RSVP HERE: Nihiloceros Livestreams via Radio Free Brooklyn + MORE

Photo Credit: Carlo Minchillo

Mike Borchardt, frontman of Brooklyn DIY punk outfit Nihiloceros, is a stellar show-goer. He is always stage-side, taking photos and promoting every show happening that week on his band’s social media accounts. From the looks of Instagram, he has taken the transition from IRL gigs to virtual shows in stride, continuing to post live stream schedules and Insta-live screen shots.

Mike started what has become Brooklyn’s most supportive band in his hometown of Chicago. They were originally called Samantha, but changed their name to the much more Google-able Nihiloceros. The trash pop trio’s rhythm section is filled out by Alex Hoffman on bass and vocals, and German Sent on drums. They released a self-titled EP in 2017, and are putting the finishing touches on their follow-up EP in a socially distant manner. You can catch Mike of Nihiloceros doing a solo set this Tuesday,  June 2nd on Radio Free Brooklyn’s Instagram at 8pm. We chatted with Mike about commuting during lock down, creative livestreaming, and being quarantined with band mates.

AF: Has Nihiloceros been able to get together or collaborate remotely during lockdown?

MB:Luckily Alex lives right downstairs so he and I have been able to work on music a bit. We’ve built a little recording booth in the basement for a few finishing touches on the new Nihiloceros record. I’m still taking the subway into Manhattan every day for work, and Alex’s wife is pregnant, so we’ve been trying to socially distance the “upstairs people” from the “downstairs people” as much as possible. I’m definitely the black sheep pariah of Nihiloceros Castle.

German has been quarantined with his family in New Jersey. I haven’t seen him since our last show the first week of March, but we’ve been talking through musical concepts we are excited to start exploring. German drove back into Brooklyn a couple times to go play drums in isolation at our rehearsal space. Alex and German are both in the middle of home construction projects, so they’ve also been swapping notes on demolition and rehab. German and I have been workshopping prototypes for new merch, including Nihiloceros soap and Nihiloceros Chia Pets.

AF: What are some of the things you’ve done to support bands and venues in lieu of not being able to go to shows?

MB: It’s been really important to us to stay involved with the scene as we all navigate this crisis together. I’ve written a handful of songs for some quarantine compilations (Dim Things, Shred City, NYC Musicians for NYC) all to raise money for Artist Relief Tree, Food Bank for NYC, etc. We’ve done a series of video sessions and livestreams for a lot of the venues like Our Wicked Lady and The Footlight to help them pay their staff and hopefully keep their doors open on the other side of this. Everyone should check out the work NIVA [National Independent Venue Association] is doing through #SaveOurStages to drum up congressional support and secure funding on a national scale for all these stages that make up our DIY tour circuits.

Alex and I are both lucky to still be working, so we’ve been buying merch and music from bands as much as possible. And also obviously we’ve been catching and sharing as many artists’ livestreams as possible. From a photography standpoint, those screenshots on the phone aren’t as fun, but they’re much easier to edit.

AF: Do you have any creative tips on screen shooting live streams? What’s your approach to live streaming like?

MB: I think we are all still trying to figure that out. I remember the first week of the lockdown, we played a couple shows on the Left Bank Magazine Virtual Music Fest, and we all spent a lot of time looking to see if we had hit the right button, if we were live, if people were watching, and asking viewers if everything sounded okay. In the weeks and months since, I think we started to figure things out. I believe Ilithios was the first I saw who just shut up and put on a great show. Since then, I’ve tried to make our livestreams be more like a real performance and less like my dad trying to use the internet.

We also always try and partner a livestream with an organization or label/blog/venue (BandsDoBK, Ms. Understood Records, Songwriters Salon, etc.) as a vehicle to raise money or awareness for something we care about. Gillian Visco (Shadow Monster) and I came up with a super fun weekly music hangout stream idea called #TagnSplit that’s been touring around the community for a few weeks now. We got some stuff we are working on with Bloodless Management, Street Wannabes, as well as some live podcasts in Staten Island and Philadelphia and St.Louis. And this Tuesday night 6/2, Nihiloceros is going live on Radio Free Brooklyn to play some songs and talk about ways we can all help out.

AF: You’re an essential worker and still commute to your job everyday. How has navigating the city been during this time and has the experience changed your perspective of New York City?

MB: Taking the subway into the city everyday amidst the pandemic has definitely been an experience I won’t soon forget. It’s been a constantly evolving situation that I’ve witnessed ranging from terrifying to extremely heartwarming. On one side there’s the Mad Max post-apocalyptic Manhattan streets and the homeless camp territory wars on the subways. But at the same time I see a heightened sense of care and humanity as we reach out and help one another, and as we take responsibility to safely share our limited social spaces. The other day, a stranger pulled over and got out of her car to give me her canvas bag and helped me gather my groceries that had fallen, broken eggs all over the sidewalk, and humus that rolled into the street. This pandemic has had a real polarizing effect, but it has reaffirmed my perspective of NYC and everything that defines it. Everything great and everything awful about this city will still be here after this crisis is over. And that’s kind of comforting to me. Though hopefully we carry forward a little more of the good than we do the awful.

AF: What do you think life in NYC as a musician will be like post-lockdown?

MB: I think humans have a short memory and an amazing ability to adapt and pivot. That can be both a good and bad thing. We are extremely resilient, but we often don’t learn from missteps and end up repeating the same mistakes. I think our communities will make some adjustments as we ease back into our new normal. I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like. It might be a little while before moshing, crowd-surfing, and hugs make a huge comeback. People are itching to get back out into our creative outlets and social circles, but we are also justifiably apprehensive. It will just take time.

I hope we learn to appreciate what matters a little more, both in and out of music. Maybe we won’t feel the need to scramble all over each other all the time. Maybe we can slow down and enjoy the process a little more. This has been a unique opportunity to reset who we are as artists and who we are as people. It’s an opportunity to rebuild the community the way we want it built. I really hope we continue to build each other up and come to appreciate the journey rather than the destination.

AF: Is Nihiloceros planning to release any new music in 2020?

MB: That’s the million dollar question right now, and I really don’t know the answer. Our new record was almost finished before the pandemic hit. Alex and I had been in the studio writing and recording and it with Chris Gilroy, who drummed with us on the record before German joined the band. We are super proud of it, and were already extremely eager to release it. But as a band that defines themselves so heavily on their live show, it just doesn’t feel right to put it out there without the ability to play and tour on it properly. We’ve had to push both our Summer and Fall 2020 tour plans, so we may hold off on releasing it until we have a better idea of what the future of live music looks like.

I’ve been losing a lot of sleep over this the past few months. We still have to get Stephanie Gunther (Desert Sharks) and Gillian Visco (Shadow Monster) into the studio to do some vocals on a couple songs once it’s safe. Maybe we’ll release a song later this year, and release two records in 2021 since we’ve already started writing new songs.

RSVP HERE for Mike of Nihiloceros livestream on Radio Free Brooklyn’s Instagram 8pm Tuesday 6/2.

More great livestreams this week…

5/29 Ana Becker (of Catty, Fruit&Flowers, Habibi) and Vanessa Silberman via The Foolight Instagram. 8pm est, RSVP HERE

5/29 Dropkick Murphys and Bruce Springsteen via Fenway Park Facebook. 6pm est, RSVP HERE

5/30 Johanna Warren and SAD13 via Baby.TV. 7pm est, $5-50, RSVP HERE

5/30 Psychic Twin (dance party) via Instagram. 1am est, RSVP HERE

5/31 Courtney Marie Andrews via Pickathon Presents YouTube. 4pm est, RSVP HERE

6/1 Brandi Carlile performing By The Way, I Forgive You via Veeps. 9pm est, RSVP HERE

6/1 Elvis Costello, Anne Hathaway and more via YouTube (Public Theatre Benefit). 7:15pm est, RSVP HERE

6/1 Waxahatchee via Noonchorus. 9pm est, RSVP HERE

6/4 Whitney via Noonchorus. 8pm est, $15, RSVP HERE

RSVP HERE: THICK Livestream via The Noise Instagram + MORE

Welcome to our weekly show recommendation column RSVP HERE. Due to live show cancellations we will be covering virtual live music events and festivals.

