@rt©ore Volume I

Various Artists (Tooth & Nail Records)

First of all: Brandon Ebel, just tell us right now if you are the guy who sang on Almonzo’s “Pan Cake Batter Girl.” I am pretty sure I hear like about a 70% match between the singing voice of that guy and your speaking voice when I’ve heard it in interviews.

I can’t remember where I first read the rumor that Almonzo was Ebel (the president of Tooth & Nail Records, aka the Jimmy Iovine or maybe David Geffen or maybe Suge Knight of Christian indie rock) singing on this track, but I want it to be true, because it will make me like him and the song even more. “Pan Cake Batter Girl” (why not “pancake?” I don’t know! It’s art!), the final track on this 1995 Tooth and Nail compilation, is a perfect specimen of ‘90s Christian indie rock , and, if Ebel is the singer, a wish-fulfillment fantasy: who wants to be in a band more badly than people who run record labels and people who write about bands, and what could be more endearing than one of those people finally getting the chance to do it, and doing it really well? Did I mention I once sang “With Arms Outstretched” on stage with Jenny Lewis and the dude who owns Barsuk? But I digress. A little.

The first volume of Artcore — sorry, @rt©ore — is a classic Tooth & Nail compilation, and this label put out a lot of compilations. Before all music ever recorded in history apparently became so worthless that everyone is allowed to listen to it for free all the time, compilations were one of the only reliable ways — along with magazines — to learn more about bands and labels you might want to get into. It was well worth your money to pick up a CMJ New Music Monthly or even a 7Ball (or even Paste! Paste used to be a print magazine that came with a compact disc! I wrote about Coldplay’s second record for them while I was still in college, and they mailed me a check!), because you got to hear 20 new songs by maybe 10–15 bands you’d never heard before. Some would be great, and some would be shit, but you’d dutifully listen through all of it in hopes of finding your next favorite band.

Tooth & Nail had comps for various genres, though the two Artcore (I will not cut and paste the copyright symbol again, sorry) records were the only ones I bought, because I was skinny and wore glasses and was Not Good at Sports, as, I assume, were the other kids who bought them. Oh, we were legion. You think Songs for the Penalty Box was for kids like us? No. But Brandon Ebel had our back. This was artsy music for total weiners.

I mean, for thoughtful, hip, young, evangelical Christians.

Like any good ‘90s comp, there’s a lot of filler, some interesting alternate versions of songs from good bands, and some total gems from bands never heard again.

A few highlights: Joy Electric coming the closest they ever would to Nine Inch Nails territory. Rose Blossom Punch’s “Sowing in the Sun,” which was a bit of a red herring in that it suggested that Aaron Sprinkle’s post-Poor Old Lu career was going to be mostly in a high-energy rock band (nope) with his brother (nope). Starflyer 59 with Leigh Bingham (Thank you, The Universe!*), gorgeously drenched in reverb, before she sang “Kiss Me” or was even Leigh Nash. A high quotient of beautifully sludgy, shoegaze-y tracks by bands who had clearly absorbed all of Loveless years before any Tooth & Nail fanboy even mustered up the courage to buy a record outside a Christian bookstore.

[* God]

The highlight of the record, though, for my money, is Lance Alton Hemmingway’s “Evangeline.” No one seems to have any idea who the singer is; despite his eminently Googlable-sounding name, he seems to not be on the internet, which is refreshing. And there’s a dull, sensual ache through the whole thing — the guitar feedback at the beginning, the sad accordion, the cracks in the singer’s voice, the lyrics that hit a sort of Nick Cave/David Bazan sweet spot somewhere between genuinely spiritual and ironically sinister (“pistols and prayers/knives and kneeling down…”).

You know the Matthew Sweet song also called “Evangeline” about the dude trying to persuade an uptight Christian girl to sleep with him? This is like that, only it’s not cute or funny or catchy, and the dude is also probably an uptight Christian, which gives the whole thing more weight.

Most of the other songs on the record are almost as good. Except the ones I skipped, and now that I think about it, there were sort of a lot of those, but this record is about more than just the songs: The cover. The liner notes. The photos. It was all so mysterious, so cool, so — I dunno, Artcore-y. Nothing about this compilation, nothing about anything Tooth & Nail did at the time, felt like “trying too hard,” which is way more than can be said for almost any Christian record label, indie or otherwise, in the ‘90s. It was just a cool and strange collection of interesting songs made by and for people who had been forced to go to youth group at some point in their lives.

The point is this: Tooth & Nail put out effortlessly cool records for effortlessly uncool evangelical kids.

Did I ever tell you about the time I picked up a box of CDs from an immaculately gothed-out Theresa Bettger — Jeff Suffering’s wife — when she was doing PR for the label and proceeded to immediately take a cartoon-style pratfall, as if on a banana peel, my feet flying out from under me as jewel cases clattered all around us? That about sums it up.

This brings us back to “Pan Cake Batter Girl.” Maybe it’s not Brandon Ebel. I don’t know. Whoever it is singing and playing on this song, I get the feeling they’re the ones who sat on the fence between cool dudes in a band and geeky kids trying not to make eye contact with the youth pastor. This song is the epitome of ‘90s Chrindie (a term I dislike, by the way, despite my promulgation of it — a word to define this genre needs to be awkward and uncomfortable, but catchy and fitting).

Somewhere between cool and good, fashionable and dorky, cute and angsty, Christian sincerity and oh-well-whatever-nevermind irony, is “Pan Cake Batter Girl.” The anonymous band members named after characters from Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, the fuzzy DIY production, the cheesy crooner vocals, the Jesus references, and the sense that despite it all being assembled in a musty church basement and held together with only two-inch tape and faith, it works: this is Chrindie.