Can musicians find the best new talent in music? -- We review cds on labels owned by Conor Oberst, Jack Johnson and more

By Michael Endelman
May 12, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Can musicians find the best new talent in music?

When artists become label honchos, they tend to reward old friends or sign acts who are a reflection of themselves. (Yes, that’s why they call them vanity labels.) We rounded up four new releases from musician-run imprints and judged them — by their merits, not their association.

Jack Johnson

Imprint Brushfire CD Matt Costa’s Songs We Sing How they met No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont gave Costa’s demo to Johnson’s manager. Why him? ”Sometimes you hear a demo and there’s one great song,” says Johnson. ”This was five or six songs and they were all great.” Chip off the old block? Like Johnson, Costa’s earthy, acoustic rock has an undeniable slacker-dude appeal. Verdict This is sensitive sunbaked folk-pop, rich with Beatlesque arrangements. B

No Doubt‘s Tony Kanal

Imprint Kingsbury Studios CD Elan’s Together as One How they met No Doubt strikes again! Kanal caught the white Angeleno singing with reggae icons the Wailers. Why him? ”His voice is unbelievable,” says Kanal. ”When I saw him, the lights were out and I thought it was one of Bob [Marley]’s children.” Chip off the old block? This slick reggae-pop CD fits into the No Doubt aesthetic. Verdict Despite some great grooves, the faux ‘maican can’t carry an entire disc. B-

Modest Mouse‘s Isaac Brock

Imprint Glacial Pace CD Mason Jennings’ Boneclouds How they met Brock’s girlfriend heard Jennings in the 2001 surf movie Shelter and passed it along. Why him? ”I listen to lyrics first,” says Brock. ”They were really good. And the music was catchy, so he won me over.” Chip off the old block? There’s little similarity between Jennings’ meditative folk and Brock’s off-kilter alt-rock style. Verdict The troubadour’s fifth — and best — is poignant and graceful. A-

Bright Eyes‘ Conor Oberst

Imprint Team Love CD Tilly and the Wall’s Bottoms of Barrels How they met ”I’m friends with them from way back,” says Oberst. ”We were in bands together as teens.” Why them? ”First, they’re appealing because of the novelty: They tap-dance!” says Oberst. ”But the more you invest, you realize it’s really innovative.” Chip off the old block? Tilly don’t have Bright Eyes‘ gravitas, but the two Omaha acts share a ramshackle vibe. Verdict This is charmingly naive kinder-pop. B+

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