Various Artists

While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records

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Independent record labels are not always known for their longevity, so the mere fact Chicago's Bloodshot Records has managed to celebrate a 20th birthday is remarkable in itself. Even more impressive, though, is the fact Bloodshot has survived as a principled and artist-friendly label largely devoted to what was being called alt-country in 1994 (the label has always preferred the phrase "insurgent country"), a movement that produced many great acts but no major commercial breakthroughs. If Bloodshot's influence hasn't necessarily been broad, it's certainly proved to be deep, and on While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, the label has thrown a grand birthday party by inviting 38 different acts to cover their favorite song from Bloodshot's catalog. It's probably significant that Bloodshot's biggest-selling album, Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker, spawned the most covers here (four), but the fact that lesser-knowns like the Meat Purveyors, Devil in a Woodpile, and the Blacks are shown some love confirms that the label's work frequently fell on the right ears, if not always the most ears. And if you want evidence that the label's staff know a good song when they hear one, the eclectic interpretations on While No One Was Looking reveal that nearly every tune here is a winner that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Superchunk turn Adams' "Come Pick Me Up" into a big, noisy rocker without sacrificing its soul, Ted Leo's ghostly electronic interpretation of the Waco Brothers' "Dragging My Own Tombstone" is striking and powerful, Mike Watt gives Jon Langford & the Sadies' "Up to My Neck in This" an angular spin that suits his singular musical personality, the North Carolina Music Love Army embrace Graham Parker's "Stick to the Plan" with all the joy and bile that it deserves, Andrew Bird & Nora O'Connor conjure a version of Robbie Fulks' "I'll Trade You Money for Wine" that's even more doomstruck than the original, and Interpol's Samuel Fogarino radically reshapes Charlie Pickett's "Liked It a Lot" into a gloomy bit of goth-influenced electronic experimentation. Different listeners often find different things when they listen to a worthwhile album, and While No One Was Looking confirms plenty of folks heard fascinating things in the music Bloodshot has brought to the marketplace, it's a great listen that's full of fine surprises and passionate music. Now how about a follow-up in which Bloodshot artists cover one another's tunes?

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