Tag Archives: Essays

On Britpop, by Sam Murray

Blur Sam

Editor’s note: This article was written as a response to Episode 103: Britpop. He is a former guest of the podcast (see: Episode 92: When in Portland), and is a resident of Leeds.

By Sam Murray

Britpop is often centred on the indie guitar music of the nineties and to whom it applied we don’t ever know because it was everyone and anyone. Britpop is not so much a genre as an assessment of a political and social changed in the nineteen nineties. We do have clear musical sign posts to this in the music of Oasis, Blue, Pulp, Suede and even to a lesser extent The Spice Girls. Britpop was a reactionary music like those genres that had gone before and seized the opportunity to claim new ground and new notions of British Identity in a way stifled under the dark reign of Margaret Thatcher.

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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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A Short Eulogy From An Outsider

“I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.” – Leonard Cohen

The first time I ever walked into Someday Lounge was August 26th, 2011. It was two days past my 21st birthday, and I had been invited downtown to have a drink with one of my best friends. I immediately felt welcome in the best possible way.

The second time I ever walked into Someday Lounge was upon returning from the very first trip my wife and I had ever taken together. We went to Seattle for a show, and upon returning, we stopped in to have a drink with a couple of friends. It was late September, and the weather was getting cold, but not enough to put a damper on the beauty of the day. We had both had an exceedingly long trip home, but being in that space helped soothe us perfectly.


The third time I ever walked into Someday Lounge was not really a walk-in at all. I went to see Athens, GA band The Olivia Tremor Control, a member of the Elephant 6, and who were inextricably linked with Neutral Milk Hotel, one of the bands I connect with the most in this world. I wasn’t able to catch much of the performance because the show was at-capacity, but the love and intimacy that the long room offered seemed to waft outwards, enough that I didn’t care that I could barely see the band that was playing.

The last time I ever walked into Someday Lounge, it was silent and dark. It was the afternoon of the very last day of business, and even though the lifespan of that room was nearly at its end, it was still desperate to cling to life. The disco ball had been left on and continued to pirouette in the darkness, clearly letting everyone know that things weren’t over yet. Those friends of mine sat at the top floor of the room, and talked about music, and talked about every last memory. I sat quietly listening them reminisce about everything they’d seen and experienced there, and I realized that I had never given myself the chance to forge that same bond with it. When called upon to talk about my memories, I realized that mine could easily be encapsulated, like I’ve done here. There were other times I was there, but the stand-out memories had yet to even gain mass. When I said this, my friend told me, “Even if you miss this place a little bit, it’ll be enough.” There was a lot of love in that room, even with it being so empty.

Portland has seen a lot of venues come and go, each with a rich history and a beating heart of its own. The people who inhabited that space were its beating heart, and even if it didn’t beat for very long, it could never be said that there was any weakness to it. Almost every single person I call a friend knew that, and connected with it in an unbeatable way. I feel like a small part of me left with it, and I am an outsider. I cannot even begin to understand how those people feel. There are a thousand bars and concert venues in this city, but there is only a very finite number that truly feel like Portland. More than I mourn the fact that I didn’t spend enough time there, I mourn the fact that that number is one less now.

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The Ones Worth Leaving

As I write this, I am listening to The Postal Service’s Give Up for the umpteenth time since its release a decade ago. The Northwest breeds a very specific sound into its rock music, so it stands to reason that that same sound would be very prevalent in the electronic music made herein. The thing that everyone forgets is that, somehow, this album broke a substantial amount of ground, in ways that weren’t immediately obvious. For me, there was something tremendously beautiful about the blips and beats all over that record, and even now, listening to “Recycled Air,” I find myself with goosebumps. It’s an unassuming record, and it has been a year or two since I’ve put the album on. However, The Postal Service have returned from their slumber to celebrate the decade’s passage by playing a few shows, and with all of the talk about how happy I am to have them back, it feels necessary to listen again.

