Wax Stories #10: Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends

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Simon and Garfunkel - Bookends

Looking for America, Asking for Credit Card Numbers

The day I lost my faith in common decency was in front of a post office in Issaquah. I stood there in my bright orange t-shirt, gripping my clipboard and grinning ear to ear while sweat oozed out of my pores. It was nearly 100 degrees out that day. I greeted everyone entering and exiting the mail room with “Hi there, moment to help stop dog fighting?” My coworker, standing at the other side of the door, was faring much better than me. She was a natural at this, I was not. As she told a soccer mom about the statistics of euthanasia in dogs a man approached me. He’d already been talking to my coworker so I wasn’t sure what he wanted to talk to me about.

“I’ve been watching you, and I’ve come to a conclusion,” he said.

“What’s that?” I said with a smile and ‘golly gee’ tone.

“You’re not worth very much,” he replied then walked over to my coworker to shake her hand and thank her for the information.

Oh what a time it was. A time of innocence.

It was a desperate summer. I was committed to staying in Seattle and not going back home when my sophomore year ended. I’d spent the previous summer in Alaska so I was sure I could make it on my own in a town more familiar. My dorm roommate and I decided to split a studio apartment a couple blocks away from campus. I had a job lined up in September with the campus radio station, but in the meantime I’d need cash to pay for our new dwelling – which was only slightly bigger than our dorm and had slanting floors and mold, but that’s another story in itself.

I’d been applying for everything I found on Craigslist but only one job seemed interested in me. I didn’t really know what the term “street canvassing” meant on the ad. To be frank, everything on it seemed like a scam. “Make up to $3,000 a week fighting for animal rights!” “Great for college students!” “Make a difference!” I was just waiting for the part where they were going to ask me to sell knives. I talked to my friend Katie Joy whom I worked with at the campus newspaper after finding out she worked for this same canvassing company. I asked her if it was a scam. Her response was a simple, “no.” I should have asked for more details, but at this point it was really the only criteria that mattered to me.

I interviewed in person and got a job on the spot. Well, at least a trial run. Things were looking up. I was going to get to work in the cultural hub of Capitol Hill in Seattle. I had the potential to make good money. I even got my friends Wes and Alex to jump on board. I had a job.

Kristin and I were still dating at the time and she was going to study abroad in France for most of the summer. Even though I was jealous she’d be spending a summer with Parisians, sipping rosé, I felt like I was going to still have a fairly decent summer making my own in the city. We weren’t going to be able to communicate for the first half of the summer as she’d be without Internet or phone access. It was going to be hard, but we’d survived the previous summer being in different countries without contact. This would be cake compared to that.

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I walked in on my first day and was issued my bright orange t-shirt, a clipboard, and a pitch to memorize. I embellished as necessary.

“Hi there, moment to stop dog fighting? Great! My name’s Dusty Henry and I’m hear representing the ASPCA. Are you familiar with us? Have you seen the show ‘Animal Cops?’ Or have you seen that Sarah McLaughlin commercial with ‘in the arrrrrms of an angel’ in the background? Yeah it makes me choke up every time too. Well, that’s us! Did you know that everyday thousands of dogs are euthanized…”

And on and on it went until eventually I was asking people for their credit card numbers. I’d say all this, standing in the same spot for eight hours a day with a perma-grin on my face. I was trained to combat any excuses they had. They molded me into a machine that was ready to tell someone that a one time contribution wouldn’t help as much as a monthly one. All of this adding to my quota. If I didn’t make my weekly quota, I would be reprimanded. If I had two days where I brought in nothing, I would be fired. The stakes were high.

In truth, I am an animal lover. I am unashamedly a dog person with a fondness toward cats as well. But I wouldn’t say I’m passionate enough to take to the streets for the ASPCA’s cause, even if they’re a great organization (though I was working for a third party that was working for the ASPCA – very big difference). I’m not even an extrovert. Talking to strangers on the street everyday is an introverts nightmare. For a paycheck though, I was ready to become an advocate and sell myself.

My first day on my “trial” I qualified for the job, raking in a few hundred dollars in donations. My new boss made an offhanded joke when we went back to fill out my employee information. I should’ve seen it as a harbinger instead of a clever welcoming.

“My god…Jenny come in here. It’s finally happened. The prophecies were true! He is the chosen one. The 100th person to work on this campaign.”

I felt like a Luke Skywalker, but in reality I was an Anakin waiting to disappoint.

Everything about the job was demoralizing. People walking past you like you don’t exist. People offended you would dare interrupt their day by speaking to them. People with designer bags telling you they don’t have the money to spare. It was enough to make a bitter soul out of a doe-eyed, hopeful college student. I wasn’t even working much in Capitol Hill. We’d convene at the office every morning to find out where in the Seattle area we’d be sent out too. Everyone crossed their fingers to the get highly profitable East Side (Renton, Issaquah, Bellevue) and not the infamous downtown area.

Despite it all, I wanted to make the best of this experience. Most of my cash was going toward rent, food and gas. In truth, I was really just making minimum wage.( The “up to $3,000 a week” thing was only if you were getting commissions, which only happened if you did better than the top percent of the office – something I never accomplished). I realized that if I never spent any of my hard earned cash on something I actually enjoyed I was going to go crazy. On a brilliantly sunny evening, I walked down Broadway Ave to Gruv Records (which has since closed). Searching through the bins I found a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. I’d been playing my copy of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme constantly over the past couple of years, often citing it as one of my favorite sounding records. Kristin had also recently gotten me into the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack, which featured the song “Bookends,” so Paul and Art were on my mind. I picked it up used for a couple of bucks and headed back home, only to remember that my stereo receiver was busted. I still couldn’t reap the benefits of my paycheck.

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Even though I couldn’t even listen to the record, the lyrics would haunt me throughout my unwanted endless summer.

“But if your hopes should pass away
Simply pretend that you can build them again”

Easier said than done, Paul. Thanks for the tip though.

“Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you”

Cool guys, appreciate that. Maybe I can preserve memories of a time I didn’t hate every person who passed me on the street.

“Somethin’ tells me
It’s all happening at the zoo.”

No! It’s happening in your own neighborhoods. Dog fighting is more prevalent than you’d think, ya darn hippies!

