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No Expectations 049: Crashing Through
How to get out of a musical rut. Plus, Ken Burns’s 'Country Music' and gig reports on Deer Tick and My Morning Jacket.
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Every week at No Expectations, you’ll get a new 15-song playlist, updates on what I’m reading, watching, and listening to, plus a weekly Chicago show calendar. There’s also always a wildcard essay leading each newsletter. Sometimes it’s a list of albums to check out, other times it’s me responding to a mailbag question, doing a deep dive into one artist’s catalog, or interviewing a musician for the Taste Profile Q&A series. Occasionally, it’ll just be writing about whatever I’m interested in at the moment, whether that’s NASCAR, late-night TV, or the difference between “songs artists” and “vibes artists.” It’s all very loose. It’s also mostly free but if you have the means, a paid subscription goes a long way in keeping the lights on here.
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Music Should Make You Feel Like a Kid Again
One of the challenges of writing about music (beyond the job security and stable income part) is still being just as excited about music as you were when you first discovered it. As a kid, you can hear something and a light switch turns on opening up new worlds and endless possibilities. Everyone who’s been moved by a song has had these life-changing moments from music happen at a formative age. The driving impulse for most music journalists is that same feeling of talking to your friends about your favorite bands, sharing why you love what you do, and wanting to hear everything.
When I started in journalism, I met a few writers who were much further along in their careers. After meeting them, I wasn’t sure if they even liked music. They were jaded, talked a lot of shit about critically acclaimed bands, and I was afraid they’d roast me if I mentioned acts I enjoyed. It was a little discouraging because it seemed that the spark for some of these guys was lost or at least clouded by knowing so much that in their snobbery, they forgot how to have fun. It’s like the stand-up watching a set who knows the punch-line before another comedian can finish the set-up: once you know how the sausage is made something fundamental is lost. I realized then that there would be no point in writing about music if it wasn’t still exciting to me. I didn’t want to be miserable thanks to the gig.
I’m writing from my own experiences as someone who publishes a weekly culture newsletter and has precariously mixed the thing I love with how I pay my bills, but this applies to anyone who listens to and loves music. What happens when the music you love grows stale? If nothing, not even your favorite songs, sounds good to you at the moment, how do you get out of a musical rut? Sometimes going in the exact opposite direction of what I’m into can open things up. Just a couple of months ago, I was sick of indie rock so I decided to dive headfirst into the Grateful Dead’s sprawling discography. Now, I’m making my way through all 36 Dick’s Picks Dead live LPs and even saw Phish, a band I once wrote off completely, perform live for the first time. Sometimes it’s not about just finding what you like and sticking to it, it’s more about allowing yourself to be surprised and going into things with an open mind.
Your taste isn’t static. It’s constantly evolving and recalibrating. Just days into my career, I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought about music. Worse, certain songs that were once personally transformative felt pedestrian and even cringe-worthy. That was humbling for sure but it was more exciting than anything else. I found that the more I listened and read about music, the more I realized there was so much more to explore. I tried to combat the idea that art was something that you could master through diligent listening and reading rather than a constantly unfolding mystery that would always surprise you. It’s not a race, it’s a journey. Your musical expertise shouldn’t turn you off to things and make you jaded, it should open you up to things you once wrote off and dismissed.
Early on in my career, I broke one of the most important rules an aspiring journalist can follow, which is “find your niche.” I was originally an indie rock kid but I soon wrote a lot about hip-hop and a ton about emo (if you can believe it). While those are still genres I love, I quickly went down a rabbit hole of New Orleans jazz, funk, and soul (which led me to write the liner notes for the Vinyl Me, Please reissue of The Meters’ Rejuvenation). For some years, I only listened to disco, Brazillian folk, Haruomi Hosono, or Numero/Light in the Attic reissues. In 2017, I only cared about old country songs but in 2020 it was exclusively Bob Dylan. Chicago’s music community eventually became my niche. While I believe it won’t ever get old because it’s so eclectic, sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone to find inspiration. Now, with my heaviest Grateful Dead period yet, a band where the more you listen the more you want to listen, I’ve found a way to surprise myself. I used to make fun of this band as a teen, slowly softened on them in my twenties, and now they’re an alltimer favorite. I would’ve long burned out and left this field had my interests stayed firmly planted from where I started.
