Little Things

Last night I saw a band called Weakened Friends, and they played a song called “Blankets” for li’l ol’ me.

They’ll probably say it was because I gave them my password for a certain streaming video service a few days ago, but they didn’t really have to do it. All it would have taken was “we haven’t practiced that in months, I don’t think we’ll be able to do it,” or “I don’t like playing that song anymore,” and I would have totally understood. I think they just wanted to do something nice for someone who really likes their band.

“Blankets” is one of several of their songs that really helped me when I was in a pretty dark place this summer, dealing with some things in my life and also learning new things about how bad anxiety can get. I’ve gone to see them 5 times before and they hadn’t played it, so it was really excellent of them to play a song that’s not in their rotation just because I basically asked for it. It meant a lot to me, anyway.

It so happens that they were playing their set while election results were beginning to take shape, and as the night continued, the reality of what’s happening began to set in. I got home and found it hard to sleep, and woke up still in disbelief. I’ve been halfway to tears all morning. But whenever I think back to last night, and a very small, nice thing that a few people did for me because I had done a very small, nice thing for them, I smile, at least for a moment. Thanks to Sonia and Annie and Cam for giving me something nice to reflect on today in a sea of burning garbage.

It’s going to be tough sailing in America for the foreseeable, and there’s a lot of people out there that are going to be targets of the angry, disillusioned mob who wrongly think that black people, brown people, women, Muslims, Jews, LGBT, immigrants, or any number of other false scapegoats are the cause of their ills. If you are in a position to volunteer your time to help some of these people or to do some kind of work on their behalf, please do. If you can afford to donate to an organization that will do work on behalf of these groups, please do. But if you can’t, just try to do something nice for someone, no matter how small it may seem. The little things matter. One little thing that seems really insignificant to you might be the thing that completely changes someone’s day in a way you can’t imagine. Let’s be there for each other, OK?

Music I Liked in 2015

2015 was a strong year for music, at least going by what I listened to this year. Here’s a bunch of albums I really liked – let’s start with some honorable mentions and then get to my top ten.

Honorable Mentions

Kasami Washington – The Epic

Certainly a bold move to just come right and title your album The Epic, but this sprawling 3-hour jazz extravaganza certainly qualifies.

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Speaking of Kasami Washington. I admittedly didn’t listen to this nearly enough, but it’s a wonderful genre-bending hip hop album.

Colleen Green – I Want to Grow Up

Without question, my favorite album this year from someone I saw play in some high school kid’s garage about 13 years ago.

Aphex Twin – Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt 2

Pretty much what it says on the tin. This EP somehow sounds completely inhuman while dripping with groove. A pretty fancy trick indeed.

Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool

Just some kickass rock and roll. Why spoil it by over-describing?

Grimes – Art Angels

Grimes took a pop-sounding turn and it’s very compelling. She’s still so weird and unique that even with the pop production values, it’s really anything but.

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes took their Southern R&B and filtered some garage, even more soul, and even some shoegaze through it, and all to great effect.

Ok, on to the ranked releases.

Tape’s Top Ten of 2015

10. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

Julien Baker is only 20 years old and somehow writes and sings like she’s been carrying the weight of the world for 40. I had the same reaction the first time I heard Sprained Ankle as when I first heard Sharon Van Etten: completely devastated.

9. Torres – Sprinter

Mackenzie Scott builds upon the emotional weight of her first album with a new ferocity, almost threatening to swallow the listener at times.

8. Failure – The Heart Is A Monster

Failure returned after 19 years away and didn’t appear to skip a beat. The Heart Is a Monster is the spiritual successor and counterpart to their 1996 magnum opus Fantastic Planet, and while band reunions rarely bear edible, much less appealing, fruit, Failure’s return did not disappoint.

7. Purity Ring – Another Eternity

Purity Ring’s debut Shrines was a revelation when released in 2012, but few bands were more copied in the intervening three years. As such, their followup isn’t nearly the aural innovation as its predecessor, but Corin Roddick and Megan James make up for it with even tighter songcraft and James’ voice which soothes while her lyrics stealthily unnerve.

6. Screaming Females – Rose Mountain

While Screaming Females were always one of the strongest forces in rock this decade and a truly talented power trio, for once they get a recording that really shows off how damn good they are. Melissa Paternoster leads the way with her great voice and is one of the most talented guitarists going, but Jarrett Dougherty’s slick bass grooves really come out into the open on this ripping rock record.

5. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

I almost can’t believe I have this as low as #5. Sleater-Kinney surprised everyone with perhaps the best-kept secret of the new millennium their new, already-recorded album. Like Failure, Sleater-Kinney picked up almost exactly where they left off and came back with an album perhaps a little older and wiser, but just as vital.

4. Krill – A Distant Fist Unclenching

I have difficulty properly describing Krill, and I think it it’s because of the existential uncertainty I get when I listen to them, somehow imbued with both joie de vivre and ennui. Krill ended their run as one of Boston’s best bands this fall, its members scattering to New York and Austin, and we’re all worse off for it.

Krill forever. Krill, Krill, forever and ever.

3. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye

This was probably my most anticipated release of the year. Somehow Every Open Eye sounds even more resounding and explosive than their 2013 debut, The Bones of What You Believe. Like Purity Ring’s sophomore effort, CHVRCHES took a sound that had excited listeners, tightened up the writing and arrangements, and in this case gave us an album that will stand out as one of the decade’s best.

2. Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION

Carly Rae Jepsen announced a small tour of 4 cities in the Northeast, and I was shocked that the Boston venue was the Paradise – a small club with a capacity of barely 900. Didn’t she have a massive hit in “Call Me Maybe”? How could a Pop Star play such a place? No matter. Carly Rae owned that room like few musicians I’ve seen before in my life. In a year full of excellent concerts, Carly Rae Jepsen’s was a pleasant surprise as by far the best of all of them.

Obviously I’m not reviewing concerts here, but that assessment carries over here: in a year filled with great releases, E•MO•TION was one that I anticipated being a pretty nice album but ended up being one of my absolute favorites.

1. Braids – Deep In The Iris

I was first exposed to Braids early in 2014, opening for Wye Oak at that same Paradise. I was so blown away by their performance that I bought all three of the albums they had at the merch table and ate them up for weeks. Interesting and challenging electronic music melded with traditional rock instrumentation and Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s commanding, unique vocals. Deep in the Iris is still an electronic pop record, but instead of sounding futuristic, the sound is somehow warmer and antique even as vocals and synths glitch past. The songs are more clearly written while somehow being more experimental. It definitely feels like the product of years of refinement have resulted in Braids’ essence becoming fully formed, and with it came the most artistically satisfying release of the year.

At least in this one dude’s opinion.

Thoughts on a Spam Horse

horse_ebooks

I was trying for a while to come up a post with my thoughts and feelings on the news/confirmation that @horse_ebooks was in fact being run by humans. I had a lot of feelings about horse_ because horse_ was one of my very favorite things on the internet. Even though many including myself speculated that something changed about horse_ back in September 2011 when the posts stopped being posted via the Twitter client “horse_ebooks” but started coming “via web”, we didn’t know. There’s a big difference between thinking that perhaps your favorite goofy Twitter spam bot is actually a human and knowing that for sure.

The thing is, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about horse_, and they’re highly complex. Chris Whitman summed up what I think is my greatest disappointment with the situation in his post:

The (admittedly pretty unrealistic) promise of the web was to smash the dichotomy between so-called content creators and their consumers. Corporate media is over. From now on we entertain each other, we inform each other, we all both produce and consume for and from each other.

Where this failed, of course, was in the tendency for word-of-mouth—especially on such an open platform—to produce exponential differences in the dissemination of voices and ideas. Traditional corporate-style media, with its wealth, power and connections, could simply integrate the few voices with the lion’s share of the popularity and attention who were looking for ways to leverage their exposure into a living wage. Specific companies rose and fell but we have remained in the majority consumers of corporate-produced media.

Inside this, spam bots, and @horse_ebooks in particular, represent found objects, marketing efforts repurposed as art by Twitter users, to be enjoyed outside their intended context. They aren’t invented by Twitter users, but the social context that elevates them to an artistic position is the result of a user-centred social movement. If Duchamp is the author of the Fountain, then Twitter users are the authors of @horse_ebooks.

I think that’s one part of where my disappointment originates: something that was in a sense created by Twitter users as an alternative to the status quo turned out to be a perfect example of that status quo. It’s a reminder that there is no escape from the horizon of the creator/consumer relationship, that we are told what to retweet, what to like, what to share to our friends, and we obediently do it. There’s no room for playful subversion, for any real irony, just cynicism.

Ultimately, I’m grateful that we had horse_ for a few years, both in its original true spambot form and its person pretending to be a spambot form that ended up remaining just as great. I’m disappointed to find out that the latter ultimately ended up being a vehicle for someone’s self-aggrandizement, but I’m more disappointed that there’s no more horse_ tweets.