“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”

Alright, maybe you two do get it. Damn.

Working on Queen Anne one day, I almost quit. It was halfway through summer and halfway through the day and I wasn’t getting any ‘tribs (a clever term we used in the canvassing game for “contributions”). Kristin surprised me with an international phone call. I didn’t recognize the number so I was thrown off and confused. And as soon I realized it was Kristin a homeless man tried to make conversation with me. I tried to get him to leave without being rude as I was on the call. Kristin understandably took it as me being disinterested and the phone call ended before her friend’s cellphone bill would get too high. I felt utterly defeated.

I went and found my coworker a few blocks away with the intention of offering my resignation. She told me she understood how the job can kill your soul but that I should take a day to think about it. She called into the office and told them I was sick and sent me home (funnily enough, she ended up quitting the next day). I walked back to my empty apartment and laid on my bottom bunk (yes we had a bunk bed). There, honest to God, I sobbed in the dark. This summer had already defeated me.

For whatever reason, I pressed on. My friends were all as miserable as I was, so there was some solace in that. I ended up becoming a manager of sorts for getting enough ‘tribs in one day, so things were looking up for at least a little while. By the end of the summer, I was considered one of the more seasoned employees there – the turnover rate was incredible. Only a few months in and I was leading training sessions. It could only mean it was the near end for me.

Between missing my quotas consistently, watching all of my coworkers bail ship, and getting into yelling arguments with scam artists in wheelchairs (don’t ask); I was losing it. I had a talk with one of my bosses about why I was doing bad. I told him about how when I was training new employees as their manager, I’d give them the best spots to get ‘tribs. He told me this was the opposite of what I should be doing and that my number one priority should be myself. I disagreed with that and continued doing what I was doing (what I like to think Simon and Garfunkel would do too).

I reached my two zero days and even became the first person they decided to give a third chance to. But when I got another zero day I walked in and gave my resignation – trying to leave with dignity.

It’s hard for me to even muster the desire to play this LP even today. When I look at it all I can think of is that bummer of a summer. I remember this record sitting at the front of my record crate with Paul and Art’s eyes looking right at me. They’d stare as I ate my Top Ramen or as I rummaged through the couch trying to find change to buy a Gatorade. It was like they were mocking me, knowing I couldn’t listen to their record if I wanted to.

Paul Simon Eye

Paul Simon’s ever watchful eye. He sees all.

This was all very melodramatic, but was all very real to me. I’m still young and I can still see how my emotions got the best of me. Those aren’t even likely the hardest times I’ll ever face in life. It really was a time of innocence. I was much more naive than I let on. Maybe if I’d bought Bridge Over Troubled Water it would’ve eased my mind. Or maybe Sounds of Silence would’ve made me realize I’d made a huge mistake earlier on. Instead, I walked out bitter and wounded. But I’d bounce back just fine. This record will always be a reminder of that. It’s a reason to stay humble and aware that things could always be worse. I’m much more careful about complaining about my job and circumstances.

I searched for America on the streets of Seattle and didn’t find what I was looking for, or at least what I was hoping for. Perspective is everything.

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Previous Wax Story: The Postal Service – Give Up

Next Week: Jeff Buckley – Grace

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Wax Stories #6: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

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Spring 2009

The first time I heard The Avett Brothers was in the lounge of Second West Ashton Hall, a dorm at Seattle Pacific University. I was sitting with Kristin, hanging out on our laptops and talking. We’d only been dating for maybe a month at this point. Somehow music came up in conversation, as it often did (and still does) and she mentioned that she just started listening to this band called The Avett Brothers. She pulled up her iTunes and played me “Die Die Die.” I freaked out.

I was on a folk binge at this point, mostly singer-songwriters. Recently I’d become more inclined to explore my bluegrass roots. My grandfather is a bluegrass stand-up bass player and I grew up going to festivals (if you get the chance, my grandma would love to tell you all about the time she pushed me around in a wheel barrel when I fell asleep early one night). So when I heard those jangly guitar chords and banjo noodlings, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. Strangely though, in my excitement, I insisted to Kristin that it sounded reminiscent of “Pink Triangle” by Weezer. It doesn’t sound anything like that at all.

A lot of our first hangouts and dates revolved around exchanging music. We’d sit on her dorm floor with our laptops and switch USB drives (sorry, music industry). I requested she give me Emotionalism. For the rest of the quarter, I devoured the album. I found “Shame” to be poignant and the harmonies on “Weight of Lies” felt otherworldly. However, the standout track for me was almost instantly “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” Kristin felt the same.

The rest of spring quarter was constant trips to Gas Works Park, skipping classes because it was too sunny and warm to hang out in a dull classroom, and walking around Seattle with no real destination. It was the cliche fledgling college romance. As summer came closer, we both finalized our plans. I was going to Alaska with my good friend Zach and soon-to-be buddy John to work at a helicopter tour company in Juneau, Alaska. She was going to volunteer at an orphanage in the Philippines with her friend Patricia for most of the summer. We’d only been dating a couple months as the school year came to an end, but it never really crossed our minds to break up. Following the cliche romance story, “The Ballad of Love and Hate” played through my laptop speakers as she came to say goodbye to me for the summer (I kid you not, that actually happened).

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Summer 2009

Since Kristin was across the globe, I wouldn’t be able to call her for most of the summer. Instead our only option was to write letters. I started writing my first one while on the plane to Juneau but didn’t mail it out until she left for the Philippines. The second letter I sent was some weird joke about me being pregnant with a drawing of me on the bottom with a big belly. These would the only two letters she would get for the first half of the summer. I felt like a dumbass.

During my first week there I stopped in at a coffee shop called Heritage Coffee in downtown Juneau with Zach and John. Heritage was some sort of chain exclusive to Juneau, but it always felt like being back in Seattle when I stepped inside of one. The first thing I saw was this tall man with a huge beard serving gelato wearing a t-shirt with the Emotionalism album artwork. He even looked strikingly like Seth Avett.  I’m not usually one to reach out and make conversation with people I don’t know, but I was flabbergasted that someone else  knew who The Avett Brothers were – and in Juneau no less! I ordered my drink and hesitated before saying “hey cool shirt, I love The Avett Brothers.” He lit up. He was just as surprised as we were. His name was Jacob Warren. We had a quick conversation about music and later found out he actually had already befriended John before Zach and I flew up.

