Album Review: Various Artists, ‘Golden Age: 25 Years of Signature Sounds’

The record label and concert promoter Signature Sounds has seen plenty of changes in the music industry in the 25 years since it started up in 1995. Through all the changes, however, the label’s commitment to artists and to developing them and their sound—both on record and in live performance—has never faltered, and this two-CD set celebrates the depth and breadth of the genius and commitment of Signature Sounds. As founder Jim Olsen says in the booklet that accompanies the set, “I look for a unique sound that isn’t just echoing other people, something that is sympatico with the overall sound and vibe of the label, and somebody who wants to work, who’s already touring and wants to turn that up. What we really need is artists who tour.”

These two CDs showcase the artists that Signature Sounds introduced to the world, many of whom developed out of their local music scenes. This is not a “greatest hits” of Signature Sounds but, as Olsen, points out “a good sounding, listenable album,” and many of the artists who are no longer on the label—such as Mary Gauthier and Lori McKenna and Josh Ritter and Erin McKeown—launched their careers from the base of Signature Sounds. According to the notes in the booklet (the liner notes are written by Johnny Memphis), McKeown’s album Distillation became the label’s first national hit, and Ritter’s Golden Age of Radio became the label’s second national hit. Also included in the set are current artists such as Birds of Chicago, Heather Maloney, Chris Smither, and the Sweetback Sisters.

Disc one kicks off with Ritter’s somber folk rambler “Me & Jiggs” (2002), setting the tone for the rest of the first CD with its driving guitar and propulsive storytelling; Eilen Jewel’s “Rain Roll In” (2009) rides along a Byrds-like vibe and evokes the longing for life’s tender moments. The Sweetback Sisters ride along a rockabilly rhythm on “Looking for a Fight” (2014), while Zoe Muth’s country barroom jangler “Mama Needs a Margarita” (2014) struts and slides along an aching pedal steel and Floyd Cramer-like piano. Chris Smither’s raw vocals float on the bed of his slide guitar in his powerful folk blues on “Seems So Real” (2006), while Birds of Chicago lay down their magical, soul-fetching harmonies on “Superlover” (2016), and Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem deliver a country take on the Sean Staples’ gospel tune “Joy Comes Back” (2007).

Disc two launches with the jaunty and bouncy rock ramblings of the funky Lake Street Dive and its “You Go Down Smooth” (2014). McKeown’s jazzy folk song “Le Petite Mort” (2000) swings and scampers with a manic joy, while bluegrass band Crooked Still drives Ola Belle Reed’s “Undone in Sorrow” (2010) in new directions, with classical overtones. Jeffrey Foucault delivers a John Prine-inflected story song on “Everybody’s Famous” (2011), while The Mammals bring their pop-inflected on “Follow Me to Carthage” (2006). With her spare acoustic and vocal take on life, Lori McKenna inspires with the raw pain of “Bible Song” (2005), and Mary Gauthier offers her gritty country folk take on life on the road “Good-Bye” (2003).

Every song on this anniversary album showcases the brilliance of the artist and the genius of the label in bringing this diverse and deeply appealing music to the world. We are fortunate that Signature Sounds has been bringing us such excellent music for the past 25 years, and we look forward to music they bring us over the next 25 years.


1. Josh Ritter/Me & Jiggs
2. Eilen Jewell/Rain Roll In
3. Birds Of Chicago/Superlover
4. Chris Smither/Seems So Real
5. Kris Delmhorst/1000 Reasons
6. Winterpills/Freeze Your Light
7. Amy Rigby/Dancing With Joey Ramone
8. Joy Kills Sorrow/Was It You?
9. Heather Maloney /All In Your Name
10. Richard Shindell/Confession
11. Bridget Kearney/Wash Up
12. Barnstar/Darling
13. Sweetback Sisters/Looking For A Fight
14. Taylor Ashton/Straight Back
15. Sometymes Why/Glorious Machine
16. Redbird/Ships
17. Zoe Muth/Mama Needs A Margarita
18. Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem/Joy Comes Back


1. Lake Street Dive/You Go Down Smooth
2. Parsonsfield/Weeds Or Wildflowers
3. Erin McKeown/La Petite Mort
4. The Suitcase Junket/Beta Star
5. Crooked Still/Undone In Sorrow
6. Jeffrey Foucault/Everybody’s Famous
7. And The Kids/No Way Sit Back
8. The Mammals/Follow Me To Carthage
9. Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer/ Ordinary Town
10. Lori McKenna/Bible Song
11. Peter Mulvey/Sad Sad Sad (And Far Away From Home)
12. Twisted Pine/Right Now
13. The Sacred Shakers/Taggin’ Along With Jesus
14. Mary Gauthier/Goodbye
15. The Dustbowl Revival/Busted
16. Mark Erelli/Five Beer Moon
17. Jim Henry & Brooks Williams/ Gender Bender
18. Philip B. Price/Whiskey Bells
19. Caroline Herring/True Colors

Golden Age: 25 Years of Signature Sounds is available HERE.

Signature Sounds

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