I was dying my hair black when I first heard “Such Great Heights,” in the bathroom of our apartment in Washington. I don’t know what I thought I was hearing, but just like everyone at that point in time, I fell in love with that sound. This was not long after the release of both Give Up and the Death Cab for Cutie record Transatlanticism, which meant that Ben Gibbard’s voice was a mainstay on my radio, and in turn, in my head. At this point in time, my love of Seattle music was just beginning to take hold (thanks to Modest Mouse and Nirvana, which I had also just truly discovered), and as such, I grabbed onto Gibbard’s music and lyrics like a life raft. Give Up became something of a safety blanket to me, once I got myself a copy, and I almost never wanted to stop listening to it. To this day, it’s one of the only albums I know every square inch of, front to back, purely from memory. Even my favorite albums, which I return to more often than this, have strange gray areas in my memory.

Gibbard’s words felt like they could never have been recorded in a studio. This was where “bedroom recording” was slowly starting to become truly prominent, and the back-and-forth between his words and the incredibly organic programming delivered by Dntel mastermind Jimmy Tamborello formed a beautiful language that a lot of musicians would pull inspiration from. These were songs that were born out of solitude, which comes across on the recordings incredibly well. This is, I imagine, why the songs resonate with others in such a way: to their ears, this is the work of two people dancing, but doing it in the form of sound. The songs feel resigned to this isolation, which is why the album’s title feels like a helpful suggestion, rather than a command: give up.

This was around the time that my mother and I began to make the transition between living in Washington, and living in Oregon. I remembered going down with her on business, interviewing for different jobs, and on one particular occasion (the one that, indeed, solidified the plan to move) I was accompanied by three things: Jones Crushed Melon soda, Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company, and Give Up. It was a beautiful March afternoon, and somehow, I began to allow myself to accept leaving Washington, and everything I’d ever known, in my 14 years of life. It was a scary point in time, but there were Ben and Jimmy, who taught me to accept these things, even though it was never their intention.

This obsession with The Postal Service, of course, lead to a thorough obsession with Death Cab for Cutie, due to my profound adoration of Gibbard’s voice and words. I jumped from Give Up to Transatlanticism, and then learned every single inch of that record, right down to the length of time where he lets his s’s trail off. If you asked me now, “Why were you so obsessed with those records?” I wouldn’t honestly be able to tell you. It is possible that, from an incredibly young age, I wanted badly to be a romantic, and in turn to relate to the loss of love, and these records allowed me to live vicariously through them. I poured over the lovelorn ways that he told me, “I am finally seeing, I was the one worth leaving,” or narrating the death of a relationship: “This is the moment that you know / that you told her that you love her, but you don’t.” There was a sort of heartbreaking bravery in these songs, and better still, these revelations were sung in the most conversational way possible, constantly bucking the notion of typical lyrical structure to benefit his own desires: it’s hard not to marvel at the gall he had to open a song with the line “The glove compartment is inaccurately named, and everyone knows it.” Who does this guy think he is? It didn’t matter that I couldn’t truly relate to these constant emotional damages. To me, they were close enough to real life.

Before I got married, I dated a girl who shared my sick obsession with this man’s music. We bonded over our obsession with Gibbard’s words, and in this way, it somehow changed the cellular structure of this sorrow. It somehow fueled our love, knowing that, deep down, we both understood the heartbreak of another person. We poured over every inch of these records together, building a strange narrative, in which these songs tell a complete story, and tell an even fuller story when combined with We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, and the criminally underrated Plans. To this day, I really don’t understand what we got out of this, but this was a bond that I was incredibly grateful for. For months afterwards, I found it impossible to listen to this music without connecting it to the happier times I had experienced. Finally, I found a way to connect with those words. The tragic irony is, just a month later, they would release Narrow Stairs, and I have to wonder if our relationship would have been stretched out a few months longer if we’d gotten to obsess over that one.

A decade later, I still love this music, and I likely always will. This was my first foray into the subtle art of living in someone else’s sadness, a tradition I have held dear since learning that I truly love the music that can only be called “sad bastard music.” I’ve forged my own memories with these songs, and tried to erase some of the sadness embedded in them. I even went as far as to recite the lyrics to “Brand New Colony” on my wedding day, as my own personal wedding vows. My wife still gives me grief for not bothering to write my own vows. But what does she know? I know that song well enough that they may as well be my own words. And, I’m sure if you ask me how I feel about these songs in another decade, I’m probably going to tell you the same thing.

