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.]

The Shivers: In the Morning


[Editorial disclosure/confession: The Shiver’s vinyl release now available (“In the Morning,” 2015), is on our record label, Untide Records. Once again, I’m a music reviewer promoting one of our own. Just pretend this isn’t me writing, if that makes it easier or seem more fair.]

The Shivers, founded in 2001 and led by Keith Zarriello, created this raw and confessional “In the Morning” in an industrial Long Island City practice space in the borough of Queens, New York, in 2009. It arrived like a storm, a revelation after the band’s equally personal “Beaks to the Moon” (2008). In some ways, these two records complete each other, reflecting an interplay of unfolding relationships between the musicians, with their emerging confidence and confessional, exposed lyrics that, after this record, become the distinguishing characteristic of Zarriello’s musical vocabulary.

Captured in just a few intense days, this remarkable moment of songwriting, performance, and recording was initially drawn from a mixtape of more than 30 compositions and fragments, both demos and complete songs, in various states of development by Zarriello and Jo Schornikow. These sessions were captured low-budget on a four-track tape deck by Dan Hewitt, sound engineer, long-time collector and student of the New York music scene, and founder of State Capital Records, the record’s original label. Hewitt even recalls that one song, “Firenze,” was recorded to a flip phone in Montreal by Zarriello, and then eventually made it into the final release. A few songs, including “Insane,” were written in a matter of hours during the sessions themselves. Hewitt then mixed the record in his home studio in Jackson Heights, and it became the fourth record to emerge from State Capital, and the fourth from the band.

Two things characterize the moodiness of this record: each song’s emotional urgency, which borders on an almost pleading sensibility, like the opening “Just Didn’t Need to Know,” and the feeling that these songs somehow capture what it means to live and love in New York City. Many of these songs explore relationships, heartbreak, suspicion, even raw anger, painting a picture of New York as a place where it’s impossible to be happy.

Throughout, there’s a collaborative DIY feeling. Schornikow’s classically trained piano anchors it all, and Zarriello’s post-punk romantic guitar and vocals (influenced by bands like Spacemen 3 and Television) adds the raw heat, then all shaped by Hewitt’s guiding influence. A DNA test on this music would show strong evidence of a rootsy post-punk influence, the clue being Zarriello’s compelling cover of “Cheree,” from the groundbreaking synth-punk band Suicide. Everyone was working fast on “In the Morning,” as if the band sensed their perfect moment would pass too soon and the clarity would fade. Hewitt the audiophile set aside his perfectionism to insightfully record and mix this record as a pure lo-fi DIY statement.

Now completely remastered for vinyl by Alex Saltz at APS Mastering, NYC, this new vinyl release includes six bonus tracks, all envisioned at the time of the original recording but eventually shelved. Two of the bonus highlights include “Magazine Lover,” which until now has only been available as a digital download single, and an alternate version of “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars,” which was released on the band’s luminous “More” (Silence Breaks, 2011) a few years later.

10 Artists Who Changed the Way I Think About Music, and Why

Jack White

Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather)

My turntable was a dead before Jack White came along, and so was I, just a little. Once upon a time my turntable was everything, but then it fell out of currency in my house. I put it away in favor of the banality of CDs and digital downloads, and surrendered to the hype that I could have my music everywhere, especially if I was OK with it sounding like crap, portable crap. Music had become the ambient backdrop to my day, a room decoration, something I put on so spaces wouldn’t feel so empty, or something I could play through headphones at work to shut out all the soul-killing corporate shuffling. Then the White Stripes arrived in 1997 and thrashed me awake. Through their raw, pepperminty sound music wasn’t a decoration any longer, it was demanding to live at the center of my life; it was alive, it was noisy, it was insistent, it was rude. In short, it was just what I needed. I bought new gear and started buying new vinyl records again. I had given away my childish vinyl collection years before, to focus instead only on CDs. It was a mistake, but then again, by starting over I made sure that my new vinyl experience would be based on only the best. Jack White, through his Third Man label, also reminded me that nothing springs forth fully formed, that every “new” idea has antecedents, roots, and debts to those who came before. Jack White woke up my inner music obsessive. Music returned me to my life. And life is better than death.

