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No Expectations 005: All Downhill From Here
‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,’ two show reviews, and a playlist.
This is the first No Expectations newsletter of 2023. I’m happy you’re here. If you like what you read, I hope you consider subscribing (paid or free—both mean the world), sharing it via whatever means you’re comfortable with, or just finding something you’d like to check out.
On NYE, I met for the first time some really lovely folks who told me they’re subscribers and dig the newsletter so far, which was so nice I was totally caught off guard. Little things like that make my day. Also to more than a couple friendly strangers, I promise I’ll give Black Country, New Road another shot. Thanks for your continued support and thanks for saying what’s up.
Letter of recommendation: Having a good year
At some point over the last seven or eight years, despair became an increasingly common if not the default mood online. In my internet circle, it’s not hard to see why: the Trump administration, the pandemic, and a constantly turbulent, constantly constricting journalism ecosystem caused tough times for so many of my peers, myself included. It’s very likely that each year around this time, you’ve come across posts decrying the “worst year on record” or laments that “this next year might break me” from several folks on your Twitter timeline. You would’ve seen that kinda thing from me at the end of 2020. It was honestly a bit much.
It’s 2023 now and it’s time to cut the shit. Sure, there are bad, even horrific things happening around you everywhere, even to you directly, but hopelessness must be resisted. This isn’t because things aren’t sometimes overwhelmingly bleak but that there is no viable alternative to the bullshit than getting through it and finding moments of joy where possible. It’s all you can do. Why not make this the year of logging off, leaving the house, prioritizing relationships, following your curiosity, and being easy on yourself? The other option is being defeated and a total bummer. It is not a moral failing to allow yourself to have a good time.
Despite the bad stuff, 2022 was one of the best years of my life. While I got laid off from a job that, for the first time ever, allowed me to briefly not stress about money, it all turned out OK. I put in an effort to rekindle friendships that were neglected during the pandemic, made time to visit family, ate some extraordinary meals (big shouts to Split-Rail in Chicago and Audrey in Nashville), worked at being a better partner, and had my best year of freelancing to date. I feel like I came out slightly better and slightly kinder than I was when I started the year, which is all you can hope for really. It’s also been getting better: 2022 was better than 2020 by a large margin. Let’s take the Ws where we can.
There are bad moments in good years and good moments in bad years. I hope 2023 for you is full of the good stuff and less of the bad.
Report: Grapetooth and Dehd at the Empty Bottle (12/31/22)
Some albums really capture a year to the point where the memories are practically soundtracked. I can’t think about 2019 without subconsciously hearing something off Alex G’s House of Sugar (translation: really going through it) or 2014 without PUP’s self-titled debut (translation: going through it but doing OK because I was in my early 20s). Grapetooth’s self-titled debut totally enveloped 2018 for me. Every once in a while a Chicago LP will come out and it’ll feel just like summer: the rooftop apartment parties, the trips to the beach, the walk from Rainbo to Sportsman’s, or whenever something actually fun happens downtown. Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap is another example.
Clay Frankel (Twin Peaks) and Chris Bailoni (Home-sick) started Grapetooth over a shared love of Arthur Russell and New Order, which easily comes across in these songs. The Badlands-inspired “Violent,” which I premiered at Noisey back in the day, is especially kinetic while the following track “Red Wine” has a scrappy sweetness. Their live shows were consistently a blast too. Chris and Clay hadn’t played a gig together since 2019’s Pitchfork Fest so when they announced a NYE gig opening up for Dehd during their Empty Bottle residency, I immediately bought tickets. I’m glad I did because it sold out in under an hour. (One of my good friends, who I will not name in case anyone who missed out on buying their own is reading, purchased 10 because they wanted to be with friends on NYE—each ticket went to a bud).
When they hit the stage, the energy that came from the very first notes of “Violent” was overwhelming. I was immediately transported to remembering how I was at 26. 2018 was five years ago, which isn’t a long time but it’s long enough to have a completely different life, mellow out a little bit, and realize the problems you had then didn’t really matter much. It turned out to be one of the very best shows I saw in 2022. Being surrounded by close friends and watching Chris, Clay, Divino Niño’s Justin Vittori, Twin Peaks’ Cadien Lake James, guest vocalists Knox Fortune, and Hinds’ Carlotta Cosials, bounce around onstage was the best thing I could’ve done on NYE. I knew it meant a lot to them to play these songs again and it definitely meant a lot for me to hear them. After a long couple of years, it’s nice to have a night where you can be transported with your buds to a more carefree time and realize how far you’ve all come.
