MFNW ’14: The Jacob Heiteen Report

By Jacob Heiteen

SIDE NOTE: Unfortunately life and my job got in the way of me seeing as much of MusicFestNW as I’d like. I only was able to catch 70% of the Sunday lineup. I could mope about missing Future Islands or Girl Talk, but I would say that the bands I saw more than made up for their absence. Here is what I thought of the sets I saw:

WILD ONES:
The last time I got to see Portland-based synth-poppers was in a cramped basement of a house show, in the end of fall 2013. Since then they seem to be everywhere. This is obviously a band in the beginnings of a pivotal chapter of their career. Thankfully they made the house show to festival stage transition seem effortless. The crowed was eating out of their hands, dancing throughout the set, and cheering when the band pulled out their “From Portland” credentials.  The best part about seeing bands at this stage of their career is that they usually play with a tone of confidence, and Wild Ones was no exception. Can’t wait to see them play on an even bigger stage next time.

THE ANTLERS:
Look, I understand why The Antlers are so beloved. Sad bastard music will never stop being necessary, but for some reason I just can’t get on board the Antlers train. I had such a hard time standing in the heat, listening to drone-y song with horns and a crescendo, after drone-y song with horns and a crescendo. The set had its moments, like when they played some of their more forward moving songs, but it overall made me really bored. It just felt really out of place being sandwiched between the perky Wild Ones and the in-your-face-ness of Fucked Up (more on that later). Maybe I would have liked them more in a more intimate setting, but I feel like they just aren’t for me.

FUCKED UP:
Oh man did Fucked Up come in charging like a horde of rhinos! One drummer, one bass, three guitars, and one Leonidas-like frontman (Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham) were all that was needed to amply pump things up. Pretty sure the only mosh pit of the fest was during Fucked Up and thank god I was right in their getting completely covered in dust. The band was super on point and somehow kept things together despite all the chaos Abraham was bringing out of people. I’m sure that this was the first hardcore show for some members of the audience and I’m glad it was this one, since it gave you a sense of what the genre is at its best. It felt like the band was there for us to let our anger out, which they returned with an attitude that made it seem like they wanted be there for us. Damian Abraham’s stage antics and banter (which ranged from the personal to the political) almost made me forget I was at a festival. I felt like I was in a small venue with the band ten feet away, which is what makes Fucked Up so special. There is no separation between us and Fucked Up, when they play we are all Fucked Up.

tUnE-yArDs:
I don’t get why all bands don’t come to show in costume? It adds so much, and even if they suck at least they are fun to look at. Thankfully tUnE-yArDs did not suck, not in the least. Their jittery brand of indie-pop went over so well with the MFNW and probably had more people dancing than any other band that day. They weren’t there to play a set, they were there to put on a show. Aside from colorful costumes, there were background singers and fucking choreography (a total weakness for me). And lets not forget the jams (of which there more than plenty), from new cuts like “Sink-O” to classics like “Bizness”. I’m pretty sure that Merrill Garbus, the band’s mastermind, is the only person who can take out a ukulele and not make me groan because it mean “Powa” is up next. After the set all I could think was how much tUnE-yArDs needed to have their own super ambitious, Sufjan Stevens-like stage show.

HAIM:
The way to describe Haim is “likeable”. Their music is likeable, their offstage personas are likeable, and their set was likeable, which was kind of the problem. They didn’t really bring out any side of themselves that I didn’t get from listening to their record, which I very much liked. While they totally had the right energy and jams the whole set just felt like standard festival fare. I guess what I’m getting at is that I had a much more fun time listening to Haim than I did seeing them live.

SPOON:
So, someone please tell me why Spoon is not as big as indie bands like Arcade Fire or The National? I’d be way more OK with Spoon having that status than either of the aforementioned. They have the better songs, they have better albums, and they have the better vibe. Spoon is the real deal and need to be recognized as such. I forgot how much I loved Spoon, a band that has been with me since freshman year of high school, and I’m very glad to be reminded of why I love them. Needless to say they put on an absolutely killer set, complete with two encores. They played everything, including my personal favorite “Black Like Me.” Spoon was a perfect choice for closing things out. I feel kind of lame saying that the finale headliner was my favorite set, but fuck it they were just so good. Total gold standard of their genre.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
I was very skeptical of the changes to MFNW. The smaller lineup and the new enclosed space made me nervous. However, I found myself really enjoying the fest this year. Yes, it has become more like all the other festivals in the country but it still stood out in a lot of ways. The fact that it was so small was refreshing and made the dreadful walk from stage to stage less of an ordeal, the non-overlapping set scheduling allowed for people to see every act on the roster if they so choose, and the nice view of the city skyline reminded everyone that, despite the changes, this is still a festival done Portland style.

