While it seems distantly quaint now, the college radio scene of the early '80s has proven to be one of the most important touchstones of the last 30 (and probably the next 30) years of music. In tiny college towns across America, where world wide web networks were but a Flickr in computer- and library-science majors' minds, indie record labels (mostly of the hardcore and power-pop variety) began sprouting up around those 100-watt campus stations, using hardwired telephones, ye olde postal service, and shitty vans to spread a new rock 'n' roll gospel. It's a wonder the whole plan ever got off the ground, when you think about it, but the DIY ethic spawned more than just a new aesthetic and way of doing business: the waves were set in perpetual motion for the next round of big-thinking indies of the '90s. Eleven years after its inception, Bloomington, Indiana's Secretly Canadian is one of that era's (and college rock's) great successes.
Unlike Matador, or other indies who sought greater exposure through the distribution wings of major labels, SC built its own little empire out of an Indiana University dorm room, growing extra limbs like Jagjaguwar, Brah! Records, and-most recently-Dead Oceans, and distributing other indie stalwarts like K and Table of the Elements, all the while amassing small-scale hits (in the CMJ-chart sense) from the likes of Songs: Ohia, June Panic, Scout Niblett, and Antony and the Johnsons.
What's strange, then, is that SC100, the label's commemorative 100th CD release, isn't just a navel-gazing grab bag of the roster's finest past offerings. Instead, 18 of the label's marquee names have taken a pick-from-the-hat approach to covering 18 random SC songs, and the results are as stunning as anything in the catalog.
Fittingly, SC100 kicks off with the recently deceased Nikki Sudden-the cofounder of home-tapers Swell Maps, and an icon of the early college radio days if there ever was one-covering flagship Secretly Canadian artist June Panic's Dylan-goes-electric rocker "See(ing) Double." It's immediately followed up by Songs: Ohia reinterpreting Sudden's "The Last Bandit," a subdued scrap of piano-guitar power-pop that clocks in at a short 1:34, nailing Sudden's quick-shot style that eschewed the self-serving fat of rock riffs in favor of whittling down the tune to its barest essentials. At other points, the label's Americana-folk history is laid bare, and there are even poppier offerings from (relative) newcomers like Jens Lekman, who sounds like he's about to cover "Needles and Pins" when he attempts Scout Niblett's "Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death."
While there's a dedication to preserving the label's "indie" sound, one that has traditionally relied more on the guitars-drums-bass setup and less on electronic or noisy elements, bits of experimentation are nicely peppered throughout SC100, such as Early Day Miners taking on avant-gardists Suzanne Langille and Loren Mazzacane Conners' aching dirge "The Escape." Similarly, Dave Fischoff gives folk troubadour Damien Jurado a dusty, organ-and-drum-machine treatment on the captivating "Abilene," perhaps the disc's strongest entry, and the feral-sounding Racebannon doesn't disappoint with a jagged Swearing at Motorists retake.
Listeners are left with a uniquely telling, representative, and not-even-partially rehashed survey of Secretly Canadian's delights. Let it be an incentive to dig back into the catalog for the archived treats that the label so teasingly dangles in front of our ears.