Why did the self-described "Dean of American Rock Critics" make the jaunt from NYC to my hometown, a smallish city most famous as home to Goodyear, Firestone, and the All-American Soap-Box Derby? He'd been blown away by Akron's most famous band, Devo, and impressed by The Akron Compilation, a collection of offerings by Akron-based punk and new wave bands produced by Stiff Records, a British label famous for issuing classics like Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True and The Pogues' Rum Sodomy & the Lash. Xgau, wanted to see what was going on in Akron and, apparently, had the expense account to make it happen.
I finally got my hands on both vinyl and digital copies of The Akron Compilation this summer, only to be majorly let down. Though it was recorded before I was born, I'd been building it up in my mind since college, naively believing I'd find some sort of major revelation about my city and myself in those grooves. As it turns out, there are no hidden Chrissie Hyndes (or even a stray Tim "Ripper" Owens) on the record; just a bunch of bands you've never heard of for a reason, along with two tracks from The Waitresses, famous for their holiday hit "Christmas Wrapping," and "Truckstop Queen," a fun song from Rachel Sweet, who went on to write the theme for John Waters' cult classic Hairspray.
Still, for some reason, Christgau was impressed. The loquacious bastard rambles too much for me to pull any sort of decent quote from one of his mammoth essays, but this seems to be something akin to a thesis: "Akron-Cleveland has been uncommonly blessed with musical movers and shakers who have taken care of business well."
I tell this story not to provide an history lessons on the music scene of Akron, but to illustrate the importance of a well-assembled regional compilation. As far as the lasting legacy of the DIY ethos goes, it's hard to top the compilation record. Look up the Wikipedia entry on any "scene" of the past 40 years and you'll invariably come across an attendant comp, a postcard from the city's dingiest bars hailed as an important and influential touchstone. Check out Seattle's Deep Six and Sub Pop 100, both of which foreshadowed what was coming way back in '86, or Jack White's home-studio-produced The Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit from 2001. Does a comp mean your city's scene is going to hit the big time? No. Could a scene sprout without a serious comp? I'm no so sure.
This is why I'm ridiculously excited about a novel new comp from Phoenix, When in AZ. The collection, coming out next week, is massive and ambitious. Maybe even massively ambitious. With an $8 download card (proceeds benefit charity), you'll get 55 Phoenix-area artists covering songs by other Arizona artists. Along with the recorded output, organizers are planning six shows at the best small venues in town. All in all, pretty cool.
The man behind the project is erstwhile scenester Nick Kizer, drummer/guitarist for the Tempe indie band Babaluca. With his band sadly on indefinite hiatus, the 28-year-old Kizer has had a little more time on his hands and decided to take up a dare by a naysayer, who questioned his sincerity when he first verbalized his intention to put together a compilation of covers.
"Musicians always have these conversations about, like, we should do this, that, the other thing; the music community sucks; and it's like, 'Oh, yeah, we should something where local bands cover other local bands.' And I was like, 'Yeah, we should do a compilation.'"
He was doubted, but he responded: "I was, like, 'I'm gonna do this shit, I'm gonna prove you guys wrong.'"
And so he has. Kizer asked some bands to contribute; other bands asked him when they heard about the project. He's lined up everyone from local indie talents What Laura Says and Dry River Yacht Club to country singer Jim Bachmann, folk-punk outfit The Liar's Handshake, and the funky Black Carl. It's not quite anyone-who's-anyone, but it's close.
From there, it was smooth sailing. The bands covered their own recording costs, Big U Music is doing the mastering for free, and local club owners ponied up the cash to print download cards. Proceeds benefit two non-profits, Ear Candy and the Phoenix Conservatory of Music, charities which provide musical instruments and education to children. Six record release parties — running the next three weekends at the Yucca Tap Room, Modified Arts, the Hard Rock Cafe, and the Rhythm Room — will give people a chance to grab a download card and see some of the acts who contributed.
Along the way, Kizer enlisted the help of Laci Lester, an AmeriCorps public ally stationed in town who's also an all-around do-gooder, capable of harnessing other people's resources. A Phoenix native, Lester was a big fan of the concept: "It's really like they're making a statement, like, 'We love our city, already.' They're kind of paying homage to everyone else in town."
The download-card format was necessary, Kizer says, because of the size of the project: "I'm not a pusher of download cards at all, but just because of the sheer number of people who did it, we had to do a download card or it would have been, like, a four-CD album — and we don't have the money to produce it that way."
Speaking of money, a significant share came from Yucca Tap Room owner Rodney Hu, who's seen his share of compilations in the 30 years his family has owned the beloved Tempe watering hole.
"Of all the different ones I've seen, this one is a lot different," he says. "People are always complaining that the scene is stale or whatever, but this gives them a chance to hear that there's so much out there. It's really interesting. It's really original. This scene probably needs something like this, and the turnout really shows how many bands are out there that are in to it. These guys are all doing different types of music, but they all believe in each other, and that's cool . . . We have a good scene here. We just need to nurture it."
Actually, for Arizona, having a good scene is only half the battle, as Kizer has seen. Phoenix bands sure do love to leave the desert for New York or L.A. (We won't name the latest rumored refugees, but there's talk of small, striped felines roaming New York.)
Originally, the comp's title was a reference to "When in Rome," Kizer says, but the title also works as a time-stamped label.
"It fits it perfectly, because this is kind of a snapshot of Arizona in 2009 when this happened, and all these bands are moving away; some of these aren't even Arizona bands anymore," he says. "I guarantee you: In the next year, a lot of these bands won't be in existence or in Arizona anymore."
So it goes in the ephemeral world of local music. Who knows whether Phoenix will ever lure the contemporary version of Christgau to town for a massive feature on our music scene? Either way, when it's all over, we'll still have saguaros instead of smokestacks, which works for me.
For more information on When in AZ, visit www.wheninaz.com.