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Episode 94: Magazines

Thanks to David Harris and Matthew Sweeney for joining us this week! You can listen to this episode above, or download it right here.

Topic:

  • Music magazines (and the future of music journalism)
  • Who are some of the biggest names in this field?
  • Are music magazines still relevant?
  • Is digital media the way of the future? Or is a physical item still better?
  • What is the role of the music critic today?
  • Do music writers still have the same power they used to?

Songs:

  • A tribute to Robin Williams: clips from Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society
  • Dr. Hook – “Cover of the Rolling Stone”
  • Bob Dylan – “My Back Pages”
  • Robin Williams in Aladdin – “A Friend Like Me”

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LIVE: Diarrhea Planet, Tractor Tavern, Seattle, WA

By Gabriel Mathews

Dear Lysa Prank

No, this is not cute. No, Frankie Cosmos’ recent success does not mean it is time for a “naive music” revival. No, your cover of “Dammit” did not make up for it. No, the charm of early Best Coast did not lie in the poorly played guitar. No.

Yours,
Gabriel
Dear Those Darlins,

I’d never listened to you guys before this show, but I’d always assumed you were not for me, as people describe you as basically “X with jokes.” I have to give you credit for simultaneously living up to this reputation and being quite good, because who woulda thunk X with jokes would be any good? I’m sorry the mix was kind of off and that your second singer was pretty much inaudible, because I felt like the interplay between the two vocalists would have been cooler with better sound. In any case, your frontwoman has serious swag, and I was consistently amused. So, thanks.

Yours,
Gabriel

Dear Diarrhea Planet,

Pretty much all I knew about you guys going in was that you have like eight guitarists and that Titus Andronicus namedrop you on “In A Small Body.” Sorta sad to see that it was only four guitarists, come on guys. But honestly, I had a blast watching y’all play. Here’s a list of my favorite moments from your set:
-When guitarist 1 swung his instrument around his neck and nearly brained the bassist. Risky!
-When guitarist 3 told us that a song was “about reality.”
-Pretty much every other explanation of what songs were about.
-Every single drum hit. Please tell your drummer he is a monster.
-When guitarist 3 and the bassist had a coordinated high-five.
-Mid-song guitar swap toss.
-The constant calling out of the dude in the yellow, demanding that he crowd surf.
-The reveal that dude in yellow was guitarist 2’s dad.
-The plea by guitarist 2 to be careful with said dad, “Careful with the back, careful with the knees! I still need him afterwards!”
-Calling said dad and possibly others, “Diarrhea Parents.”
-The moment when dad finally did successfully crowd surf for a whole five seconds.
-The look of relief on guitarist 2’s face when dad was placed safely on the ground.
-The riffs.
-The riffs.
-The riffs!

Point being, you guys were pretty great. Kinda like six Andrew W.K.’s all at once. Keep up the good work.

Yours,
Gabriel

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LIVE: Operators, Barboza, Seattle, WA

By Gabriel Mathews

Barboza, the newish downstairs room at the Neumos complex, was air-conditioned to hell when I arrived for one of the first few shows ever by Dan Boeckner’s new band Operators.

The chill didn’t seem to have much of an effect on openers Noddy, whose name I misheard as “Frottage.” Frottage would have actually been a better name for these guys, whose dirty dance beats fit very well, for better or for worse, with their degenerate lyrics. Every single song, as far as I could tell, was about meaningless sex and seduction, like a disturbingly less funny Lovage. The one thing that struck me as moderately innovative here was the inclusion of a trumpeter, but she certainly didn’t redeem the rest of Noddy’s set.

Thank god, then, for Operators. Dan Boeckner has been putting out fantastic music for fifteen-ish years now, and between his bands Atlas Strategic, Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, and now Operators, probably has a larger percentage of “Best Records of the New Millennium” under his belt than just about anyone else. As a high-schooler, I initially found Wolf Parade co-leader Spencer Krug’s songs on their debut Apologies To The Queen Mary (which was most people’s introduction to both Boeckner and Krug) to be more interesting, with their twisting melodies and weird keyboard skronk. But as Wolf Parade’s output over their next two records got increasingly marred by Krug’s overelaborate composition and jammy tendencies, Boeckner continued churning out priceless, hooky rock songs about alienation and the dangers of modern love.

