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Various Branches and Routes: A Fatcat Records Compilation

In these very fragmented late-capitalist days, it seems record labels may not be as different from clothing labels as we may like to think. Not defined simply by putting out what's "good," labels increasingly cater to very particular tastes, dictated by ever-specialized demographics and transient in-sounds. But as the line between fashionista and record geek slims, certain labels-Soul Jazz, Warp, Smalltown Supersound and Lo Recordings, among others-are able to straddle this tenuous divide with splendor. Defined less by an allegiance to a characteristic sound than a level of quality, London's Fat Cat has found a way over its six-year existence to please both parties with nary a compromise. If some of the world's most fashionable artists are on their roster (and nearly all of them seem to be Icelandic)-Bj?rk, Sigur R?s, M?m, Autechre-they've rarely been apprehensive about releasing other challenging (read: uncommercial) sounds, often via their excellent Split and Splinter series. These include Alejandra & Aeron, Programme, DAT Politics, Fonn, Motion, Pimmon and Janek Shaeffer. Fat Cat come out clean on the other side due to a sheer diversity of sound and vision. Ask yourself how many labels would release a CD like No Watches, No Maps, which gathered demos of unsigned artists that Fat Cat couldn't release so that those artists could gain deserved label interest? Answer: very few. As a sampling of the Fat Cat's 20-odd albums and countless other odd audio documents, Branches & Routes does a fine job of outlining the label's open-minded approach. David Grubbs (ex-Gastr Del Sol) opens the album with a question: "Are you ready/For a cold wash rag?" A strange label decree, perhaps, but Fat Cat have always combined their pointed taste with a shrewd sense of humor. Over the remainder of the two-CD set, we're treated to rarities from Matmos (the first CD appearance of "Freak N You," which in 2001 suggested what would become Soft Pink Truth, and which is undoubtedly one of their best tracks yet), Fennesz (the Endless Summer-like "Badminton Girl"), Sigur R?s and Kid 606, as well as previously available album tracks from M?m, Mice Parade, Set Fire to Flames and Black Dice, among others. Despite such relative starpower, the collection's strongest tracks come from relative unknowns. Stromba's "Invisible Stink" is dark jazz-funk that suggests Miles Davis and Arthur Russel remixed by Nightmares on Wax on heavy weed. Frenchman Dorine Muraille's "Dopees," released on his Mani album, still stands as one of the year's most beautifully fractured songs. And Grain's "Untitled 3" sounds like Sutekh and Safety Scissors soundclashing with Akufen. Though there are no contributions from Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, Pan Sonic, Req, Various Artists or V/VM, Branches & Routes stands nonetheless as a fine introduction to the Fat Cat aesthetic. If it's a bit safe or fashionable for the seasoned record trawler, the fact remains: Fat Cat is an impressive example of art and commerce getting along, an example many would be wise to observe.

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