This week on the something old newsletter I’m discussing something that isn’t old and my own very personal experience with music listening, obviously. All my writing is about me first, music second.
Slow Mass is, by a wide margin, my favorite band from my beloved home city of Chicago, Illinois. They inspire something in me that I find hard to compare to other bands. That is, undoubtedly, due to the fact they are the only band I listen to that could come close to being termed post hardcore. I saw them live first in Kalamazoo, Michigan at Audiotree Fest when I was there tabling with Our Music My Body, a Chicago based campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault within music scenes. I stood next to the co-founder and then-volunteer coordinator, Matt, and watched as they spun through their set of perfectly blended post hardcore / indie rock songs. Singer and guitarist, Dave Collis, shouted out the organization I was there with, just as he did the last time I saw them. It ruled in 2018, it rules now. Here’s a photo I took that day:
I love Slow Mass. I love their dual vocals. I love the idiosyncratic way they release music. I love what they stand for. I love the beautiful packaging all of their physical music comes in, via purveyors of the most beautiful print media in the world Landland Colportage (and dnl hrs).
Anyway, they released the third in a series of 7 inches entitled Music For Ears like seven weeks ago or something. The previous two Music For Ears issues have included a Wilco cover that was originally done for Tim Crisp’s brilliant Better Yet podcast to benefit charity, a cover of I’ll Wait With You by Pygmy Lush (whose band name is spelled wrong on the jacket of the 7 inch but includes a beautifully printed apology and expression of love for the band on the inside), and an original song to pair with each of the covers.
This one, however, is alternate versions of two of my favorite Slow Mass songs. Portals to Oakland is a softer, haunting version of Portals to Hell, an all time favorite song of mine off their first EP Treasure Pains, driven by Mercedes Webb’s stunning voice. It takes the sprinting aggression of Portals to Hell and twists it into something somber and fragile. It is my favorite piece of music I’ve heard all year (which is ok even if it’s an alt version of one of my favorite songs).
The other song on it is Sub Yellow, a darker and quieter version of On Watch’s Suburban Yellow. This time the vocals are shared and feel hazy compared to its album counterpart. Even the build at the end that evokes the more chaotic sound mesh of Slow Mass’s longer releases.
Slow Mass was on the bill for the last pre-COVID gig I attended. Ratboys got to play their release show before everything shut down on the last day of February. Slow Mass and Advance Base served as support. It was at Lincoln Hall. I almost didn’t go.
I bought a ticket because I’d never seen Slow Mass play in an indoor space and Ratboys is cool but almost skipped out due to a months long bout of depression that manifested itself in a hypersensitivity to sounds that made my body feel physically itchy and my brain feel like crinkling paper. It’s a feeling I’m familiar with. It’s the reason this week’s newsletter isn’t about an old record. It’s the reason my last fm looks the way it does.
I’d been to see the lovely Ferret Bueller play at Schuba’s a couple weeks before and had to leave early as a result of this feeling. I couldn’t imagine going to a Ratboys gig alone and feeling any different.
But, with confirmation my friend Liz would be there and a promise from an aforementioned podcaster doing merch for Ratboys (who is far too kind to me) that he’d be there if I needed a break from the crowd, I went. I couldn’t get through Advance Base for all the reasons I didn’t want to go but, instead of leaving, I lingered in the bar and tried not to cry in the bathroom until it was over.
Then I went back in to watch Slow Mass and, for the first time since a Foxing show the summer prior, I felt calm at a show. All the nails on chalkboard discomfort in my brain that I’d been feeling for months was drowned out and loosened as they played. It was a kind of pure, inspiring experience I haven’t had with live music in a long time. They played Portals to Oakland. They played Bruce Lee. It was perfect.
Afterwards I strategically avoided my favorite music journalist in the crowd but felt comfortable enough to go actually say hi to Tim Crisp and buy a few things from merch. I also found Liz and her partner and got through Ratboys’ set of songs, new and old, without too much stress.