Ryan AdamsRyan Adams (Whiskeytown, The Cardinals)

It’s so easy to crave comfort, to strive to not feel too many highs or too many lows in this life, to want the heart to be accepting of its fate, and to be still; to keep all the pain in the past, like photos in a photo album we can keep closed and only dip into when we’re strong enough to look. But the heart wants what it wants, it’s a free-ranging organ, and we go with it, because we can’t control ourselves, because we secretly love to feel it all. Which means we get the full treatment, the dark valleys of pain as much as the sunlit peaks of joy. Ryan Adams showed me that a songwriter is supposed to do more than entertain me; he’s supposed to drag me through my mud and memories, over and over, until I understand what my life is really all about. It’s his job. His songs open the doors into that perfectly annoying space of the universal human conundrum: the search for love isn’t always about happiness. There’s almost always a backlash of pain in life, and in his songs in particular. Because we never stop being naive children, we get hurt. Ryan Adams gave me my working definition of what it means to write real songs that hurt. He makes it look easy. It’s not. I think that’s why he’s had so much trouble with his record labels, before he started his own Pax-Am label. He won’t make nice because he can’t lie in his songs. So his past label handlers shelved his stuff for years, or released it in odd collections that fans had to work pretty damn hard to collect. His music was too real. But now he’s free, and so are we, to feel what he feels.

John DarnielleJohn Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)

If you think about it, every age, no matter how comfortable or sophisticated it thinks it is (especially if it’s too comfortable or too sophisticated), needs artists to tear things down from time to time, to jump-start our beginner’s mind again, to keep us from becoming too smitten by our lovely reflections each morning. Sometimes life’s resets come in lo-fi floods of songs from artists like John Darnielle who pour out their warnings as fast as their labels can press them. I thought I knew what it meant to be an iconoclast, but I was mistaken. What hasn’t Darnielle reacted to and written about? Love and hate: check. Hellhounds and Iceland: check. The Midwest and Russia: check. The best-ever death-metal band and blues: check. Tetrapods and magpies: check. Sax Rohmer and H.P Lovecraft: check. The Bible and the tarot: check. John Darnielle showed me that songs can have hard words with even harder meanings, blunt and direct, thorny and difficult to escape from. That’s the trouble with words: they have meanings. His songs showed me that beauty is sometimes most appreciated when it’s found in casually tossed around metaphors, even ugly metaphors, in ruined landscapes of willful neglect rather than places dutifully tended out of false senses of obligation. His songs break through the pavement, they push up through the weathered cracks of civilized life, they aid the inevitable process of the hardest stoney ideas being ground down into sand, for new beginnings. His songs cut through moribund delusions to make room for wildness, for escape, for freedom. And through these cracks, we can escape with him, even if we don’t think of ourselves as rebels. It’s for us, and all part of his songwriting service.

Daniel JohnstonDaniel Johnston

What does it mean to be normal in an insane world? Is it going along with the majority so that no one singles you out and yells, “Hey, what’s up with that guy?” For a country that fetishizes the tough-minded loner in the Wild Wild West, in the sociopath with the billion-dollar idea, in the Army of One, we sure crave being part of the group, with whoever has the power, being on the winning team. From sports to religion to lifestyle, we’re about brand identification and moving as a pack. And I went there, too, because I live here and because I got comfortable in my shiny little self image. Then, Daniel Johnston entered my vocabulary, and I saw anew what it means to be punk as a person, as an artist, as a writer, as an outsider. His music forced me to rethink DIY, which is the cornerstone on which so many innovations in music is based. From folk to surf to garage to goth to grunge to rap to punk, it’s been about just doing it. Too much polish, too much studio time often kills raw, which is still what ultimately excites all of our music bits. Daniel Johnston makes no excuses for his sound or his aesthetic. If you get him or if you don’t, he doesn’t care. That’s about as exciting as it gets in this life. Just being yourself, writing what you want to write, saying what you want to say, performing in whatever way works for you, and leaving it to the fans and critics to come along with you, or not. It’s the ultimate freedom. It’s not angry, it’s not a protest, it’s not even a provocation. It just is, which I think is pretty fucking normal.

