Wax Stories #7: Nirvana – Bleach

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Whenever there’s a Nirvana related anniversary, I get oddly nostalgic. It always feels a bit misplaced. I was alive through Nirvana’s ascension but I’m pretty sure I was more interested in Mr. Rogers’ cardigans at the time – not Kurt Cobain’s. Nevertheless, when I released today is what would have been Kurt’s 46th birthday, I immediately went to my record shelf to play some of his work as a tribute.

I started to get into Nirvana when I picked up their greatest hits at a Sam Goody on a whim when I was 14. It’s a super lame way to get into a band (as detailed in a post I did in 2011), but it opened up the door for me at least. The music struck me in a way that nothing else had before. The demolishing crashes of the drums, the gritty sloppiness of the bass, the cutting sound of the guitar, and Kurt’s aching angry voice; it was fuel for my burgeoning teenage angst. I’d later pick up a CD copy of MTV Unplugged In New York to flesh out the image of Kurt as a misunderstood artist. He was not just a musician in my eyes. He was a symbol of identity and struggle that I thought I could relate to.

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In the summer of 2005 I went over to West Seattle for a day where my mom had an office near California Avenue. She pointed me in the direction of the Easy Street Records down the road and I eagerly made my way over there. I had only just recently got my record player a few months before. I made my way upstairs to the vinyl section to partake in one of my first Seattle crate digging experiences. There was no real agenda, nothing in particular I was hoping to find. This was also the first time I’d get a chance to buy a record new instead of used from a junk shop. I was a bit floored when I found the Nirvana section. For some reason I never really thought that they’d have anything available on wax and thought this rare opportunity – I had to pick up one of these. I inspected the track list on the back of each album and weighed out which was going to make the most sense. In Utero and Nevermind both featured tracks that I already had on my greatest hits CD so I dismissed those (dumb, dumb, dumb). I seriously considered picking up the Unplugged album because I thought it would sound so good. I remembered my dad telling me that on acoustic albums you could sometimes hear the fingers moving across the strings on vinyl releases.

I held up Bleach and examined it. The cover was stark and intense. A negative photo of Kurt headbanging with the band behind him in what appears to be a basement. I recognized one of the tracks, “About A Girl,” but everything else was unfamiliar. The fact that it was their first album also intrigued me. Sub Pop. That name sounded vaguely familiar. White vinyl? The case for Bleach got stronger and stronger the more I looked at it.

It must have been a funny sight to watch a gangly kid 15-year-old wearing cargo pants and probably a buttoned up, bright colored short sleeve shirt walking up to the counter clutching Bleach. I imagine the disenchanted cashier wanted to face palm at the sight. Maybe not.

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I had to wait till we got home late that night to listen to it. Funny how most of my early memories of vinyl are listening to them late at night on low volume in my room. Krist’s sludgy bass lead in on “Blew” bellowed out of my crackling speakers. Immediately it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was used to Kurt being dark and lots of heavy guitars, but this felt different. There was a sense of doom looming over their playing. It was unrefined and harsh. It only got more so by the time the needle moved over to the second track, “Floyd the Barber.” The low thumps of guitar synchronized with the drums gave a sense of impending dread. I anxiously awaited for “About A Girl” to come on so I could hear something familiar. When it finally did I rejoiced in the Beatles sensibilities and brighter guitar tones.

I knew I liked the album because it was Nirvana, but looking back I’m not entirely sure how keen I was to the record. I played it repeatedly because that’s what I thought a Cobain disciple should do. I was supposed to like it. I desperately tried to relate to it. “Hah! On ‘School’ he talks about high school and there being ‘no recess.’ I know what that’s like!” Obviously I wasn’t exactly Lester Bangs in my interpretations, but I was trying. I did take to “Love Buzz” almost immediately with its incredible bass groove. I stayed away from the b-sides for the most part, which were marked by a label depicting the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno. My aversion came down to one primary reason, which in turn applied to the whole album and that I would not admit to myself at the time: Bleach terrified me.

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While Nevermind had just as much self-deprecating and fuming imagery, it also had Butch Vig’s crisp production to act as a filter. It’s like when you ask someone how they’re doing and they unload you all their problems without even easing into it. Bleach was full-on Cobain without anyone interpreting or holding him back. Not that I think Nevermind is in anyway lackluster. If anything it succeeded in making Kurt’s pain accessible to a wider group of people. I didn’t feel prepared to jump into this without Vig holding my hand.

Over the course of the summer, I found myself coming back again and again to the last track on side a – “Negative Creep.” Sometimes I’d drop the needle on just that track over and over again just to hear it. This is when I started to have my revelation. Kurt wasn’t the “loveable martyr” I’d made him out to be who opted to burn out instead of fading away. He was more like the intense guy I tried to avoid making eye contact with at shows, scribbling “fuck you” furiously in his notebook. I wanted desperately to believe that he and I had so much in common, but we really didn’t. Not only was he dealing with different (and albeit, much bigger) issues in his life, he was also just living in a different world. I was going to a private school, had a dopey golden retriever, and said “shoot” instead of “shit.” As much as I thought of myself as a negative creep, I really wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune from feeling emotions of angst or despair. We all can feel like negative creeps sometimes, but most of us don’t embody it or suffer through it like Kurt did.

