The End Started in North Carolina

Like many other Millenials / GenYers, when I think about the downfall of the music industry, I think of Napster, Kazaa, Limewire and BitTorrent. And certainly those peer-to-peer file sharing innovations played a major role. But dig deeper and there’s a case to be made that the downfall began in our own backyard. In fact, Stephen Witt, in a longform piece for The New Yorker, makes that very case. I especially enjoyed this characterization of early-nineties life in Shelby, North Carolina:

Glover and Dockery soon became friends. They lived in the same town, Shelby, and Glover started giving Dockery a ride to work. They liked the same music. They made the same money. Most important, they were both fascinated by computers, an unusual interest for two working-class Carolinians in the early nineties—the average Shelbyite was more likely to own a hunting rifle than a PC.

In all seriousness, I had no idea that a small chunk of the ridiculous amounts of money I was spending on music in the nineties was coming back to the North Carolina economy. Had I known that there was a literal hit factory in Kings Mountain, NC, I might have tried to spend my summers working there.

Brandi Carlile Covers ‘Murder in the City’

From Garden & Gun’s First Listen: Brandi Carlile’s “Murder in the City”:

Accompanied by the tight harmonies of Tim and Phil Hanseroth—known as “The Twins”—Carlile played a mix of old and new songs, including a cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City,” which became the unofficial anthem of the tour.

I love that she covered it, though I’m not crazy about the result. It’s definitely a song worthy of imitation and reinterpretation.

I Watch Trailers for the Music

I don’t know if there has been a single more influential medium on my playlists than movie trailers the last few years1 and the latest is the trailer for Aloha, writer/director Cameron Crowe’s first movie in four years. The song is ‘First’ by Cold War Kids and it’s a great excuse to watch the trailer over and over again, which I had to do anyway to try to figure out the gist of the movie. I’m not sure I have it figured out yet, but I don’t think that will keep me from wanting to see the movie. Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray, and John Krasinski sounds like a pretty compelling draw to me.

  1. Going back at least as far as Zack Braff’s trailers for Garden State.  ↩

Wide Open Blue

For reasons that fate thus far has failed to provide adequate justification, prior obligations continue to keep me from fully experiencing Raleigh’s burgeoning Wide Open Bluegrass tradition. Last year was the first year I’d heard of such a thing and I promised myself I wouldn’t miss it “next year”, though I failed to set a reminder or mark a calendar to check-in on the planning for this year’s event. And, wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t block off my calendar and the wife and I had conflicting plans.

Fortunately, I was able to venture into the City of Oaks for some of Saturday’s Wide Open Bluegrass Street Festival and it did not disappoint. I didn’t have a ton of time but I was determined to snap a quick picture of the Sir Walter Raleigh Banjostand. I allowed myself a few moments at any of the music stages along the way and I, of course, stopped to check out as many sidewalk performances as I could.

I have this really strange history with bluegrass music, a history that actually mimics several other genres or artists that I just didn’t get right away. To put it mildly, I was absolutely appalled by even just the mere mention of the word “bluegrass” growing up. I’ve softened quite a bit to it since, now very appreciative of the specificity of its harmonies and distinctiveness of its sound. Bluegrass aficionados may scoff at the thought of this, but I honestly think the Avett Brothers were my gateway drug into bluegrass music.

I didn’t spend quite enough time wandering the street festival to offer anything insightful, critical, or sensible to any conversation about it. What I want to say, though, is that my brief time walking around was a lot of fun and incredibly refreshing. The weather was amazing, a significant contributor to the experience no doubt, but the music and the atmosphere spearheaded the fun. With so many music stages, smaller tents and even sidewalk performers, it was difficult to be out of earshot of a fiddle, a steel guitar, a banjo or elegant harmonies. I love that Raleigh has this event and I hope it keeps coming back for many years to come. Maybe one of these years I’ll really get to enjoy it.

Notable sounds I overheard while walking around: The Railsplitters, Gold Heart, and Mipso.

