Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Cassette Store Day

Attendant – Freaking Out (Review, Stream)

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By now, everyone who has iTunes should have heard the full stream they’re offering up of Death From Above 1979’s revitalized post-reunion effort, The Physical World. Hopefully, there were a few among that crowd who also found time to stream Nervous Like Me the fantastic new record from Cayetana. Great full album streams weren’t the only things to come out of the last few days, though, in addition to a memorable Pavement cover from PAWS, there were also great new songs from Purling Hiss, Nude Beach, and WULFS. Visually, there was an endearing The Adventures of Pete and Pete homage from Diarrhea Planet and two arresting black-and-white clips that came courtesy of Girl Band and Philadelphia’s Queen Jesus.  It’s another act from Philadelphia that made the strongest impression and earned the feature spot today, though: the the stunning debut effort of Radiator Hospital bassist Jon Rybicki’s collaborative project, Attendant.

It’s not uncommon to note that there’s an absurd amount of great music out there that’s overlooked for any number of reasons but it’s always nice to know that sometimes everything lines up and music that may have otherwise gone unnoticed gets an extra push thanks to the people involved. This especially stands true for Attendant’s Freaking Out which features contributions from a murderer’s row of Philadelphia/NYC-based musicians. Mikey Cantor, Radiator Hospital, and Swearin’ (among others) all get a good bit of representation here, lending their considerable talents to one hell of a debut, helping raise an emerging musician’s profile in the process. Rybicki grounds all of these songs with no shortage of gravitas and conviction, mining similar influences to the ones that are so clearly evident in his friends’ projects.

While all of that would likely have proven more than enough to get Freaking Out by, what really puts it over the top is its attention to detail. The production, sequencing, and mastering on this is near-flawless, advancing the release’s personality without being distracting. In terms of composition, it’s frequently thrilling, with songs like the hard-charging “Saturday” providing bursts of near-uncontrollable energy. With all of this taken into account, it’s probably not too surprising that one of Freaking Out‘s closest relatives seems to be Dinosaur Jr.’s classic Bug. Acoustic guitars often provide a base template for each of these seven songs, while shoegaze-leaning levels of reverb and distortion get added to create a sound that’s becoming increasingly prominent in DIY punk circles- one that recognizes the value of looking to the past to push ahead.

That retro-influenced modernity goes a long way in informing Freaking Out, which makes no qualms about utilizing everything at it’s disposal. Every song on here contains at least a few moments of genuine brilliance, whether in the form of lyrics (“I just wanted to be the other people on the bus” is one of the most haunting lines to come out of 2014) or in the song’s structures or compositions. As if all that weren’t enough, it’s varied enough to ensure the listener’s attention and compelling enough to warrant their investment. None of these songs ever eclipse the three minute mark, either, rendering it even more accessible.Yet, despite it’s short run-time, Freaking Out feels like a fully-formed work from a veteran songwriter.

More than a few critics have said that to really gauge an album’s strengths, there should be an extra amount of consideration given to their mid-section. It’s easy to make strong opening and closing cases but it can be difficult to maintain that consistency across a wider spread. In this respect, Freaking Out has virtually no issues. “Dishwasher”, “Call Me Back”, and “Solar Shack” are all mixtape-worthy entries, each holding their own strengths in Rybicki’s frequently mid-tempo world weariness. Even with that taken into consideration, it’d be difficult not to note that a few of Freaking Out‘s best moments do come in the final two songs. From the trumpet-assisted downstroke onslaught of “I Won’t Try to Change Your Mind” to the guest-heavy celebration that is the record’s finale.

In that respect, “Wax Pages” does feel like an appropriate end-cap to a release that seemed determined to extol the virtues of healthy collaboration. Jeff Bolt (of Swearin’ and Radiator Hospital) takes over on drums, Sam Cook-Parrott (Radiator Hospital), Cynthia Schemmer (also of Radiator Hospital), and Kyle Gilbride (of Swearin’) all handle backing vocals, while Mikey Cantor takes a solo and all of them seem maniacally driven by Rybicki, who lent his vocals, guitar work, and bass (in spots) to the songs he wrote. To that end, it almost feels celebratory despite it’s heaviness (and make no mistake, this is a relatively heavy record in both terms of sound and subject matter). Packaged all together, the end result is something that feels oddly alive and utterly unique, even with an army of recognizable influences worn proudly on its sleeve. If it doesn’t find a home on one label or another, it’ll come as a shock. Freaking Out is one of 2014’s best surprises.

Stream Freaking Out below and download it on Attendant’s bandcamp.

A Look at Burger Records and the Longevity of the Cassette Tape

Over time musical formats, like all things, evolve in one way or the other. We currently live in an age where it’s occasionally necessary to specify whether your release is a physical object. Album sales through the first nine months of the year were down 6.1% from 2012’s sales. Digital sales are also down. Vinyl is continuing a curious re-emergence, up 100% in sale volume over in the UK. Then there’s the perpetually-overlooked cassette tape charting its own unique path.

Considered painfully outdated by many, the truth is that the cassette never really disappeared. A perennial staple of the DIY music communities due to its cost-effectiveness, it’s been virtually impossible to get an accurate sales projection on as the majority of its sales seem to take place independetly. However, with some of the cultural focus shifting back over to the musical regions that most heavily embrace tape culture along with the balls-out risk of Cassette Store Day they’re back to being a common point of debate.

