Review of Walls Have Ears: 21 Years Of Wall Of Sound Album by Various Artists

Label retrospectives are not without a degree of risk: it's easy for compilers to fall into the self-indulgent trap of looking after your pet projects, with the line by extension between vanity exercise and faithful cataloguing dangerously a thin one.

Various Artists Walls Have Ears: 21 Years Of Wall Of Sound Album

The guys at Wall of Sound will probably feel that they're worth it. Twenty years after their first and fondly remembered compilation 'Give 'Em Enough Dope', they're back to celebrate their 21st in business with a two disk, thirty-odd song opus, the idea to map the imprint's evolution from big beat boutique to its later, more cosmopolitan artist roster.

They've got the sense to start with two stone cold killers as well; it's been donkey's years since we heard the Propellerheads' 'Take California' or Royksopp's 'Poor Leno', but we're happy to report that both are still headphone gold. There are also selections from the respective acts at their peak, which is less than can be said, however, for some of the other choices strewn across the first disk. The problem here isn't a lack of the quality in the contributors - we've got stuff from the likes of Zoot Woman, The Bees and Les Rythmes Digitales - but they've all produced better material than that featured here, a point best illustrated via The Bees on the jazzy, underwhelming scat of 'A Minha Menina'.

As well as a discouraging lack of flow and/or intuitive sequencing, the troughs here are also pretty rough, The Human League leading that particular charge towards mediocrity by phoning in their performance on the almost self-parodying 'Night People'. The ever reliable Grace Jones almost rescues the whole thing with a typically enigmatic performance on 'William's Blood', but defeat at the mid-point is snatched from victory by three bizarre cover versions: B.E.F's take on 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' losing all the depravity of the original, Scala & Kolacny Brothers choral treatment of Metallica's 'Nothing Else Matters' is brave but misses the point, whilst the The Jolly Boys' awkward, Mento-rendered tilt at 'Rehab' needs to be heard to be fully appreciated. They probably meant well.    

So far, so not-quite-sure-what-could-turn-this-round, but the second stanza does at least right some of the first's wrongs. Comprised largely of work recorded in various live sessions, the ever faithful Royksopp start the fight back with their highly mechanical - but effortlessly groovy - alternative techno spin on 'Poor Leno', whilst The Wiseguys' 'Ooh La La' is as huge and dirty as you may remember it. As before, there's a constant feeling that the track listing was assembled using a dart board: but both Ugly Duckling's 'Little Samba' and the astral lounge of Akasha's 'Brown Sugar' will probably be undiscovered gems for most listeners, and that's a good thing, right? Ultimately, though, there can only be one winner, although whether or not the obvious prominence of Blak Twang's 'The Kick Off' here is due to his briefly Zeitgeist skimming rep - or the lack of any real competition from the top drawer - is a riddle that's as unanswerable as, frankly, it's irrelevant.

Ultimately, 'Walls Have Ears' does a far better job of proving the maxim that label comps are a bear trap waiting to be sprung than working hard for the defence. Odd distractions aside, this is one wall you don't really need to climb.


Andy Peterson

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