Photo Credit: Devon Bristol Shaw

When I was a teenager THICK would have been my favorite band just as much as they’re one of my favorite band’s today. This makes double sense after finding that their debut record 5 Years Behind, released on Epitaph Records in early March, is an ode to accepting yourself and whatever phase of life you’re in no matter what your age is. The songs are relatable power pop anthems ranging from politically charged topics to all your mother’s concerns about your current lifestyle.

THICK (comprised of Nikki Sisti, Shari Page and Kate Black) has been a staple in Brooklyn’s music scene since their inception in 2014, landing on Oh My Rockness’ Hardest Working Bands list multiple years in a row. Their live show is energetic and has an inviting vibe that makes you happy just to be there. After releasing three music videos leading up to the release, the pandemic unfortunately curtailed their spring touring plans in support of their highly anticipated debut. Those dates will be rescheduled, but until you can see them again in person, you can catch them this Sunday on May 10th at 8pm via The Noise’s Instagram. We chatted with the ladies of THICK about internet trolls, their quarantine playlists and what venues and other organizations to support during this time.

AF: Your debut record came out on Epitaph Records on March 6th right before the NYC lockdown began. How did the emergency timeline affect the record’s promotion and are you excited for your tour with The Chats and Mean Jeans to be rescheduled?

It was pretty crushing. We planned the release to come out in early March so we could hit the road immediately with dates at SXSW, and we were SO excited to tour with The Chats and Mean Jeans and are really hoping it will be rescheduled.

We dropped the album, then it felt like within the span of a week, everything changed. Everyone is navigating trying to stay healthy and make a living. Before we knew it, SXSW was cancelled, The Chats tour was cancelled… tours for the summer and fall were getting put on hold before they could even be confirmed.

We’re a live band and not being able to tour has definitely had an impact on our ability to promote the album. We’ve had to find creative ways to promote the album, which has been really hard for us, because our process is truly collaborative and we’ve been social distancing from each other. We’ve all had to quickly get better at home recording, figure out the best way to stream live songs, become video editors… everything we’d normally do together has become a lot more complicated and requires a lot more steps.

AF: You filmed three music videos for the 5 Years Behind – do you have any fun behind-the-scenes stories?

We had a blast filming all our videos! Each experience was different. “Bumming Me Out” was a lot of fun – we did the set design ourselves and gathered a bunch of fun props to give it a ’90s bedroom theme. We hung up a bunch of Destiny’s Child and Blink-182 posters. It was so fun going through all our old belongings. Our ’90s/2000s CD and DVD collections are hidden in the video somewhere – it’s weird to think that the stuff we owned growing up is now considered vintage! We didn’t start filming ’til the sun set, so we were up till 4AM getting all the scenes in. Our shirts still smell like whipped cream and it took a few days for the shaving cream smell to wash out of Shari’s hair. It was also amazing to have Kate’s sister, Helen, in the music video – she gave an epic performance.

AF: There are some comments on your “Mansplain” music video that seem to illustrate the point of the video. Did you expect that to happen and how do you feel about the trolls?

We definitely expected some level of backlash. What we didn’t anticipate was that it would be re-posted on an Alt-Right channel. It definitely illustrates the point of the video. There are a lot of people who want to say that mansplaining never happens or that we’re crybabies or whatever, but the criticism isn’t coming from people whose opinions we will ever be able to change. For all the ridiculous comments we got, we had an outpouring of support in our inbox from people who could relate to the experiences and were happy we made that video.

AF: Have you been channeling your energy into any non-musical activities during quarantine?

KB: I’ve been cooking A TON and started a bunch of sewing and arts and crafts projects.

NS: I have been going for long bike rides (staying safe and distancing) as a way to keep sane. I hate being stuck in the house!

SP: I’ve developed a serious Mario Kart addiction!! I’ve been trying to work out every day and watch dance videos on YouTube -which is a new venture for me haha. I also hang out with my cat Billie all day.

AF: What’s been on your quarantine playlists?

KB: My listening habits have been reflecting my mood swings from day to day. In general, I’ve been listening to things that are a little less aggro than my norm: The Beths’ Future Me Hates Me, Fontaines D.C. and anything by Marked Men are all regulars in my apartment.

NS: I have been listening to a lot of my playlists on Spotify. This quarantine has increased my anxiety and I become a very indecisive person when I am anxious, so it’s easy to have my playlist going on in the background without having to specifically choose. I should probably work on that…

SP: I’ve been ordering a lot of records and tapes with my partner. We have been listening to Bowie, Pink Floyd, Sly And The Family Stone, Bill Withers records, etc. I also got Fiona Apple and Radiohead tapes. Right now on Spotfiy, I’m listening to Os Mutantes and Harry Styles’ “Adore You” on repeat.

AF: What venues/artists/organizations would you recommend supporting during the lockdown?

NS: Our Wicked Lady has been working with artists a lot during the lockdown, they are running deliveries and you can buy gift cards or donate on their site! Our de facto clubhouse, The Anchored Inn, has a Gofundme going right now. When it comes to musicians you like, go find their bandcamp page! Everyone could use the help right now. There are also a lot of organizations that are helping unemployed artists and others focused on getting health workers get protective gear and loan forgiveness. Everyone should pick whatever is closest to their heart because every little bit helps while we all struggle through this time.

AF: What’s your livestream set-up like and what can we expect from your performance on Sunday?

NS: Since we’re still in lockdown, we’re streaming from our individual apartments and that creates some challenges. Everything we’ve been doing has been pretty stripped down, since we don’t have the gear to properly mic drums, etc. Since Instagram Live also only lets two people on at a time, we have to rotate to answer questions!

RSVP HERE for THICK 5/10 via The Noise’s Instagram 6pm EST w/ Q&A @ 8.

More great live sets this week…

5/9-5/10 Ash, Diet Cig, SWMRS + more via Homeschool Fest. 12pm est, RSVP HERE

5/9 Erykah Badu, Jill Scott via Instagram. 7pm est, RSVP HERE 

5/9 Lucius via Instagram. 9pm est, RSVP HERE

5/11 Billy Joel, Mariah Carey, Bon Jovi + more  via Robin Hood Benefit on CNBC. 7pm est, RSVP HERE

5/13 St. Vincent, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Cate Blanchett + more via BAM Virtual Gala. 8pm est, RSVP HERE

5/13 Hazel English via Indie Witches. 8pm est, RSVP HERE

5/13 Krill, Horse Jumper of Love, Anna Altman & more via Twitch. Great Scoot staff benefit, RSVP HERE

5/14 Japanese Breakfast via Noonchorus. 7pm est, RSVP HERE

5/14 Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow + more via Youtube. 8pm est, RSVP HERE

ONLY NOISE: Love Songs

If you were lucky enough to get them, you must admit: by now the chocolates have been eaten, and the roses are beginning to droop. Maybe there are a few once-bitten, raspberry cream rejects left in that heart-shaped box of truffles your main squeeze gave you, but they will retire to the trash can only a few days before the flowers. Valentine’s Day was this week, and if you couldn’t guess by my tone (and annual, grumpy V-Day column), the only thing I did was my laundry. Afterwards, I ate a shrimp Panang curry for one, and listened to the stories of my one true love: NPR.