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My image of Kurt was broken down even more as I read Charles R. Cross’ biography on Kurt, “Heavier Than Heaven,” this last summer. The inkling I had that Kurt had it worse was proved to be true. I began sympathize for him instead of empathize with him. Looking back at Bleach in the context of the rest of his life is overwhelming and daunting. It’s not even that there’s an excess of imagery of suicidal imagery like some of his later work. It’s the brashness and dissonance and loudness that grabs me. To me, Bleach is his most tortured sounding work. I can feel more uncomfortable listening to tracks on here than I do listening to tracks like “Rape Me.”

Bleach feels more accessible to me today than it did in 2005. A lot of that I can attest to my change in taste over the years. My heart still pounds when the bass comes in on “Blew” and I’ve taken to screaming along to some of the b-sides (“gimme back me alcohol” on “Scoff” may be one of my favorite Nirvana lines now). It’s hard to think of many other records in my collection that has received this much consistent replay. Despite how much I’ve listened to it, I’ve come to terms that I’m never going to fully understand it or any of the bands other albums. Kurt will always have a shroud of mystery to him. I wish we could have understood him so we could have helped. Now I think the next best thing we can do is celebrate his life by indulging in his music in those those negative creep moments.

Happy birthday, Kurt.

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Previous Wax Story: The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

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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 #3: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

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Sophomore year of college seems to be the “existential crisis” year for most people I know. Freshman year is all about meeting new people, having new experiences, and having the misplaced sense of independence (“I’m an adult now. I don’t live at home. I live in a dorm that my parents pay for and use a meal plan that my parents also pay for”). After the hype of college life dies down, it’s time to process all these new ideas and worldviews that have been stewing over the past year. If anything, I found this to be true for me.

I get a bit nervous writing about faith and thoughts on religion on my blog; I fear what impression it may give people and put everything into some weird, pigeonholed context. However, I feel this album is a good outlet to talk about it. If anything Curse Your Branches has helped me move on from closed mindedness and in to something else that I’m still trying to figure out.

At the end of freshman year, David Bazan – still newly solo after the break-up of Pedro The Lion – played on my campus in association with our campus radio station KSPU. I’d been listening to Bazan and Pedro The Lion since high school per suggestion of my friend Nate. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Bazan play, but I was intrigued at the idea of him playing on a Christian college campus. Pedro the Lion was often mislabeled as a Christian band, but at this point it was becoming prevalent that Bazan was no longer a believer. I remember feeling secretly guilty singing along to  “Cold Beer & Cigarettes” from his solo EP Fewer Moving Parts in high school, which featured the Bazan husky voice belting “what a cruel God we got” and references to vaginas and sexual deviancy. I was surprised Seattle Pacific University would even allow something like that presented under their banner.

Bazan stood on the stage with only a guitar and a light projection of broken glass behind him. He opened with a song that at the time was titled “Graduation Day.” Opening with a new song is a bit unusual, but I studied the lyrics as he sang. Primarily it questioned the biblical creation narrative, but it was the last verse that felt painfully relevant to the room:

So I swung my tassel
To the left side of my cap
Knowing after graduation
There would be no going back

And no congratulations
From my faithful family
Some of whom are already fasting
To intercede for me

It felt a bit heavy handed to me in the moment, but it was the first time listening to Bazan that I got the impression he had a statement he wanted people to know. If that were true, he definitely got my hooked.

That summer, in 2009, I went to Alaska with my buddies Zach and John to work at a helicopter tour company. After spending a year in the dorms feigning self-sufficiency, I got what it really meant to grind out 50 hour work-weeks and have most of your paycheck go to rent and bills. Being away from most people I know gave me time to think and absorb challenges I had to my worldview in the last year, among other things (future Wax Stories referencing Alaska are sure to come). At night when I would read on the couch, I’d put Pedro the Lion’s discography on shuffle through my laptop speakers. I’m pretty sure Zach and John were pretty sick of hearing it all the time, but it gave me a chance to really listen to what Bazan was saying on those Pedro the Lion albums and try and use them to decipher my experience hearing him at SPU.

Bazan released an acoustic version of “Please Baby Please” earlier that year that I listened to obsessively. But when I found “Hard to Be” (formerly titled “Graduation Day”) streaming on Last.FM when I got back from Alaska, I knew this album was going to take things further than he had with Pedro the Lion. I knew it was something I needed to hear.

