Ah, samplers: the mixtapes of the business world. Take a group of albums, pluck a few highlights, then throw them all on a disc in the hope that John Q. Public will get interested enough to buy your stuff. A lot of labels release small samplers with minimal packaging and tracks to generate hype; it’s a good way to get people to hear your music and learn what your label’s all about. All Saints is a lot like that, but they take the high road. I mean, just look at the packaging: snazzy as shit. Couple that with a mini poster with artwork by Brian Eno and blurbs about all the albums on the back, and you’ve got a winner. Besides, this is an album with a title. Not All Saints Sampler, but Compounds and Elements. We’re not just sampling, we’re being introduced – which is of course very classy. The album intuitively features eighteen tracks from the eighteen albums in the All Saints catalogue, and it totally works. Compounds and Elements is a more than ample introduction to the label, and a pretty nice collection in its own right.
Sometime in the early ’90s, Brian Eno’s then-label Opal decided to move from the drudgery of being a label to focus on the glamorous, high-society world of artist management. All Saints, which got started in ’91, was where all Opal’s old albums went; and because most of the catalogue is late ’80s/early ’90s stuff absorbed from Opal, Eno-related artists drive the label, right down to the “file under Brian Eno” sticker on the packaging. Besides the large chunk of early ’90s Eno, there’s people like his brother Roger, John Cale, and people Eno likes (pretty much everyone else). For being around fifteen years or so, the catalogue is pretty small, with only a couple of new artists that, to their credit, have been getting pretty good reviews. But mostly we’re dealing with reissues of older stuff.
And let’s be honest: reissues are sweet. Here I have to give a nod to Rykodisc for being so benevolent to its acquired sub-labels. They’ve been nothing but good to their assets, and the constant stream of reissues that have been trickling out of Ryko have been of uniformly high quality. And hey, even for albums that aren’t real classics, at least they sound nice and have well-written liner notes, right? The packaging, also, is much improved. For a salient example, compare the Eno and Cale collaboration album Wrong Way Up; the original release had garish cover art from the questionable graphic design sense of 1990, but the reissue has a higher-class redux you can take seriously…or at least show to your friends without them laughing at you.
But hey, the purpose of a sampler is to give you a taste of the music, right? And with this kind of material, it’s going to depend on taste. If all the mentions of Eno haven’t scared you off so far, and your policy on ambient has a thumbs-up shaped ink stamp on it, consider yourself in for a treat. All Saints certainly has enough classic albums to justify a look from the duly curious who are sufficiently into the right stuff, like the previously-mentioned Wrong Way Up and the Jon Hassell album (not the guy from the Libertines), which are stone cold classics (the songs representing them here being pretty goddamn good as well).
Also, for those who are indifferent to ambient electronics, there might be enough entertaining material here for them to at least skip around to. The two new signings, Marconi Union and Vacabou, are a little more mainstream, with Portishead and Sigur Ros analogies bouncing around them, and lesser-known artists like Djivan Gasparyan, the Armenian folk star/master of the duduk/Brian Eno fave, are surprising and very cool. The mix itself sidles between the ambient side of the label and the other stuff, and I’ve gotta say it’s pretty tight. You can put it on and chill without any abrupt bumps (although the duduk in the middle of a mostly electronic album may be a little jarring for some). So this might be a good pick for those interested in getting into this kind of music, or at least those who want to know about an ample part of Brian Eno’s back catalogue (and his tastes, for that matter). All in all – and especially with a price tag of just $2.99 – Compounds and Elements is a pretty successful affair.
Reviewed by Jon Cameron
This review is also posted on Modern Pea Pod.