Released by Little Village Foundation, ’20 X 20 – Singer Songwriter Compilation’ Offers Timeless Variety (ALBUM REVIEW)

Music with a cause is not necessarily the same thing as music for a good cause, but 20 X 20 largely succeeds on multiple fronts. Twenty different artists recorded in isolation during the course of this ill-fated year and the Little Village Foundation has collected it to share in one fell swoop. In doing so, the arts non-profit organization, begun in 2015, fulfills its stated missions: using music as a tool to increase cross-cultural understanding, recording and producing underground artists whose music has not yet been discovered outside their community, and enhancing an invaluable sense of community at a time it’s most necessary. 

Unfortunately, the subtitle ‘Singer-Songwriter Compilation’ might put off some music lovers and potential listeners. No doubt there’s some content here (“Things to Learn” and “Lullaby of New Orleans”) that unfortunately perpetuates that stereotype of song and performance too precious for its own good. But Sean Wheeler’s “Halfway to Heaven” has no such irritating sing-song quality and, on the contrary, his fulsome rendering sets the stage for a nifty change of pace from fine acoustic guitar work to Marina Crouse’s equally artful, piano-based “El Cerrito Plaza Estacion #29.”

John Bigham’s “I Love You” has comparable gospel strains and his singing carries more than a few authentic r&b tones too. It is definitely not to disparage this collection to laud how quickly each cut proceeds to the next, but only to point out how most artists represented here definitely do not overstay their welcome. Nor do they belabor the point(s) they’re making, although Joe Rut happens to be something of an exception on the overly-clever “Gaslight Blues,” despite his infectious high spirits. In marked contrast, however, Aireene Espiritu’s “Genuine” might well have gone on twice its slightly-less-than three minutes.

In a document of creativity completed during a helter-skelter year, the quietude emanating from this music offers a balm to the souls of listeners. No doubt that’s a reflection of its effect on the artists themselves, so much so that even the jaunty, good-natured likes of Alabama Mike’s “Money Tree” carries certain tranquility: the single electric guitar and harmonica render even more wry a vocal that’s the aural equivalent of a beatific grin. Kid Anderson’s mastering also enhances the subdued intimacy of such cuts.

Berkeley multi-instrumentalist Vicki Randle, who contributed “Ruth 1:16” herself,  co-produced the album with Little Village founder Jim Pugh and veteran singer-songwriter Maurice Tani. In artfully sequencing tracks like Roger McNamee’s subtle “Dr. Evil” and otherwise showcasing this roster of disparate artists, the threesome certainly realized this specific collaborative vision and that of the Little Village Foundation’s initiative(s). Just hearing this music, in fact, feels like sharing the wealth.

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