Learning to Fall

The ShiversWhy does an artist set out on a journey to find his own unique language to say the things he needs to say, create two “sister” records early in his career (“More” and “In the Morning,” just a couple of years apart) that together contain 11 perfect songs among others, defining a vocabulary and voice, an astonishing accomplishment in these days of apathy and industry ruin, only to walk alone, deep into a personal wilderness, to search for something even more complex and revealing and experimental after inhabiting the very thing he was searching for since the early 2000s, and found? It’s something outsiders cannot easily decode. More records appeared, of course, each just a little more varied, each circling around similar subject matter and textures, some even changing personas completely.

The ShiversBut the patterns began to shift. Because, in the end, it’s about the burning questions. The questions that keep artists awake all night. The questions that wreck relationships, unquiet the mind, and haunt the escape of sleep. The questions that force the hard things to the surface, the dark things into the light, the dangerous things that can break a man. Artists can’t hide from the burning questions.

And so, the wilderness called, for renewal as much as for new directions or confirmations. What can I say about this artist now, at his latest moment of transformation? About this man, Keith Zarriello, his ever-changing identity as The Shivers, his music that opened The Business Presents music festival in July in Anacortes, WA, the artist who has come to define my longing for a direction for my small record record label, Untide Records, and which haunts my imagination about what might be possible for all his records as yet to be demoed, as yet to be recorded? The ShiversI want to say something to you that no one has ever said about him, something that will crash your world, like his music did mine, and make you see and hear what I see and hear in this artist’s teeming and tormented art. I want to do that, but then… I hesitate, and I don’t. Not here. Not now. I don’t because he’s my friend, but more important than that, vastly more important than that, I don’t because he’s still out there working, and something is changing, something new is coming into being. The wild places haven’t finished with him yet, so all remains speculation.

The ShiversMusic has always been the first art form because it requires no advance study to connect to those it connects to. You just fall into the music you love. If you love the music, if you love the language the artist has discovered for himself, you love it. There’s no need to write long arguments, proofs, about why you love it. You just do. It’s one to one, and remains so. Every song was written for you and it speaks to you as if you’re the only person who gets it, really gets it, because it becomes yours. We want to possess the people who can do this for us. But that isn’t possible, either. They belong to the wild places where their greatest songs are written. They belong to their searching, far away from all of us.

The ShiversOpening night, Keith walked into the venue, picked up his vintage Silvertone, plugged it in, and within minutes tore through his taut set list of songs from his decade-long conversion from novice songwriter to journeyman recording artist. It was a rare moment that felt all the more valuable for its spontaneity, vulnerability, and risk, coming from a man who only briefly stepped out of his wilderness mid pilgrimage. His search continues. The burning questions still have a firm hold on him. Every great songwriter travels this road, again and again. Pays the toll in a kind of existential loneliness and aloneness none of us can even imagine.

There remain many more songs inside this artist that will reveal themselves, in time. One day soon Keith will walk back out of his wild places, reformed as yet another new vision of The Shivers, and his records will literally speak for themselves. And those who know, will know. The music will fall into place, and those who get it, will, once again, feel his new writing is just for them. When the needle drops onto the first track, some of the burning questions will be finally be answered. But fortunately, not all of them.

The Shivers

[Where to find stuff: The Shivers on Soundcloud. The Shivers distro and retail from The Business. The Shivers on Bandcamp.]

Regeneration

They’re back. Overcoming the loss of their lease at their previous location in Anacortes, Washington, and then recovering from a fire in their new location (before they officially took possession), The Business record shop has started its new life in Anacortes, in their stunning new digs at 216 Commercial Avenue (just a couple of blocks from where they were). It’s been emotional for Nick Rennis and Evie Opp, but they’re back with an expanded shopfront, an expanding distro business, and now a new subscription program. Browsers and subscribers needed. Their new subscription program is available for both in-store pickup and can be shipped globally.

According to Nick and Evie, you can choose from:
Distro- Cassette Subscription – One tape from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($60)
Distro- CD Subscription – One CD from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($120)
Distro- Vinyl Subscription – One record from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($200)
Custom Vinyl Subscription – One record selected by their experts for you each month for 12 months (includes a fun questionnaire). ($240)
Premium Distro-/Custom Vinyl Subscription – One record from their family of labels plus one record selected by their experts for you and one 7″ each month for 12 months. ($500)
(Domestic shipping adds $50 to any subscription.)