Handsome Furs, his band with his now ex-wife Alexei Perry was significantly more consistent, and arguably better, than Wolf Parade, putting out three albums of politically charged, electric, sinewy rock ’n roll that evolved from the dank lethargy of Plague Park through the Soviet-styled riffage of Face Control and on to the triumphantly synth-laden Sound Kapital before their divorce and dissolution.

Boeckner then went on to co-helm Divine Fits with Spoon’s Britt Daniel to excellent effect. Where Daniel’s contributions to the project were pretty great, they mostly felt like Spoon cast-offs. Boeckner’s songs, on the other hand, retained the urgency he’s put into everything he’s ever done, and bolstered Daniel’s lighter material.

Point being, this man is a fucking wizard, and my expectations for Operators, who have been shrouded in secrecy since Boeckner announced their existence in May, were very high. And they were 110% met.

Rounded out by Divine Fits/New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown and the enigmatic keyboardist who goes simply by Devojka, Operators sound a lot like Boeckner’s work on Sound Kapital, but with a real live drummer this time around. This is crucial not because it adds an extra oomph and blood-filled component to their largely electronic sound, but because Sam Brown is a fucking god. Divine Fits doesn’t generally let him go nuts, but the builds and drops of Operators’ music, which often rivaled both LCD Soundsystem and the likes of Skrillex, allowed him to show how seriously he combines both muscle and precision into an athletic drumming style that elevates this band beyond most other electronic acts around.

The emacieted Boeckner was in fine form, gesticulating, spazzing out, and singing at the top of his lungs in his nasally rasp. His performance felt distinctly heartfelt and passionate, demonstrating the degree to which he cares about this project. Between Brown’s locomotive skill, Boeckner’s thrashing, and Devojka’s intense stomp as she manipulated a table of electronics, my eyes couldn’t decide where to look. This is a band of three incredibly magnetic performers.

Ultimately, of course, it’s Boeckner’s show, and part of what made this set such a great experience was how sincerely grateful and straight up stoked he was to have drawn such a crowd. The first words out of his mouth after opener “Ancient” were “Holy shit!” and his expression of disbelief at his fans’ adulation continued throughout the set. “Frankly, I didn’t expect nearly this many people show up,” he confessed. At one point he said, “This is like when you’re a teenager, and you’ve been writing songs in your rooms and you invite your friends in, like, hey guys, I wrote some songs. It’s very intimate for me. And I feel good about it.” He seemed consistently thrilled to have such an enthused audience for these songs, which he’s clearly poured his heart into.

And we were enthused for a reason. While only one Operators song (the excellent “True”) has been released thus far, not knowing the songs wasn’t a problem simply because they were so damn good. Each one had its own distinctive feel, and everything felt more organic than one might expect from a synth-based act. I kept wondering if they were going to pad out their set with older songs from the Boeckner songbook, but Operators have a significant body of excellent work all their own, and I can’t wait to hear these tracks on record, when EP1 is released this fall.

For the encore, Devojka informed us that at their previous show, which was at Pickathon, the crowd had gotten on stage, Brown had been tickled and “someone even grabbed Dan’s wang.” She encouraged us to try to top that, and I felt compelled for the first time ever to actually get on stage and dance. Bravo, Operators.

Dan Boeckner, you are a North American treasure. Keep it up.

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Episode 93: From A Security Standpoint

Thanks to Justin Cate, Denis Davis, and Kenny Struhs for joining us this week! You can listen above, or download this episode here!

Topic:

  • Venue security
  • How did our guests get into the field of doing security at venues?
  • What does a security person’s job actually entail?
  • What are some of the worst things to happen on the job?

Songs:

  • Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels”
  • Popadocio – “Find Your Cloud”
  • Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Jubilee Street”
  • Echo & the Bunnymen – “Killing Moon”

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Episode 92: When In Portland

Big thanks to Sam Murray for joining us on the show! You can listen to this episode above, or download it right here.

Topic:

  • The Portland music scene: an outsider’s perspective
  • Sam Murray’s PhD thesis centering on Portland’s culture through its music scene
  • What got him interested in this undertaking?
  • What are some of the great things about our scene? What are some of the not-so-great things about it?
  • What can other places learn from Portland, and what can Portland learn from other places?

