With the big labels adding to the misery of the world, it's fallen on indie imprints to serve as the industry's conscience. From Badman's Shanti Project and Take Me Home benefit compilations to the punk label Sub City, which donates 5 percent of its record revenues to charities chosen by its bands, microlabels are working hard to bring responsibility back to a business that has become synonymous with exploitation.
Of all the music-centered do-gooding, the Amos House Collection series -- a benefit for a Providence, R.I., nonprofit that houses and feeds the homeless -- is in a class all its own. Where most benefit compilations consist of whatever marginally talented bands the label can guilt into submitting songs, the Amos House albums include otherwise unavailable tracks from some of the most talented voices in the underground world. Last year's Volume I featured such college-radio heartthrobs as Death Cab for Cutie, Departure Lounge, and the Ladybug Transistor, while this month's Volume II contains 19 unheard songs by the likes of Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes, and Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell.
Having such big names attached to the CD will no doubt boost sales, but the real stars of the collection are the lesser-known songwriters. Take Emily Sparks, who infuses her "Down in Virginia" with the cigarette-roughed innocence and irresistible despair of a young Mary Lou Lord. Or there's Drew O'Doherty, whose "One Way" is a breathtaking blend of Mark Eitzel's plaintiveness and Richard Buckner's dusky confessionalism. Other standout moments include the buzzing, electronic coo of Wheat's "Test Tones (Demo for the Flaming Lips)," Ida's bluegrass-ish "Jubilee," and the Aislers Set's gorgeously sinister "Sara's Song."
The list of obscure artists turning in classic songs -- Kleenex Girl Wonder, James William Hindle, Skating Club -- goes on and on. In fact, the only disappointments are the household names. The alternate take of Elliott Smith's "Bottle Up and Explode" sounds muted and dull, and Spoon's dance remix of "Everything Hits at Once" doesn't live up to its funky promise, barely straying from the take on Girls Can Tell.
On the whole, though, The Amos House Collection, Volume II pulls off the rarest of feats, marrying great art to great purpose. With the CD's release, Wishing Tree has set a new standard for community service that any record label -- indie or major -- will have trouble surpassing. Here's hoping that doesn't stop them from trying.