This week in Stylus, I contributed to the Non-Definitive Guide to the Artist-Run Label feature, writing the last 2 label profiles for Roc-A-Fella Records (nothing that people don't really already know about in there) and Smells Like Records, who are close to my heart and considerably more obscure. I don't have every release on Steve Shelley's label, and I don't love all of the ones I've heard (the Mosquito album is one of the rare instances in which I took a CD back to the store after one listen for reasons other than scratches on the disc). But it's still probably my favorite tiny indie vanity label ever, and means way more to me than just any old Sonic Youth side project. Here are some of my favorite selections from their catalog:

La Lengua Asesina - "Hotel Opera" (mp3)
For anyone who's ever wondered about the origin of my AOL e-mail address, it's this, the brief slide guitar instrumental title track from Hotel Opera, the 1998 album by La Lengua Asesina, a side project of Tim Foljahn. Foljahn's main project is Two Dollar Guitar, my favorite Smells Like band, who I'll talk more about tomorrow. It kind of amazes me that I've had that e-mail address since shortly after this record came out, almost 8 years ago. Man, that makes me feel old.

Chris Lee - "Mount Venus" (mp3)
One of the most memorable introductions I've ever had to an artist via a live show would have to be when Chris Lee played a Smells Like label showcase in 2001. He opened his set with an amazing solo rendition of Tim Buckley's "Song To The Siren," and then played with the same backing band from his self-titled first album (including Andrew Barker, who I've barely heard anywhere else but might be one of the greatest drummers I've ever seen/heard). Chris Lee is a soul singer with a voice like Steve Perry from Journey with a little Southern twang added in, which might look terrible on paper, but he's made some really good, slept on records, in addition to playing with The Sands. And the best of his 3 solo albums is the one he did for Smells Like, 2001's Chris Lee Plays And Sings Torch'd Songs, Charivari Hymns & Oriki Blue-Marches. His official site has mp3's of some of my favorite songs from him, but here's another that's real quiet and pretty, and is kinda long because there's a hidden instrumental track at the end that sounds pretty awesome awesome..

Scarnella - "Release The Spring" (mp3)
Carla Bozulich's official site has mp3's from throughout her entire career, including some of my favorites by The Geraldine Fibbers ("Lilybelle," "Dragon Lady," "Butch") and Ethyl Meatplow ("Ripened Peach"), but the selection from Scarnella, the wonderfully bizarre 1998 album with Nels Cline, "Death By Northwest," is one of my least favorite tracks on that record. For a record that was made entirely by 2 people in a short span of time, it really does cover a pretty wide range of their abilities, from aggressive noise improv to torch ballads to giddy punk. I'll have to go with "Release The Spring," though, partly for the timeliness of the selection, and partly for that amazing spidery opening guitar riff, and the way Nels stomped on a bass drum to keep time during the song the one time I saw them play as Scarnella, opening for The Boredoms in '99.

Cat Power - "Rockets" (mp3)
I'm of the minority that was only really feeling Cat Power on those first 3 albums with Shelley/Foljahn backing where Chan Marshall's voice really cut through those muddy lo-fi riffs. Moon Pix, while about half really good, was the beginning of the end, as far as smoothing out her sound for a Garden Stateified fanbase that would actually put up with the bullshit she calls a live show.

Christina Rosenvinge - "Green Room" (mp3)
This tune has a somewhat convoluted history, from being penned by Tim Foljahn and originally released as "Chambre Vert" (the title translated to French, although the lyrics were always in Engligh) on the La Lengua Asesina album, and then recorded by Two Dollar Guitar for Weak Beats & Lame Ass Rhymes with Christina Rosenvinge guesting on lead vocals, and then recorded again by pretty much the same personnel (but with a slightly softer, less rock'n'roll arrangement) for Rosenvinge's Frozen Pool album. Plus there's a full band TDG version with Foljahn on vocals that they played on tour, which might be my favorite.

Note: In light of the end of Stylus in 2007, I decided to archive the text of all my reviews for the site on this blog for posterity, since I don't what the future holds for the Stylus domain:

Smells Like

Started: 1992

How It Started: Sonic Youth is an almost an indie cottage industry unto itself, with its various side projects and noise improv one-offs spreading out over countless homegrown labels. Meanwhile, drummer Steve Shelley has quietly gone about building a catalog of of rootsy, down-tempo lo-fi that owes a greater debt to Neil Young than the band's post-punk influences with his Smells Like Records label, over the course of 15 years and a few dozen releases.