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Radiohead: A Song to Keep Us Warm

On my left elbow, I have a very large, ugly scar. I got it when I was 17, and working for my grandfather’s caretaker, trimming an overgrown hedge at her house. I slipped on the fairly waxy leaves, and brought the hedge trimmer down to my elbow, slicing it open. I had to come back the next day and finish the job as a result, because of the time spent travelling to, and waiting in, an ER waiting room to get stitches and a tetanus shot. That day I learned a few things: I learned that I shouldn’t trim hedges, and that tetanus shots don’t hurt that much, and that “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead is a very, very good song.

During that summer, I had made up my mind to listen to a CD player more than my iPod, because it made it more difficult to let my ADHD get the better of me when it came to album switching. For the most part, it worked: I would listen to albums on repeat for days on end, digging into them as much as possible. That was the summer that I listened to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible on single-song-repeat, listening to every single song 20 times in a row. That summer, more importantly, was the summer that I clicked with the bits of OK Computer that I had yet to click with. But, we’ll back up a bit. I was 16 when I bought the album based solely on reputation. I had sold all of my video game equipment, which I no longer used, and picked up the Violent Femmes self-titled, Bjork’s Telegram, System of a Down’s Mesmerize/Hypnotize, and OK Computer. It sat on my shelf for months and months, until one day, I decided to dust it off. It took me awhile to finally click with it, but I remember exactly where I was when I fell in love with the band. My father and I were on a motorcycle trip with a couple of family friends, and I put the album on to listen to. I listened a couple times through, and enjoyed it. Then, at one point, I began to doze off with my head on my father’s shoulder, in the fall Washington rain. “Exit Music (For A Film)” came on, and a switch flipped in my head. It was a mysterious feeling, one that I had experienced a couple times before that, but had never felt in a way like this. The moment and the music became inextricably linked, and I became a Radiohead devotee.

There will always be an ever-raging battle over the best Radiohead album with its fans, but if a gun were to my head I would choose OK Computer any day of the week, despite not being as poised as its beautiful follow-up Kid A. When I heard songs like “Paranoid Android,” and how incredibly it was written, it gave me hope as a teenager that art could be incredibly loud and incredibly well-written. I became mystified by the heart-on-sleeve beauty of “No Surprises” (to this day my favorite Radiohead song, who’s opening bars and refrain of “no alarms and no surprises please” I have tattooed on my forearm) and its resigned tone. This was not music for someone who wanted to die. This was the music of someone who had come to peace with the fact that he was going to die. I even loved “Fitter Happier,” and its robotic message of dependence on a live made of routine and habit.

The problem with “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is that it is situated between “Paranoid Android” and “Exit Music (For A Film),” two songs that are easily among the best in Radiohead’s catalog. As such, I found it hard to listen to the song, for no reason other than the fact that it stood in the way of me standing in my living room howling, “WE HOOOOOOPE, THAT YOU CHOOOOOOOOOOKE, THAT YOU CHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOKE.” Keep in mind, this was when I was a bitter teenager who had just come to terms with past abuses; I was troubled, but I had the depth of a mud puddle. The words there spoke to me. OK Computer is an ode to disillusionment and alienation in a computerized world, and though I never connected with the latter part of that, I was well-versed in that feeling of feeling separate from the rest of the world. I’ve always felt like I was somehow out of place with the world, and Thom Yorke understood that, in his own way.

And then, I maimed myself doing a job I really probably wasn’t qualified to be doing. I got lost in the words of the song that I couldn’t get past, suddenly hearing Yorke’s words clearly for the first time:

I wish that they’d swoop down in a country lane,
Late at night when I’m driving.
Take me on board their beautiful ship,
Show me the world as I’d love to see it.

I’d tell all my friends but they’d never believe me,
They’d think that I’d finally lost it completely.

I didn’t realize until the next evening how much of an impact this had on me. That evening, I spent a couple hours with my girlfriend, and I asked her to marry me (I was 17. Keep that in mind). She said yes, and the next day, called me to tell me that it was a crazy thing to do, and a crazy thing for me to ask. After hanging up, I realized that there was a distance between me and everyone else, and that I would never get to a point where I could be okay with that distance. In short, I felt like an alien. And I would never have the ability to explain that. I’m 22 now, and as of this writing, I still struggle with those feelings of alienation and confusion. I have wondered if it would be worth it, given the opportunity, to travel back and let 17-year-old Hollister know that feeling never goes away, but I worry that it would crush his spirit. I still believe in the lessons that Thom Yorke taught me at that age, even if a lot of them are hard to really understand at times.