Everything I said about headliner Dehd in my EOY albums list remains true: I am so excited to watch them play to more and more people. I will support any artist project Emily, Jason, and Eric do and I will attend any event that features Alex Grelle performing. They’re all really capturing something special that I hope everyone gets to witness for themselves one day. What a show. What a night.
Report: feeble little horse, Merce Lemon, and Hemlock at Schubas (01/03/23)
feeble little horse are a band from Pittsburgh that formed during the pandemic, just signed to the esteemed indie Saddle Creek, and already has one album as well as an EP out. There’s also one more full-length on the way via their new label. They make explosive and experimental indie rock that’s indebted to label mates Spirit of the Beehive but much more hook-based, shoegaze-y, and emo-adjacent. They’re a band with considerable hype already—more than a couple friends who work in the industry have sent me feeler “you hear about this feeble little horse band? yet” texts over the past year. “Chores” is a pretty good intro to their whole deal—one of those massive and irresistibly infectious songs where you can’t decide whether the vocal hook or the searing riff is more memorable.
According to a recent Band to Watch Stereogum profile, there’s a 20-year-old and a 24-year-old bookending this quartet of college-aged indie rockers. I love the feature because it perfectly captures the fun and awkwardness of what it’s like to speak to a band doing their first interview ever. These are normal kids who are close friends, have their own in-jokes and histories, and also made a great record that they’re still figuring out how to talk about. Writer Eli Enis really nailed it and you should read it. Live, they’re even more electric. They played a handful of songs that will be on their 2023 LP that isn’t officially announced yet and a few of them caused audience members to blurt out “holy shit” and “wow, this is amazing” in between songs. Hell, I even heard the bartenders working rave about what they were watching.
It’s the platonic ideal of a first Chicago play—members of the band said it was their first time in the city, not just playing here, and they even asked what a Home Depot dog is. They mostly sold out Schubas, charmed with legitimately funny stage banter, and absolutely ripped. Also, big shouts to openers Merce Lemon, also from Pittsburgh who covered “I See a Darkness,” and Chicago’s Hemlock, who covered Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine.” During her set, Hemlock’s Carolina Chauffe said she was inspired to play the song after seeing Friend of the Substack Katy Kirby do it at Thalia Hall, opening up for Julia Jacklin last year. Kirby’s rendition came because she loved Andrew Bird’s take on the song. There’s an amazing cover chain here: Hemlock covering Katy Kirby covering Andrew Bird covering the Handsome Family. Chicago artist Tasha wrote an excellent profile on Hemlock for the Reader last year.
Saddle Creek is going to have a good 2023. I wrote the bio for another recent signing who is releasing an album this year that has yet to be announced. You’re going to love that too.
What I listened to:
Since the first week of the year is in that dead space before assignments hit the inbox and freelance writing begins in earnest, I usually try to use the time to finally check out bands I somehow have never heard or rediscover old favorites. Every once in a while, I’ll see an act’s name online or in writing (or in this case mentioned on HBO’s Irma Vep) and I’ll panic: “Wait, do I know what Royal Trux sounds like?” I’ll have a flashback to being 21, starting out, and hearing “you want to be a music journalist and you don’t know Throbbing Gristle?” from an older writer. While it freaked me out at the time, Throbbing Gristle hasn’t really come up a lot for me since then, especially not in job interviews, and I’ve gotten over not knowing every important musical outfit. That said, I still try to do my best to fill in the gaps when I can.
This is a roundabout way of saying I went through most of Royal Trux’s catalog this past week. I started with 1998’s Accelerator, which shocked me because it was such a document of frenetic garage rock rather than impenetrable experiments and noise (I expected 1990’s Twin Infinitives). My favorites were 1993’s Cats and Dogs and 1995’s Thank You. I don’t think I’ll ever make someone younger than me feel self-conscious for not knowing this band though. I eventually decided I’d rather be listening to longtime faves Polvo and Gang of Four, which then morphed into a heavy phase of even deeper faves Jim O’Rourke, Gastr Del Sol, and Sea and Cake that’ll probably keep going on into next week and beyond. O’Rourke’s Insignificance, which is not on Spotify, is one of my favorite albums of all time. Incredibly ahead of the curve for 2001.