About a week later we biked over to the local hang out – The Waffle Co. The bike I was borrowing from a coworker was hard to ride. I’d later find out the tires and handlebars were bent. The ride over was so rough that I considered just turning back but trekked on anyway since I didn’t have anything else better to do. Most of the evening we just hung out on our computers so Zach and John could Skype with their girlfriends. Over the course of the summer I’d become exceedingly jealous of their luxury to call their girlfriends whenever they wanted. As the night progressed more people John knew started showing up, including Jacob and a crew of other people. Eventually as the shop’s closing hour was imminent, Jacob picked up a guitar and started playing some Avett Brothers songs. I was hanging out on the outskirts and keeping to myself most of the night, but this caught my attention. The bigger surprise came when another five or six other people started singing along with him. I joined in too. We sang through “Die Die Die,” “I Would Be Sad,” “Go To Sleep,” and ended with “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” The whole time my mind was elsewhere.

We’d write more and more letters for the rest of the summer, which then evolved into phone calls when she got back to the states. A few weeks before I came home she saw The Avett Brothers play in Seattle with her friend Nicole. Then finally in September I met her in Seattle for a sweet reunion.

Summer 2010

Kristin was going to be gone again this summer, this time for a study abroad trip to France. I tried to think of a way I could afford to meet her there but the funds just weren’t possible. I opted to stay in Seattle that summer and work while I lived in a studio apartment with my roommate Michael. I got a job street canvassing for the ASPCA, trying to raise money to stop dog fighting. It was miserable. Every day I worked for minimum wage, trying to make a quota, while people repeatedly put me down or ignored my existence. I wasn’t making any money and I couldn’t talk to Kristin. Her Internet access was limited for most of the summer so our Skype sessions were sparse.

Eventually I decided I needed to do something to lift my spirits. Zach was living in Portland, Oregon now with his dad and invited me to come visit. The Avett Brothers were going to play at Edgefield and he thought it’d be fun if we went together. So I readied my car and prayed it’d make it all the way to Portland. It was getting pretty spotty and starting at this point but I wasn’t willing to miss an excuse to get out of town. Luckily I made it with no issues and Zach’s dad paid us to paint a room in his house so I made my gas and ticket money back. The show was great. Between every song I prayed they’d play “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” They didn’t.

In August I picked Kristin up from the airport with sunflowers. I made a special mix for her in the car. The first track was “The Ballad of Love and Hate.”

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January 2011

On New Year’s Day Kristin decided to give me an early birthday present: Emotionalism on 180 gram vinyl. I’d spotted it at Easy Street Records in Queen Anne a couple months before and apparently she took notice too. I played it in my studio apartment on repeat all day as Michael and I cleaned our apartment up from New Year’s Eve festivities and prepared for people to come over for my 21st birthday party at midnight. I’d never had such a nice record. Triple panel gate-fold. High quality pressing.

Later Kristin greeted me at my apartment with a square piece of cake she made herself with a lit candle on a platter.

December 24 2011

I drove in my car from Port Orchard to Auburn with my guitar in the backseat and a diamond ring sitting on the passenger seat, screaming along to Nirvana to get out my nerves. In my guitar case I had the guitar chords to “The Ballad of Love and Hate.” I couldn’t decide if I wanted to play that song or a song I wrote about her and our time apart in Alaska. Eventually I chose the later. She said yes.

August 2012

I spend a week before the wedding meticulously writing every word to “The Ballad of Love and Hate” on a shoe box covered in brown paper. I had no Internet access in my new apartment (which Kristin would be moving into after the wedding) so I had to use the lyric sheet from the record she bought me. At the end of each complete set of lyrics I made sure to write in red the last line “I’m yours and that’s it, forever.”

August 18 2012

The wedding party and I walk down the aisle as my friends Taylor and Marshall play an instrumental version of “The Ballad of Love and Hate” on acoustic guitar and violin respectively. The song fades out and transitions to another Avett Brothers song: “The Perfect Space” off of I And Love And You. The crowd turns and Kristin begins her walk down the aisle with her parents. I’m caught off guard as I start crying and look over to my best man Zach who just smiles and says “I know.”

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Previous Wax Story: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Next Week: Japandroids – Celebration Rock

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Wax Stories #4: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

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If you’re not familiar with Grand Ole Party or Humanimals, don’t worry – I’m not either. I’m not sure if I’ve even listened to this record all the way through and haven’t spun it in years. That makes the circumstances that led me to this record all the more absurd and bizarre.

My senior year of high school one of best friends Brandon’s sister backed up into my car in their driveway, crushing the fender. She felt terrible, but everyone was cool with it and we worked it out. Her parents paid for the repairs and in the meantime let me drive her car while mine was in the shop (they had a lot of cars, so it wasn’t a big deal). This was sort of like winning the lottery of car accidents. Instead of driving around my old car with peeling paint, I got to drive a brand new blue Volvo sports car for over a month. Our buddy Austin joked the whole time wishing his car had got hit instead.

My Nissan 300Z was older and was really the only car I’d ever driven much. I loved that car, but it doesn’t handle anything like a new car does. Turns were easier, the sound system was clear, and the acceleration was effortless. For an 18 year old guy, this felt amazing. There’s some weird fascination with driving in high school. You get obsessed with speed – even if you’re not a speed demon or care about cars at all – you just feel this power that’s been withheld from you for so long. But with this Volvo, I didn’t have to try and go fast. It just happened so naturally I didn’t even realize it was happening.

As I was driving back to school from a doctor’s appointment, just a few days after getting the Volvo, and I felt great. The sun was shining, the roads were open, and I had R.E.M.’s “Man On The Moon” playing in the stereo (a very underrated “lets f*** shit up” song…well actually,no. No it’s not). I was so entranced in my little Andy Kaufman pipe-dream that I didn’t notice the speedometer going up. And that’s when I saw the cop on the side of the highway. I tried to put on my breaks to slow down but it was too late. He turned on his lights and I pulled over. He told me he clocked me in at 80 mph and asked for my license, registration, and proof of insurance. I reached toward the glove box and opened it only to have a bottle of prescription pills fall out. It wasn’t anything weird or illegal, but I didn’t know they were there. I freaked out. This wasn’t helping my case at all.