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Sleeps With Electric Guitars: A Story About Pavement

I do a thing, and I don’t know if anybody else does it, mostly because I don’t talk to people about it: I will decide, spur of the moment, to get into a specific genre. I did this with emo (not the kind you’re thinking about; I even started a website based on this), dubstep (the kind that Brits are making in their bedrooms for dark basements, not the overblown kind), and, when I was younger, lo-fi. At the time, I was a member of a music message board (I don’t recall which one), and I asked a humble question: where do I start with lo-fi music? I got two answers that stuck with me, though they are part of two different stories. The first of which was being told to listen to Mountain Goats, and the other was a very simple response: “Pavement <3.” So, I went to Amazon and looked to see which album had the most tracks on it (a thing I did a lot – this will come up at another time), and downloaded it. This album was the deluxe edition of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. I burned a copy of it, labelling it Cooked Rain, Cooked Rain (because I am slightly dyslexic), and listened to it exactly once. It wasn’t for me. So I put it on a shelf.

Several months later, I lost all of my downloaded music. Our hard drive crashed, and with it, a couple years worth of being best friends with Soulseek went out the window. What I was left with was stacks and stacks of CD-Rs, burned and forgotten, to give a chance to. Or, at least, that was my plan. When searching through the stacks (probably for White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan or Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight), I came across Cooked Rain, Cooked Rain. I listened again. And then again. And a month’s worth of times more.

Living in the internet age means that the best thing about getting into Pavement at the beginning was gone. I never got try and learn all I could about S.M. and Spiral Stairs, I only ever knew Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg. I could listen to everything Pavement had ever made, whenever I wanted. But for me, it was all about that one record. In that record, I was a 90s kid; I burned copies for everyone I could think of. I gushed about it to everyone. I made friends because I met people and thought they would enjoy it. When I gave a copy to my classmate, and he didn’t like it, I told my English teacher (who was the kind of guy who wouldn’t let me live down that I’d missed seeing Arcade Fire the last time they were in town) what he had said, and he sighed, saying, “He doesn’t like Pavement? What a douchebag. They were the best band of the 90s.” I gave my closest friend my copy of Cooked Rain, Cooked Rain, and he became enchanted by the mystique of that record. There was something magical in that disc, and none of us could figure out why, but it was not the kind of thing we wanted to go away.

Pavement were the kind of band that you put on for road trips, for mowing the lawn (I imagine – I haven’t had a lawn to mow since I was 12), for gardening, for doing the dishes, for every single occasion. To this day, I still haven’t managed to connect with any other Pavement record like I did with that one – even Slanted & Enchanted, the other Everyone’s-Favorite-Pavement-Record. It was like a child to me, and I could never part with it. My friends and I would obsess over the most pointless details: how silly the song “5-4=Unity” was as an instrumental breakdown, how the line “‘Cause you sleep with electric guitars” in “Elevate Me Later” gave us goosebumps, and how insanely funny the delivery of the line “I’d like to invite you to taste of my chalice / it’s a special one / it’s made of gold” on “Filmore Jive” was. I learned to play “Cut Your Hair” and would play it when we hang out, and would put “Unfair” and “Gold Soundz” onto countless mixtapes. It was such an amazing record to us, it seemed wrong to not share it with everyone around us.

When I sat down to write this story, I thought about the profound effect it had on my life, and all of the wisdom I gained from it. But then I remembered the fact that I didn’t get any of that out of it, at least nothing that could be marked. The effect has been gradual, rather than violent and immediate. I realized all of the charms in jangly guitars, and slacker singers, and lyrics that didn’t make any sense. This was a time when I was steadily learning to be a social human being, and it showed me that there was a different way to go about it: you don’t have to care, and you don’t have to pretend you do, and if you follow that, things will fall into place. Stephen Malkmus might be my favorite rock band singer, not because he is especially good, but because he sings like he’s a slacker. He was the kind of hero that I didn’t need, but still found, at that age: when asked about the songwriting on their next record, Wowee Zowee, he responded “I was on a lot of grass back then, but they sounded like hits.” To a kid who was drowning in hormonal angst, he was exactly the kind of cool that I wanted to model myself after.