Songs:

  • Spoon – “Inside Out”
  • Ural Thomas – “Pain is the Name of Your Game”
  • Nickel Creek – “When In Rome”
  • Destroyer – “Chinatown”

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LIVE: Wye Oak, Neumos, Seattle, WA

By Gabriel Mathews

In the smallish, dimly lit Neumos, even bigger bands can feel intimate, low key. I say this having never seen a “big band” here, this being my first time ever at Neumos. But compared to the last time I saw Wye Oak, opening for Dirty Projectors at LA’s Wiltern, this was the definition of an intimate gig. Especially if intimacy is directly correlated to sweat: Seattle’s been experiencing a heat wave that will apparently go down in history, and Neumos was a boilerroom.

Pattern Is Movement were certainly covered in sweat. The hirsute Philadelphia duo, comprised of Andrew Thiboldeaux on vocals and keys and Chris Ward on drums, defied everything I’d expected of them and then some. All I’ve ever read about Pattern Is Movement, which is admittedly not much, has described them as an elaborate, polyrhythmic math rock act, equally influenced by Don Caballero and Stereolab. While they definitely retain the Stereolab thing, the music these guys made at Neumos couldn’t really be called “math rock” by any rubric. Rather, they offered their own weird take on neo-soul, with vocal modulation sometimes reminiscent of James Blake, weird twisting string loops, and powerful drumming. As if to cement their new aspirations as baby-making music-makers, their set climaxed (no pun intended) with a cover of D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel?” These guys are doing interesting things, it’s worth checking out. Plus, they sell pillow cases with their faces stitched into them.

After the minor tragedy that was the Sharon Van Etten show I saw last week, I was a little worried that Wye Oak would also suffer from SVE effect (i.e. an extreme bias towards lesser new material over back catalogue material). This would actually have been much worse for me as Wye Oak’s Civilian was my favorite album of 2011 and one of my favorites ever, and this year’s hard-left-turn Shriek just really doesn’t hold a candle to it in my book. Frontwoman Jenn Wasner is an amazing vocalist, but an even better guitarist. On Shriek, she plays not a lick of guitar, finding it no longer inspired her as an instrument. Instead, she went for the bass, and Wye Oak’s music went from incredible, melancholy guitar rock to woozy, groovin’ dream pop more suited to Wasner’s side project with producer John Ehrens, Dungeonesse. I’m all for artistic exploration, and I fully appreciate Wasner’s need to get out of her comfort zone, but the entire musical tone of this band shifted with Shriek, and I felt I’d lost a dear friend.

Thank god, then, that the heavily sweating Wasner (“This is the farthest north we’ve been on this tour, and also the hottest I’ve ever been in my life.”) and her partner-in-crime Andy Stack did an excellent job of not only balancing new and old material, but of making the new material rock significantly harder than it does on record. It was not until this show that I’d even really registered the magnificence of the towering (pun intended) bass riff that dominates Shriek highlight “The Tower,” and the synthy bridges of “Glory,” “Schools Of Eyes,” and “I Know The Law” got cranked so hard volume-wise that these poppy little tracks actually began to feel like rock songs. Additionally, it should not go unmentioned that Wasner’s voice is still unparalleled, perhaps even better on the newer material, where she reaches into the high end of her gorgeous alto more frequently than before, and with even better results.

But it was, of course, the older tracks that thrilled me the most. After a string of Shriek songs, Wasner picked up her guitar, and the excitement was palpable. When they busted into “Holy Holy,” off of Civilian, the crowd lost it. The squalls of noise that rule over this song even got carried over into the somber “Plains”. Later in the set, we got the perfect trifecta of “For Prayer,” “Dog Eyes,” and “That I Do,” all of which rocked unbelievably hard. Stack’s skills need mentioning, too—he famously plays the kit with only his right hand most of the time, while the left hand plays keys and samples to fill out this duo’s sound. It’s truly impressive to watch from up close. (Stack and Wasner were an item for most of the band’s tenure, but his recent move to Portland from their hometown of Baltimore suggests that this is no longer the case. Let’s just be glad they managed to keep working together as a band in spite of this, unlike, say, Handsome Furs.)