“I..uhhh…this is my friend’s ehhhh sisters car….I uhh am supposed to be on the uhhh insurance…I think,” I said.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said. I’m not sure why though. This seemed like a pretty suspicious situation to me.

He gave me a speeding ticket and I went back to school, feeling defeated. I called Brandon’s dad from the student parking lot and pleaded apologies – mentioning repeatedly how I had betrayed his trust and how guilty I felt and how it would not happen again. I think he mostly thought it was funny and assured me I had nothing to worry about. I’m still thankful for how cool he was about it. My parents, on the other hand, were a bit livid. A classmate told that I should get the ticketed deferred, something you can do only once every seven years in Washington state to have the ticket scrapped off your record, and then pay off the fine with volunteer hours. This was going to be the most effective way for me to pay for it, so I went ahead with it.

Later that year I did a senior project job shadow at The Vera Project, following their stage managers for a few days and reporting on it. I fell in love with the venue through the process and everything they stood for. Sometime after I realized The Vera was a non-profit and qualified for my volunteer hours to pay off my fine. Well, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I emailed The Vera and they mentioned they needed some volunteers to work at their booth at Capitol Hill Block Party. I’d never been but decided to sign up for both days.

It was a pretty incredible way to pay off a ticket. I’d sit at a booth and hand out buttons and stickers for an hour or two then would go prowl the other stages with my friend Nate before going back to work again. I got to see Vampire Weekend and Chromeo while checking out some new bands as well. Having learned my lesson from the first day, I brought a backpack full of water bottles to keep hydrated during the sweltering heat. It probably wasn’t the most “green” option, but I wasn’t too concerned with that at the time.

That night during my shift, I was asked to run the merch table for the bands while they played. Primarily, for a band called Grand Ole Party. I had no idea who they were and it didn’t seem like many other people did either. From what I recall, they played a decent alternative rock set that reminded me a lot of Pretty Girls Make Graves. I thought it was pretty good, but others thought it was amazing. Their crowd grow more and more as the set progressed. About halfway through the set, a swarm of people started to come over to the merch table. At first it was just a few CDs, but by the end of their set I had sold the band’s entire stock. People were shoving money in my face and I struggled to keep track who was handing me what and tried to quickly calculate how much I owed them while making change with other customers.

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After the CDs were gone I told people we only had vinyl copies. A few people complained that they didn’t even have a record player, but somehow I said the right words to convince them to buy it anyway. Once it died down the band came over to take over. When I told them I sold all of their CDs and all but two of their vinyl records, they were floored. Their elation was infectious. I felt really happy for them. Even if I wasn’t totally sold on their music, this seemed like a big deal for them and I was happy I could be a part of it. They were so thrilled that they offered me one of the records for free. I wasn’t sure if it was totally ethical to accept a gift while volunteering, but I took it anyway.

I sat at the booth for a little bit doing some merch for Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head but was shortly after relieved of duties. I had the stage manager sign off on my volunteer time sheet and rushed over to the main stage to see DeVotchKa. I’d lost track of Nate at this point – he met up with some other friends while he was there. But it didn’t matter. I was just so excited to see DeVotchKa play that I didn’t care if I was going to see them alone or not. I sneaked my way near the front on the right side of the stage. As the set picked up, everything turned into a giant dance party. I don’t usually dance unless I’m being goofy with friends, but this night was an exception. I did my stiff, white boy sway to the tunes of “We’re Leaving” as a group of drunk people bounced around near me. Things got rowdier and turned into a joyful, dance mosh. Someone bumped into me and my Grand Ole Party record flew out of my hands and onto the ground. I was sure it was gone forever. I had to wait an entire song before I could look for it. I spotted it near the end of the song and watched as people jumped up and down repeatedly on it. I picked it up and prayed it wasn’t broken but I couldn’t check yet.

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To my left, a man kept trying to dance with this girl. She would refuse and then a few minutes later he’d be back trying to bump and grind. She’d refuse again and the cycle repeated. He did this three or four times. Finally she took off her flip-flop and proceeded to hit him over the head with it. This was not a playful tap with her shoe; this was full on Mortal Kombat fatality intensity. She yelled “I TOLD YOU AGAIN AND AGAIN I DON’T WANT TO DANCE WITH YOU.” We all applauded. I felt a sense of camaraderie with the group.

I walked with Nate and his friends after the set down to the ferry. We were all jazzed about DeVotchKa’s show. We split ways at the terminal as they caught the Bambridge Ferry and I got on the Bremerton Ferry. I opened the record in my booth to see if it was shattered. To my surprise, it looked flawless. I opened my backpack and pulled out my last water bottle. I already had to use the bathroom, but I came up with a grand plan. I was getting really tired and I still had to drive home once I got off the ferry. I also getting really hyped up when I reallllly have to use the bathroom and I already felt the urge coming on. If I drank this last bottle of water, then that would likely give me enough energy to make it home.

Well, it did work.

In the car (my own car, not the Volvo at this point) I felt like I was on speed. I played Jeff Buckley’s “Eternal Life” on repeat and frantically yelled along with it as I squirmed and jostled in my driver’s seat. I felt like I made record time getting home. I walked through the door at three in the morning, my dad asleep on the couch, and clutching my new record. I felt satisfied with a weekend of music and helping a band get their music out there to people, if even in a small way. But mostly, I just really had to pee.

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Previous Wax Story: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Next Week: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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Wax Stories #2: Elliott Smith – “Either/Or”

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I know in my last post I said I was going to write about David Bazan’s “Curse Your Branches” next week, but this is still technically the same week and I promise I’ll get Bazan ready in the coming days. Given certain events in Seattle today, I thought this one would be a bit more appropriate and timely.

Discovering Elliott Smith always seems like a poignant moment for most people I’ve talked to who listen to him. For me, it felt like finally discovering that unknown artist you’d always wanted to find. In my fantasy it was usually finding an old tape or CD that had fallen off the rack and was covered with dust – long forgotten to anyone else. That’d be pretty romantic, huh? Instead, I found Elliott on MSN Messenger.

