself a house painter by trade, but no one's fooled. He and company president Nan Warshaw now have logged five years swimming with the sharks, and although Spago lunches and Omni suites at the South by Southwest Music Conference may still be out of reach, it's clear they've found their vocation in the peculiar blend of punk and twang they call "insurgent country."
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