Music is life. And The Business has been part of that life in Anacortes since 1978. It’s a project. It’s an experiment. It’s a testament.

The Business
216 Commercial Ave.
Anacortes, WA 98221 USA

Troubled Waters

Nephewinthewildcover

There’s an irresistible temptation to mention important literature and literary figures when it comes to reviewing the songwriting of Owen Ashworth. This makes him one of the most fascinating (and perplexing) modern recording artists to talk and read about. Whichever of his bands and records you choose to consider, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone or Advance Base, his latest creative venture, Ashworth garners impressive literary comparisons and faint praise in equal measure.

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

Ashworth’s work is respected. But his records seem to receive mediocre ratings by industry buzz masters. Or worse, he’s given patronizing or grudging recommendations that hardly inspire you to dash out and get his latest LP. It’s almost as if his writing style, very much in the dark (and similarly humorous or satirizing) tradition of author David Foster Wallace (to make yet another lofty literary comparison), attracts derision. Each new record raises hopes, but they mysteriously fail to fulfill the standards of most of his critics. How he misses is always ambiguous. It’s like the work connects, but the artist himself pisses people off somehow.

Thing is, we secretly all hate mirrors, even as we need them, in music and literature, to see ourselves. Mirrors make us feel rightly or wrongly judged. And Ashworth can be the saddest mirror of all. In the 1930s, author and peace leader Vera Brittain wrote about how lives lived in close and stifling proximity long for comfort, but thinking too much about reality can get in the way of living comfortably. The alternative: Stay put, don’t think. It’s still true: For some people, too much thinking only means trouble in paradise.

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

And that’s Ashworth’s challenge, song after song, record after record as he writes of troubled waters rising in quietly desperate lives. The people in his latest songs on the elegant new “Nephew in the Wild” (Orindal Records, 2015) are trying (in vain) to get clean, or signing leases and fighting with their landlords, or fixing up rusted out cars that just wind up on blocks in the backyard, or getting married too young and to the wrong people, or worrying about abusive pasts and dead-end jobs, or raising kids alone, all while praying for a world that still believes in prayer. Ashworth’s songs are about people thinking too much and paying too much. The songs obsess over the small things, but nothing quite works out. But along the way there are brilliant moments of wisdom and even humor, all of which makes for touching social commentary. Like this, from the song “Pamela”: “Your dad was seventeen/& dumb as a drum machine… Your mom was sixteen/& sweeter than saccharine….”

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

Every song on “Nephew in the Wild” fits together like an extended script, scenes about searching for missing lives, missing loves, and missing hope. They carry the load together. Even Ashworth’s signature lo-fi approach confounds some critics. His sound is a smart framework to keep things simple. The music is about the story and the feeling, narrowing the focus to close-ups and memorable fragments. His simplicity takes some things out of the equation and makes space for others.

In Ashworth’s universe the random events of the present predict the future, which makes the smallest things harbingers for troubles ahead. Just imagine if a song like his “Summon Satan,” played scratchy, like on an old vinyl record in another room, were to be used at the ending of a particularly dark episode of “The Walking Dead”: “You can worry about the future/You can worry about the past/You can worry about how long/this curse is going to last.” His is a warning of unstoppable terrible things to come. Everyone would need to have his music because it sometimes feels so good to feel so bad. Ashworth’s darkness would at last be in focus. And everyone else would finally get it.

[Artist photos by Tom Cops. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

Flowers From Their Garden

It was a moment of private wonder, like a short, intense walk in a concealed garden that remains locked most of the year; an evening with Mamiffer (Faith Coloccia and Aaron Turner), at The Business, in Anacortes. The sheer power of their tube amps and dream-metal songs in this small space was enveloping, stopping time. If you don’t know this band, you need to. They played a few songs from “Statu Nascendi” (Sige Records, 2014), a career-defining album, which is far more lush on vinyl than as a digital download, but follow your heart. A note about my pictures: I had to shoot in almost total darkness (no flash, of course), which is why these pictures appear so grainy. But the darkness fit their music and the mood of the evening, and the challenge was good. Life isn’t always lit the way you want it to be.