I never did, though, because fat Jews from Seattle aren’t very good at playing the Cool Gangly Slacker From Stockton angle. But it never changed my perception of the perfection in that copy of Cooked Rain, Cooked Rain. One of our other friends accidentally shattered that CD, and we gave it the funeral it deserved. I bonded with a lot of people because of that record – and I still do. I still think S.M. is one of the coolest guys around – even if, when I told him how dorky I felt for being so grateful for his record, he told me that he felt like a dork being so grateful for all of his fans. It’s as if he was proving his superiority to me by not being superior. It was crazy to me.

I got the opportunity to see Pavement back in 2010, on their reunion tour. The first thing Malkmus said when he walked on stage, to a hillside covered in rapt, adoring fans, was this: “You never thought this would happen. Pavement! Playing at Edgefield! I went to a wedding here once. It was a good wedding. Though I don’t think I’ve ever been to a bad wedding.” It was just silly enough that nobody could help but remember exactly why we were all drawn to his band in the first place. Everyone in that amphitheater likely experienced the same love of that band that my friends and I did, and singing loudly in the early-September heat to “Gold Soundz” made the whole thing perfect. They closed the set with “Range Life,” featuring the line that was always so evocative of the band: “Don’t worry / we’re in no hurry.” In that moment, hearing S.M.’s signature drawl spill that line out, 10 feet from me, I remembered how wonderful it was to be 16 and in love with the idea of a band changing the world – even if it was only your world.

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Modest Mouse: I’m Angry That I’m So Damn Angry

Isaac Brock was born in 1975 in Helena, Montana. When he was 11, he moved to a small town in Washington, called Issaquah, which is famous for little more than its salmon hatchery. In 1993, he formed a band with his friends, like every 18-year-old dreams of doing, and remarkably, that band stuck around for a good long time. To date, Modest Mouse has put out five records, six EPs, and two rarities compilations. They’re also pretty famous for one of the best songs that you’re supposed to be ashamed that you like, “Float On,” which proved to be an incredible, super-massive hit for the band, over a decade into their career. However, if you are reading this, chances are you didn’t need any of that info because you already knew it, and have read the book, and know the songs, and own all of those recordings (except for the Interstate 8 EP, which you probably consider to be a white whale).

I was born in Seattle in 1990, and lived in and around it until I was 4, when we moved to Ravensdale, WA. We lived there for  nine years, until we moved to the nearby town of Maple Valley, which was better, in that if there was a power outage, it was taken care of that day rather than that week. All of this is significant to this story because, as I learned midway through my obsession with their fourth album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, I learned that Isaac Brock was from the small town located just 15 miles from where I lived then. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

My musical taste up until 2004 was checkered, to say the very least. I went through phases that gravitated around what was on the Top 40 charts at the time (this swung from an undying obsession with the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, to the same passion and obsession with the artists on the 8 Mile soundtrack, until my father discovered just how profane Obie Trice could be with the song “Adrenaline Rush”). Then, one day, I discovered the local “alternative” station, 107.7 The End, and its wealth of angsty, bitter songs that I had never, ever heard. I heard “Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Black Hole Sun” and “Add It Up” for the first time, listening to the station on the portable CD player/FM tuner I carried around with me (a very old sentence, when you think about it) while in summer school. It was around this time that I needed songs like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” the most.

I was a great student until the 6th grade. Until then, I was the best speller in the class, which was my only claim to fame. I was a social outcast, and really only had one good friend, so I found solace in learning. When the 6th grade rolled around, I began to take stock of my life, and the things around me: my father was abusive, and my parents, who fought constantly at this point, had decided to divorce. We were being forced to move out of my childhood home, and I didn’t really have anybody to share any of this pre-adolescent angst with. As a 22-year-old, I have yet to fully recover from those formative years, but something in the music I heard in those years kept me sane, and most importantly, changed me into something different entirely.