I know what you must be thinking, and you’re right. Being a single human in New York is thrilling. Despite all of my sarcasm, it really can be. You don’t have to answer to anyone outside of work. You get to take yourself to dinner and read a book instead of forcing conversation or watching your date scroll through his Instagram feed. You can travel spontaneously, flirt at will, and cat-sit for your married friends with better apartments. But societal constructs and the bulk of pop culture are not here to make single people feel better. Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional star of TV’s Sex and the City and patron saint of single ladies for years, gets hitched in the series’ first film adaptation. In the Fifty Shades trilogy, what’s disguised as a taboo romance ultimately ends in marital normalcy, including the overbearing husband, kids, big house, etc. Off the top of my head, I can probably think of two romantic comedies (and I’ve seen a surprising amount of them) that ended realistically, with the lovers in question going their separate ways.

But music, as a medium, is far more honest about the harsh realities and banalities of love. The love song does not promise a happy ending. In fact, converse to romantic comedies, I can barely think of a love song that ends well. The most memorable ones end horribly, or at the very least, unresolved. Some convey longing for a relationship that never was and never will be. Others pick at the untidy details of a failing one, as if plucking wilted petals off a flower until only its bald center remains. The former yearning can be found in classic pop songs like Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” which, despite its blissful melody, is about the most extreme version of unrequited love. “I love a girl who doesn’t know I exist,” Cooke sings, which seems as hopeless as it does impossible. How can you really love someone when you’ve never had an interaction, let alone a date?

Cooke’s song maintains a promise reinforced by decades of film, television, and (some) pop songs: that if you could only get the person you desire to look at you, to kiss you, and to eventually love you, that everything will be ok. The movie ends with the first kiss. The TV show draws out and dramatizes the dating ritual for seasons on end. The song, however, has only so many minutes to tell a story, and nothing – not even a kiss – is ever guaranteed. To me, love songs have always felt like snapshots documenting individual phases of a relationship, or lack thereof, rather than the broader perspective visual storytelling can offer.

One master of these snapshots is Elvis Costello. Costello’s breakup songs are so biting I often wish he worked on commission to pen vengeful letters to exes. But he’s also capable of conveying the most vulnerable aspects of monogamy. Tracks like “Little Triggers” (from This Year’s Model) and “Different Finger” (a song about infidelity on an album called Trust) strip the varnish from matrimonial bliss. Costello succinctly captures the spiteful side of relationships in the first few lines of the former, when he sings of “Little triggers that you pull with your tongue;” if you don’t know exactly what he means, I suspect you have never dated, and had parents who hid their arguments well.

The love song is in a category unto itself, but it splinters into infinite subcategories spanning countless genres. The unrequited love song; the breakup song; the disintegrating-relationship-but-not-quite-breaking-up-yet song; the song about cheating; the song about being cheated on; the you-broke-my-heart-but-I-still-want-you-despite-having-no-rational-excuse-for-that song; the song about being so hurt, you pull the emotions plug and cut yourself off from ever loving again; I could sit here for days digging heartbroken anecdotes from the crevices of pop’s past. I could also list of some pure love songs, the ones that stay true to their title and end happily ever after. But who needs to hear those right now? The people lucky enough to be in love don’t need help this week. They got their chocolates and their flowers. And what do the rest of us get? I suppose almost every song ever written is a good place to start.

ONLY NOISE: Personal Record

I no longer own my very first record. It was AFI’s Very Proud of Ya, (that’s pre-emo AFI for those of you wondering), and I bought it in Seattle with my own allowance. I can still hear it spinning on the portable turntable my dad leant me for late night bedroom listening. The portable record player was a goofy little invention. It was called a Discman, which is hilarious in retrospect considering its makers couldn’t have predicted the imminent reign of CDs and their portable players. The Discman was essentially useless – the LP’s edges protruded from its sides, there was no real way to carry it around, and of course the moment you played a record in transit, it would skip violently.

Therein lies the paradox of the “portable record player,” but it worked perfectly for my pre-bed indulgences. Every night for months I would load up the Discman with Very Proud of Ya (it was the only record I owned for a while), slip on a pair of padded headphones, and gingerly lie on the brown carpet, my head inches from the swirling black polyvinyl. I was tethered to the music physically, but if I closed my eyes, I was transported miles and decades from post-millennium rural Washington.

Listening to Very Proud of Ya now, I recognize it is not a very good album – and yet some odd memories strike me – the first of which being the above scene, in high definition. The smell of the carpet, the temperature of my middle school bedroom…the nightly ritual I haven’t thought about in so many years, despite how much joy it brought me. I remember specific parts in each song – riffs, drum rolls, and Davey Havok’s snarling delivery.

I notice that all of my favorite parts as a 12 year old are the same today. And though I don’t find it to be an exceptional record as I listen with 27-year-old ears, I do miss it. I wish I still had it. It is, for some reason, particularly upsetting that I no longer possess the first record I ever bought. Its absence feels like losing all of the love letters from your first boyfriend. You weren’t clinging to those! They were emotional artifacts!

Ok, I’m an emotional hoarder – so what?

I can’t remember exactly why I got rid of Very Proud of Ya, but I can take a pretty educated stab at what happened. I reckon that one of my very few friends enlightened me to the fact that in more recent years, Davey Havok and AFI had gone the goth/emo route – so I wanted to absolve myself of any association with the band whatsoever. I then sold the LP back to the very Seattle record shop from whence it came, and bought an original pressing of The Incredible Shrinking Dickies on store credit. Is The Incredible Shrinking Dickies a better record? Yes. Does it flood me with tingly memories of my 12-year-old self? Sadly, no.

Since abandoning my very first LP, I am a bit more careful about the records I let go of these days; though arguably, too careful. The level of sentimentality devoted to my record collection can be summed up by that brilliant line of dialogue in the 2000 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, when Rob (played by John Cusack) is rearranging his albums autobiographically. “If I want to find the song ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”

While I have no patience for filing my records with any system of organization, their origin stories can be recalled with the same amount of detail as those in Rob’s collection. For instance, I couldn’t possibly get rid of the crap albums from any of my musician ex-boyfriends; it would do them a service to put their music out in the world. Better to let them sit inert on the shelf, instead. I realize that I don’t rationally need two copies of Keith Jarrett’s Concerts LP, but one I bought off of a nice street vendor in a strike of serendipity, and the other was a gift from that cute record shop boy I used to date. Plus, one is a boxed set!

The same emotional “reasoning” applies when it comes to my promo copy of Elvis Costello’s 1977 debut My Aim Is True. I wouldn’t dare swap it for a different pressing, as that would rewrite the terrible history of how I acquired the album in the first place.

It was May of 2005 – May 21st to be exact, the fifteenth birthday of my adolescent best friend, Daniel. Daniel was one of the few people in school who shared my obsession with music. We (very) briefly played in bands together, but spent most of our free time lying in his dark bedroom, listening to entire records in silence. On heavy rotation were albums like Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell, and anything siphoned from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. I showed him the raw pop power of Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and he singlehandedly introduced me to The Pixies with a burned copy of Doolittle.

Naturally, Daniel wanted to spend his birthday in Seattle. We were of the few cultured people in our high school, you see, and sought the finer things in life… like the Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop at 4301 University Way. But we also sought record stores – places that didn’t exist in our hometown. And so, Daniel, his dad, and I spent the day gallivanting around Seattle’s University District, digging through bins. It was within these bins that I found it: an original pressing of My Aim Is True – used, but in fine condition, and priced at a fair $4.99.

Within milliseconds of me raising the LP from its vinyl neighbors, Daniel’s hawkeye spotted it three sections away. “Can I get that?!” he asked, beaming. We had both commenced our Elvis Costello phase within the past year, so this discovery was like striking gold. Hmmmmmmmm. This would take some judicious thinking. On any other occasion, a staunch finders-keepers law would apply – but this was his birthday after all. I decided to be kind, to do what any loving, considerate friend would do…

Oh, no. No I did not. I laid down the finders-keepers law hard and mercilessly. “But, it’s my birthday!” he pleaded. With the stony resolve of a miserable 15 year old, I stood my ground, and kept the record for myself. I have never felt more selfish. This memory stings me, makes me cringe every time I hold that album in my hands. I’ve considered shipping it to him, but it would probably be too little, too late. Besides, the record has become a symbol; it’s a painful but necessary reminder to be less of an asshole. And that’s certainly something worth holding onto.