There are those that will endlessly champion the cassette and its merits, this very publication being one, and those who are completely baffled by anyone who’s interested in the format. Cassettes haven’t been as easily accessible as they are today since the peak of their popularity in the 90’s. When the mass consumption ebb switched to favoring the much sleeker CD, the cassette seemed all but buried. Cassette walkmans went from trend pieces to lost artifacts that seemed hopelessly out of touch. This cultural shift propelled the cassette to an outsider status that lent it a new context.

Unsurprisingly, the basement punk scene continued to latch onto the format and while the numbers of mass sales decreased, the independent business model for it held strong. Punk and hardcore bands as well as outsider pop, folk, and psych bands often only dealt in cassette releases simply because they became the most affordable option. A deep bond was formed between format and genre, each proving beneficial to the others aesthetics. Then, while the mp3 started to overtake the CD and vinyl began a surprising but entirely welcome comeback, tapes were left almost completely out of the cultural conversation.

In 1993 a Guitar Wolf demo tape convinced Eric Friedl to start a label to release the bands first record Wolf Rock!, that label, Goner, became one of punk’s most seminal since the ugly decline of SST. Friedl likely never paid the trajectory of tapes’ popularity any attention, continuing to release his artists music on the formats he/they saw fit. Even as the cassette turned into a surprisingly contentious topic, Goner consistently released them and anchored itself as one of the cornerstones in the formats strange history. As admirable as Goner’s works with cassettes were, at the start of the new millennium there was somethingt brewing on the west coast that would take the tape even further.

Two members of the much-beloved Fullerton, CA basement pop outfit Thee Makeout Party!, Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, founded an independent record store and label in 2007, launching it officially two years later. Less than five years later their label, Burger Records, has become nearly synonymous with the word cassette. This year has proved to be one of Burger’s most prolific stretches, aided by an unexpected spike in interest for cassettes and the various basement punk sub-genres. While their collaborations with punk wunderkind Ty Segall may have lent some momentum to this, the label also experienced a greater amount of national coverage in 2013. Cassette Store Day certainly influenced some of the coverage but consistent reporting from scribes like Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly, Noisey’s Zachary Lipez as well as a handful of articles from Stereogum’s Miles Bowe expanded Burger from a portion of the MRR set to the more indie-inclined crowds.

That crossover is where Burger has managed its biggest coup; for over four years the label has been releasing consistently impressive material that has equal appeal to both parties. Another coup; psych and surf influence litter the labels catalog, giving it a distinct west coast flavor, while also nicely syncing up with a growing demand for music that features either. All of these manage to intersect to provide the label with a legitimate identity apart from its near-refusal to release anything apart from cassettes (the label does occasionally release some vinyl, makes a select few of its releases available digitally, and even fewer available on CD). Burger’s ability to sustain a breakneck pace has been astounding and they’ve proven themselves as taste-makers in an impossibly short amount of time.

Looking at the amount of titles Burger has sold out is staggering, even considering their ace-in-the-hole model of release. Nearly everything the label presses to cassette is available once as a limited-run release, so if you missed out on Tenement’s Napalm Dream + Demos double-cassette, then you’ll likely have to keep both eyes peeled to a secondhand service like ebay. While some of their more popular releases do manage to get multiple re-pressings, it’s somewhat of a rarity. Burger’s also proved to be efficient at capitalizing on bands that seemed to be geared towards greater success, as they did with Tenement and as their currently doing with Seattle’s Big Eyes, having just recently provided a tape release for a record that’s already been out for months.

While cassettes still exist in abundance as several bands preferred mode of independent release, Burger seems keenly aware of the urgency created by a ‘get ’em before they’re gone’ kind of model. Their claims of starting their own movement don’t feel too far off base. Demand for their products were high enough to warrant Burgerama, the labels own self-curated music festival, Wiener Records- a subsidiary label, and the Burger Caravan of Stars tour that takes the central idea of Burgerama and condenses it into a smaller-scale nationwide version. They’ve created something far bigger than themselves and it’s paying off. Burger’s responsible for over 500 notable releases and more than half of those are currently no longer available.

Cassette Store Day brought a lot of issues to light and several people were left aghast, while it inspired local artists the world over to make their small contributions. Austin, TX troubadours Okkervil River took advantage of the nostalgic aspect of the cassette, releasing The Silver Gymnasium on the format. Burger Records understands the format and what it stands for. They’re the ones that know how many miles in a van a cassette can represent, how much cheap spilled beer went into making and celebrating one, how the slightly compressed sound quality can actually prove beneficial to the sound of particular artists, and the skip-resistant longevity of a cassette. They’re the ones that have been part of post-show basement cassette trades between local and touring acts. Burger Records knows who will fit and who will respond to the format most strongly.

Burger Records knows the cassette’s not dead and they’re going to keep it that way. Whether that’s a triumph, a statement, or a disgrace is anyone’s prerogative.  For a generation that’s involved in their movement, it exceeds simpler classifications and becomes a way of life. To Heartbreaking Bravery, it’s a life well worth living.