I heard “Float On” on that CD player, and I was immediately take by its jangly guitars and its despite-everything-optimism, to the point that I forced my mother to buy me that CD. I took it with me for a late-night walk on the trail near the apartment we had moved into, and began to take it in. The batteries died partway through, and I still remember where: halfway through “Bukowski,” just around the line “I can’t make it to your wedding, but I’m sure that I’ll be at your wake.” The words on that album grabbed onto me, hard. I learned later on that most Modest Mouse fans felt a decent amount of distaste for the pop sensibilities that their favorite musical outcast had adopted, but for the 14-year-old listening to those words, it was absolutely perfect. Modest Mouse was the first Mature Band that I ever really clicked with in that way (I bought the White Stripes album Elephant the year before that, but it never resonated in the same way, at least not until I was much older), and they inspired me to buy my first copy of Rolling Stone, specifically for an interview with Isaac Brock (for those wondering, the cover story was an interview with Doonesbury writer Garry Trudeau). This was a period with a lot of firsts.

Good News isn’t my go-to record anymore, even in the Modest Mouse catalog. As I worked my way backwards in the band’s music, I found a lot darker things to grab onto in my teenage angst, having abandoned the ability to really take solace in the pop songs on that record. It is not a bad record, by any means: “The World At Large” is one of my favorite songs, and “Bury Me With It,” “Dance Hall,” “Bukowski,” and “This Devil’s Workday” got me through a lot of tough times, being in my room, screaming the words at the top of my lungs. I remember my mother’s perplexed and disapproving looks the first time she heard the line “I JUST DON’T NEED NONE OF THAT MAD MAX BULLSHIT!!” and how equally perplexed she was when I nailed the high part on “Ocean Breathes Salty.” It may not be my favorite Modest Mouse record, but for what it’s worth, it is the one I love the most.

Listening to that CD player, I heard the Muse song “Time Is Running Out.” You know the one. It’s the one with the really killer bassline at the beginning, and the snaps. I loved that song, and under pressure from my friend (who I don’t even remember, now that I write this), I went to buy Absolution. Standing in the Target CD section, I found the album, and continued to browse. There, I found the cash-grab remastered edition of The Moon & Antarctica, the Modest Mouse record that had come out four years prior. “You can only get one,” my mother told me. So I made a choice that, now that I’m older, means that I am a completely different person. I realized this recently, that the months I spent obsessing could have been with a completely different record by a completely different band, one that valued sheen and hooks over content. And, considering my More-Alternative-Than-Thou brain, those are the values that would likely have stuck. There was a fork in the road, and I went left.

I got the album home and gave it a listen. The first thing you notice, hearing that album after Good News, is that those are two albums made by two different bands. “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart,” Brock sings right off the bat in “Third Planet,” “I got this thing that I consider my only art, of fucking people over.” “Third Planet” and “Gravity Rides Everything” are undoubtedly beautiful songs, and hearing them serves as a palette cleanser, leaving you fresh for the songs that come after it. The Moon & Antarctica is an album that helps you reexamine the tenants of loneliness and isolation: “The Cold Part” plays like a suicide note from a man who has chosen to set himself adrift on a chunk of ice, and “Lives” is that man’s eulogy: “You were the dull sounds of sharp math when you were alive / no one’s gonna play the harp when you die.” That descent is slow creeping, giving us little reprieve as you inch your way down (“Wild Pack of Family Dogs,” “Paper Thin Walls,” and “I Came As A Rat” always seemed so misplaced, but when you think about it, they’re wholly necessary as a way to turn back and glimpse the light before going any deeper), until the clanging finale, “What People Are Made Of.”

One of the things you notice on your first listen through is the stray lines that are so impeccably written, and it was one of these that flipped a switch in my head: “Well you cocked your head, to shoot me down / and I don’t give a damn about you or this town no more.” I knew that Brock was from a place so close to me before this, but hearing that line made me realize something very, very powerful: you don’t have to like anything about your upbringing. You’re allowed to hate where you live, who your parents are, what their values are, and the stupid grins of the people who don’t see who you are on the inside. In that line, he made it okay to rebel against things, and make your own life out of the weeds. He made me okay with my disdain for my parents’ divorce, and my father’s anger, and the looming threat of money troubles, and the fact that I had to move to Oregon soon because my grandfather was dying of cancer slowly, uprooting everything I had grown to know, even if it was everything I had grown to hate. In those words, he taught me it was okay because he knew what that was like. The musicians I had listened to for my 14 years leading up to this didn’t prepare me as an emotional being: they just wanted to tell a sk8r boi “see ya l8r boi,” rather than give my heart and soul a steady footing. And who could blame them? Eminem was a savior to a lot of kids, but I was a kid with emotional eating issues from a mossy mountain town in Washington, I was never going to be able to learn to rap my way out of that. I wasn’t going to be able to take part in five-part harmonies to get out of it, either, like the well-groomed Backstreet Boys (or the varied-in-their-grooming Spice Girls). What my savior taught me was that the best way out was to scream about it, and hammer on a guitar until your fingers bled.

