The Things That Music Did to Us in 2011
The Best Moments of the Year Included a Basement Show in the U-District, a Badly Dressed Legend at Wall of Sound, and a Pop Star’s Worldwide Victory Lap
by Grant Brissey
There was no sign for this venue, only a well-worn path leading into the blackness around the old farm-style house. In the backyard, well within the dulling hush of I-5, was the door to the basement. The lineup: Police Teeth, Tacocat, Don't Talk to the Cops!, and Cold Lake. (Let's get this out of the way: Two members of Tacocat occasionally write for Line Out, our music blog; Larry Mizell Jr., of Don't Talk to the Cops!, writes My Philosophy, our hiphop column; and my roommate is the guitar player for Police Teeth and Cold Lake. As someone wisely commented on the aforementioned blog, "There is no community without conflict of interest.")
Police Teeth started things off by refusing to play until the audience finished a fifth of Old Grand-Dad whiskey they brandished. Showgoers complied, and after being handed back an empty bottle, PT ripped through a set of driving punk anthems. Next up were Tacocat, but here's the thing: They shared equipment. No half-hour breakdown and setup time, just a brief switching of bodies and guitars, and Tacocat was under way. And by now, so was the crowd—fueled by Old Grand-Dad and the previous set, people let loose, passed bottles of liquor, and shared cans of beer, because at a house party, a tallboy of Pabst isn't $4 plus tip, it's whatever the convenience mart on the way was charging. Everyone wore wide grins and danced. I even danced—completely sober—surely a ghastly sight and something I don't think I'd ever done before. "We're pretty much only going to play all-ages shows like these," the drummer for Police Teeth told me between songs. "They just feel better."
There was bit of breakdown/setup time for Don't Talk to the Cops!, owing to their being a hiphop outfit, but no one seemed to mind. As soon as the beats started, the crowd of about 50 erupted, instantly converting the basement into a dance hall. Condensation dripped from the pipes overhead. "Stool! We need a stool!" DJ BlesOne yelled through the mic. A stool was passed over the heads of the crowd, person to person, to the front, and Emecks, Don't Talk to the Cops!' tiny MC, hopped on top so that the crowd could see her. "Seattle, the stool capital of America!" Mizell said. The party hit its zenith, and everyone, from drunk college kids to heads to rockers, was in it. While many hiphop outfits are best experienced on record, Don't Talk to the Cops! simply must be experienced live. Their charisma is contagious.
Many cleared out afterward, but the vacancy didn't diminish the intensity of Cold Lake's set. Five minutes in, three rockers gleefully slam-danced with one another, and when one knocked another's beer to the floor, he quickly picked it up and handed it back with both hands, then jumped back down and licked a straight line through the puddle of foam that had formed on the cement. For the last song, frontman Corey Brewer and guitar player James Burns called Mizell back up front, and they all launched into a cover of "Cop Killer," by Ice-T's short-lived early '90s metal band, Body Count. After, Brewer said into the mic: "Today's headline: Feds versus SPD," and some of the crowd booed, missing his meaning, but everyone knew what everyone else meant, and the details didn't matter.
I walked home in the light rain through University Playground, where off in the distance I could see the silhouette of lovers standing in the middle of the field, wrapped in each other's arms. For the first time in something like a decade—since right around the time I moved to the city—I felt young and invigorated, and I wanted to feel more of it. Somewhere along the way I got caught up in the press releases and Pitchfork ratings and need for blog content and glad-handing and greenrooms and bullshit, and I forgot about what brought me here in the first place: shows like these.
by Dave Segal
R. Stevie Moore is a 59-year-old with untamed white hair and beard and a look that suggests he doesn't know how to dress himself. The reclusive underground-rock legend (son of Nashville session bassist Bob Moore) has been making oddly catchy pop and eccentric rock since 1976. By writing hundreds of fabulous, strange songs, RSM accrued a sizable cult audience despite rarely leaving his studio apartment.