Smells Like's first release was a 7-inch by Lou Barlow's Sentridoh, and true to those origins, the label's become something of a haven for side projects, including Dump (Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew), Mosquito (Half Japanese frontman Jad Fair), and Scarnella (a stunning and experimental 1998 collaboration between Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline of the Geraldine Fibbers). But Smells Like is more than just a vanity label for sidelines by estalished indie lifers, having signed a number of young unknowns including The Clears, Nod, and New York crooner Chris Lee, whose 2001 sophomore album stands out as one of Smells Like's finest moments.

Smells Like has also fought to keep cult heroes in print, including a 1994 EP by the reunited Raincoats. But perhaps the label's most ambitious project has been a 1999 campaign of reissues of solo albums by iconoclastic 70's pop songwriter Lee Hazelwood, including his first new album in decades. But Smells Like might still be best known as the home of the SYR imprint, which has issued Sonic Youth's series of experimental EPs, beginning with 1997's SYR1.

Where They Are Now: Smells Like still occasionally takes on new artists, most recently issuing debut albums by Ursa Minor and Tony Scherr. And they continue to foster long-term relationships with new albums by Christina Rosenvinge, Nod, and Fuck frontman Timothy Prudhomme, while Tim Foljahn has been hinting at a new Two Dollar Guitar album for years. The SYR series is still going strong with this year's SYR6, and Smells Like has handled the vinyl releases of Sonic Youth's more recent major label albums and its latest spate of reissues, including the long-awaited repressing of their 1981 debut EP.
[Al Shipley]


Started: 1995

How It Started: Hip-hop has virtually redefined the business model for artist-run labels, with nearly every up-and-coming MC now aiming for the ownership of their own company. And although Master P's No Limit Records set the standard for the independent grind in the South, no label has been more influential in popularizing the artist-run major label imprint than Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records.

Founded with business partners Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke after they had no luck getting him signed to a major label, Roc-A-Fella issued Jay's earlier singles, including "In My Lifetime," before getting distribution from Priority Records for his debut album, the 1996 classic Reasonable Doubt. It wasn't until 1998 when Roc-A-Fella partnered with Def Jam that Jay-Z was propelled to multi-platinum status, however.

It's to the credit of Jay-Z's marketing skills that he made Roc-A-Fella a recognized brand name despite being one of its only successful artists for several years. Aside from DJ Clue's two platinum mixtape albums, no non-Jay-Z release sold a million copies until Cam'ron's Come Home With Me in 2002. By that point, Roc-A-Fella had only modest sales to show for Philly hardcore rapper Beanie Sigel, Jay's Brooklyn crony Memphis Bleek, and the flop debut by female rapper Amil. But together, they presented a unified front as one of the most feared crews in the rap game.

The 2000 album Dynasty: Roc La Familia, stuffed with posse cuts, went a long way toward establishing the brand. But what really solidified Roc-A-Fella as a sound all its own was Jay-Z's 2001 album The Blueprint, which made in-house producers Just Blaze and Kanye West the hottest beatmakers in the game overnight, and brought soul sampling back in vogue in hip-hop. And in 2004, just months after Jay-Z announced his retirement from hip hop with The Black Album, West became the label's second multi-platinum franchise with his debut as a rapper, The College Dropout.

In recent years, Roc-A-Fella haphazardly expanded its roster, signing countless artists who never ended up releasing an album, including questionable choices like ex-Spice Girl Victoria Beckham and several underutilized veteran rappers. M.O.P. was on the label for years before moving onto a new deal with G-Unit, and Ol' Dirty Bastard passed away while working on an album for the label. Meanwhile, rumors swirled of a growing rift between Jay-Z and Dame Dash, which they denied adamantly right up until their partnership was dismantled.

Where They Are Now: Def Jam were so impressed with Jay-Z's business acumen in running one of the company's most successful labels that in 2004, he was offered the job of President of Def Jam. But the terms of the deal included Jay-Z, Dash, and Burke selling their remaining 50% share of Roc-A-Fella to Def Jam, effectively ending the partnership that the label had started. Dash has moved on with the unsuccessful Damon Dash Music Group, and one of the artists he brought to Roc-A-Fella, Cam'ron, left Def Jam and dissed Jay-Z on record. Aside from Kanye West's sophomore album, the continued success of Roc-A-Fella has yet to be seen, with meager sales of recent albums by Memphis Bleek, the Young Gunz, and Teairra Mari.
[Al Shipley]

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