ONLY NOISE: Big Sister’s Clothes

Who are the great musical influencers of our lives? Lovers, friends, parents, librarians. The people who were in close proximity when our cultural preferences were still small, squishy, and developing. Their impact on our taste was indispensable and unforgettable, as they passed down songs to us like cherished family recipes. Rare is the record collection built solely from autonomous discovery – because that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it?

But what about that other person in your life? The one who got the bigger bedroom, the better car, and all of the boys? The keeper of crucial adolescent information, such as the definition of words like “Phat,” “wangsta,” and the meaning of Limp Bizkit’s LP Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water? The wearer of JNCO Jeans and “candy” bracelets. What about your big sister?

Until recently, I might’ve excluded my big sister – one of them at least – from any Pop Culture Sherpa accolades. But that would’ve been a great injustice. Older siblings are often our first reference points for culture and cool – or perhaps they were before children had handheld access to the Kardashian lifestyle brand 24/7. But our crib didn’t even have dial-up…until several years later, when everyone was on that high-speed shit already.

Our household was always a stride behind the times, and the only window to the cool kid world was through my big sister, Miranda. At five years my senior, she wasn’t always thrilled to share her secrets with me, however. Pleas to hang out in her room, watch her play AOL chat, and borrow any article of clothing were frequently denied. The latter was a pretty fair decision though, as an eight-year-old might have looked questionable in pleather snakeskin bellbottoms.

Her closet and clique of friends were off limits. Music, on the other hand, served as diplomatic territory, although I was never sure why. Maybe Miranda just needed an audience for her carefully choreographed dance routines to the pop gems she exposed me to. The moves for Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” for instance, featured literal interpretations of the lyrics: turning around, grabbing and “breaking” her heart, a bicep curl to show that she was “gonna be strong.” This was nuanced stuff, I tell ya, and I ogled over her creativity and grace. She was always better at dancing; had a long, lean dancer’s body that must have come from her biological father. My own frame couldn’t be more disparate: short and hippy with an inexplicably large ass. We look almost nothing alike.

Miranda was my mainline to the cool world. Her dance performances were sacred ceremonies that were known to us alone. Whether it was this consecrated exchange, or the music itself, I loved everything Miranda played for me…and singing along to that breakout Ace of Base record The Sign is one of the earliest memories of sisterly peacekeeping I can recall. We fought a lot, but so long as a pop song was playing, a ceasefire ensued long enough to dance and sing.

If there is one artist I associate with Miranda the most, it has to be Mariah Carey, whose 1995 masterpiece Daydream dominated our living room sound system. My sister knew every word, and therefore, I knew every word – kind of. “Always Be My Baby” and “Fantasy” were our favorite cuts, the latter inspiring many a dance performance. If I slipped up on the lyrics, I could always resort to the many “Sha-da-da-da-da-da-da-doos” throughout, while Miranda hit those “freestyle” high notes (with more passion than pitch per se). “One Sweet Day” was also a big one for us, as it was Mimi’s collaboration with another childhood staple: Boyz II Men. Listening now I realize “One Sweet Day” is about a dead person, speaking to Mariah from behind the grave, embodied in the sultry voices of Boyz II Men. But at the time we embraced it as a syrupy love song, and that was enough for us.

Those were the early days – when pop felt innocent (as we all say when we get older). Our favorite songs were about heartbreak, staying strong, dancing, and loving ghosts. Kid stuff! In a few years the pop paradigm would shift however, sprinkling our newly complicated lives with subversive content. By 1999 Miranda was a teenager, and I was an awkward 10-year-old completely adrift in a post-divorce family. My big sister was engaging in increasingly hazardous behavior, and our relationship was often on the rocks, to put it lightly. But despite our tumultuous sisterhood, I never stopped wanting to be a part of her clan. Sure, she may have been hanging out with the “bad kids” at school, and maybe she was even doing “bad things,” but she still looked fabulous.

I distinctly remember a trip Miranda, my mom, and I took to Southern California during spring break of ’99. We were visiting my grandparents, who lived a stone’s throw from the ocean in Huntington Beach – a place rife with all the beautiful tan people we didn’t have in rainy Washington State. There were swimming pools, and beach days, and ice cream trucks. We went to the glamorous South Coast Plaza mall, which had an Abercrombie and Fitch! Miranda procured a pair of purple pleather flair pants that fell low across her hipless body. I think they were from Spencer Gifts, or maybe Wet Seal – high-class establishments we had limited access to in our hometown. God I wanted those pants. It was as if Miranda knew that pleather was about to be the number one fashion look – because spring break of ’99 wasn’t just monumental for us – it was a big moment for Ms. Britney Spears, too.

Our grandparents had something we lacked: MTV. For years we didn’t even have basic cable, so it was a treat visiting Grandma and Grandpa, who were apparently much cooler than us. Few music memories are as clearly etched as sitting on their couch that trip and watching the video for “Oops!…I did It Again,” which mesmerized us. The pleather. The lip-gloss. The weave. The shoddy space narrative. The pleather!

It was a massive turning point in our musical education. Britney was “not that innocent” anymore, and neither were we. Our minds were further infected with pop’s sex appeal – for it was the same week that Pink’s revenge-tinged “There You Go” dropped, as well as Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin,’” Crazy Town’s “Butterfly,” and of course, Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” Sisqo’s hit especially appealed to my young demographic, as “That thong-thong-thong-thong-thong” were super easy lyrics to remember. What a time to be 10.

Thanks to pop, and Miranda’s dutiful descriptions, that was the week I learned what a pimp was, what “come” meant (as in “Butterfly’s” “Come my lady, come come my lady”), and that letting your thong rise above your low-slung (pleather) pants was really cool. And called a “whale tail.”

It wasn’t long before I acquired my own pleather snakeskin pants, began anointing my forehead with a bindi a la Gwen Stefani, and for reasons I’ll never understand, started putting shimmery blue eye shadow on…my eyebrows. It was a sweet spot of time when my interests intersected with Miranda’s. Punk hadn’t quite entered my life yet to temporarily obliterate my love of melody. Back then, I loved everything she loved, simply because she loved it. I wanted to be the Monica to her Brandy in the video for “The Boy Is Mine.” I wanted to put on living room lip synch concerts to No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs” and Aaliyah’s “Try Again.”  And I must say – I still do.

ONLY NOISE: Welcome to the Workless Week

Rihanna is doing everything I am not.

“Work, work, work, work, work, work/You see me I be work, work, work, work, work, work,” she barks through the café sound system – as if she knows.

Another sunny day in the neighborhood. It is loping along at a drowsy pace. Parks are barren – full of empty benches. There is no line at the post office, and my favorite corner in the local coffee shop is dutifully awaiting me. I’m not dreaming. I’m not lucky. I am unemployed. And it’s just a weekday.

As luck would have it, I’ve been laid off three times in the past three years. Downsizing, outsourcing, budget cuts, project fulfillment – I’ve seen it all, and yet each time it hits me like an uppercut…like getting dumped when you thought everything was going awesome. And everything was going awesome…until it wasn’t anymore.

Another song comes on: Elvis Costello’s embittered “Welcome To The Working Week” off 1977’s My Aim Is True. I envision Costello back in the early ‘70s, working as a data entry clerk for Elizabeth Arden and hating every minute of it. “Welcome to the working week,” he sneers. “Oh, I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you/Welcome to the working week/You gotta do it till you’re through it, so you better get to it.” The irony of course being that it is the workless week(s) I have to get through now.

But this time ‘round I am not alone. It wasn’t long ago when I told my friend M that everything was “going to be ok!” M had recently been laid off from her job of five years, and I assured her that she needn’t self-flagellate for collecting unemployment.

