Attempting to compile a "best of" list from Yep Roc's 15-year catalog inevitably becomes an apples-vs.-oranges exercise. Here, then, is a look at 15 of the label's most intriguing releases, in three geographical subsets:
Though Yep Roc's reputation stretches beyond the borders of the Triangle, the label's 1997 debut was a compilation of rising local roots acts. Lately, the company appears to be stressing its hometown connections again, with recent releases by Chapel Hill's The Old Ceremony and Raleigh expatriate Tift Merritt. In between, a fair string of local acts has called Yep Roc home, including these five.
CAITLIN CARY, WHILE YOU WEREN'T LOOKING (2002) After an auspicious five-song debut, singer-songwriter and violinist Cary made the first major step of her post-Whiskeytown career with this spectacular full-length, which recalled the likes of Linda Thompson and Mary Chapin Carpenter. The exquisite folk-pop track "Shallow Heart, Shallow Water" garnered significant Triple-A radio airplay, helping Cary build a live draw that carried over to her subsequent records with Tres Chicas. The more urgent "Thick Walls Down," a duet with Thad Cockrell, struck a spark that fully ignited when the two singers soon teamed for the duo record Begonias.
MAYFLIES USA, WALKING IN A STRAIGHT LINE (2002) Though Yep Roc leaned toward roots music at the outset, the 1999 signing of Chapel Hill power-pop band Mayflies USA signaled the label's interest in a more modern sound. Co-leaders Matt McMichaels and Adam Price were a classic melodic songwriting pair. Though they put the band on ice not long after the release of Walking, their third for the label, they went out on a high note. The title track ranks with the most instantly memorable tracks ever to come out of the Triangle's indie scene, with guitar licks bounding about like supercharged pinballs.
CHATHAM COUNTY LINE, IV (2008) The fourth time up was a home run for these local boys done good. In the span of three records, CCL had progressed from bluegrass acolytes toward a more compelling vision that retained the traditionalist instrumentation and format but allowed the rock and country sounds they grew up with to push the material. Everything gelled on IV: Leader Dave Wilson's sterling high tenor carries the day on highlights such as the irresistibly hummable "Chip of a Star" and the dramatic ballad "One More Minute," but it's the band's four-part harmonies and spirited picking throughout that make this one so memorable.
DEXTER ROMWEBER, BLUES THAT DEFY MY SOUL (2004) A local legend since the mid-'80s rise of his longtime band Flat Duo Jets, Romweber provided the blueprint for Jack White. His brief Yep Roc tenure produced just one album, but it was a winner. The cover reads Solo! Duo! Trio!, and it's a suitably bare-bones affair, with not much to get in the way of Dex's raw energy and rowdy growl. He kicks off the proceedings with a shout-out to "Hey, Rockin' Dead Man!" Everything that follows careens forth with a similar happy-go-lucky deathabilly smirk.
CHRIS STAMEY, SPEED OF SOUND: INSTRUMENTAL REMIXES FROM TRAVELS IN THE SOUTH (2005) After spending the late '90s and early '00s sharpening his skills in his Chapel Hill studio (indeed, he produced quite a few of Yep Roc's early releases), Stamey brought his own songs to the fore on Travels in the South, an ambitious pop-jazz journey that featured a roster of top Triangle musicians. Then he re-imagined the whole thing without any of the words, using guitar, cello, horns and other instruments to voice the melody in a fascinating 14-track alternate universe. It's not entirely void of vocals, as the soaring Beach Boys-esque "aaahs" attest on the transcendent "Aviation: Kierkegaard."
Because Yep Roc has been based in Haw River (and now Hillsborough), locals tend to think of the label as a regional concern. But it didn't take owners Glenn Dicker and Tor Hansen long to begin building a roster with acts stretching all across the country. By the early 2000s, the label had developed a nationwide reputation as an artist-friendly haven for quality acts both on their way up the career ladder and coming back down from major-label heydays. They cultivated strong connections in music-rich regions such as California, Texas and the Pacific Northwest, as these five selections attest.
DAVE ALVIN, ASHGROVE (2004) Alvin is a Grammy-winning songwriter and guitarist, a masterful synthesist of country, folk, blues and rock; his acquisition by Yep Roc in 2004 was a coup. They were especially fortunate to bring him aboard for Ashgrove, one of the finest records of his dozen-plus solo releases. The title track recalled Alvin's coming-of-age years in a legendary Los Angeles blues club, while the chiming guitars that wind through "Nine Volt Heart" radiate warmth and beauty. "The Man in the Bed" is a heartbreaking deathbed ode to his father, while the spiritually rich closer "Somewhere in Time" was affecting enough to earn a spot on a subsequent Los Lobos record.
JOHN DOE, FOREVER HASN'T HAPPENED YET (2005) The erstwhile X frontman's 2007 release, A Year in the Wilderness, earned a lot of attention for his electrifying duet with Kathleen Edwards on "The Golden State." But this 2005 predecessor was perhaps more revelatory in terms of collaborations, thanks to duets with Neko Case, Kristin Hersh and Cindy Lee Berryhill. Best of all is "Twin Brother," a heartstopping ballad with harmonies by Grant Lee Phillips. It features one of the most emotional vocal performances Doe has ever delivered in the studio—and that's saying a lot.