After closing their set with Shriek’s one perfect pop gem, “The Logic Of Color,” the band left the stage for a comically short pre-encore break (“I don’t know why we engage in this silly ritual,” said Wasner. “But we do, so, thanks for indulging us.”) Then they did their recent A.V. Undercover version of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” followed by the absolutely necessary night ender “Civilian,” which nearly brought me to tears.

One final note about Shriek: This is the first album on which Wasner sounds genuinely happy. And that’s great. But sometimes, and this is also true of Van Etten, I’m sort of disappointed when artists who do sad so well (Civilian and The Knot being masterpieces of depression and loneliness) get happy. I realize this is selfish, but I’m still glad Wasner had it in her to pull out the old melancholia for an altogether excellent set.

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“I Don’t Like Country”: In Defense of the Genre

By Jacob Heiteen

[Editor's Note: This article should be read in conjunction with our episode on country music with Heiteen, entitled "Cowboy Blues".]

It was senior year of high school and I was in the drama room eating lunch. As usual, it was filled with people, since it was one of the only rooms with couches and a microwave. I was on my computer doing some school work and figured I’d put some music on. I loved playing music out loud to my friends. I was known to be big music aficionado amongst my friend group. I wrote music reviews in my school’s newspaper and people would regularly ask me to make them mixtapes. I’ve must have made close to a hundred throughout my time in high school. People trusted me enough that they allowed me to play DJ during lunch from time to time.

That day I selected the song that had been stuck in my head for weeks, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” by Hank Williams. A ridiculously catchy tune, with some of the best word play I’ve ever heard. It’s kind of an anomaly amongst the Hank Williams discography, with its strong Cajun roots and phrases like “filé gumbo” and “ma chaz ami-o” (Cajun French for “my good girlfriend”). Then, I get a dirty look from this kid. I’ve never seen him before, he must have been there just for the microwave, but he gave me this look like I was offending him. “Are you playing country music?” he asked, with a tone that sounding like he caught me eating garbage of a dumpster. “Yeah, I am,” I answered, genuinely shocked that someone could have a problem with such an awesome song. “God how can you listen to that shit? Country music sucks,” he said. I immediately became very embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. I just retreated to the other end of the room and resumed what I was doing, this time with my headphones on.

This was the first time that I realized that my newfound obsession would be looked down on by some of my friends. I knew that if I where to go listening to country I’d have to be on the defensive.

A few months prior I started to notice that the music I usually listened to was starting to burn me out. I still liked it, but I had gotten the feeling that it was time for me to take a brake from my usual diet of indie and punk rock. This will happen to me every so often and I usually like it take this as an opportunity to delve into a genre I’ve either neglected or didn’t know much about. The first time I did this, I dedicated almost three whole months solely listening to rap music and modern R&B, two genres that I used to not listen to as much, but know love. I did the same with jazz, world, heavy metal, old folk music, bluegrass, African music, salsa, and electronic music. I loved doing this since it allowed me to broaden my musical horizons.

I would look up whatever the genre’s highly regarded artists and albums where and I’d listened to them over and over until I either loved or gave up on it. I also read books and articles on the genre, to further enhance my knowledge. I didn’t just want to know the best stuff from a particular genre; I wanted to know the whole history. By this time the only major genre that I haven’t delved into was country. The reason was that I like most people I knew, thought country music sucked. I had those same preconceived notions that everyone has. That country was filled with dumb songs, by dumb rednecks, about dumb subjects like tractors and such. Eventually though, I started to question if those where valid criticisms and whether or not I was just been stereotyping the genre. I was familiar and like some country at the time. I thought Johnny Cash was great, but he was the kind of artist that everyone loves despite their musical preferences. He’s like The Beatles of country, everyone likes him and anyone who says otherwise is just trying to be cool and should probably try harder.

I also loved Gram Parsons, who basically created country rock through his time with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, and his solo albums GP and Grievous Angel. He would also pal around with members of The Rolling Stones, reintroducing them to country music, and prompting them to make the country tinted Exile on Main St. Other than Cash and Parsons, however, I was rather clueless about country music. I had no idea where to start. So I started to browse the web looking for articles on country music. I stabled upon a series of articles on AV Club (a wonderful pop culture site) called “Nashville or Bust”. The idea was that the site’s resident hip-hop head, Nathan Rabin, would go though a “super-intense year-long crash course in country”. This was perfect for me, especially since Rabin and I had a lot in common: we were both Jewish music nerds with depression problems, who had no idea what country music was about.

