Darla Records' first six years were free of big breakthroughs, which might've been a good thing. Hidden from the pop-culture media's wilting glare, the San Francisco-based label developed a chill-out techno sound sweeter than any codeine high. The label's nasty little secret, though, is that its origins are indie-rock—and now no longer secret. This four-CD retrospective reveals a group of musicians who were a tad eccentric and charming in a sometimes gruesome way (note the title of the Guided by Voices song presented here, "Tractor Rape Chain"). But many of Darla's bands seem to have taken their cues from those ultimate charmers, the Beatles, as well as myriad '60s folk-rockers. Darla's take on the genre was rough and underground, avoiding any tribute-band art crimes. No such scruffy charm was needed for Darla's mostly nonverbal electronic music—that's inspired by the lush, electric melodies of early '90s shoegazer groups. Darla is post-shoegazer, if you will, a sound that ranges from the icy pop ballads of Lali Puna to the enigmatic sonic journeys of Junior Varsity KM—stuff that's a lot more accessible than Brian Eno or My Bloody Valentine, the folks who most clearly influenced these bands. With discs this eclectic, I can't wait for Darla's 12-year compilation.
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You may ask what's the big deal about a group of guys who play roots/folk/country/ blues standards in an acoustic/electric vein. You may say there are plenty of bands that do this just as well—hell, you've probably been in a couple. But at a closer glance, Boston's Tarbox Ramblers exhibit a finesse that elevates them above your average dentally challenged roots/bar band. They take hoary folk/blues standards like "St. James Infirmary" and "The Cuckoo" and shake them around enough so most of the dust falls off. Vocalist/guitarist Michael Tarbox's playing won't make you forget Ry Cooder, but his slide work is 87.9 percent subtler than George Thorogood's. And Tarbox's slight growl on vocals serves the material engagingly. Dan Keller is one of the few fiddlers who approximates brilliant former Kaleidoscope and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band bowman Chris Darrow's chops, mixing his country/Cajun sawing with a little Middle Eastern charm and taking his solos in unpredictable directions. Still, as with most good bands, their appeal is greater than the sum of their parts. The folk process allows—demands—that you take things like Charlie Patton's "Oh Death" and rip out a couple of verses or add one of your own. Darrow's Kaleidoscope used to do that, but not too many bands have mined this area recently, and the Ramblers have a certain panache that's hard to dislike. (Dennis Roger Reed)