Plum of all parts
Thrill Jockey marks its 15th anniversary with a nostalgic box set and two concerts.
While pretty and easy-to-use design elements have contributed to the runaway success of the iPod since 2001, the late ’80s to early ’90s was a far more aesthetic age for independent music fans. There was no greater symbol of that than the era’s functionally nonsensical but artistically sublime seven-inch single box sets. Labels as diverse as Estrus, Simple Machines and Sub Pop would package anywhere from three to a dozen singles into beautiful, often oddly sized compilation containers that were easier to display as works of art than squeeze onto your record shelf.
That anachronistic format makes a welcome return this month when Thrill Jockey records celebrates its 15th anniversary by releasing Plum, a ten-single set that hearkens back to the time when Bettina Richards started the label. Featuring 20 Thrill Jockey artists covering songs by other Thrill Jockey artists, the collection provides a fresh survey of the label’s history that avoids being nostalgic, packaged in a manner that makes thoughts of the pre-Pitchfork era unavoidable.
“Before I started Thrill Jockey I got that Blast First Devil’s Jukebox seven-inch box set and I’ve always loved it,” says Richards, referring to the British label that launched the careers of several American alternative bands in the U.K. “So when I was thinking of what to do to mark our anniversary I thought to just do something totally old-school in the era of downloads, something that makes no sense at all.”
Like Richards’s beloved Blast First box, which had Steve Albini, Sun Ra and the Butthole Surfers sharing pressed petroleum, Plum features a diverse cast of characters, including angst-robots Adult., sun-damaged roots rocker Howe Gelb and even David Byrne (who worked on a 2003 movie soundtrack for the label) laying “you may ask yourself…”–style talk-singing on a Fiery Furnaces cover. However, fans of Thrill Jockey’s more challenging material may wonder if this compilation represents a middle-aged mellowing, as the majority of these tracks are downright lovely. Clearly, when picking favorites from the catalog, artists were attracted to (or not intimidated by) more traditional compositions; thus, the pure songcraft of Freakwater inspired several cover versions, while the ambitiousness of Tortoise and the absurdity of Bobby Conn weren’t rewarded with any explorations.
“I don’t know if I really think of it as a mellowing,” Richards responds. “I’ve always been a sucker for the melody, so I’m happy that a lot of people I work with are clearly suckers for the same thing. But I think what Sue Garner did with OOIOO’s song”—a thrilling tribal / jump-rope chant—“is quite impressive, and I like how when she couldn’t figure out what they were saying she made up her own words. I think you can hear her say ‘Lana Turner’ at one point.”
Thrill Jockey fans can help mark the label’s crystal anniversary at this weekend’s two-night celebration. Sixteen of the label’s acts—including Eleventh Dream Day, Fiery Furnaces, Thalia Zedek, the Zincs, Fred Anderson and Trans Am—will perform untraditional sets in what Richards says will be a “collaborative, free-form and loose context.”
In addition to the stellar scheduled acts, Richards promises a few unannounced guests, too. “I think the educated Thrill Jockey fan might be able to figure some of them out,” she teases, “but there will be some total surprises.” (If Vegas casinos booked action on indie-rock–festival surprise appearances, the money might be on an early-Tortoise-lineup reunion).
Richards says the box set had enough preorders to sell out its run, but she insists enough were held aside that covetous attendees should be able to pick up their own. Concertgoers also will be rewarded with a remix CD (by Girl Talk side project Trey Told ’Em) that mashes up every Thrill Jockey artist. But Richards hopes that the anniversary celebration appeals more to Thrill Jockey fans’ joyful inner children than to their uptight record-collector personae.
“The intent of this was just to do something cool and to have fun hearing what the bands did. There was a lot of giggling our heads off,” Richards gushes. “Every time I got a new master in, it was like opening a box of candy.”
Thrill Jockey celebrates at Logan Square Auditorium Friday 14 and Saturday 15.