THE BASEBALL PROJECT, VOL. 2: HIGH AND INSIDE (2011) As conceptual supergroups go, this ranks as one of the most righteous in pop music history. Take frontman Steve Wynn and his drummer wife Linda Pitmon, add R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and spike the punch with Minus 5 ringleader Scott McCaughey; then write songs about nothing but baseball. The second volume is more nuanced and fascinating than the first, with Wynn's sing-along anthem "Chin Music," McCaughey's eerie "Here Lies Carl Mays" and a guest turn by the Hold Steady's Craig Finn on "Don't Call Them Twinkies."
CHUCK PROPHET, TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL (2012) From his early days in '80s underground-rock pioneers Green on Red to his contemporary co-writing with Alejandro Escovedo, San Francisco mainstay Prophet has built up a mountain of cool cred that belies his still-boyish visage. Yep Roc has been fortunate to count him in their ranks since 2007; his newest disc, Temple Beautiful, plays out like a history of his beloved Bay Area, highlighted by the radiant, George Harrison-esque guitar riffs that leap out of "Castro Halloween" and the Candlestick Park memoir "Willie Mays Is Up at Bat" (perhaps an audition for Baseball Project membership?).
THE GOURDS, NOBLE CREATURES (2007) The stronger of the two albums that Austin's longtime Americana stalwarts The Gourds made for Yep Roc in the late 2000s, Noble Creatures finds all three of the band's songwriters in fine form, from Jimmy Smith's high-octane rhythmic rambler "A Few Extra Kilos" to Max Johnston's country boot-scooter "Red Letter Day." And then there's Kevin Russell's "Steeple Full of Swallows," the band's finest moment ever on record: They may first have gained wide attention for their hillbilly reworking of Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin & Juice," but "Steeple" assures their original material can easily transcend clever cover shtick.
The pivotal role Nick Lowe played in Yep Roc's ascension—in some respects, it's The Label That Nick Built—underscores Yep Roc's early realization that they had to reach beyond domestic borders to build a roster. The U.K. proved fertile territory for finding many veteran rock songwriters as well as a few young bands. Before long, the roster included acts from Canada, Australia, Scandinavia and beyond. Here are five of the highest-profile imports.
NICK LOWE, AT MY AGE (2007) You could make a case for just about any of Lowe's recent records for a marquee list, as he's been a remarkably consistent writer of quality material throughout his autumn years. It's not often, though, that I've been moved to write 1,000 words about just one song off of an album, as I did a few years back in considering "Hope for Us All" from At My Age; it's a surprisingly optimistic take from the often world-weary lyricist, carefully grafted to a perfect construction of melody, rhythm and phrasing.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK, SPOOKED (2004) The absurdly talented and eccentric British singer-songwriter has released three albums on Yep Roc with his R.E.M.-based backing crew the Venus 3, as well as reissuing past solo and Soft Boys albums. But it's his first appearance, this hauntingly hushed acoustic album backed by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, that remains his most engaging work with the label. "Television," with its playful "bing-a-bong-a-bing-bong" scatting, is classic Robyn offbeat charm, plus there's the obligatory Dylan cover and a hilarious minute-long spoken-word lark, "Welcome to Earth."
THE SADIES, NEW SEASONS (2007) Probably the most badass-looking band on the Yep Roc roster, Toronto outfit The Sadies have traversed a tremendous amount of ground in their decade-long Yep Roc run, both on their own releases and as the co-billed backing crew on records by Neko Case, Jon Doe, Jon Langford and Andre Williams. Brothers Dallas and Travis Good were at their peak on New Seasons, which found them growing into masterful inventors of a dark, dreamy, garage-country netherworld. It's a concept album of sorts, bookended by the tracks "The First Inquisition" and "The Last Inquisition." But best of all is "A Simple Aspiration," which sounds like a lost classic from the 1960s Nuggets compilation.
LIAM FINN, I'LL BE LIGHTNING (2008) A New Zealander with a notable lineage, Liam calls Crowded House/Split Enz braintrusts Neil Finn and Tim Finn dad and uncle, respectively. His Yep Roc debut as a 24-year-old pop prodigy became one of the label's top-selling records; although he seems still to be finding his way as a songwriter, he's clearly a major talent as a musician, having played almost all of the instruments himself on this highly sophisticated and multilayered effort, which he also produced himself. A subsequent EP found him collaborating with Eliza Jane, daughter of Aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, THE CAKE SALE (2007) Though Irish indie band Bell X1 has released three albums on Yep Roc in the past five years, perhaps their most interesting project for the label has been this multinational effort to benefit the poverty-fighting Oxfam International. Bell X1's Paul Noonan and Brian Crosby were at the center of a loose aggregation that featured fellow Irish artists Glen Hansard (of The Frames and Swell Season) and Lisa Hannigan, plus singer Nina Persson from Swedish band The Cardigans. The nine-song disc is full of quiet, moody and moving chamber-folk-pop, with singers primarily taking turns interpreting tunes written by their partners in the collective.
This article appeared in print with the headline "At home and abroad."