The End Is the Best Part
Saying Good-bye to Carissa's Wierd One More Time
Death is built into every band's DNA. Nothing lasts forever, certainly no mere musical act, whether by breakup or actual mortality or just being forgotten. But some acts take the certainty of things ending as a primary source of inspiration, even going so far as to prophesize their own demise, à la Biggie Smalls or the Unicorns. From their very first album, 1999's Ugly but Honest: 1996–1999, dearly departed Seattle band Carissa's Wierd displayed a morbid fascination with dying, with leaving, with endings. (They broke up, finally, in 2003.)
The flip side to such a fixation may be the urge to make sure that, since you can't live forever, you'll at least be remembered. You record albums, for instance—a flimsy kind of immortality, but it's something. Carissa's Wierd's three excellent albums of ache-inducing slow-core have been long out of print, and its members have always been painfully shy. Terminally, suicidally shy. On record, transmitted from the safe confines of the studio or the home-recorded four track, they barely raised their voices above a whisper; onstage, their demeanor ranged from mild discomfort to heavy-lidded sedation to almost total withdrawal. Now, depending on where you were at the time, they're a memory, a mystery, or a nonentity. This week, though, Sub Pop sublabel Hardly Art is reissuing the band's albums, beginning with a newly collected retrospective, They'll Only Miss You When You Leave: Songs 1996–2003, and occasioning a one-time-only reunion show from the band.
Founding singer-songwriter Jenn Ghetto and later-period drummer Sera Cahoone agreed to an interview, but beyond a few specific anecdotes (a flooded basement show on their final, last-straw tour) and some typically self-deprecating quips (Ghetto: "That was the best part—the end"), the band's members seem constitutionally ill-suited to opening up. To be fair, in the case of Carissa's Wierd, opening up might mean opening up old wounds—their songs are almost always dour and morbid, alluding to deep bouts of depression, loneliness, and days and nights drowned in drink or worse.
What does come out of the interview is the band's story in broad strokes: Ghetto and cofounding singer-songwriter Mat Brooke started making music together in high school in Tucson, Arizona. They played their first shows opening for local punk and hardcore bands, even though they were a whisper-quiet acoustic duo (albeit one increasingly covered in tattoos). They drove around the country living out of a van and busking at gas stations. They eventually settled in Olympia, then Seattle, where they were taken under the wing of such acts as Modest Mouse and Murder City Devils and Death Cab for Cutie. They toured. They moved to Portland to build a studio and make a record, but ended up getting drunk for several months instead and recording the songs only once they got back to Seattle. They broke up onstage and got back together. They recorded and released three albums: 1999's Ugly but Honest: 1996–1999, 2001's You Should Be at Home Here, and 2002's Songs About Leaving. In 2003, they suffered some breakdowns on tour, personal more than mechanical, Ghetto decided she wanted to quit, and the band broke up for real. They sold out their final show, a first for them, at the Crocodile. Like the song said, "They'll only miss you when you leave."
Some things about Carissa's Wierd and their dissolution will remain secrets, or something like secrets anyway. (Ghetto says she appreciates the mystique maintained by, say, early Belle & Sebastian albums and feels fortunate that Carissa's Wierd lived and died before the era of MySpace/Facebook/Twitter's raised expectations of access to artists.) Still, the band has left behind a richly rewarding body of work, and the reunion is a nice excuse to review their new retrospective.
They'll Only Miss You When You Leave collects 16 songs from across the band's life span, presented in no chronological order; the album comes with a foldout scrapbook of photos, old lyric sheets, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera that don't really reveal the band's history. The song selection leans lightest on their outstanding debut album, including a couple cuts that could've been swapped out for better tracks. It does include the song "Die," previously released on farewell recording I Before E. Over that song's uncharacteristically tense and quick guitar picking and piano, and the usual swaying violin, Ghetto and Brooke sing, overlapping each other, "I want to die right now," emphasizing the "die!" in the closest the band ever got to a shout. The song ends with the slowed-down, drawn-out refrain "I never asked to be here."
The band's best songs set their bleak outlook and black sense of humor against relatively bright musical backdrops, with Ghetto wavering but piercing, Brooke humming and calm, not quite singing to each other, as if from opposite sides of the lyrics, but more circling around each other—two narrators telling almost the same story or parts of separate stories so similar that they overlay effortlessly.
On "One Night Stand," Ghetto and Brooke harmonize over a light acoustic guitar melody and some hollow-sounding flute, "If I could just see straight, I'd probably head straight for the door," Ghetto then repeating, "This really isn't like me at all." It's part apologetic, part sarcastic, part hopeful, part self-deceiving (how many times can you do something unlike you before it reflects your character?). "Drunk with the Only Saints I Know" strikes a similar contrast between upbeat melodies and glum lyrics, Brooke muttering, "Pretty sure we're crazy/Saying that we're all just assholes," Ghetto intoning with certainty, "This is how we look when we die."
On "Ignorant Piece of Shit," two tightly interlocking guitar melodies spin around each other, dizzying, like they're about to faint, while Brooke and Ghetto sing, "I like the way you roll your eyes right before you fall down." It's worth noting that as much as this is all sad-bastard business, there's something occasionally sexy about all the deathly abandon, in the way that irresponsible movies can make heroin seem stupidly alluring.
"The Color That Your Eyes Changed with the Color of Your Hair" is a funereal waltz led by accordion and violin that builds glacially to a coda of martial drums and the (again duet) lament "My heart is gone." "Blessed Arms That Hold You Tight, Freezing Cold and Alone" rises to a final chorus of "And it's allllllllllllllllllll long good-byes."
As prophetic as any of the band's lyrical grave-digging, on some songs, you can hear two distinct sounds pulling apart. "Phantom Fireworks" and "Blue Champagne Glass" are twangier, dawdling full-band ballads, led by slide guitar and Brooke's hushed singing, that presage his folksy/country-leaning post-CW project Grand Archives. "So You Wanna Be a Superhero" captures just Ghetto's faltering voice and surer guitar strumming in a claustrophobic, isolated echo (it could've appeared on any album by her solo act S), ending with the elegiac refrain "I might be leaving soon."
It's fitting that the band's upcoming reunion isn't a rebirth so much as yet another wake. The band didn't do songs about second chances. There are no further shows scheduled and no plans to work on any new material. If you loved them while they were alive, if you only missed them once they were gone, now is your chance to say good-bye one last time.
This story has been updated since its original publication.