|The name of this zine is Nobody Gives a Shit About Music Anymore. This is issue six, published in early December 2003. The last issue prior to this one was published in spring of 1998. I have no idea why there was a five-and-a-half year lag, although I doubt it was due to everybody suddenly giving a shit about music during that time.
Viewed from a certain perspective, times would appear to be tough, local-music-wise. As usual, a lot of the toughness seems to center on Durham—Radio Free Records closed this year, and as has often been the case in Durham, there’s currently no consistent & reliable venue for live “rock” music in town (although there are rumblings of new exciting developments to come up on Broad Street—stay tuned to the Durham underground telegraph for updates, I guess).
Even over in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, a metro area long known for its bizarre ability to support more live-music venues per capita than just about any other town on earth, Go Studios is in the midst of a seemingly nonstop series of benefits for itself, and nobody outside of the club seems entirely sure of the results so far, or the prognosis for the future.
And Nightlight—the tiny, brilliant, take-any-risk, book-five-bands-a-night if-we-want-to club, opened earlier this year by former WXYC GM Isaac Trogdon in the space occupied during the day by Skylight Exchange—will be undergoing an as-yet-undetermined change-up in management strategies due to serious operator burnout (but it’s not closing! Fuckin-A!).
The contrast between Go and Nightlight—and a series of great shows I’ve lately seen at other, less-traditional venues (such as Greensboro’s Gate City Noise, which is currently my favorite place to see a show in central NC)—have left me once again questioning some of the basic assumptions underlying this whole weird rockclub system.
Why are small rockclubs in the Triangle so often miniature versions of Cat’s Cradle? Square boxes, stage at one end, bar at the other, black walls, giant PA, terrifying bathrooms? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had many wonderful times at the Cradle—but they were restricted almost entirely to the times that the bands I loved were onstage playing. When’s the last time you went to the Cradle to just hang out? (Although I will say that I’d seriously consider it now that they’re 100% nonsmoking.)
There’s a good reason why the Cradle is the way it is—because they can get away with it. The bands they book are already big enough to come with a built-in audience, and nobody’s coming out for the decor anyway.
That doesn’t generally hold for the smaller clubs, where often as not, the bands are more-or-less unknown quantities, and the audience is taking a calculated risk every time they show up.
I would argue that the current model—dark box, loud PA, doorman taking $6—hurts more than it helps, by discouraging people from taking that calculated risk. Lately I’ve had a lot more fun seeing shows at venues that don’t follow this model—specifically, the aforementioned Nightlight in Chapel Hill and Gate City Noise in Greensboro.
Nightlight, thanks to its existence within the shell of the Skylight Exchange, has a ton of books and records to browse, plus tables and chairs, plus some greater or lesser subset of the Skylight menu, depending on the day & time you arrive. The PA’s only used when the bands are playing, which means you can actually talk to people between bands. And they’re open nightly, whether or not there’s a band, which puts people in the habit of stopping by to check things out.
Most importantly, they split their rent with Skylight Exchange, which takes some pressure off both businesses—so Isaac feels a little more free to book fucked-up noise shows.
Gate City Noise takes it a step further—they’re a record store 90% of the time, and they got into the show-hosting business more or less for the hell of it.
So their rent’s [hopefully] covered by their retail sales, plus they’ve got a direct tap into the brains of the city’s smart record-buying public, which makes it easy to promote shows to the 100-most-likely-to-show-up kids. And in their case, there’s no set cover charge, just a request for donations for the band.
Which is the last point I want to consider: Who says anybody is best served by the current dominant cover-charge model? Every potential audience member has $X to spend. If they show up at the door and the cover charge is $6, and they’ve only got $10, they might just head down the street to the bar without a cover charge.
On the other hand, if they show up and there’s no cover charge, maybe they’ll spend $7 on beer and give $3 to the bands. Or maybe they’ll spend $10 on beer and give nothing to the bands—but what’s the difference to the bands, since the person would’ve walked right on by otherwise? At least if they get in for free and have a good time, maybe they’ll come back & pay more the next time.