Here’s a small list of other things people have written that resonated with me in some way:

And of course, my pal Erin Watson wrote a small book called No Experiences, in which she wrote a series of poems, each incorporating a horse_ tweet. Only 400 were printed, but you can still read all the poems on the website or buy a copy for a ridiculously paltry sum while they’re still available.

On Writing

Writing, for me, is an interesting thing. When I was younger, I did a lot of writing. I wrote all the time. If I had free time, I was probably either writing or I was reading. In middle school, I filled notebooks with all kinds of wacky stories and mostly-bad attempts at absurdist humor as I read Douglas Adams books over and over. My middle school had an after-school writers’ group that met every week where students would share their latest creations over Chips Ahoy cookies and Newman’s Own lemonade provided by my favorite teacher ever, John Stewart1 and I attended every week without fail.

I continued writing in high school. An after-school writers’ group met there as well, filled mostly with juniors and seniors who seemed so cultured and worldly compared to myself and the younger members. Their prose and poetry with previously-unknown themes of sensuality, drugs and exotic travel were eye-opening to a thirteen year old freshman. I devoured their work and explored new poets the exposed me to like Dickinson and Plath. As high school rolled on, I discovered zines and was drawn to their cut-and-paste ethos and deeply personal narratives, and at the same time became interested in playing guitar and drums. I got together with friends, learning how to play our favorite songs and how to write our own, taking poems I had written and crafting them into lyrics.

Crafting music and poetry continued in the first few years of college, and then for some reason I stopped fairly abruptly. Looking back, I think there’s a number of factors that contributed, but it’s hard to say there was a specific reason. I just wasn’t writing anymore. I did some short- and medium-form writing on this site’s earlier incarnations, but I wasn’t writing poetry or music or longer pieces like I used to. Twitter came along later and I use it quote a bit, but nowadays I almost never write elsewhere.

Today I find writing to be extremely difficult. I don’t try to do it very often, and when I do, I usually end up staring at a blank page or screen for a while, not knowing where to start. If I do come up with something, I tend not to get very far and I have a lot of trouble figuring out where to go next. When trying to write music, I sometimes come up with an interesting motif or chord progression, but I have the hardest time coming up with another part into which to transition. Eventully when I encounter a roadblock (and I invariably do), I beat myself up for my inability to meaningfully continue; I remember when writing was second nature to me, and I wonder why I can’t still do that.

I believe one of the biggest stumbling blocks is that I don’t write regularly. Getting into a routine with an activity is a great way to hone your skills and keep them sharp, and this is something that I clearly haven’t been doing. So I’m going to make time to write, even if just for a few minutes.2 The other major issue I have is that I subconsciously feel like everything I write is terrible, and that I should be able to write something good. In my conscious mind, I realize that not everything I write has to be or even will be good, and that part of being creative is that some things you create will not be very good, but that you learn how to be better by creating those things and learning from them. It’s just hard to realize that when I’m upset about writing.

So my first step is going to be to reinstate a Mr. Joyce-style journal. I have a small stack of Field Notes notebooks that I bought last year (the last time I decided I was going to get back into writing) and those seem like the perfect thing to use. Additionally, I plan to use this newly-rejuvenated website3 more actively.

With any luck, this won’t be the last you hear of me in 2013. Let’s get some output and break my long cycle of creative despair, shall we?.


  1. Mr. Stewart passed a little over two years ago, and when I heard the news, I was crushed. I don’t think there was a single person more influential in lighting a creative fire in me that, while I’ve struggled in recent years, still remains a guiding force in my life. He had a deep love for teaching, mentoring, and inspiring young minds, and I know he deeply affected so many of us lucky enough to have experienced a few hours a week talking about books with him. 
  2. In high school, I had an English teacher named Mr. Joyce. My favorite thing about his class was that we had a writing journal: every day he would supply the class with a title and for the first five minutes we would write whatever came to mind. The journal wasn’t graded in any way. Occasionally (once a week, I think; maybe it was daily? it’s been a long time) he would ask for volunteers to read what they had written. We had a separate notebook just for these writings. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a great way to get students writing every day. 
  3. I had been letting this site lie essentially dormant for years, posting perhaps a few times a year. The other day, I navigated to ataxia.net and was greeted by the message “Error establishing database connection”. After about an hour of investigation, I learned that the database holding all of the posts was irrevocably corrupted. So, I got to start over! Ataxia’s back with a new look and fixing things has gotten me more excited about it than I’ve been in nearly a decade.