Various Artists

Should Have Been Hits

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Like many independent labels in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the Texas-based Little Darlin' Records recorded more material than they released, and of the singles they did put out, not all made the charts. Among collectors and fanatics, these are the 45s that are highly sought-after, since these are the songs that are either rarities, forgotten gems, or, perhaps best of all, simply unknown quantities, the kind of record that's only known through its appearances in label discographies or tucked away on the bottom of a radio play chart. Because of this, a release like Koch's 2005 collection Should Have Been Hits holds great appeal -- surely, a label as beloved by country collectors as Little Darlin' will have some real treasures buried in the vaults, and the fact that most of the label's music never appeared on CD until they struck up a licensing deal with Koch in 2004 only made their catalog all the more appealing. So, it would seem that Should Have Been Hits, which contains 20 tracks from the Little Darlin' vaults, would be a goldmine of lost classics, but that's not quite the case. Instead of being a carefully selected, well-documented excavation of the label's rarities, this is a haphazard collection of material recorded anywhere from 1953 to 1983, with each cut bearing the sonic trademarks of the year it was recorded. This makes for a strangely uneven listen, since it bounces between gritty honky tonk to slick, heavily echoed ballads, but if the songs were better, skipping through the decades could have been easy to forgive. Instead, most of this is generic material, performed by average singers who are given slapdash production that tends to flatten out even the better songs. That's not the case with each song, of course -- Joe Pain's take on Johnny Paycheck and Aubrey Mayhew's drinking classic "Down at Kelly's" is terrific and the Woodward Brothers' "Hot Rod Race, Navy Style" is a roaring, infectious slice of country boogie, both songs that could have sounded comfortable on the country charts. Apart from these sides, and perhaps Lee Potter's rolling "In the City" (which would have sounded comfortable in the hands of the Glaser Brothers), the rest of the album consists of songs that really shouldn't have been hits: they're simply too pedestrian to make their mark. Which doesn't make Should Have Been Hits a bad album -- and if you're the kind of country music fan who finds the very idea of this collection appealing, it's worth a spin -- but it just doesn't live up to its title.

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