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How I learned to stop worrying and love Starbucks

I hate Starbucks. It's not a "toss-a-brick-through-their-window-while-wearing-a-black-bandana" type of hate, but nearly. I hate that they've turned the local coffee shop into a dimly lit McDonald's with couches. I hate that they've managed to cultivate a sense of cool about these cookie-cutter establishments. And I hate that it's a genuinely pleasant (if neutral) place to spend an hour. Fuck, I don't even like coffee.

So what does it say about me that I can't stop playing Starbucks' latest music compilations? Am I really this lame?

Apparently so. Or else Starbucks isn't one-tenth as awful as I'd suspected. The records are released by Hear Music, once its own entity but bought by Starbucks in 1999. The newest disc is called Sweetheart, with its tag — "[Hear Music's] favorite artists cover their favorite love songs" — about as concise a description as you could ask for. All the tracks were recorded specifically for the compilation, which, considering the respectably middleweight line-up (Nick Lowe, Aimee Mann, Joe Henry), is impressive evidence of Starbucks' synergistic promotional muscle.

More importantly, most of these artists actually sound inspired. Kathleen Edwards, who drew raves for the cracked brilliance of her Lucinda Williams-ish debut, Failer, takes on Tom Petty's "A Face In The Crowd," tweaking it just enough to shine a new light on the well-worn original. Miho Hatori of Japanese indie-pop oddballs Cibo Matto finds the smoky, mysterious lounge-pop heart lurking beneath Madonna's "Crazy For You," and even though Rosie Thomas' "Love" may not add much to John Lennon's original, she does capture the song's mixture of passion, intimacy and fear.

It's not all re-workings of well-known hits. Brooklyn twang-pop beatniks Clem Snide unearth "Don't Want to Set the World On Fire," by proto-doo-wop group the Ink Spots and re-imagine it as a gorgeously simple, world-weary country-pop lament. South Florida alt-folkie Samuel Bean's musical alter-ego Iron and Wine resurrects the Marshall Tucker Band's long-forgotten love and death entwinement, "Ab's Song," then gives it a hushed, sad-core reading that suggests Marshall Tucker's Toy Caldwell may be one of rock's most criminally underrated songwriters. If Starbucks was looking for unobtrusive aural wallpaper, this isn't it.

The other compilation, Hear Music Volume 10: Reveal, is mostly just first-rate album cuts from folks such as Daniel Lanois, the Go-Betweens, Nada Surf and Yo La Tengo. It does exactly what any good mixtape should, searching out really good songs buried on albums that were mostly overlooked — sometimes justifiably. The dark but oddly cheery "Fa-La-La" is the most engrossing tune on Vic Chesnutt's otherwise lukewarm album Silver Lake. Ditto for "Look At Miss Ohio," the weird, quivering highlight of Gillian Welch's sub-standard Soul Journey. The Jayhawks' current Crosby, Stills & Nash jag is tedious over the course of an entire album but sounds great here for one song ("Madman"). Ex-Whiskeytown lass Caitlin Cary is another who writes great songs but doesn't necessarily make great albums; her stirring "Cello Girl" is a powerful pick-me-up on a compilation that skews mellow.

Reveal's only previously unreleased tune is Paul Westerberg's "Lookin' Up in Heaven," slated to be included on his next solo record, Folker. Who knows whether Westerberg realized he was pretty much plagiarizing the Grateful Dead's "Friend Of The Devil," but that he agreed to have the tune included here says something about the personal reckoning that the ex-Replacements frontman has come to in recent years. He's not a bratty, drunken rabble-rouser anymore and he doesn't make music for bratty, drunken rabble-rousers, either.

This is the sort of fact that used to depress me into firing off snipes about getting old, going soft and making music for latte-slurping suburbanites. But now I'm starting to wonder if I doth protest too much. I drive miles out of my way to avoid renting a video from Blockbuster. I scoff at friends who move to the suburbs like traitors to some vague, unnamable cause. But that's what people do when they're young: They see the world in black and white, draw lines in the sand, pick a side and start shouting.

Maybe a knee-jerk hatred of everything Starbucks is a little immature. Maybe assuming a massive corporation was somehow incapable of hiring someone with taste and curiosity enough to dig up obscure gems from folks like the Fruit Bats, Josh Ritter and Sukilove is a little presumptuous. Perhaps worrying about what my appreciation of these albums says about me is a little ridiculous.

Or maybe I'm just getting old and going soft.


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