When I say “music should make you feel like a kid,” I’m not saying that you should just listen to what you loved when you were young, though that can help. (Also, it’s a case-by-case thing considering some people liked pretty bad music back then, myself included). Rather, you should try to channel that feeling you had as a kid when you were a blank slate and songs were consistently so exciting that you were compelled to explore, shape your tastes, and devour everything you could. (Coincidentally, Friend of the Substack Leor Galil at the Reader just wrote about this Wednesday). Use your refined tastes and experiences to enrich your listening habits rather than let them close you off. In my own life, where writing about music is often my job, the key is to not let music feel like work or become a snob. It’s fun to hate things but it’s more rewarding to at least want to like something.
Next time you’re stuck on what to listen to next, make it something you’ve never heard before or something from an artist you once wrote off completely. Even if you worry you might not understand it at first, you’ll likely surprise yourself.
What I listened to:
The No Expectations 049 Playlist:
1. Helado Negro, “I Just Want To Wake Up With You”
2. Sen Morimoto, “Feel Change”
3. Mannequin Pussy, “I Don’t Know You”
4. Skyway Man, “Long Distance Healing”
5. Varsity, “Bought The Farm”
6. Mikaela Davis, “Promise”
7. Sam Blasucci, “Linger”
8. Cory Hanson, “Ghost Ship”
9. She Returns From War, “Somebody’s Making It”
10. Brennen Leigh, “Somebody’s Drinking About You”
11. TOLEDO, “Jesus Bathroom”
12. Wishy, “Too True”
13. Mali Velasquez, “Medicine”
14. Friko, “Crashing Through”
15. Michael Nau, “Tiny Flakes”
Gig report: Deer Tick at Thalia Hall (Nov. 9)
I’ve seen Deer Tick a bunch of times over the past 15 years and they’re always one of the best live bands working, especially now. Their shows are always rowdy, fun, and memorable—the product of almost two decades of friendship, eight album cycles, and strenuous touring. If you haven’t checked in with their discography yet, you’re missing out. If you’ve never listened, any LP is a worthwhile starting point that you could pair with this VICE profile I did on them in 2017.
Last Thursday, they returned to Thalia Hall—where I last saw them in 2019. They ripped through a 21-song set which included a bunch of songs from their great album from June Emotional Contracts alongside setlist standards like “The Dream’s In the Ditch,” “Miss K,” “Ashamed,” and “Clownin’ Around.” Few bands who made music from the late aughts on have aged as gracefully and have songs that hold up so strongly as Deer Tick. They’re the model for how to be a sustainable rock band for the long haul. If you don’t believe me, see a gig.
Gig report: My Morning Jacket at Chicago Theatre (Nov. 11)
Speaking of sustainable rock bands who are in it for the long haul, Saturday was my first time seeing My Morning Jacket. They’ve been a band I’ve respected for years but beyond their 2003 LP It Still Moves, I never dove through their catalog. That changed a month or two ago when I decided to listen to every studio album front to back and catch up on interviews with the band I may have missed. My friends who love them love them and this deep dive made me realize why. But no matter how many songs I liked, I knew that this was probably a band where everything would come into place after seeing a show.
Along with a couple of buds who got tickets, I was lucky enough to catch their tour finale at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday night as my first official My Morning Jacket gig. They’re a band that doesn’t repeat songs when they play in the same city more than once in a run, which meant that we weren’t going to hear anything from It Still Moves and Z since they played both LPs in full the two nights prior. It didn’t matter. These guys are capital-P Pros. Plus, after 25 years of releasing critically acclaimed albums, they have more than enough material to fill a setlist with hits even if they played their two most famous LPs in full already. “Compound Fracture” off 2015’s The Waterfall ripped and so did the five tracks they played off their 2008 effort Evil Urges. I get it now. I’m a fan. My ears might still be ringing.
What I watched:
Country Music | A Film by Ken Burns
When Ken Burns’ Country Music first aired in 2019, I loved it but never actually finished the 16-hour documentary series. I was 27 years old so between my job at VICE at the time, traveling for a couple of weeks when the latter episodes aired, and the general chaos of being in your late twenties, I didn’t catch up until four years later. If you’re new or skeptical of the genre, this is an indispensable and exhaustive primer on the history of country music. If you’re already obsessed with the music, you’ll find a lot you already know but it’s presented so comprehensively that it’s still worth sitting down for the day-long runtime.