My buddy Nate and I started sharing music with each other when I was 15 and he was 14. I’m sure he’s going to come up a lot in this blog series; he helped shape a lot of stuff I listen to today. At the time, most of our friends weren’t listening to the same music as us. We were what would become the annoying hipster “you probably haven’t heard of it” cliche. We weren’t trying to be cool. We just liked different music than our peers. Pretty much every night after school we were on MSN Messenger talking about music, classes, or whatever else was going on. Periodically we would send each other MP3s of new music we were listening to. There used to be a feature on chat where you could see what the other person was listening to.

One summer evening when I was 16 I remember seeing it say Nate was listening to a song by Elliott Smith. I’d heard the name before. For a school project a couple years prior, I interviewed one of my all time favorite artists (Cinjun Tate of the band Remy Zero) and in one of the questions I asked him what his favorite album of all time was – he said “When I think of perfect albums, Elliott Smith’s ‘Either/Or’ comes to mind.” For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately go and pick up the record…idiot.

I was on a big singer-songwriter kick when I saw Nate’s music status and I got the impression Elliott Smith was probably along those lines. I asked Nate how Elliott is. He responded pretty ecstatically, singing Elliott’s praises. He sent me over a couple of tracks. The first one I can remember hearing was “Rose Parade.”

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The lightly strummed guitar chords with a simple three note lead played over it felt elating. Then Elliott comes in with his hush voice, telling a story about a trivial parade that slowly becomes more and more bitter as it goes along. It was unlike any songwriting I had been exposed to before. Something about being at such a happy event like a parade and critiquing it for all it’s fake pageantry felt so desperate and lonely to me – I’d later have many of these same feelings listening to the majority of his work.

I had Nate send me over the rest of “Either/Or.” I listened to it all night at the computer. I’m pretty sure, but not certain, that I intentionally listened to “2:45 A.M.” at 2:45 A.M. The album became a secret obsession. I’d spend down time fumbling through “Between The Bars” on guitar, smirk every time at the opening line to “Say Yes” (“I’m in love with the world, through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after”), and burn copies of the album for friends who I thought might appreciate it. As I looked at my small record collection, I thought about how “Either/Or” would probably be the best sounding vinyl out there. I had my first “holy grail” record and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find it in a junk bin at Great Prospects.

That spring Nate and I decided to go hang out in Seattle on a Saturday. We walked on a ferry over and checked out the Experience Music Project – spending most of our time messing around in the fake recording studio. They had a feature that would let you record for 10 minutes and then you could buy a CD copy to take home. We messed around with the guitars and played a partial version of “Rose Parade” (which I refuse to go back and listen to) and some silly songs I’d written.

Afterward we walked over to Easy Street Records in Lower Queen Anne. We dug through the crates, marveling at their impressive selection. In Kitsap County the closest thing to a music store that I was aware of was the electronics department of Fred Meyer. Being able to walk through these aisles and see stuff that I only thought existed on the Internet was amazing. I had been to both Easy Street locations before, but not since I had expanded my taste out of exclusively alternative rock radio.

Then I saw it. “Either/Or.” I could not believe it was actually there. I thought no one knew about him, let alone would take the time to stock his stuff in a record store. Shouldn’t this be covered with dust in a corner? It was amazing to final see the cover art as it was meant to be seen, and the stark back cover with the blurry, swaying chandelier.

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Nate and I marveled at it and kept repeating how good it was going to sound. I didn’t hesitate to buy it; I didn’t know if I’d ever get another chance. I took it home in my black plastic bag with the Easy Street logo and carried it with pride. I listened to the record repeatedly for months. I even held up the sleeve as a model as I tried to recreate the cover art in my sketchbook (which included the “fuck you” graffiti behind Elliott in the picture, because I was a total rebel).

Seven years later and this is still one of my favorite albums and vinyl records. I live in Seattle now and literally can walk down a few blocks to Sonic Boom where there’s always at least a few Elliott Smith albums in the bins and other bands I’m continuing to discover. It’s a convenience I love to exploit (my wallet is not so fond of it though). I’ve continued to fill my collection with records from Easy Street Records too. Sometimes I forget that it wasn’t that long ago when finding these records was a big deal for me.

Now today Easy Street Records in Queen Anne is closing its doors for good to be replaced by a Chase Bank. It may seem trivial to be saddened by the lose of a business, but to me and a lot of other music fans this a huge loss. I can’t find a treasure like “Either/Or” at a bank. I won’t have that same feeling of discovery and excitement when I go to cash a check or make a withdrawal. Every time I put “Either/Or” on my turntable now, I’m going to think about Easy Street and how it inadvertently encouraged my interest in music and brought me closer with artists like Elliott Smith. We’re really lucky here in Seattle. I hope we don’t take for granted that we have so much access to culture and art that helps us express ourselves; I hope we don’t ever favor chain stores and condos over priceless things like these.

Thanks Elliott. Thanks Easy Street. You’ve both given me and others some truly great music.

Here’s a video of Elliott Smith playing on a pilot for The Jon Brion show, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”):

Next week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (for REAL this time)

Previous Wax Story: U2 – War / INXS – Shabooh Shoobah

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

Wax Stories #1: U2 – “War” / INXS – “Shabooh Shoobah”

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It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly drew me to vinyl records. The whole vinyl resurgence hadn’t really become a “thing” yet in 2005, at least not in Kitsap. Vaguely I recall my friend Amanda mentioning in passing that music sounds better on vinyl. I think there was just something cool and fascinating about vinyl. At the time I was really heavy into P2P Sharing platforms (ahem…pirating) like Kazaa and Limewire but still found way more satisfaction opening up a CD case and going through all the album artwork and notes. I was just beginning to fall in love with music at 15; buying records was the first step to a “full on relationship.”

