THE BRILLIANT SPECTRUM OF WHAT’S UP MATADOR

by Rachel Brame –

With an insatiable hunger for discovering music my eyes and ears are always open to new influences. I was about a junior in high school when I took the advice of a very trusting friend who suggested I borrow his VHS copy of What’s Up Matador (thanks Big Joe!). Enamored with its cheeky infomercial format feel in front of an audience of kids Bill Boggs entertainingly explains what a day in the life of a record label is like while a host of resident musicians help illustrate the point by breaking out their instruments. This compilation of cool-ass videos are really great masterpieces of 90’s indie music and it works as a fantastic companion to the double CD of the same name. Both incarnations serve as wonderful introductions to the American indie scene in its heyday. Needless to say I went out on the hunt for my own copy of this double album of awesomeness and ultimately found it during a trade-in at a CD Game Exchange near the University of Maryland in College Park. Upon seeing my choice selection, dude behind the counter gave a knowing nod of approval and an unexpected ‘mutual music appreciation’ discount in addition to its already nice price.

This is Matador’s first attempt at a major compilation of its roster. Originally released in 1997 (Ole 163-2), What’s Up Matador is a 2 disc collection packed with a crème de la crème of mid-90’s low-fi songwriters and groups. All tracks on this album range from the label’s early period of 1990-1997 although it was technically born in 1989. During the commercial peak of grunge Matador had a real ear and the foresight to cultivate and promote some of the decade’s most notable indie bands.  As a label, it’s unique since they don’t stereotype or take preference towards any particular niche and have always maintained the philosophy of promoting an eclectic array of high quality artists. Their catalogue was a true ‘alternative’ to radio friendly alternative music.

Disc 1 clocks in at 78 minutes and is chock full of 24 hand-picked favorite tracks by Matador staff, while disc 2 is an amazing cluster of 20 unreleased gems running equally long in duration. It’s a wide ranging compilation and entertaining at every turn. The album jump starts with “Tom Courtenay”, Yo La Tengo’s poppy film inspired melody which gives a big nod to certain cinema references. Extreme bias alert here: I’m a super fan of this tune in particular for its lyrics: “See her in the arms of Paul; say it, I can say no more”, which is a reference to Eleanor Bron from the Beatles movie Help! Following this opener, proceeding tracks include heavy distortion classics from Pavement, Helium, Spoon, and The Frogs. Pizzicato Five’s kitschy mod pop jingles break the mold with their hip swinging song “Twiggy, Twiggy”,  while the densely layered guitars of Chavez create another mood entirely, and Guided By Voices punch out the power chords in one of the best driving songs ever “Motor Away”. Other notable artists sprinkled in the lineup include Liz Phair, Superchunk, and the John Spencer Blues Explosion. Disc 2 also breaks out highlights from early work of artists such as Cat Power, Railroad Jerk, Tobin Sprout and Bardo Pond. It also features Pavement’s cover of “Killing Moon” which ultimately did end up on their EP Major Leagues.

It’s a definitely a time capsule worth opening. Whatever your reasons it deserves a listen. Chances are you’ll find a band or someone you recognize on there, and luckily, probably uncover a group you never knew you liked before. May it fill your ears with an abundance of joy! Good music can lead to good karma; I’m just here to pass it on.

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