I also saw Liam Kazar and Macie Stewart play Hungry Brain on the day before New Year’s Eve. It was a special night. Every time I see Macie play I think of Finom’s (fka Ohmme’s) cover of Jim O’Rourke’s “Memory Lame.”
What I watched:
Besides this newsletter, I’m not on deadline for anything (my email is on my about page, editors) so I kept my streak of watching a ton of movies going. I’ll spare you the list of everything (you can follow me on Letterboxd for that) and focus on my favorite film I’ve seen in a while.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
The internet is a place that’s pretty bad for mental health and often brings out the worst in people but it’s also where I do my job and make money so honestly, the jury is still out. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, from director Jane Schoenbrun is the best movie I’ve ever seen about the internet, specifically the ways young people try to figure out who they are on it and fall into various rabbit holes. I grew up posting on various message boards and forums, secretly developing my tastes and opinions behind an anonymous account between homework assignments and hanging with my friends.
Casey (played by newcomer Anna Cobb) is a teen with seemingly no friends living with her dad somewhere in rural New York (the strip malls and scenery filmed could literally be anywhere and it reminded me of places I grew up). She tries out an online-horror game called The World’s Fair where participants report mental deterioration and bad things happening to them in real life as a result of playing. Spooky. While somewhat marketed as a horror film, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a subtle and provocative drama about the darkness that lurks online and the ways lonely people try to find excitement and solace there. As Casey immerses herself further, she meets an anonymous poster (Michael J. Rogers) who’s concerned she might be in danger from the game’s influence.
How the film plays out is a fascinating commentary on the ways the internet, especially how we present ourselves on it, blends reality and fiction, how the generations don’t understand each other, and how mental health is especially precarious in public and online. I can’t stop thinking about it and could write thousands of more words about everything this film accomplishes. Cobb is a star and Schoenbrun might have made the most inventive and memorable debut I’ve seen in years. Their next film stars Helena Howard, the actress who played the titular role in Josephine Decker’s Madeline's Madeline. Sign me the hell up.
On HBO Max.
What I read:
Spencer Tweedy was the first person I interviewed at the Chicago RedEye. He was 19 at the time and promoting the Tweedy record named after his mom that he made with his dad called Sukierae. I couldn’t have asked for a more thoughtful and disarming person to talk to then. I was 23 and nervous as hell with my first real salary job in journalism at the Tribune Tower but he was so easy to chat with and a total pro with his answers. The story made the cover of the paper and my joke headline “Wilco (The Son)” was chosen as the headline. Since then, he’s been a wonderful person to know in Chicago for the past eight years and has helped me come up with column ideas that I try to thank him for whenever I see him. He’s back writing on Substack and I highly recommend you check it out.
Iggy Pop is what I like to call Michigan Excellence. This is a rare designation that I reserve for people like J Dilla, Stevie Wonder, Rosa Parks, the Detroit Coney, Donald Byrd, Helen Thomas, Magic Johnson, Tim Robinson, Boldy James, Frances Ford Coppola, Detroit Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin, John Hughes, Bonny Doon, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Speciation Artisan Ales in Grand Rapids, and yes, Eminem. Michigan excellence is a thing to aspire to and as someone from this great state, I hope to one day rise to the ranks of someone like Cheddar Bob or the guy who invented Pineapple Watermelon Faygo.
The unmatched 75-year-old rock frontman behind the Stooges and an incredible solo career was born the next town over from where my mom lives in Muskegon. He’s up there with Lou, Bob, and Levon on my Mount Rushmore of rock dudes (I already have the “who are your guys” answer cued up if I ever go on Maron). Here, on the heels of his new solo album Every Loser coming out, he’s interviewed by David Marchese who as always gives probing and thoughtful questions. There are a couple of awkward moments but it’s a fascinating read all around.
By the time you read this, I’ll be finished with this book. It’s blown my mind and will likely serve as the credited inspiration for several blogs on No Expectations this year.