My point is that any system that blocks a potential audience member before they walk in the door isn’t helping the club or the bands. But don’t take my word for it—ask your friends in local bands whether they’d rather make $50 and play to 20 people, or make the same $50 and play to 75 people.
From the band’s perspective, more audience=better show, 90% of the time. And if 2% of any crowd buys yr merch, then 2% of 75 people is 1 person more than 2% of 20 people. And from the club’s perspective, more audience=more bar sales=fewer money woes.
It’s no secret that the balance of power has shifted over the past 10 years—the packed bars these days are the ones serving liquor without bands. I’d simply like to suggest that it’s not the lack of bands per se that’s driving the crowds to places like Hell and OCSC. It’s the chance to socialize. Harder to do that with a $6 cover and a PA blasting the soundman’s favorite CD at 140dB between bands.
OK, enough ranting, there’s a lot of rock to write about. I have no reasonable expectation of being able to cover everything that’s happened good on the local music scene in the five years since last we met in this venue. Sorry. I can’t even remember most of what happened over the past five months. Luckily, I have this big pile of records that I intended to review this issue, all of which came out within the past few months, so we’ll use them as our guide:
Compulation Volume One: Songs From North Carolina is one of those moment-defining comps that come out every few years (well, around here at least; most towns aren’t lucky enough to ever see a comp this good) and either rally the kids around the fertile and newly-blossoming scene, or document its death-throes. Or both. Or more accurately neither, because around here the cycle’s so compressed that every scene death overlaps perfectly with at least a couple of rebirths.
While I’m loath to go track-by-track, because it’s so consistently good (for chrissake, just go get the damn thing—it really is crucial, in the same way Falling off the Planet, Cognitive Mapping Volume Two, & Scattered and Smothered were, back in their day), there are on the thing any number of moments so compelling that I can’t let them pass without mention.
Chief among them is Farblondjet’s “Gold Guitars,” which floats in from somewhere just north of everywhere else; Sandra Covin manages to meld not much more than a funky drumbeat, 2 fingers’ worth of organ, a piano & some doubled vocals into the pop hit of the year—a feat rendered all the more impressive when you consider that (a) Farblondjet is just Sandra and nobody else, and (b) Sandra’s most recent release, Life of the South, is all solo guitar instrumentals in the John Fahey vein.
Not that you’d automatically expect a soft-spoken solo avant-folk guitarist to be pop-illiterate, mind you, but it’s maybe just a little unfair, y’know, to aggregate all that talent into one person?
Elsewhere on the disc, Rosebuds prove they’ve got new songs equal or better than the stuff they’ve been playing for the past 2 years; Jett Rink prove, sneakily, that they need to steal Shirlé Hale-Koslowski from Gerty to sing with Viva full-time; Sames reaffirm there’s a place of honor for busted loops in guitar-pop; and nearly everybody else just plain turns in some of the best work of their careers.
Perhaps most remarkable about Compulation (and/or the best news it brings about NC music) is the sheer number of currently-active local bands who utterly rule and didn’t wind up on the disc. Here’s a shortlist of folks who oughta round out Volume Two nicely (and this is off-the-top-of-the-head, so there are doubtless about 25 more I can’t remember today):
All Astronauts, Allnight, Anderson Airplane, Cherry Valence, Choose Your Own Adventure, Crimson Spectre, Defenestrator, Disband, Dom Casual, Dynamite Brothers, Evil Wiener, Hotel Motel, Jennyanykind, Kingsbury Manx, Kudzu Wish, Laramie UK, The Loners, Lud, Port Huron Statement, Proof, Section Eight, Shark Quest, Sorry About Dresden, The Spinns, Superchunk, Taija Rae, Thad Cockrell, Tiger Bear Wolf, Torch Marauder, Trailer Bride, Transportation, Utah!, Valient Thorr, The Weather, Witchcraft By A Picture, Work Clothes
Also emphatically making that shortlist, and stuck up in my head far enough to warrant additional detail, are these folks:
Cherry Valence singer/drummer Nick Whitley wandered by the other day to drop off his solo debut, The Nicky Album, and even those of us who remember all the way back to Hourly Radio and Mothlight were still surprised to find out that it’s a wild-assed slab of mid-fi bedroom R&B/soul/slowjam goofyness, cut from the same white-kids-listening-to-Prince fabric as yr favorite Beck goof-funk grooves.
