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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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)

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