RPM's Lipsmackin' 70s series is one of the most delightful events in pop reissues in 2003, since it plays on two key points for pop record collectors: it is music that is both totally obscure and uniformly excellent. These two traits don't necessarily go hand in hand, and record collectors are known to convince themselves that obscure music is obscure because it is obscure, but the producers behind Lipsmackin' 70s have a knack for finding forgotten minor hits, B-sides, neglected album tracks, overlooked artists, songs recorded under aliases, and other assorted pop ephemera. Some of this stuff is so arcane that it's easy to dismiss on paper as mere oddities, but it plays brilliantly, since the compilers have excellent taste and excellent sequencing skills. These traits were all apparent on the first two installments of the series: the deliriously gaudy Velvet Tinmine and Magpie, an appealingly shambolic odds 'n' ends collection of TV themes, commercials, covers, and kitsch classics. The same spirit carries through on the third installment, ZigZag: 20 Junkshop Soft Rock Singles 1970-1974, but the music it chronicles isn't nearly as trashy as its two predecessors. ZigZag chronicles British pop singer/songwriters of the early '70s, musicians equally inspired by Dylanesque folkies and lush, orchestrated post-Sgt. Pepper pop. Although this is certainly music of its time, and therefore is often viewed through rose-tinted nostalgia or wrongly seen as camp, it is certainly lacking the cheap pop thrills of Velvet Tinmine and boasts a lineup of artists who were quite serious in their intentions, and their music reflects those sentiments.
Which means, of course, that ZigZag isn't glitzy, but rather reflective, earnest, and lush, often sounding like a cross between Paul McCartney, Elton John, Al Stewart, Cat Stevens, and Gilbert O'Sullivan. Some of the artists carry a somber vibe, complete with grandiose Paul Buckmaster-styled strings, but most of this is rather light, skipping along on folky guitars, pianos, and a melodic sensibility borrowed from McCartney. If a few cuts are a little too steeped in the sensibility of the time, whether it's through unabashed feyness or the heavy soul of Tim Rose's "(You've Got To) Hide Your Love Away," that's part of the compilation's charm -- it is music that could only have been made during the early '70s in its attitude, sensibility, and production. Yet these 20 songs sound fresh, partially because they haven't been widely heard, but also because there's a freshness and excitement in hearing these songwriters play around with new ideas in pop music and production, creating some very fine soft rock singles in the process. While it is true that you either have to have lived through the time or be a fanatical pop record collector to dig this stuff, if you fall into either category, ZigZag is sheer pleasure.