Erie Choir is the somewhat-more-subdued side project of Sorry About Dresden singer/guitarist Eric Roehrig (how to describe the difference between Eric and his fellow SAD singer/guitarist Matt Oberst? Um, Eric’s the slightly-less-abrasive one, I guess—or you could say that Eric’s bitterness is somewhat more likely to be self-directed). Maybe it’s that self-direction that leads Eric (like Elliott Smith, I suppose, though I hesitate to deploy that namecheck in the wake of Smith’s recent suicide, just because Erie Choir aren’t that far down) to write such beautiful melodies to accompany such melancholic lyrics.
Bellafea half-relocated from Wilmington to Chapel Hill recently, and neatly sidestepped the whole standard quarantine period by being really-fucking-good. Gtr/vocals and drums—yeah, I know, you think you’ve seen it all before. They have too—so they mix it up with all the classic tools: slow/quiet -> fast/loud, weird chords hammered into submission, great drumming, and a fair number of head-way-back-from-the-mic whoops and screeches. Singer Heather McEntire has this freaky ululation thing she does, but unlike Corin Tucker’s, it doesn’t drive me up the fucking wall, maybe because Heather sounds like she’s at least having fun.
I got dissed years ago for fetishizing lyrics above all else, and while Carrie McMuffin had a point (some days you couldn’t tell whether I was reviewing an indie-rock 7” or a grad-school chapbook), I still believe the reason that pop music means so fucking much to us is that singing something allows it to bypass whatever normal lexical filters we’re running & mainlines it straight to some kind of rudimentary small-mammal emotional center down near the brainstem.
I’m still a little self-conscious about alla that, though, so when I sat down to write about how much I love Audubon Park, it thankfully didn’t take me long to realize that the lyrics—as weird, quirky & off-the-cuff brilliant as they are—aren’t even the reason I love the band as much as I do.
What they’re doing on their debut EP, Angry Bees Outside, These Bees Inside, is a basic 21st Century updating of that thing that made some of us fall in love with indie-rock in the first place—the genius of Pavement wasn’t in Malkmus’s lyrical shamble, but in the way the musical and vocal delivery careened from heartfelt pop-hookery to falling-over-sloppy downtown noise blowout and back again in a half-measure. (well, before they turned into a shitty pothead country band, at least)
The resultant mismash got tagged as “irony” by the rockcrits, dismissed as unlistenable noise by the pop purists, and pegged (probably rightfully) as more decadent bourgeois crap by the punkrockers. Which points up the severe orthodoxy at play on both sides at the time (Was that at least killed by indie-rock? I’d like to say so, but the reality is that the boundaries of acceptability merely shifted on both sides but didn’t widen) but misses the point, which was that for all the talk about irony, it should’ve been impossible to miss the level of pure creative joy at work in a song like “Summer Babe.”
Or in a song like Audubon Park’s “Oh Register, Why Are You Crying?” which begins as a straightforward ode to singer David Nahm’s cat, and evolves into something more reminiscent of the freakout at the end of Sonic Youth’s cover of Neil Young’s “Computer Age” by the end, three minutes later. Reminds me a whole lot of Joby’s Opinion, actually, and it’s too bad so few of you have been alive long enough to know just exactly how high that praise really is.
Other things I wanted to say but ran out of space for: Portastatic have a new EP out, “Autumn Was a Lark,” and along with the requisite brilliant new material, it’s packed with covers of Springsteen and Badfinger, as well as a bunch of live recordings of older Portastatic songs. It’s those which have really hit me—nothing like hearing a song you haven’t heard in a half-dozen years & realizing you still know all the words.
Finks are from Winston-Salem, and rather than ranting about how much I love them and their X-meets-Pixies headlong rushing indie-rock beauty, I’ll have to just refer you to www.psychicrevolution.com—be sure you dig around until you find the MP3s to download, and don’t stop until you’ve listened to “Blaak Doll” about 40 times.