“The idea that going through a period of unemployment is being lazy or counterproductive to society is bullshit,” I argued. “That’s just a false, capitalistic construct that a lot of developed countries don’t abide by. Look at Sweden! They get artist grants on the regular! Paternity leave! No one calls the Swedish lazy!” I consoled M with fervor, hoping to empower my hardworking pal who’d fallen on hard times. “You’re going to LOVE unemployment! Hell, I wish I had been on it longer!”

Somewhere in the distance, Riri sang and wagged a finger, “When you a gon’ learn, learn, learn, learn, learn, learn”? Before I could answer, I was plunged into joblessness. Again. I turned to find that ardent part of myself, the one that I’d dispatched to boost M’s confidence. She was nowhere to be found.

On Monday, in broad daylight, M and I sat on her couch; updating resumes, drafting emails, and calling the New York State Department of Unemployment Services, which has constructed a densely layered multiverse of automated menu options, dead-end key commands, and spontaneous call terminations. Dante himself could not have imagined this many circles of hell. The Specials’ bristling cover of “Maggie’s Farm” bleated from M’s tablet. I repeatedly punched zero in the hopes of being delivered to a real-time human, but was escorted back to the beginning of the menu options instead.

Veterans of creative industries get it. Writers, actors, magicians, poets, clowns, and yes, musicians; it’s a hard life making a living. Like Rihanna and Elvis Costello, Dolly Parton knew all about werk when she wrote “9 to 5,” singing the sour truth in that sweet, sweet voice: “Workin’ 9 to 5, whoa what a way to make a livin’/Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’/They just use your mind and they never give you credit/It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

In this time of uncertainty, I tell myself that it’s important to have historical perspective. It’s crucial to remember that bitching about work (or lack thereof), is as human as bipedalism, and has likely occurred since the dawn of occupation. While Rihanna today sings, “You see me do me dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt,” a 12th century blacksmith has surely larked, “You see me do me smelt, smelt, smelt, smelt, smelt, smelt,” and so on and so forth. Throughout history, where there has been work, there has been animosity; where there has been unemployment, there has been languor.

Hating your job is a time-honored tradition. So too is fearing eternal joblessness, and, as Bill Callahan sang in the ‘90s, longing “to be of use.” But why are we reduced to this? Why is our identity plastered slapdash around a core of employment? They don’t live like this is in Italy, right?

Perhaps philosopher Henri Lefebvre explained it best in his 1968 page-turner, The Sociology of Marx: “– man loses himself in his works. He loses his way among the products of his own effort, which turn against him and weight him down, become a burden.” Or, as Morrissey sang, “Frankly, Mr. Shankly, this position I’ve held/It pays my way, and it corrodes my soul/I want to leave, you will not miss me/I want to go down in musical history.”

I think about how Morrissey once worked as a hospital porter, and, perhaps annoyed that everyone around him was more miserable than he, quit and went on the dole. The Smiths frontman then used the bulk of his unemployment benefits to buy concert tickets. Morrissey sings about jobs more than most pop stars, and has certainly had them, making his claim in 1984’s “You’ve Got Everything Now” that he’s “Never had a job/Because I’ve never wanted one,” only half true.

Jeff Buckley was a Hotel Receptionist. Alanis Morissette was an Envelope Stuffer. Looking through a list of “51 Jobs Musicians Had Before They Were Famous” makes me feel better for some reason. Ian Curtis worked as a Welfare Officer. Chuck Berry (RIP), a Beautician. Rod Stewart dug graves. Henry Rollins managed a Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop in DC.

I wonder if, while scooping equal portions of Rocky Road and Butter Pecan into a waffle cone, Henry Rollins was thinking of a passage from The Communist Manifesto: “…labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce…” “Much like this sugary, frozen treat,” mumbled the pre-Black Flag muscle man. While dipping the high-piled scoops into a vat of rainbow sprinkles, Häagen-Dazs Rollins must have pondered Marx and Engels further, noting that, “…the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine…”

But let’s face it, ice cream Henry – we’re all appendages of the machine with or without those pesky day jobs – no matter how you scoop, sprinkle, or dip it. If you look to The Jam’s lay-off-themed “Smithers-Jones,” you’ll hear the tale of an obedient, white-collar worker who gets the axe. The suit-wearing title character arrives at his long-term office job one Monday only to be told, “There’s no longer a position for you/Sorry Smithers-Jones.”

And then there’s good ‘ol Morrissey again, who famously sang, “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job/And heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

Oh, c’mon Moz, it ain’t alllll that bad. When talking to my sister about my recent loafer status, she assures me that things could be much worse. At least I don’t have to dig graves like Rod Stewart. At least I don’t have to work in a slaughterhouse like Ozzy Ozborne. I have friends and family who love me, an awesome part-time writing gig, and, unlike my sister’s new puppy, Darwin: at least I don’t have eczema on my butthole.

So I got that going for me, which is nice.

ONLY NOISE: Cover to Cover


“What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process.” In her latest memoir M Train, Patti Smith speaks of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature with bibliophilic hunger. She is seeking inspiration and therefore turns to a favorite work. Smith continues:

“I read and feel the same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself. It is not mere envy but a delusional quickening in the blood.”

As I read her book with a similar hunger, I realize that I’ve felt this way before, in the precise way she has described it – when I listen to the music I love. “The desire to possess” what has been written, played, and sung. This desire is so strong that it ventures upon wish fulfillment; I often feel as though I am taking communion with the music…eating it, so to speak. For a split second, I near convince myself that I have written it. That it is mine.

I often wonder if this is a personal quirk (a hallucination) or if others experience the same phenomenon. I wonder if it is perhaps the subconscious impetus to cover songs, even. What if instead of mere flattery, or tribute, possession also informed Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” or Jimi Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower?” They certainly made both songs their own. I do not mean a jealous possession, necessarily, but an attempt to be “one with” the song, at the risk of sounding faux-metaphysical.

Cover songs as a genre get a bad rep, it seems. Covers = karaoke, or worse, Covers = Cover Bands. It was after all a throng of home-recorded cover songs that launched Justin Bieber’s career. But cover songs lead a double life. In their pop/rock identity, it is often considered a lowbrow, unoriginal form – sometimes even an attempt at latching onto the search engine optimization of the artists being covered. But in a cover song’s blues/folk/country life it goes by another name: a traditional. Throughout countless genres that could be filed under the umbrella of “folk” or “roots” music, artists recorded their own versions of songs passed down by performers before them.

Much like the poems and fables of oral history, it was common for the original authors of traditional songs to remain unknown. Take for instance the trad number “Goodnight, Irene,” which was first recorded by Lead Belly in 1933, and by many others thereafter. But the original songwriter has been obscured from music history. There are allusions to the song dating back to 1892, but no specifics on who penned the version Lead Belly recorded.

Lead Belly claimed to have learned the song from his uncles in 1908, who presumably heard it elsewhere. “Goodnight, Irene” was subsequently covered by The Weavers (1950), Frank Sinatra (1950, one month after The Weavers’ version), Ernest Tubb & Red Foley (1950 again), Jimmy Reed (1962) and Tom Waits (2006) to name but a few.

The reason so many artists (I only listed a couple) covered “Goodnight, Irene” in 1950 was because that was the way of the music biz back then. If someone had a hit record – like The Weavers, who went to #1 on the Billboard Best Seller chart – it was in the best interest of other musicians to cash in on the trend while it was hot by recording their version of the single. Not as common today of course, but in a time when session musicians were rarely credited and hits were penned by paid teams instead of performers, it made sense.

The history of traditional folk songs or “standards” is a fascinating one because it is like a musical game of telephone. The songs’ arrangement and lyrics change with the times, the performer, and the context. And that same model of change can be applied to both the artist’s motive for covering certain music, and the listener’s reaction to it.

