February 2009

Various Artists - Red House 25: A Silver Anniversary Retrospective
Red House Records RHR-CD-215/215A
Format: CD
Released: 2008

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

The opening track of Red House 25: A Silver Anniversary Retrospective, Volume I, Greg Brown’s "Who Woulda Thunk It?" (originally released in 1985), opens the eight-track review sampler of the 64-track three-CD set. That’s a sharp call by Red House Records: Brown’s blend of roots styles with highly intelligent modern/post-modern lyrics typifies the company’s opus -- plus, he co-founded the label. Spider John Koerner, Claudia Schmidt, Lucy Kaplansky, Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, and the Wailin’ Jennys are among this ambitious collection’s more-than-40 contributors.

So many performers make up the album that listing all would take half this review’s words. It might help, and won’t inappropriately "label," to say that they range from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Jorma Kaukonen. The former is a traditional folksinger whose South Coast album won a Grammy. Kaukonen was an original member of The Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, but his long rock career is intricately roots-rooted. The tracks’ wide range of production times and places defies a uniform sound assessment, but Red House competes well with itself and within its genres.

Any set with over 40 artists raises the question, Is this an artistic unit or a promo package? Inevitably, it is both. If Red House is serious about its job description -- "one of the leading independent labels in contemporary American roots music with a sterling discography and an outstanding roster of artists" -- it would obviously deem its best work capable of promoting the label. But merely promoting could have wrought a less-comprehensive collection emphasizing material with the most popular appeal. Instead we hear great diversity, with much of the material as far as you can get from Top 40. Sum it up as a heapin’ helpin’ of the last quarter-century’s songwriting and interpreting, suggesting a golden age.