On September 1, though, Moore made his live Seattle debut. Before his main gig at Vera Project that night, Moore did an in-store performance at the tiny Wall of Sound record store. He arrived with only his lyrics, written on sheaves of paper. After rejecting one loaned acoustic guitar for sounding crappy, Moore tried another, but also found it resistant to proper tuning. Nevertheless, he soldiered on with the inferior instrument, seated in brown shorts, blue-gray plaid shirt, and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the letter R. He sang in a wrecked baritone while strumming spidery, bent chords to a rapt crowd of about 30. Moore played new and old material and received respectful applause, but there was something sad about a man his age playing in such reduced circumstances with chintzy, borrowed gear. One of his biggest local fans had to step outside during the set, too embarrassed for his hero.
At one point, though, Moore said in his deep monotone, "SWAG... If I hear the word 'awesome' one more time, I swear..." Everything was instantly better. He closed with an off-key verse from the Popeye the Sailor theme, uttered a terse "Thank you," and then exited Wall of Sound, sporting a pee stain.
by Charles Mudede
This year, I finally found the perfect tune for riding Link. It's Katie Kate's "Houses," the third track on her superb debut, Flatland—released in October by Out For Stardom (Mad Rad's label). Though great for the entire length of Link (14 miles), the section that brings the tune and the train closest to perfection is between Mount Baker Station and Sodo Station. And the tune and train get even closer to perfection if you are headed north. This is the ideal movement: You rise with the echoed and robotic beat to the elevated platform of the Mount Baker Station, and then, after swerving to the left, plunge into the darkness of the tunnel with the dark moods of the tune. Upon emerging on the other side of Beacon Hill, you see the towers of downtown rising above a long stretch of industrial buildings. Here, the futurism of "Houses" is reflected by the futurism of the skyscrapers. As you descend toward Sodo Station, you feel like a lonely android in a big and melancholy metropolis. This is one day in your life: the tracks, the beats, the city, the echoes, the clouds, the hi-hat, the cranes, the synths, the Death Star–like stadium, and Katie Kate's emotionless but comforting voice.
by Megan Seling
Eighteen months ago, at a quarter to midnight on summer solstice, my boyfriend proposed to me on a mountaintop in Alaska. It was the perfect ending to one of the best days. Earlier, we had driven around the winding coastal highways of Alaska, skipped rocks, driven go-carts, eaten ice-cream bars, and found baby moose. And while we hopped from place to place, we listened to the Cave Singers' record Welcome Joy in our rental car.
All the nature—the mountains, ice-cold rivers, and glaciers—made for an incredible backdrop to the Cave Singers' music, and track two, "Leap," stood out as my favorite song. I loved the repetitive, bright guitar riff and the gentle but racing drumming, and it perfectly matched the pace of the landscape as it blurred past the car windows. It felt like the song was written for that day, and ever since, hearing it puts me back on top of that mountain, feeling happier than I've ever felt in my life.
Fast-forward to November 12, 2011, aka our wedding day. Unlike our trip to Alaska, this day was rainy and freezing. My boyfriend and I decided to walk into the venue and down the aisle together, and we had to go outside in order to make our entrance. When we stepped outside, into the rain, I felt dizzy and excited, and we had no idea what was going on. My hair was blowing everywhere, my dress was dragging through the mud, and it all felt like a dream.
Then someone opened the front doors. As my soon-to-be-husband and I walked to the front of the room, just about every person in the world I love was staring up at us and "Leap" by the Cave Singers was playing on the sound system. My heart was beating as fast as the drums, and tears started to well up in my eyes. I could've stood up there, staring at my almost-husband and listening to that song, for the rest of my life. I've never loved a song so much as I did that moment.
Now, when I hear that guitar intro, my stomach drops and my heart starts to race. I'll never be able to listen to it the same way again.
by Christopher Frizzelle
Seeing a show at the new Neptune is like seeing a show inside a giant pillbox hat, or a Fabergé egg, or a cake—it's perfectly designed inside and out. It's got rounded walls and swooping hallways and old-timey ornamentation. But it can be skuzzy, too, if skuzzy is required: A couple of weeks ago, the curtain or scrim or whatever they usually have at the back of the stage had been raised to reveal an uneven wall of cinder blocks and a dubious exposed pipe. In front of the cinder-block wall, a very young man from the San Fernando Valley who performs under the name Baths was charming the shit out of a roomful of giddy college students, none of whom realized how good they have it: Back when I went to UW and lived in the U-District, all we had was an underage club called the Paradox and a shitty IHOP.
The music critics standing at the back bar for the Baths' show were loving it, too.