Sit and Listen

DR: Ryan Adams released his umpteenth album, Ryan Adams, last week and JB and I felt like it was a perfect time to finally throw together our all-time top ten Ryan Adams song list. We’ve sort of collaborated on lists before, but never the same list, so this is going to be interesting. We did a little pre-work, each of us nominating songs to be considered. The point of that exercise was basically to help me brush up on the catalog – I’m not as well versed in anything after Love is Hell, which means depending on how this list shapes up, I might not even be remotely qualified to be having this conversation. Naturally, this means I’m going to lean heavily toward the Whiskeytown / Heartbreaker / Gold eras, while JB will help balance us out with the later stuff. This should be fun. Without further ado, let’s get started. I planned to kick things off with number ten, but I really need JB to set the tone for this list, otherwise it’s going to get out of hand really quick.

JB: Well, I truly intend to set the tone, but not in the way you think. Instead of giving you number 10, I am going to give you a couple that just missed the cut for me. Now keep in mind, with this type of back and forth we may not get everything out of our top 10, but it should be a little more representative and even involve a bit of strategery. The most difficult cut for me came in the form of Adams’ disarming cover of Oasis’ classic ‘Wonderwall’. Including this track may have been a form of cheating, but in this case it would have been worth it. Adams does so well to change the tone and highlight the amazing range in his vocal talent. This was a tough cut for me. Also missing the cut for me: ‘Two’, ‘Born Into a Light’, ‘Faithless Street’, and ‘Firecracker’. I never thought ‘Firecracker’ would miss the cut, but that should just whet your appetite for what’s to come.

DB: Not exactly what I was going for, but you did at least set the tone, so I’ll take it. I’m with you, ‘Firecracker’ was just outside the cut for me, but one of your other cuts is in my Top 10 so we’ll just have to see how this shapes up. Okay, let’s get this thing started.

10. ‘Nuclear’, Demolition
Did any of the critics actually like Demolition? I loved it, but it also came just as my Ryan Adams fandomonium was hitting its stride. Adams himself wasn’t a fan, though it had more to do with how the album was put together than the tracks themselves. Other personal faves include ‘Cry on Demand’ and ‘Desire’, and one more that I hope appears later in this list (that is, if I didn’t inadvertently eliminate it from the list with this pick.)

9. ‘Let it Ride’, Cold Roses (Disc 2)
His debut effort with the band the Cardinals. The band was formed informally in 2001 with JP Bowersock who he met through his neighbor. This double album is beyond solid and really brings Adams back to his alt-country roots, which I love as you will quickly be able to deduce from my contributions to this list. I fear this selection will leave one of my Whiskeytown favorites out in the cold, but that is the nature of this type of exchange so I will ‘Let it Ride’. In the end Cold Roses is too good an album to not have a selection on this list.

8. ‘Excuse me While I Break My Own Heart’, Strangers Almanac
Our first and unapologetically not our last Whiskeytown era track. This track somehow eluded my running list of Adams favorites over the years. It re-entered my consciousness while researching for this list and I just can’t believe I’ve been missing it all these years. Adams draws me in with a higher percentage of his moody, slower stuff, but I love this bit of uptempo goodness from him (ahem, them).

7. ‘When Stars go Blue’, Gold
This is the toughest call of them all in this format. It is safely in my Top 10, but I am afraid this is going to bump out some I had higher on my list. However, I think it makes sense on this list for many reasons. It is without a doubt his most commercially successful song, even though that success does not involve him on vocals, see Bono, Tim McGraw or Haley. I think this song is probably the best representation of Adams as a songwriter with its country pop sound. It also speaks to his greatness as a songwriter that he could write something that has been adapted so wonderfully by a disparate group of artists.