I went through his articles in a flash, downloading all the songs and albums that spiked my interest. Soon I discovered other sites and blogs that where just as good. I started to read No Depression and Saving Country Music, two blogs that focused on country though an alt-rock lens and down the rabbit hole I went. I’ve been listening country music constantly for two years now, and even though I haven’t given up my beloved rock music, I can probably say country music has become at least my second favorite genre.

My preferred eras of country tend to be the 30s through the 70s. Each decade had seen country go through very distinct changes.The 30s was basically the birth of country with artist like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The 40s was when country started to become really popular and you had people like Bob Wills creating country swing and people like Ernest Tubb creating honky tonk. The 50s is kind of the golden age for country music and also saw the advent rockabilly thanks to people like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. The 60s was when people like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard started to challenge the establishment of Nashville starting what is known as the Bakersfield sound. It also saw the rise of popular female country stars like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. The 70s is when outlaw country and the seeds of alt-country get planted thanks to people like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. This era also happens to be my favorite.

I still have never gotten into much country music post the 70s, since was in the 80s and 90s that the genre started to become more formulaic and the current stereotypes cam about. There is still good stuff form past 30 years (i.e. Kacey Musgraves, Uncle Tupelo, Hank III and The Dixie Chicks) but the amount of quality stuff is certainly less when compared to later years. At the time though, I pretty much stopped listening to anything that wasn’t country music. I was, for lack of a better word, hopelessly obsessed. Every other type of music just didn’t interest me anymore. I’d spend every day listening to country. I’d walk down the halls with my headphones on not talking to anyone, I’d much rather listen to something that Lucinda Williams had to say then some regular person. But when I started sharing my passion with other the response was more along the lines of “why are you listening to that crap?” Soon, I started to keep my country music to myself. When people asked what I’ve been listening to I’d always leave out the country music. I sort of became ashamed of it for a while. It was my dirty little secret.

Of course, the idea of having this genre that I liked and no one else did made it seem cooler. It was my thing; I didn’t have to share this love with anyone. I then started to be secretly proud of my love for country. And I started to understand it, and why I like it so much.

The music appealed to me from a lyrical standpoint. Perhaps my favorite aspect of music is lyrics. I tend to be more into bands and artist who are known for there lyrics. Bands like Pavement, OutKast, Vampire Weekend, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Mountain Goats, and Guided By Voices are my favorites because they are great wordsmiths. Country music has no shortage of these. Probably my go-to argument when defending country is telling people that some of the best songwriters in the world are from country music. A case in point would be someone like Townes Van Zandt, a country cult figure, who is often regarded as the best 5 American songwriter next to Dylan. His songs are filled with dry-humor, dark subject matters, and a deep sense of beautiful melancholy. He is also a master storyteller. I consider “Pancho & Lefty”, a song about two desperado’s rise and fall, to be one of the best songs ever written. The popular country music of the 50’s and 60’s was also hosted some of the greatest songwriters of all time. Country is one of those genres where the stars are just as good as the cult figures. Nashville was home to most of these stars. Nashville was kind of like Motown, in the sense that it was this place full of talented writers and musicians who could turn out classic songs in their sleep. These songs would be part of what is called the “Nashville sound”, and to this day Nashville is considered the Mecca of country music.

The staggering amount of depressing music country offers also appealed to me. For some reason I tend to love music that is considered to be very depressing, which is probably attributed to my own struggles with depression. I don’t really like listening to music that is overly happy because I’m usually not in that kind of mood. I would much rather wallow in my own sorrow while listening to an equally depressing artist who “gets Country music is great for this. I’ve often said that if you take the lyrics to some country songs and added some electric guitars you’d have a great emo song. The motif of heartbreak is a country music staple and the genre produced some of the best heartbreak songs ever made. While there are plenty of cheerful country songs, my favorites tend to be the depressing ones. Every major country figure has at least one great sad song, usually dozens. George Jones has “She Thinks I Still Care”, Willie Nelson has “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, John Prine has “Sam Stone”, Dolly Parton has “I Will Always Love You”, and The Louvin Brothers have a whole album of these songs album called The Tragic Songs of Life. The list goes on and on. Soon, I started listening to country music when I was depressed in the same way that I used to listen to The Smiths or emo music. It probably only made me more depressed, but I didn’t care.