My family has always loved going to junk shops and antique stores (Sorry Macklemore, I’m OG). I can recall going through furniture aisles with my mom, clothes and fabric sections with my grandmother, and sifting through every junk bin in the building with my grandfather. The fact that I found my first record player at a vintage mall wasn’t fate, it was just a matter of time. At Great Prospects in Port Orchard I spotted my future Technics SL-1900 a few weeks before purchasing it. I had seen a few record players around before that, but this was the first one that grabbed me. It was sleek – all black, modern looking. I assumed it was incredibly high quality just by its appearance. I worked out a deal with my mom that summer to exchange a few days of yard work for the turntable. After I did my part, she drove me over to Great Prospects. I worried it’d already be sold and we were too late, but I was in luck.

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I picked up the turntable and a pair of cheap $10 speakers (I only remember the price because I kept the highlighter pink tag on them for years) and headed toward the counter. Right near the register was a display of records. I figured it wouldn’t make much sense to have a player with nothing to play on it. I sifted through the bins, going through a lot of Christmas albums and Barbara Streisand Compilations, and looked for anything that I thought would sound good.

First I spotted U2’s War. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb had just came out in 2004 and was constantly in my CD player. I had just begun listening to their back catalog after some recommendations and history lessons about the band from my dad. I took out War and inspected the track list. Side A, Song 1: “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Sold. I loved that song and that was enough for me to justify buying it without knowing any of the other songs on the album.

I thought this was a solid enough purchase and almost called it quits on my first digging expedition until I saw INXS’ Shabooh Shoobah. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I was only familiar because my family was really into the “American Idol” rock-rip-off reality show “Rockstar: INXS.” The show featured the remaining members of the band seeking a new lead vocalist to replace the deceased Michael Hutchence. I thought this was the coolest show to ever be on t.v. Every week I could hear people sing not just INXS songs, but also other real rock songs with songs by real rock bands like Queen, Nirvana, and Creed (my tastes were still being developed – see my dissection of Chad Kroeger). Regardless, I had just started going through INXS’ discography as well and idolized them as “one of the few, great 80s groups.” I wasn’t really familiar with the songs on Shabooh Shoobah (I was mostly hoping to find “Kick”) but as the season finale was coming up in a few weeks, it only felt appropriate to pick this one up too.

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After making my decisions, we paid for my new gear at the register and headed home. It was summer and our house always would get blistering hot due to our lack of shade. My godfather Tony (who’ll likely come up a few times in this blog series) was living with us at the time as he tried to overcome his alcoholism. We set up my record player in the living room so I could learn how to use it. Tony got me paranoid about the records warping because of the heat and instructed me to keep them out of sunlight. I took note. I plugged in the record player, connected the speakers, and set War Side A on the mat and lifted the needle. I was ready to hear music in a way I never had before. Instead, I heard nothing. My mom and Tony laughed – we had forgotten that we needed a pre-amp for this to work. I put my ear close to the needle on the wax and faintly I could here the snare lead in of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It was quiet, but it was there.

We went back to Great Prospects and picked up a cheap pre-amp and I got myself set up in my room. Late that night, when I would usually be on the computer chatting with my friends or writing back and forth with my Internet friends on message boards, I stayed in my room and played each record back-to-back till 3 a.m. I played it quietly because my parents were sleeping in their room and Tony’s room was right next to mine. Even though one of the speakers kept cutting out and the volume was so low that there was probably not discernible difference from my mp3s, I swore it sounded so much better than anything I’d ever heard before.

I favored “Seconds” and “New Year’s Day” on War most of the night, as I followed the lyrics over and over again in the gate fold. The burn marks and bent edges of the cover made me wonder who had it before me and if they had been a big U2 fan like I was. I’d eventually quote “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in a fake presidential speech for class the next school year, only to have a senior guy remind me it was an Irish protest song and not about American policies (that was the day I decided to never go into politics). “Don’t Change” on Shabooh Shoobah slowly became one of my favorite songs of all time (especially after my favorite contestant on “Rockstar: INXS” sang it, but later I appreciated it more for its composition and mantra). I still spin these records every now and again, though much more rarely as my collection has expanded. As far as beginnings go, these two were a wonderful start to something that would carry on with me for longer than I expected.

Next Week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Wondering what “Wax Stories” is all about? Read my introduction post.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

My Effin Lists: Top 10 Songs of 2012

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It was hard enough narrowing down the top albums of the year, but picking out the best songs is even worse. Since I got a bit wordy with my top albums posts (part 1 and part 2) I’m going to keep each review down to one sentence. Let’s see how this goes.

10. Kanye West & R. Kelly – To The World

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Yeezy describes this one best: “R. Kelly and the god of rap, shittin’ on ya HOLY CRAP.”

9. Jason Molina – Sad Hard Change

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Jason Molina uses home, lo-fi recording and the creakiness that comes with it to its full capacity of reflecting heartbreak.

8. Sharon Van Etten – Give Out

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“Give Out” is the painful gulp you take before leaving something (or someone) you know is bad for you but with uncertainty if it’s the right thing to do.

7. The Men – Open Your Heart

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Sweaty basement thrashing takes a surprisingly melodic direction.


6. Father John Misty – Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings

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Funeral crashing is done better with crooner dance moves and electrifying reverb.

5. Kendrick Lamar – Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe

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If ever there was a “motto” or mantra to describe how most of us want to live, Kendrick has coined it in this song.

4. Cloud Nothings – Wasted Days

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Epic thrashers don’t have to pointlessly meander to the point of boring; Cloud Nothings have revived the instrumental build-up.

3. Frank Ocean – Bad Religion

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Taxi cab confessions aren’t new, but Ocean’s insights on spirituality and love bring new school cool with old school sensibilities.

2. Japandroids – The House That Heaven Built

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LETS DRINK BEER AND CARPE DIEM BECAUSE WE ARE YOUNG AND THIS IS THE NEW ANTHEM FOR ALL OF US WHO DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING.

1. Dum Dum Girls – Lord Knows

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It’s easy to play the victim, but instead Dum Dum Girls take the perspective of the harmer and do so with a timeless melody and wistful instrumentals.

To see my whole list of top songs (not in order, organized to flow together the best) check out my Spotify playlist:

My Effin Lists: Top Albums of 2012 (Numbers 10 – 1)

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Continuing from my last post, here are my top 10 albums of 2012.