Earlier this year, several hours after a horrendous attempt to remove a kidney stone (because I am 46, apparently), I had the pleasure of going to a fundraiser where Isaac Brock was performing. Right off the bat, he played “Trailer Trash,” a song off of The Lonesome Crowded West (An album I love, but one I won’t get into in this already very long essay). If you don’t know the song, look up the lyrics, because I can’t quote a single line from it without quoting the entire thing. It was incredibly moving, especially because I watched him perform it maybe three feet in front of me. After he was done playing, I took the opportunity to tell him about the impact he’d had on my life, and how his music kept me alive for those years when it felt like the world was against me. He thanked me for my story, seeming taken aback by it. We stood around outside, talking and smoking, and before leaving I shook his hand, and my friend gave him a fist bump. Brock made fun of him for it. I told him, “I’m worse, I’m a hugger.” “Yeah, that is way worse,” he said, right before demanding that I give him a hug. In hindsight, it seems impossible to me that I kept my composure throughout all of this.

I still live about 15 miles away from Isaac Brock, and his music is still an incredibly powerful force in my life, even though I don’t listen to those records as much anymore. I have a son of my own, and I’m going to make sure he never needs a musician to keep him alive. But when I was young, confused, and alone, that band did that for me. The music was my religion, and Isaac Brock was the best savior possible for a kid like me, even though (or especially because) he was so bitter.

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Notes From An American Film Nerd

I’m not going to recap what happened in Aurora, CO. If you’re reading this, you know what happened, and if you don’t, I’m sorry you’ve been locked in prison for the last few days. I’m not going to refer to the perpetrator by name, because that gives him a small bit of power, a thing he does not deserve. I’m not going to blame gun laws, because that’s not what went wrong, and we all know it.

The things I’m going to talk about are three things I’m very familiar with: cinema, America, and poor mental health.

The Dark Knight Rises is going to be forever scarred by what happened. This is, of course, not the biggest part of the tragedy, but it is a different piece of what went wrong. It is superficial and silly, but film is an art form, and the movie happens to be a great piece of art. What this means is, because of what happened, that bit of art is going to be ruined in a big way, likely permanently. Batman, Christopher Nolan, and everyone involved are, more likely than not, going to be blamed just as frequently as the guns used, which is truly a foolish thing. It’s also very likely that a very large amount of people the world over won’t be seeing the film. Again, this sounds superficial, but there is something familiar at the heart of that newly-found fear of the cinema.

No matter how you slice it, what happened was domestic terrorism, without question. We may see that as a smaller thing than foreign terrorism, but it’s all the same. In the wake of 9/11, President Bush made an oft’ misunderstood speech, concerning what the typical American should do: keep going out, keep enjoying things. The point he was making was this: the heart of terrorism is fear, and if you don’t fear things like terrorists, then they have no power. And so, in the case of this bit of terrorism, I have this to say: go to the movies. What happened was nothing more than one disturbed individual taking fear into his own hands as a weapon, one meant to hurt us, and everyone who was there that night. So you know what? Fuck that guy. Fuck him right in the ear.

But, really, the fact of the matter is, terrorist or not, what happened was perpetrated by one disturbed man. America has only begun to see that mental illness is a thing that should be cared for, rather than ignored, and this weekend has proven that. Mental illness is a disease that spreads if left unchecked, and even though not everyone will decide to gun down moviegoers, it’s clearly not a thing that is impossible. The man who did this called himself The Joker, and if you’re reading this, you know exactly what The Joker (of the comics and films) stands for: chaos and entropy.

And so, I make this humble request to you, dear reader: remember who can defeat people like The Joker: the dark knight, who can overcome loss and pain to defeat anyone who threatens him. You may scoff and find me less than serious, but if you take anything from this, it should be this: be The Batman. Stand up for what is right. Help those around you, because any of them could be the one who needs it more than the rest. Keep fighting, and keep living.

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