6. ‘Two’, Easy Tiger
Serendipitously, this song lands exactly where I wanted it, though it takes some of the luster off the shine knowing it was cut from your final ten. I went back and forth between putting this song and ‘Hallelujah’ from Demolition here, but this is clearly too high of a spot for ‘Hallelujah’ (which really belongs at 10 in a tie with ‘Nuclear’). The thing about ‘Two’ and the reason I had to put it here is that it’s my favorite song of anything Adams has released since Rock ‘n Roll. That alone doesn’t make it a top ten lock – it’s also one of the catchiest hooks, both in lyrics and melody, that Adams has produced in his prolific career. That makes it the kind of song that stays with you long after a listen and pops up from time to time in your mind whether you’ve heard it recently or not.

5. ‘To Be Young (is to be sad)’, Heartbreaker
The first entry (though I am sure not the last) from Adams’ debut solo effort. Written after a bad break up (ironically spelling the end of Whiskeytown), the album contains the highs and lows of someone dealing with heartbreak. ‘To be Young …’ is probably the highpoint tonally and my favorite up-tempo Adams song. The guitar riffs (and copious quantities of drugs) on this song carry you away and for that brief 3 minutes make you forget whats her name (I like to think it’s Parker Posey).

4. ‘Don’t Be Sad’, Pneumonia (Whiskeytown)
I struggled a lot with this pick. I originally had a second Gold track slotted for this spot, but weighing your feelings of ‘Don’t Be Sad’ gave me pause and forced me to reconsider. Gold is probably, from top to bottom, Adams’ most impressive work, but it doesn’t have the single that stands above anything that will make this top five. ‘Don’t Be Sad’ is a classic Adams fast moving ballad; a simple song with relatively few lyrics. But the depth contained in those few lyrics gets a lot of mileage out of the less than three and a half minute runtime.

3. ‘Hallelujah’, Demolition
Not sure I would have ever guessed two tracks from the jam session that became Demolition would make it on this list, but ‘Hallelujah’ is the type of Ryan Adams track I love the most, with its folky sound and country twang. It may not be how Adams views himself, but I think it is him at his best in part because it draws so strongly from his roots as a boy from eastern North Carolina (roots we share in common). As with a lot of his music, the lyrics center on who he is and who he wants to be, and that is something to which we all can relate. All in all, this is just a masterclass and while it is not my #1, at this point, we are splitting hairs.

2. ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, Heartbreaker
Ryan Adams. North Carolina. His home state. My home state. Need I say more? I’m a homer in the worst way and despite my best efforts at denial I can’t escape it. Ignoring that, I love this song and its beautiful simplicity. Earlier this year, I was reminded just how subtly powerful Adams’ vocals are when I watched a video of him performing a cover of ‘Neutron Dance’ at Code Conference. When I listen to ‘Carolina’ carefully enough, it amazes me how much you can get a similar sense of that power in such a quiet song. ‘Carolina’ is the ultimate achievement in songwriting, composition, and performance and belongs in the conversation of Adams masterpieces.

1. ‘Sit and Listen to the Rain’, Pneumonia (Whiskeytown)
JB: It was always going to be this song. In reality, this was a competition for second and while our personal list varied quite dramatically in some cases, this is the one we both agreed on. As I said earlier, Ryan Adams struggles with who he is, where he is from and what all that means. He is the boy who grew up in Jacksonville, NC, but he is also the man who burned the midnight oil in New York City, and the man who turned over a new leaf in Los Angeles. He has always longed to be somewhere else and be someone else, as he rifs, “Sit around, dream away the place I’m from.” It seems ironic that this journey has brought us home. The song that longs for the future, but was written at home. As you read this list and enjoy the sounds, it’s home that makes us who we are and shapes our future. It is all these places that makes Ryan Adams who he is, and while he has certainly burned bright I am just thankful he isn’t done writing his ‘Wonderwall’.

DR: Well said, JB. My appreciation for the song is probably a little more superficial, but no less significant. When I first heard ‘Sit and Listen to the Rain’ I knew immediately it had a permanent place in my all-time rotation. ‘Sit and Listen …’ is my go to song when I want to let my mind wander off and ponder; when I want to remember; when I want to dream. The best part for me through the years, whether real or imagined, is having this vision of Ryan Adams sitting on a porch somewhere in North Carolina writing this song. And so, sometimes when it rains, I’ll walk out to our front porch, sit, listen and wonder if that’s what he was feeling.

