Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: Third Man Records Singles Collection 2010

If you read my review of the 2009 collection then you'd be aware that I sentiments of that release can be boiled down to 'very very awesome'. While this release is long out of date, I think it's important that I take a stab at every year of Third Man's output. So how does this LP stack up against the last one? Well... not that well.

This is a reluctant criticism because I think that there's a pretty clear explanation for this being a weaker album. I also don't want to imply that the overall quality of Third Man is slipping because Jack's touring hiatus seems to have manifested in a remarkably productive year for the label so far. However I just can't ignore the fact that when you compare this year's collection to last year's it comes off as inferior.

Let's have a look at the first and most obvious point of contention with this collection: album singles. Last year had three Dead Weather singles but also had the three amazing accompanying B-Side. The problem I have with the number of album singles in this compilation isn't so much the lack of new content but the clumsiness with which it's compiled. The two singles that bookend the album do so well, two great tracks from Karen Elson and Wanda Jackson that fit well with the albums they are lifted from while standing tall by themselves. However I can't say the same about the Dead Weather, no effort is made to have a less sudden intro to Old Mary and Blue Blood Blues clumsily cuts out once the crossfade to Hustle & Cuss begins as if you've put the album on shuffle. It's unprofessional and counterintuitive, if Third Man are trying to preserve the art form of the 7" single than they should make them actually sound like singles rather than cheap radio samplers lifted from an album. The live version of Jawbreaker is certainly glorious but it feels out of place in the company of various studio cuts and I can't see why Old Mary, a track that I feel can only be appreciated in the context of Sea Of Cowards, is stuck on the end of Die By The Drop. Karen Elson's Season Of The Witch is the only thing that approaches the quality of last year's Dead Weather B-Sides while The Greenhornes give us the nice Stay Together, a track that I'm glad to have but one that doesn't live up to the strengths of ****. This is all symptomatic of a good thing though, Third Man released three great full length LPs last year and what we lose here is made up in other places. Still, I'm reviewing this collection not those albums so my criticism sticks.

Perhaps more importantly, do the stand-alone singles hold up well against last years offering? They do okay but there was no Wind Did Move or House of Peace amongst this year's batch. The stand out Blue Series is The Secret Sisters, who beat the Smoke Faries out for top spot of innapropriate-yet-awesome-Jack-White-meets-high-pictched-female-duo-collaboration. It's catchy, has the hallmarks of a Jack White number, features some great singing and genuinely pushes boundaries. Pujol comes close to this quality but is let down by having two very similar songs and a far superior representation of his work out on TMR's live series. Once again 2010's strengths are found in other places. This also goes for Conan O'Brian, whose single doesn't come close in terms of weirdness, humour or entertainment to his Third Man live album. He also fails to live up to the Green Series standard set by BP Fallon... however that's a hard ask.

The other singles are enjoyable but more or less unremarkable. Drakkar Sauna combine easy listening and surrealism well but you don't find yourself rushing to put the needle back to the beginning of the track. The Thornbills are similarly enjoyable but too passive in their delivery to really grab you. The Smoke Fairies, Rachelle Garniez and Secret Sisters all had similarly laid back styles but TMR pushed them to make something great while The Thornbills, to their own detriment, are left to their own devices producing a single that is good but perhaps not as good as it could be. Laura Marling is perhaps the most accurate representation of this trend. She's a great singer singing great songs yet this feels more like a good radio session than a major single release. If you're going to do a straight cover of Needle & The Damage Done then I think something more needs to be done and as it stand this version never pushes itself.

The art of the Rock N' Roll 45 is saying everything you can with two short songs, an art form perfected by Third Man in 2009. I don't think this mantra was closely followed in 2010 even when there is greatness underpinning the music. This record is by no means an unpleasant listen and I am glad I own it but it feels more like a great iTunes playlist then a great record and to me that feels at odds with the Third Man philosophy.