For years I quickly dismissed cover songs, finding them boring at best and unbearable at worst. But in my recent quest to become more open-minded, I have revisited many covers…and become a bit obsessed in the process. The first cover song to move me was The Slits’ version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” which in itself is a pop traditional as it has been covered by everyone from Marvin Gaye, to Creedence Clearwater Revival, to The Miracles. Gaye’s version is the most widely recognized, however, making The Slits’ rendition all the more fascinating. Their 1979 stab at the Motown classic was what taught me that a cover song could be more than just a karaoke version of something. It can become a completely new medium of expression when the artist tears the original apart and stitches the pieces into a new form. The Slits did this so effectively, to the point that theirs and Gaye’s versions are incomparable.

The Stranglers achieved a similar result by reconfiguring the Dionne Warwick classic “Walk On By” in 1978, morphing the lounge-y original into a six-minute swirl of organ-infused punk. Another master of pop modification was the one-and-only Nina Simone, who somehow took the already perfect “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen and managed to make it…perfecter. I remember a friend playing this cut for me three and a half years ago, and I haven’t gone so much as a week without putting it on since. Nina’s phrasing can make Dylan’s seem predictable, and she dances through Cohen’s poetry in a way that astonishes me to this day, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. I feel that her version is, dare I say, better than the original, though I love both dearly.

But of course, not all covers exist for the purpose of possession. Sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one: that a cover is an opportunity to pay tribute, not ironically, but with reverence. Of course, even artists performing the best reverent covers make the songs their own. Take Smog’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Beautiful Child,” which is such a gorgeous recording that I was heartbroken to learn it was a cover, and disappointed upon hearing the original. Ditto Bill Callahan’s more recent take on Kath Bloom’s “The Breeze/My Baby Cries.” Bloom’s take isn’t short on oddball, winsome charm, but Callahan brings a barge full of sorrow, which always wins in my book.

In similar form, Robert Wyatt somehow out-Costello’d Elvis Costello when he covered “Shipbuilding” in 1982, which reaches another dimension of despair with Wyatt’s wavering vocal performance. Another favorite is Morrissey’s interpretation of “Redondo Beach,” an oddly bouncy rendition by the King of Sad.

Though I once turned my nose up at cover songs, I seem to fanatically collect them now. I often dream up cover song commissions that will likely never come to fruition: Cat Power singing Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time” or King Krule doing “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes. I’d pay them to do it myself if I could damn well afford to. Until then, let the covers of others stoke your desire to possess.

ONLY NOISE: Poison Pen – The Discretely Vicious Songs of Elvis Costello


The best insults are those that fly over our heads. Those that for a minute maybe sound like praise. Those that strike with a delay…like a cut from a sharp blade that doesn’t begin to bleed until several moments after incision. An insult that can walk away from its victim, turn its back and laugh as the brunt of the joke stands, stammering for a comeback. There are, in my book, four contemporary masters of this caliber of lyrical affront: Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello. It is the latter that I praise today, for turning the act of insolence into an art form. I originally thought this could be a great Valentine’s Day piece, being the grumpy bastard that I am, but instead I will salute Costello on his birthday, which is today.

There are a cargo truck’s worth of reasons why Costello is one of my favorite songwriters of all time; that unmistakable snarl of a voice that could make “Three Blind Mice” sound subversive, his unflinching command of pop music, and those glasses…I’m a sucker for anyone on the Buddy Holly spectrum of things. But one of the most compelling things about Costello is his wicked mastery of the English language. His lyrics are often love letters printed with poison, at first seeming sweet, and only after consideration revealing themselves to be cruel reprimands.

It is this very contrast that I find so intriguing, and it is an attraction that occurs outside of my musical fanaticism as well. There is nothing more entertaining and refreshing to me than those who break the behavioral pattern people expect of them. When old ladies curse, when my kindest friends reveal their deep hatred for someone, when parents admit that their child is an asshole…these all tickle my deeply-rooted, contrarian nature, and the same can be said for Costello’s work.

His songs work in a similar, sneak-attack fashion to hard liquor; it’s smooth going down, but catches up to you later. The insatiable pop licks Costello brandishes overwhelm, while a guerilla faction of snide remarks injure from the side. Songs like “I Hope You’re Happy Now” from 1986’s Blood And Chocolate is a prime example of this dichotomy, especially given the misleading title (he really doesn’t hope you are happy now).

“He’s a fine figure of a man and handsome too,” Costello sneers. “With his eyes upon the secret places he’d like to undo.”

He goes on to describe a comically abysmal bloke that his former flame is bedding, wishing them both well with a sturdy middle finger.

“He’s got all the things you need and some that you will never/but you make him sound like frozen food, his love will last forever. Still, he knows what she wants and what she don’t allow/and I hope that you’re happy now.”

“He’s acting innocent and proud still you know what he’s after/Like a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter/In his turquoise pajamas and motorcycle hat/I hope you’re happy now because you’ll soon put pay to that.”

The fun continues with tracks like “Miracle Man” off of 1977’s debut My Aim Is True, in which Costello proves his aptitude for the backhanded compliment (those going through breakups, take note).

“Yet everybody loves you so much, girl
/I just don’t know how you stand the strain/Oh I-I’m the one who’s here tonight/And I don’t want to do it all in vain.”

I used to wish that during every breakup, I could magically summon Costello, like some sort of mean genie to rattle off insults to romantic wrongdoers in my life. Perhaps he could hide in a tree and speak into a tiny mic hooked to my invisible earpiece, feeding me lines like “I knew then what I know now, I never loved you anyhow.” If only life worked like that.

It seems that even Costello’s “love songs” are not what they seem. One of his most iconic ballads, “Alison” has often been looked to as a slow dance, anniversary type of love song-something deeply romantic, when in fact it sprung from a far more depressing reality.

In Costello’s recent autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, he describes the impetus for writing the track: “I wrote the song “Alison” after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away.”

I wonder if there were a few who read that book and wished they hadn’t; their wedding song ruined forever.

A friend of mine in high school who was also a massive Costello fan found solace in the song “Different Finger” from 1981’s Trust when she got mixed up in the age-old conundrum of infidelity. While most songwriters would exalt their new lover, or self-flagellate with guilt, Costello is cold and despondent atop a knee-weakening melody. All he asks is that the affair be carried out sans wedding bands, revealing little to no emotional investment. 

“Please put your rings on a diff’rent finger if you meet me tonight/’Cause I can’t stand those suspicious glances/’Cause I know the things they’re saying are right.”

“I don’t want to hear your whole life story/Or about my strange resemblance to some old flame/All I want is one night of glory/I don’t even know your second name.”

“Different Finger” is an honest song and a song without honor all at once. We can learn from its vulnerability and imperfections-it so clearly exposes all of the possibilities inside of us, that really we are all capable of anything given the correct cocktail of circumstance.

Of all these venomous love songs, “Little Triggers” off of 1978’s This Year’s Model takes the proverbial cake. It is one of the most heartrending songs of all time, with nods to doo-wop vocal melodies and the haunting pulses of Steve Nieves B3 organ. But despite the songs potential for glorious love-balladry, it is an extreme close up of an imperfect relationship, and all of the sour miscommunications that come along with.

“Little triggers that you pull with your tongue/Little triggers I don’t wanna be hung up/Strung up when you don’t call up/Little sniggers on your lips/Little triggers in your grip/Little triggers, my hand on your hip

“Worryin’ about the common decency/When it is only a question of frequency/When you say okay but you’ve got cheek to be/Sayin’ you’re tired of me when you don’t even weaken these/Little triggers that you pull with your tongue/Little triggers, I don’t want to be hung up, strung up/When you don’t call up.”

“Little Triggers” makes me wonder if the trigger-happy lover isn’t in fact Costello himself. It’s hard to imagine that any partner of his could be more sharp tongued than the insult-wielding musician. Or perhaps, his songs are merely some attempt at wish fulfillment. Maybe in real life it was too painful to put up a fight, so he brought the fight to music instead. I wish we all could siphon our pain into chart-topping songs. In the meantime, we have Elvis Costello.

ONLY NOISE: A Message To You, Moody


It is likely that whenever the Specials sang “pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!” they were not talking about your disposition. Maybe they meant the beat or your beer or the change on the ground…but why not your ‘tude while you’re at it?