Ben Gibbard & Jay FarrarBen Gibbard & Jay Farrar (“One Fast Move Or I’m Gone,” documentary film and soundtrack)

I thought I knew what a song was, but I was mistaken. I thought cool fiction writers couldn’t also be insanely cool lyricists, and create awesome records that would resonate with modern fans, especially if they died of cirrhosis years ago in St. Petersburg, Florida. This entry in my list a twofer deal: two artists who changed the way I think about music working together on one labor of love (using the words of a dead guy). Ben Gibbard is, of course, the god-like songwriter behind Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service, and Jay Farrar, equally god-like, escaped from his daily fist fights with Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo to create Son Volt country. Both men admire the awesome fiction and poetry of Jack Kerouac, duh, and both had this crazy idea that Kerouac’s dark-night-of-the-cowering-rehab-soul novel, Big Sur, could somehow be chopped up and made into 12 amazing suitable-for-radio-play songs, using Kerouac’s actual words about DTs, hallucinations, and creeping cabin fever as lyrics, and film the whole thing as a documentary suitable for PBS. I thought: a novelist is a novelist, even a dead one, and a novel is a novel, even a terrifying one. Wrong! With this single project I realized I was putting writers in little boxes in my head, and have been doing so all my life. The record, “One Fast Move Or I’m Gone,” became the most-played record in my home in 2011 (I was a bit late to find it; it was released in 2009 by Atlantic). It shattered my separate but equal segregations of artists and craft. Jack Kerouac became one of the coolest lyricists working in the new millennium. It showed me that smart stays smart, no matter the form, something those Buddhists love to remind us about every time we ask what Buddhism is all about. First thought best thought, stupid! OK, I get it now.

Nick CaveNick Cave (The Boys Next Door, The Bad Seeds, Grinderman)

Life is a stone cold killer of hope. You start out as a young idealistic punk longing to piss on every stuffy convention in your innocent, primitive, but earnest young art and life, but sooner rather than later you put on a suit and you suck it, just to stay alive, just to pay the bills and be respectable and have a family and a career. And if you win the giant suck lottery, you can even be successful. But only as successful as the machine will let you be. Don’t get too excited. It happens to everyone in music, too, that’s what I thought. No one can resist the forces of conformity, and comfort. I discovered Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds along with Crime & the City Solution, in Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, “Wings of Desire,” which means… I was late. I was still a puppy, but I missed the Birthday Party in their real time, forced to catch up, best I could, with what was available on vinyl in the U.S., which wasn’t much. Nick Cave, of course, had been in several punk scenes since the 1970s, started two bands with Rowland S. Howard, and crashed them both into walls when the drugs and drink wore everyone down. Has any artist been as successful as Nick Cave with such an expansive heroine habit? Probably. So how does a man like Nick Cave keep doing it? If marathons were about drugs and punk music and decades in bad hotels on tour, Nick Cave would be a gold medalist many times over. His music has never sucked it, no matter how many label changes he’s made, or how many new definitions of success have been inspired by the suck shack Grammys. I learned from Nick Cave that this is a zombie world, full of zombie ideas and zombie shit. There are so many things about Cave that inspire me, but they’re things I could never do myself. In that way, as far as artists on my list, he’s an unattainable goal. More of a legend I can tell small children while sitting around campfires on summer evenings. I tell them there’s a scary cool man out there, a stick-thin giant wandering this mean old world, who fights and wins all his battles with the undead zombies. No one knows what will happen to him, when he can no longer go on. All we know is that he’ll die on stage. It will be very sad, but inevitable, cigarette in one hand and microphone in the other, and we’ll miss him, but it will also be very punk, and cool, and just about perfect.

Bill FayBill Fay (Bill Fay Group)

