Blogging died when the first kid said...

The blog is back?, Glen Campbell & Central KY, Respect for Akron/Family & Vic Chesnutt (via Bright Eyes), One thing on George Saunders and Switzerland.

Hank: A couple years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be writing to you now. 

That’s not in any kinda dramatic way. Just that I figured I was pretty out of the music blogging business. If you’re not familiar with Zach and I, we ran a blog called We Listen for You for some 10 years. The collaboration began after life took us in separate directions and we were looking for ways to stay in touch and share our shared passion of music. For both Zach and I, writing about music wasn’t our primary interest. Zach’s a screenwriter and I’ve got a day job teaching theatre, researching and writing plays. The blog was a place for us to talk to each other about bands we loved, about what we were listening to, and what was getting under our skin. While a lot of people came in and out, it was mostly Zach and I who were steadily trying to churn out lists and reviews, takes and post videos-- what you kids call “content” these days. 

The blog took on a life of its own. In a lot of ways it followed the peaks and valleys of late aughts, early teens blogs. Our biggest post was something that we didn’t even create, we were threatened with legal action (not related), we wrote some good stuff, had some bad takes, monetized for a while, and then the site kinda died. The highs were pretty high. Marissa Nadler wrote for us. We booked The Zombies. Before there were recognizable “podcasts,” we interviewed Carrie Brownstein on a “soundcast.”  

While the demise of Google Reader sure had its fair share of blood on its hands for the death of blogging, I always had my suspicions that emergence of Spotify and the sudden ability to have untold access to nearly every record that a record company wanted to put up there (often to the detriment of its artists) had a an equally devastating impact. Who needs a review when you can just listen to the damn thing? 

There was also a perceptual shift that the shift to streaming entailed. For many of us who had lived through the transitions from tapes to CD, Napster to iTunes, iTunes to streaming, the weightlessness of the thing that we used to call music had a disorienting effect. Albums no longer took up physical space. They barely took up storage space. If we bloggers were always swimming under the music industry shark -- feeding off it sometimes, sure, but also trying to poke the jurassic monster into the right direction -- what do you do when the whole thing seems to ghost you and might just be hurting the people you’re trying to help? Such ethical quandaries with no good answers seem to be the hallmark of this digital nightmare we all blithely walk through, but I digress…

For me, two things bring me back -- 1) teaching a class 2) having a kid. The first is pretty easy to flesh out. Last spring, a student needed to pick up some writing credits to graduate (Shout out Frank!). He’d been accepted into NYU’s business school and was wanting to get into the industry. I, knowing pretty much nothing about hip hop since Outkast broke up, agreed to teach him if he taught me. I made him a playlist. And he reciprocated with his own playlist. The experience got me to go back and reengage with a lot of the writers that I admired like Said the Gramophone, Amiri Baraka, Amanda Petrusich, Jessica Hopper, and, yeah, Pitchfork. It reminded me that there was actually a reason to write about this stuff. 

While this was going on, I was getting to spend a lot more time with music than I had in years. When my son was born, we went on a strict no screen diet. Without those things to take up the time, I was left with listening to a lot of albums as he wormed, then crawled, and now scurries across the floor. Taking care of a kid is pretty easy. You work to make sure neither of you accidentally lops their fingers off. Other than that, you’re just exploring whatever’s around you. It’s pretty much the perfect way to listen to music. You’re already in this exploratory mode. Why not put on something that you’ve never heard before and let the sound flit in and out of your consciousness? I dug into all this shit I should’ve listened to: Clifford Brown, Peter Tosh, Siouxsie and the Banshees. I stopped having all these preconceived notions of something I should or should not like and just let the music speak for itself. I rediscovered my CD collection and have been teaching him how to put on records. I spent the best $40 I’ve ever spent on a killer tape deck. It gave me the opportunity to augment the frenetic selection of Spotify with a more sustained attention to an entire album. I’m definitely a more eclectic and better listener now that I was before.

So, I rounded Zach back up and here we are. 

We’ll be playing with form for a bit. But I’m hoping that this will be a weekly thing. There will be some tracks that we’ll highlight. I’d like to have a bit of a longer piece of writing, too. Given our disparate interests, you’ll probably see books and film quite a bit. And of course, we’ll be sharing what we listen to.

Zach came up with the name back in the day. I’ve always been jealous of his way with titles. It’s kind of a perfect statement: We Listen for You. You get to read and listen, too.