Photo Credit: Laura Musselman (via Flickr)

Benicio Del Toro as The Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy

Introducing … The Collector

Music group Spoon released a new album recently, and through various podcasts and blog posts, JB & I were separately introduced to this group who just released their eighth album. This kind of reminds me of that time last year when I was introduced to The National by a flood of locally-sourced tweets popping up on my timeline the night they played Red Hat Amphitheater, but I digress.

Anyway, in the midst of us sharing our newfound enthusiasm, lo and behold, we find out fellow NW contributor and longtime friend DG has been a fan of Spoon for years. Not only that, he has all of their albums. This prompted me to dub DG The Collector because this isn't the first time we've “discovered” a new band or artist and then find out that DG has their entire archive – not only does he collect, but he keeps his nuggets of joy all to himself.

Well we will have that no more. As part of the expansion of the content on Notably Worthless, I'm going to start checking in with DG on a regular basis, specifically to find out who he's figuratively spinning in iTunes or wherever else. We'll start with this, an email exchange ported to blog form. JB was listening in – err, reading in, that is – and his comments are included throughout.

So, DG, who have you been spinning most recently?

His initial response is a random link without explanation. I ask if that’s his answer, rambling between the two of us ensues until finally I press …

So, Dan, who you be spinning lately?

DG: Well so awkward question, last thing I bought was the ‘Guardians…’ soundtrack which ain’t exactly new.

Doesn’t have to be new, necessarily. If you care to elaborate on that, feel free. Otherwise, carry on with something new.

DG: Oh, Black Keys then. Got into them on the last album and really enjoying the current. ‘Little Black Submarines’ and ‘Fever’ are two tracks that amazingly for someone with my attention span I have yet to find the overplayed point on.

JB: They are also kid approved. At least my kid, that is.

DG: Also I heard Tom Petty's new album the other day, want to hear more.

On the Ryan Adams video, is this some type of Chris Gaines thing of him parodying Meat Loaf?

JB: Well, either way so happy to have him back in my life.

DG: I feel that's a pretty weak lead single, I'm not saying I'd skip it if it played after the lead single on an album but not sure it makes me want to go out and buy it as a single or album (yeah I'm kidding myself like I won't buy his album either way).

JB: It honestly amazes me there is an album of his I don’t own.

The conversation devolves from there, somehow getting on the topics of Mandy Moore, Avril Lavigne and the Nickelback guy, and so much much much more. I had to try to get us back on track.

Wow, Petty's back? JB and I were actually talking about the Traveling Wilburys a couple of weeks ago. I think there was a period where that's pretty much all we listened to on family road trips. Has there been anything like that in recent memory? A "supergroup" of sorts with that much talent?

DG: Way to date yourself, though that probably is the last "supergroup" of widely recognizable musicians that gets anywhere close. There is a lot of things that call themselves "supergroups" in that they are made up of members of other successful groups… Tired Pony with the lead singer of Snow Patrol and Zoey Deschanel is one but I don't know that they're that well known, Broken Bells with DJ Dangermouse and the lead singer of the Shins and the Postal Service which had Death Cab for Cutie's lead singer and other people most haven't heard of but are pretty successful producers. I think part of it is the atomization/increasing genrefication of music, there's not really as many universally recognized artists outside of pop and it's fairly common there for folks to feature others. Who would be of the universally recognizable stature of most of the Wilburies now?

Also, Spoon is headlining Hopscotch Festival Friday Sept. 5th.

You make a fair point about the lack of similarly recognizable figures. If you tried to put a group like that together today, you’re probably talking about a supergroup made up of Bono, Chris Martin, Beyonce, and Eminem.

Speaking of The Shins, have you heard any of the tracks from soundtrack rainmaker Zach Braff’s Kickstarter funded movie Wish I Was Here? He told Rolling Stone he set out to mix things up a bit this time around, seeking more original content and even personally commissioning a new track from The Shins. I have their song ‘So Now What’ and the song from the movie trailer (‘Hero’, by Family of the Year) in my everyday playlist and it seems like he’s succeeded again in single-handedly changing the shape of my recent downloads.