When did everything about personal faith change? I’m just curious; I missed the announcement. When did it become cool to make Christian music a marketing thing? Before you get all stoked to attack me, I’m just tired of something I view as deeply personal—one’s faith—being made, and marketed, as a product, to be sold like soap or body spray. Do the businesses who market that sort of music think they’re being subtle? Do they think we’ll all be converted to their way of “faith” if we hear the right tune for Jesus? And why do so many Christian bands leave that tag off their music when they place it on sites like NoiseTrade? If you’re a believer, wouldn’t you be more psyched to know which hot new bands were in your club? I mean, having your label say your music is for fans of Maroon 5 just isn’t the same as saying you make “Contemporary Christian” music. And why use music to raise money for missionary work anyway? Isn’t that what those teen car washes are for at Safeway? It’s me, and the “Christian” bands I’ve encountered, but I got to the point where I’d run miles in bare feet over broken glass crucifixes to avoid having to sit through even a short session of that sort of music. And then came Bill Fay. You see, I do have a personal faith, I just don’t write about it in my blog or on Facebook, God forbid. Because it’s personal. Bill Fay changed my thinking completely about how one’s faith and one’s music might come together, harmoniously, subtilely, unsanctimoniously, to open vast new levels of spiritual connection to fans without turning every song into a maudlin soap opera of terror and triumph in the name of a Supreme Being. Fay’s music is rich, nuanced, and deeply moving. His music opens me up. Because when personal faith is genuine, it can connect to others organically, naturally, without any emphasis on brand or method. Before everything changed, people could be Christians or whatever and make music (I’m a big fan of the thematically grouped collections released by Dust-to-Digital and the Numero Group, many of which contain “religious” music), and harmony could exist across a wide spectrum of peoples and beliefs. Now, it’s a competition, with winners and sinners. It’s just so exhausting, which makes Bill Fay’s work even more vital for this new, already tired century.

Rowland S. HowardRowland S. Howard (The Boys Next Door, Crime and the City Solution)

It’s not over until it’s over. But it’s over way too soon, for everyone. Everyone thinks their lives will go on forever, especially when they finally get a few things right. It’s the getting things right that gets you, in the end. Because it takes so damn long to find out what you need to find out. For Rowland S. Howard, it was a rocket ride from the beginning, with his bands The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, and Crime & the City Solution; then, his later band, These Immortal Souls, and his stunning solo work. An action-packed ride of success and drugs and cool songs and romantic obsessions the likes of which would have impressed opium-tippler Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and would have disgusted the professionally prudish Robert Southey (who made dull and prissy his career highlights). The music of Rowland Howard inspires me to live life fully, every minute, because it all matters and that’s the point: feel every love as if it were your last. Because it might be. It wasn’t until the end that Rowland Howard discovered the true meaning of running out of time when his work was finally synchronizing with something bigger than himself. Watch the documentary “Autoluminescent” if you think I’m exaggerating. The young man, smoldering with his gorgeous Fender Jaguar on stages in Germany in the 1980s, found real love and new music in his late 40s, and then ran out of time, dying of liver cancer in 2009 at 50. Life is hard on romantics. Idealized visionaries and their oeuvres to love’s possibilities rarely resolve themselves in happiness. Still, it’s the romantics, especially the ones who like a little taste of forbidden fruit along the way, that call the loudest to us. To me. It goes to what I already said about Ryan Adams, another passionate romantic: it feels so good to feel bad. Or maybe that’s not fair. It’s what life is, a search for happiness amid a lot of self-imposed badness. The perfect moments do come, but they’re always fleeting, and they always fade. And it’s always all over for everyone way too soon.

Nick RennisNick Rennis (The Drink Up, Honey)

And now I end this essay as I began, with my turntable. When I realized it was way past time for me to find new vinyl for my hungry record player, I had to find a place where I could discover new music and new ideas. I needed an all-you-can-eat kind of place, for browsing, yes, but more importantly, for those specialty searches for the good shit, the hard-to-find shit, the nearly out-of-print shit. Every movement needs fuel and a public meeting place, where ideas can be seen and shared. Like the Beat Poets in the 1950s, the shop that carries the good shit is the place to be. Which is when I met Nick Rennis, when I needed fuel; a musician’s musician, a professional musician, a music curator, a musical expeditionary (to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase), both through his own band’s recordings, and through his legendary record shop on Fidalgo Island, called The Business. I can see direct connections between The Drink Up, Honey’s “Musher” (2011), a masterpiece of metal landscape sound painting, and the Beats sitting, alone, in their smoke-watch towers on the peaks in the Pacific Northwest, writing strange new poetry that broke new ground. It’s the destiny of the solitary, exploring new ways to narrate the journey into the self. In this way Nick Rennis rolls back the years for me. We all want to be free to be ourselves and tell our stories, to be heard. So this artist, in his way, slipstreams alongside these other artists to inspire me to find a way to be free myself, both as a writer and as a collector of music, and as the co-owner of my own record label, Untide Records. The hardest thing to be in an homogenous world is a free thinker. It’s dangerous. It’s scary. It’s lonely. But ultimately, freedom is always better than slavery. It’s your time to do with it what you want. But it’s in short supply. Why not be free? Why not be the music you want to hear?