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And now it’s hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being

Curse Your Branches is the first album I can recall ever pre-ordering. I had it shipped to my new dorm, which I was living in alone for a few weeks before school started. My stereo was damaged during move-in, so it would be a while before I could actually listen to the vinyl, but I immediately pulled out the download code from the packaging and listened through my laptop.

I’d been going to Christian schools since I was 13. That doesn’t make me a theologian by any means, but gave me a decidedly evangelical perspective on things. I don’t want to completely disown my education – I feel like I did learn a lot of valuable philosophies and concepts, but I was really only seeing one side of a controversial and often upsetting story. Of course I had questions and issues with things that came up in the Bible, but everyone I was surrounded by was so sure that all of it was true and said they could cite exact scientific and moral reasons why. Everything could be explained through tactful apologetics. So any doubts I had, I repressed. Not specifically because anyone told me not to question, but because I personally felt it was inappropriate. So when “Hard to Be” opens Curse Your Branches, Bazan is bringing out all these questions I’d been denying myself all these years. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time intoxicating. It made me sad for him while feeling relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

The album then goes into a borderline parody of the Parable of the Weeds from the Book of Matthew on “Bless This Mess”, then a parable of Bazan’s own with “Please Baby Please,” and then to the title track “Curse Your Branches.” This is the one of all the tracks that will stick with me the most.

Red and orange, or red and yellow
In which of these do you believe?
If you’re not sure right now,
Please take a moment
I need your signature before you leave

How are we supposed to be so sure on what is the right religion or mode of thought when we have so little to go off and so little (relative) time to decide?

All falling leaves should curse their branches
For not letting them decide where they should fall
And not letting them refuse to fall at all

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These lyrics completely wrecked me. Every paper for a theology class that required some sort of faith statement would from then on have a burned copy of Curse Your Branches attached to them. The questions on this album sparked conversations with friends who were feeling the same things and with artists I’d interview for the paper. It prompted me to debate with my professors in class and call out things I thought were bullshit. To my surprise, sometimes they’d even agree with me. I’d spend late nights, when I should’ve been studying, reading lengthy interviews with Bazan talking about his lose of faith and reading the Bible with his daughter. There was so much I wanted to talk about with him. I wanted to hear it from him. I did this for years, and still sort of do today. I’ve realized he’s not the only one asking these questions, but he has become a figurehead to me for all the doubters.

Through all this though, I never have forsake my beliefs totally. I’ve really tried to rationalize myself out of it, but I can’t. There’s still something there. I can’t explain it and that’s really frustrating. I know I sound really ignorant and I don’t really know what to say to people who call me out on it. But this album changed how I view Christianity. It’s not as black and white for me anymore. It’s not something I can shout out some facts I read on an online form and claim I won. I’m not so much interested in debating anymore. I’m more interested in respecting people for who they are and accepting the same respect in return. I’m not going to stop looking for answers and questioning the weird things that are bound to come up.


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When I finally got the chance to interview Bazan a few month ago, I didn’t prepare the questions I would have in 2009. Just as I began to realize I am more than whatever views I’m struggling with right now, so is he. The subject was touched upon a bit, but mainly to help tell his story. When I spin Curse Your Branches today, the questions he brings up are still unanswered. I don’t know if they ever will be, but I feel like I’m in a better place for it. Bazan and I haven’t had the same realization exactly. I don’t think two people ever will. I just hope we can learn to accept that without taking offense.

And why are some hellbent upon there being an answer
While some are quite content to answer I don’t know?

Next week: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

Previous Wax Story: Elliott Smith – Either/Or

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

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

Wax Stories: Introduction

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For the past couple years I’ve tried to come up with some way to do a vinyl review blog, but I could never really settle on an idea that made sense or would be interesting enough. So what you’re reading is a step into a personal experiment. Instead of writing formal reviews of vinyl records, I’m going to tell the stories I recognize within my collection.

The other day I was looking at my record shelf and realized I could remember when and where I purchased each record. Likewise, I could remember who gave me each album and the circumstances they were gifted. I think each record has some sort of story to it. Whether it be a strong memory tied to when I got it or just the music pressed to the vinyl, there’s at least something more going on there. So with this ongoing series I plan on picking an album (or multiple albums) from my shelf and writing about what is attached to it. Instead of having old war stories, I have old wax stories.

Sometimes I’ll write about memories, sometimes I’ll write about the bands, and maybe sometimes I’ll write more formal reviews. Some posts will be long and some posts will be short. I plan on keeping it pretty varied. Maybe as I go things will get more focused, but until then I’m happy to use this endeavor to experiment. Thanks for bearing with me. I’d love to hear your feedback as I go.

I’ll post Wax Stories #1 soon (hopefully in the next couple days). I find it’s best starting from the beginning, so I’ll by writing about the first two records I purchased: U2’s “War” and INXS’ “Shabooh Shoobah.”

Also, I hope I don’t too much sound like John Cusack as I go through this process. I’m not nearly bitter enough to pull that off.