It is a gross understatement to say that music makes you feel things. Composers know this well.  Score writers know just when to cue in the strings to make a little tear fall, and massage therapists know which new age selection makes you relaaaaaaxxx.

But what about the other end of the emotional spectrum? What if the conductor of life’s cruel symphony is already making you cry, facilitating your craving for Duncan Hines easy-bake cake, and keeping you stuffed under innumerable layers of blankets with nothing but a bottle of Shiraz on your nightstand? How do you ‘pick it up’ then?

I’ve searched high and low for what some call a “good day record,” but often to no avail. Songs are too tied up in life events, too burdened by association to bleach away the sad or effectively spike endorphins. The C major scale can sound ecstatic on an on day, and cataclysmic on an off one. But wouldn’t a music writer have an entire fleet of mood-altering records at her disposal? 12-inch, black wax happy pills to make everything better?


Both sad and true, there is only one album I’ve found in all my searching, that pinches me awake from the downward swirling hellhole of a bad mood. It’s the Specials’ 1979 self-titled debut that does it. It is my only hope, and I toss it back like a shot of bourbon after a long workday.

I’ve spoken at length about my parents’ respective record collections and the gratis therapy they have provided over the years. But of all the sleeves I’ve removed from those shelves The Specials is somehow the only album I’ve ever found that can snap me out of a bad day with Pavlovian accuracy…though I am currently taking submissions for more!

With its initial wheezes of harmonica and organ, it is a record that elicits instantaneous joy, a little cloud of dopamine in my limbic system. There are moments throughout its 14 songs that require tiny rituals of an obsessive quality. I will urgently drop a sandwich or press the phone between my ear and shoulder to catch that little snare fill in the beginning of “A Message To You Rudy.” Don’t try to stop me.

The effect this album has on me goes deeper than a “happy” sound or lyrical content. It isn’t as though the Specials only sang about the good life; there are tracks in their catalogue about everything from drunken bar brawls, to adulterous girlfriends, depressing clubs, a wasted London, and being an overall useless human being. Perhaps had I caught the 2 Tone bug later in life, that first record wouldn’t have the same beatific effect on me, but as it stands I pop it like a mood stabilizer.

I don’t focus so much on the lyrics, but rather the beat, the bounce, that crazy organ player Jerry Dammers who makes Shane Macgowan look like he has a nice set of teeth. I picture all seven members bobbing around like dancing ants in their little matching suits, black and white just like the musicians themselves. I think of horn sections, and shiny shoes, and the rhythmic absurdity that is skanking. I think of being in the kitchen as a 13-year-old, making failed attempts at baking and zine-making. Or of the time I gave my mother (partially at her request, and 100% to her boyfriend’s dismay) a Chelsea haircut. Bitch bangs and all. The Specials seemed to be a record to play amongst loved ones, or at a party, and it was never an album met with dissent.

The fact that this record came out almost 40 years ago is baffling to me. Of course it was born of a very specific, genre-heavy era in the British music scene, but it somehow remains fresh sounding-as crisp as the pleats in vocalist Terry Hall’s trousers. A lot of the credit for such timelessness can no doubt be paid to the record’s producer, the sire of cool Elvis Costello, who teamed up with the band to get everything tight in the studio.

For all of the depths I wade in the name of musical discovery, this is an album that persists with its importance. On the (very) rare occasion that I am asked what band I would be in if time wasn’t an object, I say the Specials. Are they my favorite band? No. But I can’t imagine a more fun group to be in. I turned to fellow music critics for answers; why won’t this record erode? Why, despite its birth in the nightmare of Thatcherite Britain, is it brimming with joy? Do others find it as timeless as I do?

Jo-Ann Greene of AllMusic made an interesting point: that the group’s debut LP was “a perfect moment in time captured on vinyl forever.” The website went on to say that it captured the spirit of “Britain in late 1979, an unhappy island about to explode,” and “managed to distill all the anger, disenchantment, and bitterness of the day straight into their music.”

That almost solves it for me, because what the Specials were doing on a grander, more socio-cultural level as the 1970s spilled into the ‘80s, I am attempting to do in my own mind; to take “all the anger, disenchantment, and bitterness of the day” and channel it into something more worthwhile. To “pick it up” and put it somewhere useful, like on the dance floor.

I’m not trying to write a self-help text here (though if I did it might be called Dance The Death Away). But I am trying to give credence to a phenomenon that endlessly fascinates me: that these little vibrations in our cochleae can so violently shift our emotional tide in ways that other stimuli cannot. The power of sound has been honed to such an extent that it has been weaponized for god sake, which admittedly is more to the credit of frequency than emotional response, but it certainly doesn’t undercut the impact of the aural.

A few years ago I reviewed a documentary for Film Forward called Alive Inside that discussed the effect of music on the memory of Alzheimer’s victims. The results, though perhaps not representative of a large enough study group, were pretty astonishing. It seemed that when the Alzheimer’s patients at a nursing home were played the music of their youth they were overcome with detailed memories and emotion.

Yet another study from 2011 dealt with the (proven) direct link between music and mood, citing that when subjects played their own selections of songs, they experienced “chills,” a scientific term summarizing the enormous amounts of dopamine the brain releases with such stimulation. The same reaction occurs during (good) sex, eating sweets, and injecting certain drugs.

But you don’t have to have bad sex, or spike your glycemic index, or shoot heroin. Music surely doesn’t solve all of the world’s problems, or even all of one’s own problems, but it’s a crutch I’m happy to lean on. As Morrissey once sang: “the world is full of crashing bores,” and that is true. Yet we bores are humans, and we humans have only so many things to count as true victories…is not one of them music?

We’ve figured out how to make instruments out of everything from gourds to pure vibrations in air. So in all this chaos, and mayhem, I will try to remember that in bleak Thatcher London in 1979, when people were rioting and on the dole, and race tensions were taut, this glimmering little record by The Specials burst through and made a handful of people dance. I hope we can pick it up from there.



Welcome to the second installment of “Only Noise,” in which Madison Bloom writes a memoir with music. 

A mixtape is something Generation Y shouldn’t grasp the importance of. Despite the small number of people who claim to prefer the sound of tape, mixtapes today are largely leveraged as devices of kitsch and nostalgia. There is of course the tape renaissance in the cottage punk industry. Once declining tape-manufacturing plants such as National Audio Company are finding newfound profits in reel-to-reel, and brands like Urban Outfitters are eager to get in on the “vintage” trend. The clothing retailer made a gesture towards analog at last year’s Northside Festival, stuffing press goody bags with a neon green compilation tape featuring artists such as Blanck Mass and Juan Wauters.

But truth be told, most people born post compact disc proliferation have never had a pressing need for a mixed tape.


There was a patch of time in the late nineties when the good people at Subaru neglected to outfit their Foresters with the leading method of musical consumption: a CD player. My mother owned such a Forester, and though in hindsight I realize the simple solution would have been to purchase a CD player, the decision was well out of my 12-year-old hands.

At the pinnacle of my musical discovery, as well as the inception of my aural snobbery, this absence was an abomination.  Living as we did in bumfuck Washington, we were out of range for all of the cool radio stations like KEXP and 89.9.  All we had was classic rock, Top 40 (not so great in 2000), and 107.7 The End, which boasted that ambiguous, doomed banner “alternative.” The End was given to playing Papa Roach, Disturbed, and the state-ordained daily quota of Nirvana.

It was ok, but when something truly abysmal came on, there was nowhere to run.  The car at that time, just on the cusp of mp3 players, kept you captive with your music more than most situations, which was the beauty and the burden of being on the road.

I began to do what any other pre-teen would have done in the decades prior: I made mixed tapes.  I didn’t need an authentic childhood void of the internet, compact disks, or Napster to understand how these things worked. I’d seen High Fidelity.

