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Published: 2004/12/01
by Benjy Eisen

Very Best of The Samples, 1989-1994 – The Samples

What Are Records?

The Samples almost got me kicked out of boarding school. I'm not kidding — an afternoon adventure with the band on the campus of The Hill School in the spring of 92 (or was it '93?), just prior to their Spring Fling performance, landed me in the Dean's office defending my sobriety. My clever defense tactics cast enough doubt to get me off the hook, but I was still banned from attending the show that night. So, instead, I ended up in the Headmaster's Garden making out with one of the hottest girls I'd ever seen. After all these years, I'd like to finally thank the Hill School authority for that night.

True, my first Samples experience was a weird one, but it was strangely appropriate. Earlier that afternoon, a band member told me that they themselves had been booted from boarding school. The Samples always seemed like the perfect prep-school-hippie band anyway, in much the same way that God Street Wine was once the ideal college jamband.

Well, time passed and after a couple of years, like by around 1996, I lost interest in the group. By then the band's lineup had changed dramatically and new albums continued to recycle old songs and old song ideas. At some point, I finally caught the Samples in concert – at a Spring Fling celebration, go figure – but it seemed like their apex had already been humped.

A 1995 solo album from Sean Kelly (Light House Rocket) sounded not unlike a classic Samples disc, except it had consistently good songwriting for every track — something the Samples themselves always suffered from, even in their brightest days. Light House Rocket was one of Kelly’s finest moments, and came right before The Samples as a group changed record labels (leaving What Are Records? without a flagship band) and they began to release albums that were "more of the same," only not quite as fresh.

And still, time passes. Looking at my watch, I realize that seven, eight, nine years have come and gone since I've heard some of The Samples' greatest songs "Little Silver Ring," for example. Yet today, listening to Very Best of The Samples, those songs come back to me in full three-dimensional reconstruction. Every note, melody, and lyric remembered and relived. And they’re still just as satisfying.

Reviewing any "best of" compilation is always a tricky business. Even the most casual fans are already largely familiar with the songs. And usually none of the songs are new, except when a marketing rep insists on adding a couple bogus bonus tracks to force the fan who wants it all to buy it all. Most "best of" reviews are as formulaic as the album: there's the usual gripe that certain songs got left out ("Nothing Lasts For Long," "Giants"), a consideration of the album's flow (it's seamless), and a brief statement as to whether or not this new configuration of well-known songs can stand alone as an album (it does).

Before we get into it, note that Very Best of The Samples spans from 1989 to 1994, when the band was signed to What Are Records? (W.A.R.?). I’m glad it cuts off in ’94 — otherwise the album’s title would be a misnomer. These are the classic tracks from the classic lineup. Sure, a disc like 2001’s Return to the Earth has many fine points to it, but it was cut by a newer version of the band trying to sound like the older version of the band. So we’ll disregard for now, coming back around in a few years when a subsequent best-of compilation is released on some other label.

As I've already stated, even the greatest Samples albums were always held back by too much filler. The Samples, No Room, Last Drag — these albums all contained both great songs and forgettable ones. I know I just claimed that all the songs on Very Best Of came immediately back to me after 10 years of not hearing them, and that’s true. But I just checked my copy of Autopilot and the only songs I remember are the ones that made it onto this disc.

The only other main criticism of The Samples – a band that, I do believe, were always underrated commercially – is that all their albums tend to sound alike. They all sound like a pothead version of The Police, with looser arrangements and earthier lyrics. As if Sting spent three months in the Rockies doing nothing but getting high (really high). The music has a lot of spatial qualities, with a lot of arpeggios and not a lot of heavy chording. And it tends to hit on the backbeat and go with the upstroke, giving it the feel of reggae, even though it's far too Midwestern for island music.

All told, The Samples music always sounded original, even if it always sounded the same. Which is why Very Best of The Samples works so damn well. It’s as if this was the gold-medal album that The Samples always had in them, but were too impatient to wait for. The songs snap together, taken from a six-year span and collected on a single disc without a single rough transition. And each song here scores, making Very Best of The Samples a winner.

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