A good way to see if a label’s music matches your tastes is to check out a sampler they’ve released, and 23 Seconds’ A Shortcut Past The Fear compilation album is certainly worth a click. Available from the label website as a free high quality 320 kbit/s mp3 in a 76mb .zip file download, the album was released in June this year and is a delight which offers a variety of music from Indonesia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The album kicks off with a wonderfully sparse piano and vocal track from Jesper Norda who, while being reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, in that they come from the same school of poetic songwriting, does not suffer from being derivative. The track ebbs and flows around the rising and falling swell of a lovely piano tune, which offers a sweet honeyed counterpoint to the deep and smokey vocals of Jesper Norda. Lyrically, this track is poignant and beautiful, and an initial appearance of humour gently gives way to quiet pathos. From this surprisingly pensive start, the pace picks up with the music of the Spanish artist Jennifer Ávila. This is a delightfully melodic pop song sung in Spanish (or is it Catalan? Ávila is a native of Barcelona). It is a pleasure to hear someone singing in her native tongue rather than attempting to transatlanticize her music by offering us some kind of faux American voice. Ávila’s pretty voice is cleverly double-tracked with subtle harmonies in a way that adds to the sentiments of yearning that are found in the music.

The American band Shampoo Tears then offer us a nicely rounded portion of ’80s-inspired feel-good pop that combines jangly guitars with synth-pop textures and drum machine sounds. With a clear line of sight to New Order and Tears for Fears, this is foot-tappin’ stuff that is proud of where its roots lie. This ’80s influence is carried over to the next track from Swedish duo If There Is Something, whose reverb-laden sound on the track “Danger” is classic electro pop from the era of Thatcher and Reagan — all impassioned vocals with a muted sense of danger. Apparently they, like the rest of us, don’t like the things that hurt and, as a result, don’t go there — “there” being the place where pain belongs. Leaping Boy’s track, “A Shortcut Past The Fear,” begins, and from there, the mood changes. This title track cleverly combines different guitar sounds and textures over a mechanistic drum machine beat with the pale distant vocals of Gustav, to conjure an ethereal but tight psychedelic sound that is trimmed with darkness. There follow tracks from Homeland, who offers a pleasant and plaintive acoustic folk, and Pelangi Senja, whose Indonesian shoegaze is an unusual eyeopener. The album is ably wrapped up by the excellent Azoora and their track “Second Sight”. Azoora are, along with Azeda Booth and Ixtlan, one of the reasons I keep coming back to the 23 Seconds website. Their music is a clever combination of many diverse elements which, though stylistically broad, are brought to bear with imagination and panache.

If you are looking for a label that has a roster of artists of a consistently high quality, and all for free, then I suggest you point your browser at the 23 Seconds net label website. Since I stumbled across this label six or so months ago, I have consistently found myself drawn back to their well-designed and easily navigable site because of the superb quality of what can be found there.

Founded in mid 2005 by Sir H Johan Lundin, 23 Seconds is a Swedish entity whose aim is to share music, films, art, and other works from a variety of different genres for free under the Creative Commons license. But this isn’t a one man operation; 23 Seconds is a collective managed by a core team of around seven people. It is the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and inclusivity that seems to typify the activities of this exciting label, while also guaranteeing that high standards are set and maintained through everything they do.

A Shortcut Past The Fear is like a toe dipped briefly into the water; it will tell you only so much about how pleasant the pool really is, but once you’ve taken a paddle, it is likely you will want to come back for more.

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