Then, as I’ve done countless times before, I wrapped myself in my coat and waited on the Fullerton platform with other buzzing Ratboys fans to take the Brown Line back to Montrose and my apartment.
I didn’t expect that to be the last show I’d get to go to before moving away from Chicago for the foreseeable future (sheesh are all these newsletters gonna be about moving?!) but I can’t think of a better one to go out on. A bill full of Chicago bands in a venue I’ve loved since the first time I saw the sign. What was beginning to feel like an uncharacteristic warmth toward live music again.
And then, well, you know what happened.
You can still purchase vinyl copies of Music For Ears 3, I believe, and you should. If ya live in Chicago, maybe Dave will even be kind enough to drop it off for you and park like this outside your apartment or let you pet a cute dog he brought with him (thanks dave!!).
Music For Ears 3 was released on June 5th, 2020 via Landland Colportage.
And Some Self Reflection, I Guess
While I was writing about that Slow Mass show I realized that the feeling of auditory relief I was describing is something that I almost exclusively associate with repeat listens of songs.
I have a lot of issues with sounds that I’ve never really spent time exploring. I’ve always had problems with sounds like chewing and swallowing and that stuff. Human sounds. It makes my skin crawl just to type the word “chewing”. But I realized recently that much of how I experience music, recorded and live, is through the filter of this sensitivity to sound.
Since before I had the vocabulary to describe feeling depressed or anxious and before I understood the way all of these things impact an eating disorder that was born early in my life, I’ve used repeating songs and sounds to calm myself. In middle school it was Vanilla Twilight by Owl City all the time.
More recently, I’ve listened to Tunnel by Frankie Cosmos 619 times since it came out last year because I listened to that song exclusively for weeks, over and over again. Another Frankie Cosmos song, Accommodate, is the only song I’ve listened to more since 2018 (when I started my last.fm) at 672. I heard 12 Steps by Japanese Breakfast for the first time at the beginning of July and have listened to that song over 300 times. You get the picture.
I also can only sleep while listening to something familiar. For the last few months it’s been this youtube video, which is pretty funny. Whatever, it works.
The flipside of my fixation on one song at a time is that frequently, when I’m feeling depressed or stressed or bad about myself, listening to full albums and constantly changing songs puts my brain into such a frenzy I can’t focus. My body is itchy. I pick at my skin. Every sound feels like this massive irritation. Music playing loudly will do this too, usually. I once asked my twitter followers if I could do anything to make the minimum volume that could be played through headphones lower. Movies and tv sometimes have a similar effect.
I’m no good in the quiet though. I need some kind of sound. So I put on a song on repeat. I’m feeling bad today so today it’s Tunnel. Usually it’s Tunnel.
I’ve come to think that repeat listens to songs gives me a sense of control over my environment and emotions that, through many years of eating disorder therapy, I’ve come to realize I cling to. My insistence on only listening to playlists is an expression of needing a consistent and intentional auditory environment to be able to do, well, anything.
For a long time I would argue I’m not a “music writer” despite writing a bunch of zines almost exclusively about music. Half of that is just me doing a bit, but the other half is because I can’t sit down and listen to albums. My ability to listen to and enjoy music, or even have a level reaction to it, is so often dictated by this physical reaction to sound I’m not sure how to control.
Of course, it is valid to just write about what you like but this never felt like that. My writing, for the most part, comes from day or week or months long fixation on one song or one album as a reflection of this negative physical reaction I have to sound. Doesn’t mean it can’t be music writing, just means that it’s mostly personal essays about myself.
I’m not sure what my hope is in writing this. Maybe one of you has a similar experience and has some tips. Or maybe I just want to express a frustration that came to my mind while talking about a band that calmed my brain for a half hour five months ago. Who knows. I listened to Tunnel 29 times while I wrote this.
Next week I’m talking Laura Stevenson and the new Happy Accidents record. Later losers.
Miranda Reinert is a zine maker based in Chicago until the end of this month in which she will be a zine maker and law student based in Philadelphia. She is looking for friends. Follow me on Twitter for more on music and other garbage @mirandareinert. Thanks for reading!
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