I was in a unique position as a kid in the 90s who actually knew what a vinyl record was.  I was, as all kids are, egocentric, and having admired my Dad’s 4,000 plus record collection for as long as I can remember, I would go to sleepovers and birthday parties wondering: where are your Dad’s 4,000 records?

And yes, I too fetishized the faux nostalgic from a young age.  I blame the amazing stories my parents told me about growing up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  They had “used up all the fun,” as my mom puts it.  I wanted to pay a nickel for a candy bar, and have a paper route, and take acid with my high school teachers.  I wanted boys to make tapes for me!  Fantastic tapes filled with songs I’d never heard, the J-cards meticulously filled in with ball-point pen renderings of hearts and music notes alongside the painstakingly written song titles, artists, and run times.  The cassettes would have themes, and clever titles winking at some hilarious inside joke.

But there were no boys. There were no tapes.  So, like an independent 12-year-old woman, I made my own goddamn tapes.

The first was simple in its purpose: songs for the road. Or, as my strained, blue Bic handwriting declares: “Songs For The Ramblin’ Traveler.”

This isn’t going to get less embarrassing.

So deprived I was of decent music in the car, that I overcompensated with flamboyant, and horrible titles. The music however, wasn’t so terrible. Side One included Bob Dylan’s “Peggy Day” off of Nashville Skyline as well as “Radio Radio” by Elvis Costello. Neither was directly related to driving lyrically, but sonically they possessed a forward-motion needed for a good car song. Just uplifting enough to keep your eyes ahead.

Side Two, was far less forgiving. I can’t say the exact year this tape was made, but it would have come to life amidst my obsession with two bands: Social Distortion and The Wallflowers.

The former was certainly the catalyst for including Mike Ness’s cover of “Six More Miles,” originally by Hank Williams, which, unbeknownst to my young ears, was not about driving, but dying.

More true-to-form road trip lyrics could be found in the Wallflowers selections, namely “Back To California” and “Shy Of The Moon.” Yes. There were two.

But the tape to end all tapes was the love dedication tape that I, in all my teen melodrama, made for myself.  Having just seen Brokeback Mountain, I was inspired.  So much so, that I entitled my mixtape-to-me: “I Wish I Knew How To Quit You.”  It is perhaps the cringiest thing I have ever done in my entire life.  But I would like to clear up one thing: it wasn’t about self-love; it was about a puppy-love deficiency…I was essentially pretending that there did exist a boy who had made me such a tape.  Like when Cher in Clueless sends herself flowers.  Sort of.

There was no shortage of Social Distortion tracks on this tape either.  Side A touted their more critically acceptable era with “Another State Of Mind” off 1982’s Mommy’s Little Monster.  The song itself was about being on the road, on tour specifically, and missing someone back home. Side B found them a decade later with “When She Begins” from Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell.

The Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” would have also been on there, since at the time I truly thought that it was a sincere love song. The irony of my choices continued with “Mama You Been On My Mind” by Dylan and Costello’s “Allison.” It took me years to realize that both were snide reprimands of former lovers. One could posit that this tape full of “love songs” might serve as a breakup tape in later years.

Despite our necessity for them, we didn’t have many cassettes in the Subaru, and at some point I must have become bored of making my own. Maybe I simply ran out of subject matter.  Besides love songs and car songs, what else did you have to work with in life?  This was clearly before the explosion of hyper specific playlists via Spotify, which delve into such heady themes as “Hipster House Party” and “Chillimatic.”

Aside from my mixes, the car’s center console held but a Queensrÿche tape (very rarely played) and a copy of Queen’s greatest hits. The latter was bootlegged and wore a clean J-card sans songs titles and start times. As kids, Queen meant only one thing to my sister and I: “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In fact, Queen didn’t even mean that. Queen meant Wayne’s World.

Sometimes on the 20-minute ride to school, all we wanted was to bang our heads to the bridge like Garth and Wayne. We knew that part of the movie by heart, the little air-drum fill right after Freddie Mercury belted: “so you think you can stop me and spit in my eye?!” We couldn’t ask for a better start to the school day. But instead, the entire ride would be spent rewinding, fast-forwarding, ejecting, flipping, reinserting, fast-forwarding, that tape, usually to no avail. We could never find the goddamn song, but on the extremely rare occasion that we did, riotous cheers were unleashed from the backseat, and oh the headbanging.

As much as I prattle on about the relationship between music and memory, I similarly cannot pry the thought of cars from songs. Driving, riding, cruising – it’s the ultimate American experience. Still, but in motion. Speeding ahead, but inert in your seat. Always moving forward, and yet forever framed between the past and future. I’m not someone who speaks of “being present” all that much, but that really is where the present lies in its most distilled form: en route. It’s no wonder the road, the car, and the open highway, have long been recurring themes in not only American music, but film and literature for decades. And if we are so bewitched by the journey, how could we possibly resist a soundtrack?

TOP PICKS: Record Store Day’s Black Friday Releases

Record-Store-Day-Black-FridayHere’s another reason to love the holidays: Record Store Day’s Black Friday event—an opportunity to snag special vinyl and CD releases, re-acquaint yourself with your local record stores, and get a head start on the season’s general merrymaking. This Nov. 29 will be RSD’s third annual Black Friday celebration, which aims to subvert the prototypical, corporate-run Black Friday model by providing us with “pieces of art in the form of limited special editions” and “an excuse to celebrate both the pieces themselves and the special indie record stores who carry them.” Basically, it’s a chance for an ethically justifiable vinyl shopping binge, and a perfect way to stock up on some truly unique gifts for your friends and family (and yourself). Here are our top picks for this year’s Back to Black Friday bash, and our recommendations for where to find them:

Mystical Weapons — Crothesque


A rare recording of an improvisational collaboration between Sean Lennon, Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, originally captured for WNYC show “Spinning on Air” and featuring original illustration by Sean Lennon himself.


Nas — Halftime


Nas’ debut single, “Halftime,” was released in 1992 under his original moniker, Nasty Nas. This reproduction of the original 12” LP includes the song’s LP version, instrumental version, and a remix version.


Chocolate Milk — Action Speaks Louder Than Words


Released in 1975, Chocolate Milk’s debut funk/soul album was later sampled by some legendary hip-hop artists like Eric B. & Rakim, the Geto Boys, and Stetsasonic, among others. Now the classic album is returning fully remastered and in limited edition colored vinyl (chocolate colored, of course)—a definite gem.


Dawes — Stripped Down At Grimey’s


A 6-track live recording of Dawes’ intimate performance at Nashville’s Grimey’s in March 2013. Includes four tracks from the band’s third full-length album, Stories Don’t End, released earlier this year, and the LP comes in a pretty orange color!


Anti-Records Fall 2013 Compilation — Hot Wacks


Designed after classic “loss leader” LPs of the ‘70s, this compilation offers an intro to a few of Anti-Records’ new artists as well as demo versions and unreleased tracks by some of the label’s well-established acts (Dr. Dog, Man Man, Mavis Staples). This is a fun purchase at a very low price ($5.99!).


Elvis Costello & The Roots — Wise Up: Thought — Remixes and Reworks


Produced by Elvis Costello and ?uestlove alongside Steven Mandel, this collection of remixes is sure to take Costello and The Roots’ collaborative, genre-blending album, Wise Up Ghost from earlier this year, even further than it already went.


Sondre Lerche — Rejection #5


This 12” single is the first of the Public Hi-Fi Sessions, a series of limited edition releases from Spoon’s Jim Eno’s new Public Hi-Fi Records. Eno plays drums on the single as well as B-side “Screen Door.” Once the series takes off, this debut is sure to become highly sought-after.


Our picks of participating record stores:

Rough Trade NYC

64 North 9th St., Brooklyn NY

Cake Shop

152 Ludlow St. , New York NY

Rebel Rebel

319 Bleecker St., New York NY

Academy Records Annex

83 Oak St., Brooklyn NY

Earwax Records

167 North 9th St., Brooklyn NY