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Various Artists – The Long Secret (Puncture, 1995)

VARIOUS ARTISTS

The Long Secret (Harriet)

Before founding the Harriet label to put more music he loved by people he liked into the world, Tim Alborn’s main project was the eccentrically personal yet highly readable Incite! fanzine. Even when he’d get bogged down praising some ancient record you’d heard a zillion times, he conveyed its essence so well you wanted to dig it up and slap it on the box again. Since 1989, though, Alborn has had a second mission, and the Harriet label has issued a consistent string of damn fine records. Tim values good songwriting above all else–an anomaly at a time when labels and critics are more interested in finding the next new sound. Not that Harriet’s artists lack unique musical style or sonic impact; witness Magnetic Fields, Linda Smith, or High Risk Group for starters. But Alborn’s not likely to put out anything that sports a dazzling aural landscape yet has nothing to say. For better or worse, a Harriet record seeks most of all to communicate, even if only to a cute girl or boy the singer wants to get to know better.

The Long Secret, with 17 previously unreleased or rare songs, is both an introduction to the label and a plethora of new music. We begin with a one-two punch: a ragged, high-energy romp from the excellently named Vehicle Flips, followed by a fragile, melodic but equally fast folky/power-pop number from Twig, two cool tracks that set the tone for what follows. Stephin Merritt and John Darnielle, two of the most dazzling new songwriters around, get two songs each. From Merritt we have the aptly named Gothic Archies with “The Abandoned Catsle Of My Soul” (perfectly campy Merritt lyrics on an irresistibly glum new wave tune) and the monstrously gorgeous Susan Anway-sung Magnetic Fields country ballad “Plant White Roses” (imagine Tarnation crossed with Eno circa 1973). Meanwhile, Darnielle is the Mountain Goats on “Duke Ellington”, a great vignette with his peculiarly engaging nasal voice delivering vivid lines about spotlights reflecting off Ellington’s rings as he plays piano and the jilted narrator watches, awestruck and dejected, from the crowd. The Extra Glenns song is catchy, though Franklin Bruno’s neat clanging guitar overdubs all but drown out Darnielle.

Some lesser-knowns also get double shots. Frank Boscoe, formerly of Wimp Factor 14, appears with Vehicle Flips and duets with Karl Hendricks on a wedding song for Alborn. And Twig are basically descended from Fertile Virgin (one of Harriet’s first bands), here offering “My Three Suns,” a gusto-filled, hollering tribute to the Volcano Suns that just might be better than they ever were. The Ampersands and Cat’s Miaow, two Melbourne, Australia bands, share a bassist and an affinity for the Cannanes’ sound. Neither capture that band’s brilliance, though both are a lot tighter, tossing off two snappy minor-key laments.

There are two songs from Sean Tollefson, formerly of Crayon, which verge on the unbearably faux-naif: Six Cents And Natalie set enigmatic nursery poetry to a nagging Casio riff and are kind of annoyingly compelling; Tully Craft’s “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid To Know About” is simply unbelievable as, over a bubbling rockabilly riff, Tollefson courts a girl by bragging he has a cooler record collection than her boyfriend. A sound spanking would do this boy good. Last-minute mentions go to outstanding tracks from Pest 5000, Weeping In Fits And Starts, Prickly, and the incredible High Risk Group, who are no longer with us and, with “Elevation Craving,” show us again why that’s sad.