The building has existed for 90 years, but it's only been a music venue since September. Seattle Theatre Group and booker Adam Zacks know what they're doing: 45,358 people have walked through the doors to see music since September (and another 13,200 have seen a film there—the Neptune used to be a movie theater and still is, sometimes). In 2012, Allen Stone, the Magnetic Fields, the Jayhawks, Kronos Quartet, and Gotye are all slated to play. In one swell foop, the U-District has become a destination for live music again.
by David Schmader
From the start of its months-long rollout before the world, Lady Gaga's Born This Way repelled me. The title song and introductory single made me wince, with its borrowed Madonna-isms, lame lyrics ("Orient-made"?) and cheesy spoken word. Further distress met the follow-up single (the shamelessly derivative/artistically cannibalistic "Judas") and leaked album cover (she was born half a motorcycle with bad taste in fonts?). By the time the full album landed, I was ready to admit the possibility that Born This Way—the record made by Lady Gaga as she was busy taking over the world—was a half-baked premature ejaculation that paraded her limitations and suggested her meteoric rise had done a number on her brain.
Now it's late December, and I'm writing about Born This Way as my favorite record of 2011. What the fuck happened?
In short, bitch wore me down. More than any record I know (including any and all Girl Talk releases), Born This Way is a series of moments, intricately compartmentalized and varying wildly in artistic value. Songs I love have bridges I hate; songs I'm tempted to dismiss are saved by an entrancing sub-chorus or sound effect. On only a few songs does everything work the whole way through, but over the past seven months, I've realized that the great moments (the girl-group drums on "Hair"!) take up way more space than the awful ones (the buttholey chant on "Judas"), making Born This Way a good-to-great record.
What makes it my favorite of 2011 is the way it unfolded and revealed itself over the course of the year, and how what initially repelled me from the record came to be its most entrancing aspect—its complete and total garishness, from the cover (which I now LOVE) to the thousand over-the-top musical choices. (Got a power ballad? Get Mutt Lange to produce it! Need a sax line? Get Clarence Clemons to play it! Need an extra minute in a song? Do a stupid chant or spoken-word bit that'll make die-hard fans regret their inability to hate you!) Underneath it all, electro-beats slam like horny robots, and the whole thing sounds exactly like what it is: A pop artist seizing a once-in-a-lifetime explosion of exposure as just another opportunity to make music. Like Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, Born This Way is a record made from inside an international shitstorm. (Garish records deserve garish comparisons.) Rather than coasting on a back catalog of hits, Gaga composed a brand-new soundtrack for her international victory lap. And gave the world "Hair."
by Bethany Jean Clement
If there was sweeter, funnier, better music to be heard in 2011 than Paul West at Vito's—well, there wasn't. Our colleague Lindy West's father was a storied local jazz pianist back in the day, playing Seattle venues like the Door, the Sorrento, the Roundtable Tavern, the Colony, the Riviera, the College Club, and the Sixth Avenue Motor Inn. In the 1970s, he was in a trio called BLT—Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato. (Which one was Paul West? "I assume he was the bacon," Lindy says.)
If anyone ever belonged at the piano at the classic lounge Vito's, Paul West did. He came out of retirement to play there three times this past year, entirely charming the crowd and entirely tickling the ivories—the man could really play. He gave shout-outs to his friends from the Old Duffers Bicycle Club; he cracked wise ("Remember: Where there's a will, there's a relative, and one good turn gets all the blankets"); he sang the blues for nearly 10 arpeggioed minutes—about how long it'd been since the rain stopped, about waiting and waiting for the sun to shine—sounding downright jubilant about it. "I love you woman, lord, I love you the best that I can/Goddamn, fine woman, I'm a dirty old man!" he sang. His lovely wife, Ingrid, was also in the audience.
Lindy joined him onstage for a few tunes, nervous for no reason—she has a voice like a dulcet songbird, achingly perfect for lesser-known standards like "Blue Room" and "My Ship." They also did the Tom Lehrer song "The Elements," which involved, impressively, Lindy singing the entire periodic table very fast. "I hope you're all taking notes because there will be a short quiz afterward," her dad said. Any heart left unmelted by the Wests at Vito's was a very hard heart indeed.
Paul West passed away after a battle with prostate cancer on December 12, 2011.