Various Artists

Down to the Promised Land (Bloodshot)

Aug 16, 2000 at 4:00 am
Subtitled "Five Years of Bloodshot Records," this two-disc collection from the most notorious and significant alternative-country label actually began seven years ago, when three aging punk barflies -- Nan Warshaw, Rob Miller and Eric Babcock -- drank themselves into the requisite frivolousness to release a 17-song comp of Midwestern country punks. With another 60-plus records and an exciting hookup with archival label Soundies (together they've released rare tracks by the likes of Pee Wee King, Hank Thompson and Rex Allen), the label has forged an aesthetic, some cross between trad-country fervor and punks-playing-Marxist-revolutionaries. Or as their sometimes funny, often inaccurate, always hyperbolic publicity junk implores, "Think of our releases as finely crafted manifestos, each uniquely capable of moving our cause forward. Think of us as Captain Willard, as we go up the river ... in order to destroy Kurtz. Think of us as the guardians of a small village surrounded by heartless banditos."

They mean it -- which has always been the problem. Unable to take country seriously, while portraying their mission as a life-and-death struggle for the soul of all music, Bloodshot sometimes forgets that the solution is so much simpler: release good records.

Down to the Promised Land -- 40 bands turning in 40 cuts, some previously available, most new -- is good enough. Alejandro Escovedo joins Jon Langford and his Cosmonauts for a lazy, loving version of Jagger's "Evening Gown"; Anna Fermin sings "Oh, Lonesome Me" with unself-conscious vigor; Rex Hobart masters post-Parsons suggestiveness with "Wicked Savior"; and Neko Case gets gorgeously Freudian on "Favorite": "Last night I dreamt that I hit a deer with my car/Blood from his heart spilled onto my dress and was warm."

As history tells, revolutionary paradise generally becomes hell. The Bloodshooters have always been overly enamored of nose-thumbing novelties, as if they never stopped making vanity records by and for their friends. Check Robbie Fulks' trite faux-swing "Bloodshot's Turning 5" or the overwrought, dry-mouthed horniness of Andre William's' "Glue." Insurgent taste can be as indiscriminate as a drunk with a Luger, as evidenced by Cornell Hurd clod-hopping through "Here Comes My Ball and Chain" and Trailer Bride blatantly ripping off X (then covering their ass with scratchy acetate effects). And the flagship Waco Brothers would have been better served by a live "Baba O'Riley"; the studio version is frigid.

If it's redemption Bloodshot's after, they find it on rangy topography: Bobby Bare Jr.'s metallic fuck-y'all; Ryan Adams' wannabe-and-nearly-is Crenshaw pop; Mike Ireland's spare and just piano hymn; Chris Mills and Deanna Varagonna's "Last to Know" harmonies; and the Sadies and Sally Timms' atmospheric resurrection of the Handsome Family's "Milk and Scissors." Sometimes revolutionaries keep their promises.