My love for country music also probably came out as a reaction against my surroundings at the time. My drama friends where mostly into really generic alt-rock and country seemed like the polar opposite to that, which was what I wanted. Growing up in Portland, which is such a hipster city, can sometimes drive me crazy with the pretentiousness I encounter. There was something about country that seemed very unpretentious to me, which I also found very appealing.

The mythologies behind the country stars themselves are also reason enough to get into country music. Pretty much all of them are tragic and/or tortured figures in some why. Hank Williams ended up succumbing to his drug and alcohol problem, dying on New Years Eve at the age of 29. Pasty Cline died in a plane crash at the height of her career. Merle Haggard was in and out of juvenile detention centers throughout his childhood, before finally ending up in San Quentin Prison where he saw Johnny Cash perform and decide join the prison’s country music band. Cash himself had a long running problem with drugs, as did Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, and her one-time husband George Jones. Jones was probably the worst of them all, doing so much cocaine and drinking so much that he developed for a time, short-term memory loss. I’m well aware that these are behaviors that are not to be glamorized, but for some reason I find them so fascinating. It dispels the notion that country music full of straight lased boring people. In fact they lived lives that could out rock star most rock stars. Finding that these giants of the genre were all so flawed made them more relatable than some seemingly perfect pop star. Knowing about these crazy country stars’ crazy lives is part of the fun of being a country fan.

These days I’m tired of hiding that I’m a country fan. I’m tired of having to cringe anytime I hear someone say “I love all kinds of music, except for county”. I’m tired of meeting people who say they are country fans but know nothing about Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings but rather the pop country that is manufactured for the radio. I’ve become a country music defender and I’m proud of it. I no longer retreat when people tell me country sucks. I fight back to defend the music I love.

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Episode 91: Cowboy Blues

Thanks to Jacob Heiteen for joining us this week on the show! You can listen above, or download the episode here.

Topic:

  • Country music: why is it so misaligned?
  • What makes music “country music”?
  • Who are the most important names in the genre?
  • Why does modern country sound so different?

Songs:

Bands:

  • Weird Al Yankovic
  • Robin Thicke
  • Pixies
  • A Sunny Day in Glasgow
  • Tori Amos
  • Kate Bush
  • Joanna Newsom
  • Wolves in the Throne Room
  • Mastodon
  • White Stripes
  • Black Keys
  • Our First Brains
  • Hemingway
  • La Dispute
  • Pianos Become the Teeth
  • Melville
  • Damn Librarians
  • Johnny Winter
  • Edgar Winter
  • Ringo Starr
  • Billy Squire
  • Gary Wright
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • J Dilla
  • Run DMC
  • Wu-Tang Clan
  • MF Doom
  • Craig Finn / The Hold Steady
  • Drake
  • Sky Above and Earth Below
  • Carrion Spring
  • Merle Haggard
  • Willie Nelson
  • Townes Van Zandt
  • Hank Williams
  • Johnny Cash
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Neko Case
  • Uncle Tupelo
  • The Jayhawks
  • Wilco
  • Son Volt
  • Lucinda Williams
  • Carter Family
  • Toby Keith
  • Elvis Costello
  • Nick Lowe
  • Ray Charles
  • Ween
  • Garth Brooks
  • Trisha Yearwood
  • Chris Gaines
  • Shania Twain
  • Woody Guthrie
  • T-Bone Burnett
  • Patsy Cline
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Dolly Parton
  • Emmylou Harris
  • Tammy Wynette
  • George Jones
  • Billie Holiday
  • Wanda Jackson
  • Taylor Swift
  • Here’s Your Rodeo
  • Tears For Steers
  • Cole Porter
  • Buck Owens
  • Bob Dylan
  • Amos Lee
  • Depeche Mode
  • Nick Cave
  • John Darnielle / The Mountain Goats
  • Conway Twitty
  • Kanye West
  • Flying Burrito Brothers
  • Graham Parsons
  • The Eagles
  • The Rolling Stones
  • Allman Brothers Band
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Doobie Brothers
  • Drive-By Truckers
  • Old 97’s
  • The Smiths
  • Wings
  • Your Rival
  • The Sidekicks
  • Echo & the Bunnymen
  • U2
  • Tim Hecker
  • Oneohtrix Point Never
  • Grouper
  • Chris Brown
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LIVE: Sharon Van Etten, The Neptune, Seattle, WA

By Gabriel Mathews

Walking into The Neptune, I decided it was Seattle’s answer to LA’s Fonda. Bizarre murals and really good sound, and expensive beer. Between sets, the entire place was bathed in green light.

