Review Summary: Largely dead moths and faded shirts
It's not uncommon to read an interview with a band that's about to drop a new album and come across swaggering declarations of writing ludicrous numbers of songs in preparation. Those sort of words are probably meant to inspire confidence in the final product - if so many tracks were brewed and the finished record only features the very cream of the crop, it's got to be amazing, right? However, working bands are often just not granted the comfort of waiting for inspiration to strike. You punch the card and go fish for acceptable material. As such, a number of artists probably have a ridiculous backlog of various half-baked ditties. Taproot decided to pop open their vault and unleash eight discs' worth of such stuff onto their fanbase. The extensive collection follows the first decade of their existence, essentially only skipping any possible debris from Plead the Fifth, and splits into fourths corresponding to the records.
The Gift part shows early day Taproot distilling their "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" hodgepodge into an effective mixture of weird, angular riffs and broken chord shapes. Not a lot of new stuff here, most of the tracks were present on independent releases or are explicit pre-Gift demos. The main novel conclusion is that "Day By Day" worked really well in the higher key it was demoed in, and probably could have ousted "Dragged Down" from the tracklist if it stayed on course. "Clueless" should have made it onto the band's indie debut on the strength of the interlude alone, and "Shine", "Fear to See" and "11 Months" could have all been valid considerations for Gift. I guess a surfeit of good stuff is preferable to a dearth of it.
By contrast, the Welcome discs shed light on a previously undocumented era in the band's life, showing glimpses of the massive songwriting sessions that got aborted upon the producer's behest. Given the fact that batch of material contained "Transparent", arguably the band's greatest achievement and a baffling omission from the album, I was always quite curious as to whether there were any other diamonds in the rough that got unjustly scrapped. This quickly turns out to not be the case. Discs 3 and 4 are largely filled with middling drivel that goes nowhere, plodding through similar mid-paced riffing and uninspired melodies time and time again. "Free" works better as a dynamic-building ballad, and "Quitter" has some spine-chilling guitar interplay in the opening verse that probably should have joined the lyrical nods in "Breathe", but that's about it. Even demos of most of the songs that ended up on the final album sound pedestrian in this raw state. Mad kudos to whoever was able to detect specks of potential in them and somehow wrangle Taproot's most interesting album out of this mess.
Blue-Sky Research is yet again different. This time around the band organically built upon the quirky foundation of Welcome and offered up a batch of extremely interesting, if unpolished material. While little bits and pieces of it dribbled down to final tracklist, most of the cuts stayed in the demo stage. I can quite easily imagine a record with "Who's to Say", "Be", "Inside You", "State of Affairs", "Nothing's What It Seems" and the seventh untitled cut, probably after a bit more attention to smooth transitions and a few catchier melodies. Said album would likely be Taproot's best. Instead, the direction ended up being accessible melodic songs, with a number of external writers brought in to help make them catchy enough. There are also a number of those present in the compilation, delicate rockers that didn't quite manage to get someone's toe tapping in the preview room and got left out to dry. The bulk of these is still quite engaging, it seems the band were in a great creative headspace while working on this record.
Our Long Road Home is yet again different. Freed from the major label day job constraints, the band weren't herded into cooking up endless song options, but still chose to assemble a full two disc set of material out of whatever was available for symmetry's sake. This leads to multiple versions of album cuts in various stages of completion and arrangement direction taking up the gist of the run time. The shift in proportion from a wall of unreleased songs with the occasional demo to a wall of demos of released material with the occasional scrapped cut makes this the least interesting of the compilation sections. Most of the shelved material is pretty decent, full of the lush harmonic approach Taproot was fond of around that time. A surprising burst of excitement comes in early versions of The Episodes. Apparently if you make "No Surrender" less melodically pushy and add a weird vibrating falsetto to "Memorial Park", the songs become memorable. It's a pity that everything got overproduced into the dirt when the band decided to pursue this batch of material in 2012.
If one takes a closer look at the organisational side of the collection, some avenues for improvement become apparent. The few times when it becomes possible to reconstruct the timing behind the tracks (i.e. the independent/Gift stuff, and Welcome era "Kevin Spacey" landing on Blue-Sky Research for some reason), the tracklist reveals itself to be a temporal mess, stripping out songs from the early indie releases that ended up landing on the major label debut and cramming them with later demos. Seeing how everything is themed by corresponding album, it would have been nice to retain cohesion and show evolution in the individual projects. Another is, surprisingly enough, incompleteness. Only four Episode demos are included for whatever reason. This leads me to wonder whether the run order was assembled in a somewhat incohesive manner, possibly missing out on something that deserved to be showcased? Some liner notes detailing the history and development of the material at hand woulnd't have hurt either. Nevertheless, Besides is an impressive airing of Taproot's backlog vault, even if the end result is largely dead moths and faded shirts. It provides an interesting behind-the-scenes insight into a band's creative process and quality control, plus leaves me to wonder how Blue-Sky Research may have ended up in a more adventurous reality.