Talking About A Track:
ZACH: Glen Campbell - “Southern Nights”

Growing up in Central Kentucky, most of our high school parties were out in fields, at a rock quarry, or in a house out in a part of the country you didn’t even know existed.  I always loved the feeling of the night drive to those parties, and the drive home after.  You can imagine my immediate connection to the 1999 VW "Pink Moon" commercial -- it was my freshman year upon release, Nick Drake was my favorite artist, and it captured a small moment of life that I loved.

Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” bottles up the calm clarity of shadowy landscapes passing by outside your window during that late ride home better than just about anything, but it doesn't quite capture the electric excitement of possibility and freedom that comes when you're venturing out into the night. In fact, the commercial skips the party altogether. That lets the song work exactly as intended, but it always left me wondering about the first part, and what song would best capture that magic sensation of driving out to who knows where. 

Since music is all feel and opinion wrapped around your own personal life experiences… I invite you to take a night drive with me through Boyle County, Kentucky…. soundtracked by the song that puts me right back in that car.  Right back in that feeling.  After you drive with me and the song… take a few minutes and think about the seemingly insignificant moments of life that you've loved, and the music that takes you back to those memories. Songs like those aren't just pieces of music, but a time machine waiting to take you back.

Peel Slowly and See:
Hank: Miles Seaton of Akron/Family passed away in mid February. Folks who were into Akron/Family are my people. I remember cruising and trying to find them back in the day. On the one hand that band was so melodic and then there’d be this horrible screeching. I think the first thing that I really got into by them was a Tour CD that I can only find on YouTube now and somewhere on a spindle in my house gathering dust. “East Coast,” the first track, comes out of the same family as something like “Before and Again” from Akron/Family’s ST 2005 record. 

The release of Bright Eyes’ version of “Flirted with You all My Life” -- available now online for the first time -- gave me opportunity to do a bit of a deep dive on Vic Chesnutt’s iconic track. You can find a couple dozen versions on Bandcamp from David Bazan (Pedro the Lion) to a Spanish-language version and quite a few delightful home recordings. There are also versions on Spotify of the track as performed by Death Cab for Cutie and The Cowboy Junkies. 

For me, the song ranks right up there with Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” in the pantheon of wonderfully black songs about death. While Nilsson’s track on his bizarro John Lennon-produced Pussycats works schmaltz for all its deluded optimism and grandeur, Chesnutt’s “Flirted with You All My Life” turns the saccharine form of the love song into an acceptance of death. 

Released on Chesnutt’s next-to-last record, At the Cut, “Flirted With You All My Life” arrived just months before Chesnutt’s death due to overdose of muscle relaxers on Christmas 2009. 

Looking back over Chesnutt’s discography now, it’s pretty astonishing. He was penning songs and working with artists as diverse as Widespread Panic, Michael Stipe, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and the aforementioned Cowboy Junkies. Their cover of “Flirted With You All My Life” can be found on Demons, a record of 11 Chesnutt covers. Chesnutt has 17 albums to his name in less than two decades. The prolific nature of Chesnutt’s musical output seems connected to his passing. In an NPR interview less than a month before his death, Chesnutt talked about his overwhelming debt in medical bills and inability to go back into the hospital because of not having the money to pay for any procedures. 

One Thing(s):
We’ve all got too much to do. What’s one recommendation to work into your schedule this week?

Hank’s One Thing: George Saunders on The Ezra Klein Podcast
My affinity for Ezra Klein is verging on obsession.  He’s not only one of the best interviewers out there, but also his podcast creates a space of contemplation that’s difficult to find online. George Saunders is a fantastic writer even if for some reason I’m lower on Lincoln in the Bardo than most people. Klein usually skews poli-sci and wonky, but his conversations with artists are among my favorite things to listen to. Bonus points for discussions of Buddhism and mindfulness.

Zach’s One Thing: The Serenity of Switzerland 

One of the books in my current rotation is Hiking with Nietzsche by John Kaag and since the book documents hiking through Switzerland, I decided to put on a random YouTube video of Switzerland to add mood.  For the last few months, I haven’t gone a day without putting on this incredibly peaceful video while I write, read, or just watch in awe with coffee.  It’s the perfect combination of our current technology (dones/4K) and the outlandish beauty of Switzerland.  There is “relaxation music” that runs throughout… I’ve been having fun muting the music and listening to different records over top.  If you need a visual vacation and some peace… this is the video for you.