I’ve been really into Jana Hunter’s band, Lower Dens, for a while now. For this tour, she was billed as “Jana Hunter (of Lower Dens),” implying that she wouldn’t be doing a the standard solo set one might expect from someone who once was a solo artist. And she didn’t, instead playing a bunch of new tracks from Lower Dens’ forthcoming third records. I can’t say I was thrilled by the material—it’s going in a significantly synthier direction than even 2012’s Nootropics, and many of the songs were reverbed to hell so I couldn’t even make out the notes. What’s more, she performed these tracks sitting down, with the backing tracks pumping out of a computer, making quite the testament to the power of a live band. Hunter closed her set with a cover of Hall & Oates’ “She’s A Maneater,” which was creepily groovy, but overall this set was pretty dull.

Not as dull, however, as Courtney Barnett’s set. I don’t know, maybe I’m just really not Barnett’s intended audience, but I could not for the life of me get into this music. I’ve only ever heard her excellent hit single “Avant Gardener,” which was the only song of the set I actually enjoyed. Other than that, Barnett and her band ran through about forty minutes of songs that all sounded exactly the same with their garagey shuffle. At least the girl three rows in front of me dancing like she was on acid seemed to be enjoying herself.

Sharon Van Etten and her five-piece band took the stage clad all in black, and I was super excited. Van Etten’s Tramp is by now a certifiable broken-hearted classic, and her preceding record, Epic, is also mind-blowing. Her brand new record, Are We There, is also good, but just doesn’t have the songs— you know, the “Love Mores” and “Give Outs” and “Asks” and “One Days” and “I’m Wrongs.” It’s a perfectly good record, but nothing on it sticks for me the way most of Tramp does.

In recent interviews, Van Etten has expressed an interest in distancing herself from that record, which she feels was a team effort that got attention for its many collaborators (Aaron Dessner, Matt Barrick, Julianna Barwick, Jenn Wasner) more than for her songs. I think she’s dead wrong, but apparently the self-produced Are We There is something of an attempt to reclaim her own music. So the night’s big question was really about the ratio of new songs to old ones. Sadly for me (and I think a lot of people) the scales were tipped severely in the “new” direction.

While Are We There highlights like “Break Me,” “Every Time The Sun Comes Up,” and “You Know Me Well” were all really quite good, the only Tramp cut we got was a rushed “Serpents,” and the only Epic cut was “Don’t Do It.” (This was actually, I think, the highlight of the set for me; I’d never paid a lot of attention to this song on record, but the live rendition was easily the most rocking and interestingly arranged track of the bunch, with post-rock guitars layered over a looped vocal from the keyboardist.) I was severely disappointed. Tramp put Van Etten on the map, it’s filled with incredible songs, and we really wanted to hear them.

That said, I can understand not wanting to play those songs. Artists get asked all the time what it’s like to play songs about their personal tragedies night after night, and the question applies better to Sharon Van Etten than to most, as she bleeds herself dry in every song. Maybe she just can’t bring herself to play “Give Out” anymore. Maybe “Love More” hurts too much. I wouldn’t be surprised. This set really raised the question, though, of the degree to which musicians are beholden to their audiences. Is there an obligation to play your hits? How do you balance that with the desire to stick to your artistic guns, or just to move on?

Also, I have to acknowledge Van Etten’s fantastic stage presence. Like her buddies in The National, she balances the sadness of her music with a wacky, dry sense of humor that you really wouldn’t expect. She spent the entire night joking with the audience, calling out her band mates, and using the breaks between songs to excellent effect. When one guy called out “You’re weird!” Van Etten responded, “I am weird,” then proceeded to pantomime picking her nose and wiping it on her butt. During the utterly heartrending “Your Love Is Killing Me,” she pantomimed the chorus—“Break my legs so I can’t run to you / Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you / Burn my skin so I can’t feel you / Stab my eyes so I can’t see.” It didn’t undercut the song nearly as much as it enhanced it.

On top of being a real funny lady, Van Etten has incredible pipes. Even though I don’t love the songs she played as much as the ones she didn’t, I found myself getting the shivers several times just due to the sheer beauty of her voice. And for that I’m grateful.

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