the "Rare On Air" series compiles live-in-the-studio performances from "Morning Becomes Eclectic," Chris Douridas' weekday program on the Santa Monica station KCRW. This third volume's liner notes indicate that its recordings include "the occasional cough, wrong note or improvisation." Don't believe it. They may have been transcribed exactly as played, but "improvisation"? Almost without exception, these 14 performances are massaged, manicured, permed and buttoned into high-ticket suits -- there's nothing spontaneous about them. They're very much of the radio format known as "Adult Album Alternative": tuneful, restrained, inoffensive.
Which can be a good thing. Take, for instance, Ben Folds Five's "Alice Childress," a mature, lovely song whose slickness is essential to its poignancy. The piano-driven trio uses the frictionless sound of the radio studio to their advantage, zooming deftly around the song's complexities. Cowboy Junkies' throbbing cover of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper," likewise, has a bare-coals intensity that rarely comes through on their own records. (The Junkies, along with never-weres Remy Zero, appear courtesy of Geffen Records, for which Douridas has worked as a talent consultant for the last few years; he is now a scout for the Geffen-affiliated DreamWorks label.) But an over-polished veneer can also hide a good song, or cover for a bad one: The popping bass on Me'Shell Ndegiocello's "Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart" suggests "Seinfeld's" incidental music more than real funk, and its tinkling chimes have a grotesque pixie-dust effect.
Douridas has an unusually sharp ear for good, not-yet-well-known bands -- tracks by Guided by Voices, Stereolab and Tindersticks are a welcome inclusion, though they won't tell fans of those groups anything they don't already know. The weakness of "Rare On Air's" aesthetic is a slightly unhealthy nostalgia for the music that the show's listeners smoked the odd Gauloise to in their dorm rooms, years or decades ago.
Sometimes the nostalgia is implicit and fruitful, as with Luna's "23 Minutes In Brussels" (one part CCR, 37 parts "Loaded"-era Velvet Underground). Sometimes the nostalgia is overwhelming, making one acutely aware of a performer's long-gone prime: Patti Smith is a husk of the woman who recorded "Dancing Barefoot" 18 years ago, but she gets points for showing up and functioning. (The same can't be said for James Taylor, whose impossibly tepid take on his 20-year-old "Secret O' Life" -- oh, God, that apostrophe -- is clinching proof that he was replaced by a Taylortronic android sometime around 1973.) And sometimes the nostalgia is just embarrassing: The OK jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is represented by a dribbly fern-bar version of John Lennon's "Imagine."
When Douridas' self-conscious eclecticism
incorporates something his listeners haven't heard
to death already, it can be terrific -- mellow but
rich, like a nice cup of Colombian blend. But the
familiar songs, performers and sounds were
almost always better the first time around.