I Pay Because I Love

I buy music. I buy a lot of music. Frequently labeled as a sucker by those who never pay for any music, I’m still buying music. Most of what I buy comes from small, local record shops. I spend several thousand dollars every year buying new music. Mostly I buy vinyl LPs, but I also buy music in other formats. Most of what I buy is new, but I also frequent ancient small shops that sell collectible older recordings. I buy 45s, 33s, 78s, and I’d buy cylinder recordings if any of the shops I visit sold them. I’m saying this because musicians and shop owners need to know there are people like me in the world, and I’m not alone! People like me feel a direct connection to the music we love, and are willing to pay for it precisely because we think about the artists who make the music we love, and because we feel a special bond with the small retailers who work so hard curating their inventories, finding us the treasures we seek. I think being a recording artist must be the highest artistic calling ever, and the artifacts of their creation are irresistible.

Goof

Music, for me, is life. It’s a spooky cool combination of personal experience, emotional confluence with another’s life and art, poetry, visual art, storytelling, and… communion. A vinyl record is like a sculpture that makes sound happen when you put it on a turntable. Think about it! It’s sound frozen inside a vinyl sculpture. The jackets are like books, often with thousands of details written down about the bands, the songs, the history, pictures, and the endlessly evolving processes of making records. Music released as an object is spiritual and when it’s done right, it transforms everything in your life: my attitudes about my own life, how I want to live my life, and how I want to fit into my world are all shaped by music and recording artists. Music makes me laugh. Music makes my heart ache to the point I cry. Music makes me feel. Music makes me care. I play music and make connections in my mind that I simply cannot make without it. That’s value worth paying for.

Converter

Not all music fans steal music from the internet, regardless of what some record executives say (to justify, I might add, more often than not, their refusal to pay their artists any royalties). I canceled my Spotify account because they don’t treat musicians fairly, either. Instead, I spend my days in my studio surrounded by my precious vinyl records, books about music, CDs, posters, old radios, old stereo gear, everything related to the music “industry.” Everywhere I rest my eyes, I’m looking at an object related to music and its history. And I feel… grateful. Every artist I see perform live, if I get a chance to meet them after their set at their merch tables, I say thank you. And I mean it. I even buy second copies of LPs I already own if that’s all they have for sale on their merch tables, just to leave a little extra money with the band. True story.

The Long Winters

Vinyl records represent the ultimate freedom in music for me because when I purchase one, I can enjoy it on my own, for years and years. If I can get a signed copy of a record, it assumes a position of high honor on my shelves. I can play my records, in any order I choose, and my playing remains personal, where I can take time to experience the truth behind real creatively. I’m proud to buy records. Of course, I have no idea if all the money is getting back to the recording artists, but I want artists to know that I care, and I happily pay for the pleasure I get from their remarkable work.

I don’t feel like a sucker. I hope both recording artists and small record-shop owners feel just a little of my devotion. I pay… because I love.

Egg Hunt

Possessing a Resplendent Light

If you haven’t had the singular pleasure of listening to The Cave Singers on vinyl, you should make the time. Slow down, and make the time. I had thought their latest record, “Naomi” (Jagjaguwar, 2013), was out of print on vinyl. But just the other day I saw copies in a local record shop.

I made some notes about the band’s recent Shakedown set, so I’m posting them here, just because. Every Cave Singers LP has a complete LP feel to it, so exploring more than the top track or two is a rewarding analog adventure. This is also a band that writes songs with haunting, layered lyrics. Having the artifact in hand, whether it be a CD or LP, gets you into the song lyrics as much as the entire sonic landscape (with my Rega turntable, they be sonic). The Shakedown set was, by my reckoning (I might have missed a song title or two), mostly built from their earlier records, which are out of print on vinyl. Still, treat yourself. Buy “Naomi” and let this amazing band speak to you.

Leap (from “Welcome Joy“)
Clever Creatures (from “No Witch“)
Summer Light (from “Welcome Joy”)
At the Cut (from “Welcome Joy”)
Shrine (from “Welcome Joy”)
Helen (from “Invitation Songs“)
Swim Club (from “No Witch”)
Haller Lake (from “No Witch”)
Beach House (from “Welcome Joy”)
Faze Wave (from “No Witch”; I LOVE this track, which you can see performed live here)
No Prosecution If We Bail  (from “No Witch”)
Black Leaf (from “No Witch”)

The Cave Singers