erasing clouds

Tell-All Records, Vol 1

reviewed by dave heaton

There's something really exciting about a new record label, especially one with its own aesthetic - it feels like uncharted water. Take Tell-All Records, Vol. 1, the introductory compilation from the new, San Francisco-based label Tell-All Records, in your hand and look at it. There's 12 songs from 9 names you've never heard before listed in silver type on a sparse, neatly designed album cover; the air is rich with possibility.

This feeling of potential wouldn't even be worth mentioning if the actual music shattered the dream. That happens sometimes; here it most certainly does not. Tell-All Records, Vol. 1 is filled with enticing sounds and song. Even better, the songs are woven together perfectly, making this one of the most cohesive label compilations I can remember, ever. It's in the way songs are placed together, sure, but also in the musicians sharing a certain feeling in their songs. Even though stylistically they differ from each other in many ways, an overall personality for the label is here. Tell-All Records, Vol. 1 offers the kind of impression of the label that has the potential to turn listeners into instant converts, to make people want to keep up with everything that Tell-All releases.

So far those releases are two in number: There's this compilation, and Liam Singer's album The Empty Heart of the Chameleon (which will be reviewed in an upcoming week). Singer - a multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter whose songs feel very stately but are also quite affecting - opens Vol. 1 with "The Last," a powerful, brief, personal letter that sounds sort of like Elliott Smith doing a piano ballad. From there, Vol. 1 travels through a musical terrain filled with emotional force and sonic exploration.

The bands on Tell-All Records sort of hover in that place people speak of as 'post-rock' - atmospheric soundscapes drawing from classical and ambient music as much as pop and rock - but they also are often very direct, revealing and emotionally transporting. A few of the bands play instrumental music, several create dreamy pop songs, others would nominally be referred to as 'singer-songwriters', but they all have a sense for mood and a motivation to explore and push forward what you can do within the space of a song. In other words, these songs feel (and are) experimental but also have the power that comes through a person or group of people putting real, honest feelings and thoughts into song. The label's web site puts it this way: "Our motivation is to find important, careful, ecstatic, moody, reckless sound that both captures experience and forces new development." "Experience" is a key word there, as these songs take you places, put you in other people's shoes. But actually all of those words are key. Careful and reckless might sound contradictory but they're not - on the whole, the songs on Vol. 1 feel both wild and controlled, in-the-head and in-the-heart. "New development" might sound like a lofty goal, but all of these songs feel original enough to be truly inspiring.

In addition to Liam Singer, the other one-person-and-some-instruments contributors to Vol. 1 include Peter Surla, whose gorgeous, mostly instrumental "Vermillion" feels like anything but the work of one person alone; Dave Zohrob, whose haunting "East of Here" sets slowly revealing acoustic guitars in a multi-dimensional sonic setting filled with subtle but lingering presence; and Keith Negley, whose "Fall" is one of the compilation's most riveting songs, a stunning, tender folk song for the future, blending computers and acoustic guitars around these four powerful words, filled with resonance for anyone: "You look so sad."

The band Carrier provides another of my favorite moments on the CD, with the song "New Year's." On one level it's one of the most straightforward songs on the CD, a man singing melodically over sparse instruments about his memories of a certain place and events. But the song is anything but conventional - for such a simple song it's extraordinarily complex, especially the way the surreal lyrics feel emotionally logical, ringing true even as the narrative doesn't 'make sense'.

The other contributors to Tell-All Records, Vol. 1 are no less worthy of attention - whether it's 28 Degrees Taurus or The Kallikak Family, I'm extremely excited to hear more from each one. The CD comes to a close with an instrumental from the Austin, Texas duo One Umbrella called "Yesvesd." At 15 minutes, it's an epic, several times longer than even the longest of the other songs. Including that long of a song on a compilation is unusual, maybe, but also appropriate for Tell-All. Not only does "Yesvesd," which begins slowly and continually builds in intensity, epitomize the careful yet rebellious approach to mood and songcraft that characterizes this introductory comp, its length also stands (I hope) as a statement that Tell-All Records is in this for the long haul, that they're ready for the serious business of releasing new music that will mean something to people, music that will last.

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