10. Dum Dum Girls – Season In Hell

Though technically an EP, “End of Daze” has the richness and depth of a full length album. Dum Dum Girls have matured with this release. While past releases had their swirling guitars and surf-rock sensibilities, “End Of Daze” takes these ideas and gives them a sense of timelessness. The dream murmur in their cover of Strawberry Switchblades “Trees and Flowers” is a captivating haze that holds the listener in to here every breath and guitar strum. “Lord Knows” could be placed in any era and feel just as poignant. Dee Dee’s low crooning in the verses, rising to the chorus feels triumphant and crushing as she sings “Oh boy, I can’t hurt you any more.” “End of Daze” isn’t all about slow ballads, as it begins and end with  powerful rock tracks (“Mine Tonight” and “Season In Hell” respectively). Through all of its turmoil and desperation, the album ends on a somewhat hopeful note: “Lift up your gaze, it’s the end of daze.”

9. Naomi Punk – The Feeling

Naomi Punk’s “The Feeling” is right next Nirvana’s “Bleach” on my record shelf. While clearly a coincidence of alphabetization, it seems like appropriate placement. They group hails from Olympia – where Kurt Cobain spent much of his early Nirvana days digesting everything K Records. The band’s whole D.I.Y. aesthetic lines up the indie scene in the early 90s. The album sounds as if it was recorded in a basement. Guitars clash (there’s no bass) and vocals fight to be heard in the background. Bands like Best Coast have successfully imitated lo-fi Garage Rock production, but Naomi Punk lives it.

Until I actually picked up the record, I had no idea what he band was saying – another similarity with complaints Nirvana got when they first hit it big time. On “Burned Body” the vocalist (the members are virtually anonymous to the Internet) defines it best as he yells “All my words are so cryptic.” Once you get past the noise and can make out what the band is saying, it’s equally as brilliant and disturbed in simplicity. Like on the second to last track, “The Buzz,” :

“I wanna cut it out. I wanna rip it out. I wanna kill it now. I wanna feel a feeling.”

The group original released “The Feeling” on locally owned Couple Skate Records earlier this year before it was re-released on Captured Tracks. This band is moving fast but not compromising to be accessible.

8. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

I really have no desire to write a whole think-piece about Lana Del Rey (though I already tried once, along with every other music writer ever). Aside from the “misleading” vibes and cringe-worthy SNL performances, Del Rey put out what I think is an excellent pop record for the new decade. The dramatic string arrangements put against new-school hip hop beats creates the fantastical imagery of a “Marilyn Monroe has a baby with Kanye West, Read More On Page 2!” tabloid. Del Rey is making mainstream music that’s actually more interesting than any of the other songs on Top Hit Radio Stations. Listen to Justin Bieber’s “Girlfriend” or Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and put it against a song like “Born To Die” or “National Anthem” and tell me she’s not doing it better.

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne

If Tanlines’ “Mixed Emotions” was 80s pop radio, “Nocturne” would be the album the “cool, misunderstood” kids would be blasting on their Walkman. Wild Nothing are writing songs in the vain of The Cure. Opener “Shadow” feels like an upbeat, summer car tune but with lyrics like “Oh why is your hate so addicting” you wouldn’t think it would be. Things don’t slow down much on this record. Jangles guitar parts and sustaining synth noise in the background makes the album feel bright and light. It’s feel good music for people who are comfortable with being sad.

6. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Getting past the hype is the hardest part of listening to “Channel Orange.” Frank Ocean is ending up on a lot of people’s lists and sometimes it’s hard to remember why. It’s not just because Frank Ocean is cool to like, it’s because the songwriting on this album is exceptional.

SPIN magazine recently had an article talking about how “Alt. R&B” was the trend of the year, citing Ocean as a prime example. I’d like to politely disagree. I think Ocean’s successes is less about him fronting a new genre and more so about him getting new people to listen to his genre. I’ve never really been much for R&B of the past couple decades – I found it cheesy and hard to relate to (sorry Ginuwine, I can’t connect with “If you’re horny, let’s do it. Ride it, my pony”). On “Channel Orange” Ocean tactfully discusses topics like faith and grappling with sexuality (“Forrest Gump”) but Ocean doesn’t turn his back on writing soulful love songs (“Thinkin About You”). “Bad Religion” is the emotional crux of the record, with Ocean pondering his beliefs against his sexuality in the back of a taxi. With some help from Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer, and Andre 3000, has created a masterful transition piece for newcomers to R&B.

5. DIIV – Oshin

It’s not surprising that DIIV and Wild Nothing share a label and have collaborated in the past (well, with Zachary Smith’s other project, Beach Fossils). DIIV merges the shimmer of Wild Nothing but with the brighter parts of the 90s grunge movement (Smith is a huge fan of Kurt Cobain). Each track on “Oshin” fades into the next seamlessly, like an endless summer.

“How Long Have You Known” is playful and sways with the iconic-feeling lead guitar melody. The stuttering guitar on “Earthboy” feels spacey but never gets too weird or inaccessible. The sound of the album flows back and forth like an ocean. It wouldn’t be surprising if DIIV tracks end up in summer sale commercials sometime in the future (with the inevitable lawsuit, if 2012 has proven anything to us). “Oshin’ is definitely a singular piece. While each song sounds fine on its own, something is lost when it tracks aren’t strong together as a pulsing, sonic experience.

4. Father John Misty – Fear Fun

How did this man stay behind the Fleet Foxes drum set for so long? I’ve been listening to J. Tillman’s solo material for several years now. His albums always felt like nice companions to the Fleet Foxes records but, to be honest, I was never completely captivated. With Fleet Foxes behind him and a new name (Father John Misty), Tillman has finally delivered his most authentic and engaging work yet.

Tillman is a hilarious person. All of his interviews render on the ridiculous side of things. Instead of doing another mopey singer-songwriter album, he decided to write something that is just as ridiculous, sarcastic, and absurd as he is. The folk-rock genre has been taking itself too seriously for too long. The music is performed exceptionally but does not break new ground – Tillman does that with his lyrics instead. Not since Weird Al Yankovic has wit and humor in songwriting been so impactful (only partially kidding). In just the first few lines of “I’m Writing A Novel,” we get this gem:

“I ran down the road, pants down to my knees
Screaming ‘please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!’
And I’m writing a novel because it’s never been done before”

He’s equal parts cynical and surrealist. Self-referential writing in music is usually few and far between, but at the end of “Every Man Needs a Companion,” the album closer, it feels particularly important to giving the album the proper context.

“Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones
Couldn’t give me a myth
So I had to write my own
Like I’m hung up on religion
Though I know it’s a waste
I never liked the name Joshua
I got tired of J”

3. The Men – Open Your Heart

Metz may have done punk and garage the loudest this year, but The Men did it the grimiest. “Open Your Heart.” The blend of country and garage rock just sets the tone for getting in trouble. The Men are carrying the torch for 80s punk bands like the Buzzcocks; rough and misunderstood by the current music climate. Nothing on “Open Your Heart” feels polished up. Listening to this album feels like being at a sweaty basement show where the band is screaming five feet away from you and diving into the crowd.

The first two songs, “Turn It Around” and “Animal,” set the stage with screams and muddy distortion. Then there’s the dramatic shift with the third track “Country Song,” which is an extended, slow trudging, instrumental with western overtones. Songs like this show that the band is not just about playing loud and goofing off. They’re listening to those same psychedelic albums Tame Impala is, but reinterpreting it through a greasy lens.

The title track “Open Your Heart” encapsulates the feeling brewing throughout the record. Optimistic through all the shit. Mark Perro doesn’t have a perfect and clean voice, but it feels so real and authentic that you want to shriek and yell with him. Still though, even though the album focuses on distortion and pummeling drums, I keep finding myself coming back to the acoustic driven track “Candy.” Hearing Perro sing “when I hear the radio play I don’t care that it’s not me” on the song feels so relevant to what the band is about. They’ve come to terms with not getting Top 40 success. The Men is about playing the music they want to and giving the middle finger to consistency.

2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

If you start and end your album with the sounds of fireworks, you better be able to back it up.

Japandroid’s sophomore album “Celebration Rock” is the soundtrack of teen years gone, not knowing what’s coming next, and not giving a shit about any of that because tonight we’re going to fucking party. It’s not very surprising that I’ve found myself and friends around my age all resonating with this album. Most of us don’t know what we’re going to be doing next, but sometimes we just don’t want to think about that. We’re all young, so why can’t we just be okay with that and worry about the rest later on? It’s incredibly nostalgic. Even the sound of the album sounds like something I’d hear on the radio when I was a kid – big drums and even bigger guitars and shouting.

Brian King doesn’t change up his guitar effects to much throughout the record, but that only adds to the urgency of the eight track album. King and drummer David Prowse opted to record this album live in the studio as opposed to multi-tracking and doing overdubs like they did on their first album, “Post-Nothing.” The difference between these two records is incredible and most if it can be cited back to that production choice.

“Celebration Rock” is full of “Oh Oh Oh Ooooooh!” chants and King more-so shouts than sings most of the time. Japandroids are able to deliver lines that might otherwise be thought of as heavy handed and make them endearing and organic. Listening to “The House That Heaven Built” is better than any sort of motivational seminar.

“When they love you, and they will
Tell ’em all they’ll love in my shadow
And if they try to slow you down
Tell ’em all to go to hell”

Japandroids is affirmation that it’s not uncommon to be unsure of what you want to do next. For a generation facing horrendous employment rates, that’s crucial. Until then, we’re drinking.

1. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

In 2012 Dylan Baldi turned away for his pop-punk solo  past and came out as the tortured front man of a slaughtering indie punk band.

Cloud Nothings releasing “Attack On Memory” was an incredible shock. Listening to their past material seems to provide very little clues that Baldi would make this drastic of a change in his music. Whereas before he seemed to worship at the temple of Rivers Cuomo, he now burns sage at the altar of Frank Black. Lo-fi bedroom pop-rock snippets have become Steve Albini produced guitar epics. This time around, Baldi recorded live in the studio with his band instead of by himself. Good move.

“Wasted Days” has one of the most erupting breakdowns in a rock song in 2012 (or in the past few years, for that matter). Droning on a single note for minutes can be boring, but Cloud Nothings use it tactfully to heighten the anticipation for the final repetitions of Baldi yelling “I thought I would be more than this.” Then on just the next song, we get the less doom-centered side of Baldi with the foot-tapping, rattling “Fall In.”

“Stay Useless” covers similar ground as Japandroids, but with only a few “ohhh ohhs” this time. Baldi is more desperate in his please than Japandroids’ hopeless romanticism.

“I need time to stop moving. I need time to stay useless.”

What sets “Attack On Memory” above the rest of the garage/punk albums in 2012 was its balance of grit, melody, and noise. All the factors felt incredibly balanced. It’s not an optimistic album, but it feels realistic. Even at 20 years old, Baldi knows how to vent his frustration in a relateable way and does so with annihilating guitar barrages.

On the final track “Cut You,” Baldi shows us just how twisted he is. As he mourns an ex moving on, he laments how her new lover is not as screwed up as him. On the surface, it’s sort of a disgusting song. He pleads “Does he hurt you like I do?” “like it would be a bad thing if her new boyfriend wasn’t abusive. He portrays a sense of entitlement with “I need to know, I deserve to know.” But stepping back, I can’t say that I haven’t felt he does in this song – mainly in my weakest and most regrettable moments. Its uncomfortable to hear because it’s so close to what we try to hide. In the end he confesses “I miss you cause I like damange, I need something I can hurt.” Making a revelation like that is the mark of an excellent songwriter.

Word is Cloud Nothings are working on a new album 2013 that’s going to be even noisier. If they keep with this direction and trajectory, this young band has the chance to really help propel the new punk-revival.

Honorable Mentions

Silicon Girls – Rana

Swans – The Seer

Mac Demarco – 2

Beach House – Bloom

Moon Duo – Circles

Death Grips – The Money Store

Jason Molina – Autumn Bird Songs

ExitMusic – Passage

Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods

Damien Jurado – Maraqopa

Lemolo – The Kaleidoscope

Stagnant Pools – Temporary Room

Pinback – Information Retrieved

Balmorhea – Stranger

Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

Jack White – Blunderbuss

Glen Hansard – Rhythm and Response

G.O.O.D. Music – Cruel Summer