Gimme Gimme Gimme

It’s here! Our amazing friends at The Business, purveyors of fine vinyl LPs to quality record shops and discerning fans alike, worldwide, have Merry Ellen Kirk’s “Feather & a Leaf,” the first release from UNTIDE Records and her first appearance on vinyl, ready for purchase. If you want one of these limited edition LPs, you can have one!

Feather & a Leaf

Merry Ellen Kirk: Feather & a Leaf

Feather & a Leaf

[Editorial disclosure/confession: Merry Ellen Kirk’s vinyl release (“Feather & a Leaf,” 2014), is on our record label, Untide Records. So yes, I’m a music reviewer promoting one of our own. Just pretend this isn’t me writing, if that makes it easier or seem more fair.]

In hard times, love and songwriting become punk—the ultimate protest, the ultimate rebellion, saying to the world in the most direct way possible, that you don’t want to do what you’re told. Punk is more than protest, though. You want to build something separate from the manipulation of the manipulators. And that’s where personal freedom lives today. Forget about fighting with people who want to fight. Walk away and build whatever you want to build. Move to some quiet town and write songs with your friends. We all know how much has been destroyed over the past decade or so. Any tiny act of DIY “opting out” stands in marked contrast to the spirit-killing mainstream.

Merry Ellen Kirk has done just that. She’s already established herself as a solo singer/songwriter across four song collections and music videos, as well as being a member of another cool band, The Shakespeares (with the equally brilliant singer/songwriter, Aaron Krause). By luck or accident or fate, she was cast adrift into this cold, modern world, which has done nothing to dampen her sweet spirit or her 1940s vocal vibe. In fact, I think it makes her work deeper and more significant in ways that might not be easily spotted at first. Like A Fine Frenzy (Alison Sudol) or Missy Higgins, Kirk’s voice and lyrics and songwriting style, at times sentimental and sweet, at other times full of quiet longing with hints of sadness, evoke new-wave feminism. Punk is about self-expression, and Kirk’s career finds its way back to the explosive Riot Grrrl movement that freed artists previously ignored.

Merry Ellen Kirk

Yes, you can still find a lot to read about the glass ceiling women face in the recording studio and recording industry. It’s still out there, with the music industry’s (even some Indie labels’) stupid roleplaying games about what women should do with their music and images. I’m not suggesting that there’s been any kind of active oppression of Kirk’s music or career. In fact, Kirk’s work has emerged, like Sudol’s and Higgins’, precisely because the industry is broken and searching for itself. The breakdown in the old ways of control has opened the landscape for many artists to go DIY and produce the kinds of music they want to create.

“Feather & a Leaf” is a “live” studio performance of seven sweet songs entirely shaped by Kirk. Even with the high romanticism of her song lyrics and style, this is pure fourth- or fifth-wave feminism (whatever we’re up to now).

Merry Ellen Kirk

In addition to “Feather & a Leaf,” she’s released two other full-length albums: “Firefly Garden” (2011) and the powerful “Invisible War” (2009). She also has a four-song EP of holiday songs called “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (2009). Until now, her albums have been available only on CD or as download. This Untide Records release of “Feather & a Leaf,” her seven-song collection recorded live in 2012, is her debut on vinyl.

Kirk’s album is structured as a complete listening experience, for slow listening and appreciation, the reason the “long-playing” vinyl record was invented in the first place. “Feather & a Leaf” is a delicious, retro listening experience. Welcome to vinyl and to Untide Records, where it’s all about appreciating music and getting your DIY on.

TO ORDER “Feather & a Leaf”: $18.00 + $5.00 shipping and handling. Send email to untiderecords@gmail.com (until our label website is launched—soon; we’ll send you a Paypal link).

Freshly Pressed

Our first test pressing for Untide Records! With more records coming this summer. Vinyl is good.