JB: Zach Braff sucks.

DG: NPR First Listen: Shovels and Rope Swimmin Time (now available for purchase on iTunes)

DR: Well, I don't think we could pick a better way to wrap up this month's interview. It's been a pleasure, gentlemen. I look forward to checking in with you next month!

Photo: © Copyright 2014 Marvel Entertainment

Jawbone Jambox

Big Sound, Little Box

How many activities are exponentially more enjoyable with music playing in the background? Pretty much all of them. And sometimes, headphones just aren’t the right fit for the kind of freedom or atmosphere some activities require. If you’re an iOS or Mac user, this means you have a pretty difficult choice to make: AirPlay or Bluetooth.

I faced this choice a little over a year ago and after going back and forth between Bluetooth and AirPlay, I ultimately landed on Bluetooth. AirPlay, I hear, offers superior sound quality, but at a fairly significant cost and with one primary limitation – most, if not all, options require a shared network. That isn’t exactly the most versatile of options.

With the choice of wireless standard out of the way, there was really only one option on my mind – I went with the original Jambox by Jawbone1. Obviously, I took the easy route, choosing the mainstream, probably overpriced option. That said, I haven’t been disappointed and I use this super portable, great sounding little speaker way more than I ever expected I would.

Headphones are a great option when you need to keep your music to yourself, or when you’re moving from room to room taking care of the household chores and you don’t have whole-house audio throughout. The second best option when library-like silence isn’t required is a wireless portable speaker. I never realized how much I prefer open-air listening until I bought the Jambox, and moving from room to room isn’t terribly inconvenient when the speaker is so small.

But portability doesn’t matter if the little speaker doesn’t have great sound. The Jambox is relatively expensive compared to other available Bluetooth speakers, but while the sound quality isn’t perfect, it packs a big punch.

When I first powered up the Jambox and played some tunes, I remember being impressed the same way I was impressed the first time I heard a Bose Wave radio. I’m not suggesting the sound quality of the Jambox is on par with some of Bose’s hallmark products – I’m no audiophile – but the power and depth of the sound that such a small package could produce astounded me. I have direct experience with one other relatively inexpensive Bluetooth speaker and, side-by-side, the Jambox is well worth the price difference to me.

A few weeks after I first bought the Jambox, I was hanging out with a friend who has a Big Jambox. The Big version is better in almost every way without really sacrificing portability. But I wasn’t quite ready to part with the extra benjamin to get it, especially for my expected uses. My buddy uses it for group gatherings and tailgates – if that’s you, I suggest going Big. If you just need something to throw in the beach bag or move around the house with you as you dance your way through the chores, stick to the little guy2.

If you’re new to the Bluetooth speaker crowd and you were considering a Jambox, I do recommend it. If the price makes you flinch, there are some other options out there that are cheaper and, by some accounts, even better than the Jambox. My only experience is with the Jambox, so I can only speak for it – I haven’t been disappointed one bit – I consume way more music and podcasts, resulting in more fun when taking care of mundane tasks than I ever had before I joined the Bluetooth speaker toting party. That alone is worth the price of admission.

  1. I made this choice before reading – perhaps even before it was written – The Wirecutter’s recommendation.
  2. A few months ago, Jawbone released the Mini Jambox; by all accounts bringing all of the power of the original Jambox, in a slightly smaller package and the added ability to combine two Mini Jambox units for stereo sound.

Live and Love and You

Two years ago, I attended my first live Avett Brothers concert – one of their annual New Year's Eve shows, this one a rare venture outside of North Carolina in Greenville, South Carolina's Bi-Lo Center1. Though I'd been casually introduced to the Avett Brothers' music a few years prior, it took me some time to warm to them, finally slipping into my realm of obsession in the year leading up to my first New Year's Eve experience2. Continue reading