You can trace the history of America squarely through its popular music. What was happening in the country and its people is always reflected in the songs. Through eight, two-hour episodes, Burns charts the course of the genre from the turn of the 20th century to 1996 from how slave songs and gospel spirituals merged with European immigrant folk songs to its evolution into a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s a story of cultures merging, people escaping their traumatic personal histories to reinvent themselves through music, reflections of racism, war, and changing societal dynamics, business flattening art, substance abuse and abuse killing artists prematurely, and songs evolving with the people. Burns shows country’s good and bad and how inescapably American it is. Plus, you get a ton of charismatic interviews from Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Tom T. Hall, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, and more. I could’ve used a follow-up episode on its conservative post-9/11 lurch, the rise of Taylor Swift, and country radio’s historically poor record on women, even now, but this is a solid introduction.
What I read:
The Creative Act: A Way of Being (by Rick Rubin)
Rick Rubin gets a lot of flack thanks to a clip from his 2023 60 Minutes appearance where he says, “I have no technical ability and I know nothing about music.” This is obviously a bit of false modesty from the guy who’s produced everyone from Johnny Cash to Slayer, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Public Enemy. While he isn’t proficient at any instrument, no one can argue that he “knows nothing” about music. His résumé speaks for itself and there’s a reason artists continue to work with him and are undeniably comfortable with him in the studio. I think he’s a net good and I’ll be honest: if I had his money and cultural cache, I would also get super into Buddhism and meditation, and I’d never trim my beard. (I’d still wear shoes though).
The Creative Act: A Way of Being is not a memoir about his career as a producer for music’s biggest names. Instead, it’s a collection of platitudes and general pieces of advice. He names no names and only speaks in generalities. It’s more Rubin’s version of Oblique Strategies, which is Brian Eno’s collection of 100 advice cards meant to assist in the creative process. Sure, Rubin’s advice can read contradictory but it’s meant to be situational. Some of it feels pretty basic too but I honestly enjoyed it. Sometimes, you can accidentally put blinders on while writing or creating so taking a step back, increasing your awareness, and thinking more holistically about what you’re making is a worthwhile step.
I listened to the audiobook (for free via Spotify Premium), which is read by Rubin and is broken up by, I shit you not, calming Rin bell chimes. I usually hate self-help and think 99 percent of it is written by sad losers preying on vulnerable people, but my defenses were softened by this one. Your mileage may vary here. Rubin’s sage wisdom likely won’t change your life, but I bet you’ll come out of it thinking about your creative practice a little differently.
The Weekly Chicago Show Calendar:
Thursday, Nov. 16: Cruel, Joyfriend, Footballhead at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Thursday, Nov. 16: Fire-Toolz, FRUIT Lo0ops, RXM Reality, Lipsticism at Hideout. Tickets.
Thursday, Nov. 16: Old Crow Medicine Show at Salt Shed. Tickets.
Friday, Nov. 17: Maggie Winters, Ian Abramson (Comedy) at Color Club. Tickets.
Friday, Nov. 17: Lee Ranaldo, Michael Vallera at Constellation. Tickets.
Friday. Nov. 17: Palehound, alexalone, OK Cool at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Friday, Nov. 17: Lucero, Jason Boland & The Strugglers. Tickets.
Friday, Nov. 17: Jake Xerxes Fussell, Rosali at Space. Tickets.
Saturday, Nov. 18: J.Y.N. at Schubas Upstairs. Sold out.
Saturday, Nov. 18: Liz Phair, Blondshell at Chicago Theatre. Tickets.
Saturday, Nov. 18: Dark Star Orchestra at Riviera Theatre. Tickets.
Monday, Nov. 20: Wild Nothing, zzzahara at House of Blues. Tickets.
Monday, Nov. 20: Kyle Kinane (Comedy) at Thalia Hall. Sold out.
Tuesday, Nov. 21: Speedy Ortiz, Spacemouth, Tension Pets at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Tuesday, Nov. 21: Kyle Kinane (Comedy) at Thalia Hall. Sold out.
Wednesday, Nov. 22: Melkbelly, Paper Mice, Godstar Megamax at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
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