Freaks and geeks

Two recent compilations apotheosize the indie-rock mix tape.

Feb 20, 2002 at 12:00 am gets all the ink, but if indie-rock geeks on the Web are what you desire, point your browser to and bask. Started in December 1997, Art of the Mix operates on the simple, genius premise that nothing starts discussion and community like finding out what's on everyone else's mix tape. There are already more than 10,000 track lists for homemade cassettes and CD-Rs, and, as you might expect, several posters' tastes are reliably eclectic to bonkers. But the most frustrating aspect of the site is that the musical worldview of so many of its regulars — if not a majority, then a loud minority — seem to begin with Weezer in 1994 and effectively end with, well, Weezer in 2001. Even in the "Mixed Genres" file.

But hey, we all gotta start somewhere, and mix tapes are where a lot of us start. I got most of my musical knowledge from reading a lot of criticism and borrowing, buying and taping a shitload of records. But Ian Dury and the Blockheads, the Flatlanders, the Roches — and Elbow Bones and the Racketeers' sublime early-'80s single "A Night in New York" — were introduced to me by friends committed to opening my ears to sounds new and new-to-me. The entire disco diaspora, from hip-hop to two-step and tech-step, is disseminated most effectively through home taping. But that's an area in which "mix tape" tends to mean the cut-and-blended work of professional and aspiring DJs whose job is to define the music. With homemade tapes, the music defines the DJ, and nowhere is that more true than in indie rock.

Which might be why two recent indie-rock compilation CDs both contain liner-note paeans to the form. In the booklet for Orion Walker's new film sound track Dean Quixote (spinART), Walker and Tricia Halloran write, "You wouldn't know it to look at what's popular today, but there's a lot of great music being made. . . . But you'll never hear this music unless you look for it. Or unless you're lucky enough to have a friend that makes you a mix tape and sits you down and says, 'You gotta hear this!' This, then, is our mix tape to you." Mike Simonetti, the head of New Jersey punk label Troubleman Unlimited, gets more specific in the notes for Troubleman Mix-Tape, citing a truckload of well-regarded punk comps — 1981's Let Them Eat Jellybeans, 1982's Flex Your Head, 1991's Kill Rock Stars, and a dozen others — as inspiration for his absurdly ambitious, four-years-in-the-making double CD.

Length aside, the difference between Simonetti's undertaking and that of his avowed models is a widening of scope that's both the project's strength and its weakness. The good news is that while Troubleman Mix-Tape might miss its target (a mass inventory of the indie-rock underground's best and brightest), it is, as a result, more interesting and entertaining than most more narrow and more perfectly realized compilations. It might not be definitive, but it is adorable.

The bad news is that this adorability tempts me to overrate it, because it does miss its target — too many of the songs are tossed-off style exposition, not-quite-together experiments, fragments. Not just individual numbers but whole sections annoy (disc one's Black Dice / Fucking Champs / Monorchid sequence, for instance), and while that's appropriate for celebrating the mix-tape gestalt, it's hell on actual listening.

Yet I keep putting it on, and I keep hoping to learn something from it — something more than is actually there song for song, yet is inherent in the album's very existence. There's something heroic about Simonetti's act of faith, his belief that he can create the perfect mix tape. And while the before-mentioned throwaways might get in the way of perfection, they go a long way toward helping the album signify as soundscape; that's one reason listening to two hours and 20 minutes of this stuff is fairly effortless. Well, once you get past wanting to punch the next band with lyrics that go, "Ahhh! Waauuhh! AAAHHH! WAAAUUHHH!," which make up somewhere between a quarter and a third of the set.

It also helps create a dynamic range that allows the highlights to stand out even more, especially since much of the best stuff is the most anomalous. There are fine contributions from Erase Errata, Blonde Redhead and Melt-Banana. I'll take "Itchy Cable" by Pixeltan — a.k.a. Tim Goldsworthy — over anything by any act related to New York's overrated Electroclash posse. Petty Crime's pouting yelps segue fabulously into the post-funk (think early-'80s New York outfits such as Pigbag and the Bush Tetras) of !!!, a name pronounced, as singer Nic Offer puts it on the group's "Freak the Funk," as "any three repetitive sounds you wanna make."

If spottiness can be forgiven in deference to reach, it's harder to overlook when the outlook is more fixed. Dean Quixote is full of blemishes, a problem given its narrow focus on classicist pop. Sometimes it soars (for the first time I can remember, Guided by Voices and the Olivia Tremor Control induce me to give a fuck about them); sometimes it doesn't (Ohia and Beachwood Sparks and Crystal Keith and Kim Fox do not). At least Rebar's horrible cover of Peter Tosh's "Legalize It" is conveniently placed at the end, enabling you to reach for the stop button without conjecture or apology.

But there's a great moment here, albeit a quiet one. For a sound track that often sounds like a concept album about the perils and limits of Anglophilia, it's somewhat odd that the most American-sounding band here is the Netherlands' Bettie Serveert. "Co-Coward" jumps out of the mix, not just because Carol Van Dijk is the album's only female singer, but because she's tougher-minded and more emotionally concrete than her male cohorts. I noticed "Co-Coward" on 1997's superb Dust Bunnies, where I registered it as another bittersweet little pill to be taken with the rest of that album's like-minded material. Here, disrupting the already uneven flow, it's the only song on the CD I wanted to hear again as soon as it was done. And as anyone who's ever received a great mix tape — one that didn't just introduce you to a handful of great songs and/or artists but broadened the way you heard music — can testify, that's not the way this stuff is supposed to work.

Michaelangelo Matos writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].