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If Not Thao, When? 

Is anyone who has sent a missive off to their favorite rocker, actor or writer knows, fan letters generally don't provide much of a return. A signed headshot and a form letter seem to be the standard gain, with a few lucky getting maybe a phone call or a personal e-mail. When Thao Nguyen e-mailed Slim Moon of Kill Rock Stars to praise Laura Veirs, an artist on his label, she was hoping for more -- like, say, an opening slot at one of Veirs' shows. Instead, Moon was so taken by online samples of Nguyen's music that he put her on his new compilation, The Sound the Hare Heard, sent her on tour and started managing her. "It's mad-crazy," laughs Nguyen, when reached en route from her northern Virginia home to San Francisco for the start of the tour. "I went from playing open mics and putting out a record on a tiny local label to this. Slim is great, but he tends to not let on that he's interested in someone, so I had no idea this would happen."

Moon's interest in Nguyen coincided perfectly with his interest in releasing a compilation dedicated to the art of songcraft. Having been the force behind comps that introduced to the world to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Deerhoof, and Xiu Xiu, he was ready to curate tracks from a different genre. "When I'm sifting through demos or following up on tips that people give me, I always pay special attention to the singer-songwriter types," says Moon. "I've always had a soft spot for them, from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to Elliott Smith and Joanna Newsom. This compilation is a distillation of the songwriters -- well established, just starting out, or somewhere in between -- who have turned me on in the new millennium."

The Sound the Hare Heard has a few big names (Decemberists front man Colin Meloy, Sufjan Stevens, Veirs) to draw in the uninitiated, but the bulk of the tracks on the release are by artists who are relatively unknown. Straight-ahead folk songs by the Great Lake Swimmers are nestled comfortably with freak-folk numbers like one by the remarkably prolific Brooklyn composer Wooden Wand. In other places, Imaad Wasif, an alum of the aptly named Folk Implosion and current touring member of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, shows that he's not a mere sideman with a stunning track, while Nedelle fights her hardest to combat the rising tide of ironic distance in modern music. Members of established Kill Rock Stars-affiliated acts show off their solo work, in the case of Slumber Party singer Aliccia BB. Perhaps the most interesting backstory belongs to Lauren Hoffman, a former teen pop star who fled the mainstream music business for India and only recently has come back around to recording and performing.

Taken as a whole, the comp is mellow and beautiful, recalling lazy, rainy Sundays curled up with a cup of tea. But there is a slight undercurrent of melancholy underneath the gorgeous harmonies, one that reflects the worries many singer-songwriters have about their maligned genre. For a while, the folky troubadour was an icon of American music; he was represented as a man who ruled the road with a guitar strapped to his back and a story in his heart. In the '90s, though, the term brought to mind painful coffeehouse open mics and teenage girls writing juvenile poetry. The tide may finally be turning, as Moon explains: "Ten years ago, things were worse, especially in the indie rock underground. People thought it was career death to simply put a record out under their own name, except for like Elliott Smith or Jeff Buckley. It's all a bit safer for a singer-songwriter now." His enthusiasm is duly noted, but it might be worth pointing out that, while Buckley and Smith might not have suffered from "career death," they also might not be the best examples to use when pointing out vitality.

All snark aside, singer-songwriters have made a comeback in the last few years, due mainly to the emergence of the genre known as freak-folk. Artists like Devendra Banhart have managed to do quite well for themselves by blending old-fashioned storytelling with modern psychedelia, and the result is a crop of young artists who sound nothing like the perennial stereotypes. This isn't your father's John Denver ballad; this is Woody Guthrie on really primo weed.

With Devendra now off getting interviewed by Lindsay Lohan, it's up to the new crowd on The Sound the Hare Heard to produce fresh new tunes and take the narrative-driven style of songwriting to new places. If Nguyen's optimism and persistence are any indication of the mindset of the new class, their ditties will be prominently featured in the next Folkways anthology.

Thao Nguyen and Southerly at the Shop on Monday, June 19, at 7 pm. Tickets: $7. Visit theshop.bz or call 534-1647.

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