Doing it their way, part two
The artists in the last All Ears column `"Doing it their way, part one," July 14-20, 2005` aren't the only ones to have carved out their own chunk of power in today's chaotic record industry. Plenty have, in more and less conventional ways.
Take Joni Mitchell. A songwriter of her stature should never be the underdog, but it wasn't that long ago that Mitchell had to fight to get her Geffen albums back in print. Now, perhaps emboldened by that success, she's curating her own retrospectives: Songs of a Prairie Girl (Rhino) stretches from the '60s to today for a tribute to the Centennial of her native Saskatchewan.
Other well-known performers supplement their industry-supported careers with DIY side projects. Daniel Lanois has just released his second effort for the Anti-label: Belladonna is his long-promised instrumental album, featuring everything from pedal steel to mariachi accents, and its loveliness will come as no surprise to those who have heard Lanois' Sling Blade soundtrack. Meanwhile, daniellanois.com offers the homemade Rockets, which collects live recordings, rarities, and alternate takes. Much more pleasurable than collections of this sort sometimes are, Rockets boasts a tune with guests Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris alongside interesting variations on such favorites as "Devil's Bed."
The most common route these days (and it's nothing new) is for artists to start their own imprints, which are then sold under the auspices of a more established label. The upcoming August release from Michael Penn, for instance, is on his own Mimeograph Records but distributed by SpinArt. Called Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, it's a suite of superb songs drawing on the events and atmosphere of that eventful year.
The Pernice Brothers (aka Joe Pernice and Friends) have gone farther than Penn, turning Ashmont Records into something resembling a "real" label - one that has released the last four PB discs, including the new Discover a Lovelier You, which once again demonstrates Pernice's gift for wrapping a sad worldview up in gorgeous, even invigorating, pop arrangements.
If Pernice and Penn had a little more of the entrepreneur in them, they might take their self-publishing ventures a step or two farther. Like media darling Conor Oberst, whose two recent Bright Eyes discs (I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) are on the Saddle Creek label that he helped to found and which now plays home to nearly two dozen bands.
Or like the folks of Merge records, the supercool indie founded a decade and a half ago by Superchunk. In between putting out great Spoon records, Merge issues Superchunk titles and those by spinoffs like Portastatic, whose new Bright Ideas is full of rocking, catchy songs like the misanthrope's anthem "Through With People." If more record-company owners could make music like this, they wouldn't find it so hard to discover and promote great new bands.
But the current 300-pound gorilla in the DIY artist arena is Michelle Shocked, who has just unloaded three separate albums on an unsuspecting public: Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a collaboration with producer Dusty Wakeman, is the most conventional of the three; Mexican Standoff plays with Tex-Mex influences and border music in general; and the left-field Got No Strings is, of all things, a disc of Walt Disney tunes. All are released on Shocked's Mighty Sound label, which has already issued both original titles (the singer's double-disc Deep Natural) and reissues of her back catalog (like the 2-CD revision of the celebrated Texas Campfire Tapes, which basically presents the full sitting-and-picking set as it originally unfolded).
If the new albums' titles aren't enough of a clue, their packaging makes clear that Shocked's political outspokenness is undiminished. The graphic design may be hopelessly awkward - long, multi-panel foldouts that look like high-school art projects - but it provokes rumination about the songwriter's concerns: war and the way consumerism fuels it, America's attitude toward immigrants, and the plight of kids (AIDS orphans particularly) in Africa.
Happily, there's plenty of good music underneath the cumbersome packages - new songs that will likely be more pleasing to old fans than those on Mighty Sound were. With any luck, the publicity surrounding the "Threesome" will generate enough revenue for Shocked to enter the elite group of musicians who really can afford to make music on their own terms. •
By John DeFore