I love live music. More than that, I love live music fans, and music fans in general. This piece is basically about being a music fan, and was inspired when I saw the band Bad Moves open for The Hold Steady in 2018 at the Brooklyn Bowl. They were touring on the back of their first full length, Tell No One. While at the Bad Moves/ Hold Steady show a music geek introduced me to a band called Swearin’. Swearin’ has been around a little longer than Bad Moves, and in 2018 had released Fall Into the Sun. The two bands don’t really sound all that much alike (Bad Moves is basically “Power Pop” and Swearin’ is basically “Indie”) but they write somewhat similarly about matters of love and friendship.
Let’s play a game that we live in a world where a record by a band like Bad Moves or Swearin’ would produce radio hits. I want to live in that world. Or maybe I don’t; maybe it’s better for everyone that bands like these stay a little more on the DL. Let’s first take a look at Fall Into the Sun. (Swearin’s frontwoman is Allison Crutchfield, and the band is mostly her baby.) My pick for the single would be the lead off track, “Big Change.” It starts with a simple, slightly scratchy guitar line over which Crutchfield softly speak-sings:
The best years of our lives/ were spent in some stranger’s basement/ medley made of empty cans and ex’s/ and that radical romantic conversation/ about how we are like mutants/ who found each other by chance through rock ‘n roll music
clenched fist, eyes wild/ scream over the records, you artfully complied/ while I put my bad faith into practice/ sit at home on Saturday night/ ease into my false sense of superiority/ no art degree, no conservatory/ just Katie and me
I really like what Crutchfield does here. She is basically writing about a friendship solidified over a shared love of music. Now, I know a lot of people. I also have some friends. When you ask an adult, “How many real friends do you have?” the number will vary widely. A lot of people will say “four or five,” something like that. People in general have surprisingly few real friends. I have ten or fifteen, maybe more, but am only in regular contact with about half that number. A good friendship, in my opinion, is one where no matter how long you and your friend have not hung out, if you see them it’s as if not a day has passed. With this sort of friend, I’ve found, there is between yourself and them something fundamental shared. It can be anything really. For example, I first met my good buddy when we were both in graduate school in Arizona, and at first I thought he was a total dick. He was loud, interrupted people constantly, and loved being the center of attention. One night we were drinking as a department and he started razzing me there on the street, just casually insulting me left and right. Suddenly I got where he was coming from. This was, in fact, his way of offering to be friends. Once I understood this, I began to give it right back to him. Called him every name in the book. And he ate it up. By the end of the night we were fast friends and have been ever since, because we share an understanding that our friendship is based on ripping on each other. Music, obviously, is another great basis for a friendship.
When Crutchfield sings “no art degree, no conservatory/ just Katie and me,” I’m reminded of the refrain from Don DiLillo’s Underworld: “who’s better than us.” If they can do it, why not us? Fuck ’em. That’s what attitude looks like kids–take notes.
So “Big Change” is my single from Fall Into the Sun. (“My single” here just means the song I would choose as the single. For some records, the single is super obvious, while for other records it’s debatable. Bands and producers, in my opinion, do not always get this right.) A good record will tend to have at least two singles; three is a bonus.
For Fall Into the Sun’s second single I’ll go with “Grow into a Ghost.” It opens with a chugging guitar riff with an almost Krautrock drum line. The song is a perfect 3:10–in and out. Do you know anything about lost love? Swearin’ does–here’s verse II:
I write you ceaselessly and abstracted/ I hang out with old friends/ and they unknowingly remind me/ of who I was before we met/ you were somewhere out in the desert/ you frame the natural light perfectly/ will you come back soon and/ let me love you completely
and the chorus: “I watch you/ I watch you grow into a ghost.”
Swearin’ is good, but Bad Moves is better. And the star of Bad Moves is the exquisite Katie Park. (I know they are a collective, but my world is my world baby.) Before their show Katie was at the merch table selling…magic eye! That she made by hand. And what did it say? The magic eye said “Bad Moves.” Obviously. I checked it out and chatted for a few minutes with Katie, trying to play it cool. It was the highlight of my year. 20 minutes later she and the band were on stage, crushing it.
The single here is pretty easy. It’s “Crushed Out.” The band released “Crushed Out,” “Spirit FM” and “Cool Generator” as the singles, all of which are excellent. Maybe “Spirit FM” is catchier than “Crushed Out”? Possible. But “Crushed Out” has more lasting power in my opinion. “Crushed Out” is about exactly what it sounds like. It has a basically perfect power pop structure with a killer hook, a classic bridge, and a theme at once super obvious and super deep–the power of a crush.
It was a strange infatuation/ I couldn’t place it at the time/ but now it seems as if my mind/ was all stopped up with you/ I had no sense of aspiration/ I didn’t know, I guess it’s fine/ but now it seems so obvious/ did it seem so obvious?
through all my fits of desperation/ sharing looks and passing notes/ what did you make of what I wrote?/ what could I ask of you?/ the weeks of strained communication/ could you read between the lines/ or was it just so obvious?
Baby, if you are crush-prone that power never goes away. Bad Moves knows this–it’s kind of what the record is about. Crushing out that way can be pretty obvious–do you think I’m crushing out on Katie at all? Nah, this is just a piece of music appreciation.
Cool Generator is my second favorite song on the album, but my “sneaky favorite” is “Missing You.” A sneaky favorite is just what it sounds like: it’s that song that may fly under most people’s radar but that you have a special soft spot for. My all time sneaky favorite song is “Three Drinks” by Craig Finn of the aforementioned Hold Steady. Three Drinks shows up on Finn’s 2016 EP Newmyer’s Roof. It’s nearly acoustic, unlike most Hold Steady songs, and sounds just a little bit country. Three Drinks is about a woman (most great songs are) who may have been a child star once upon a time, and is now a drinker. It is an example of a certain type of song that Finn is amazing at, the deeply empathetic look at adult relationships in all of their gloriously flawed complexity. In this sense, Three Drinks fits in with “Spinners” from The Hold Steady’s 2014’s Teeth Dreams, “Tangletown” from Finn’s 2017 solo record We All Want the Same Things, and “Esther” a Hold Steady single from 2018. Finn’s writing on Three Drinks and Tangletown is at its absolute apex. Here’s the opening to verse two of Three Drinks:
There was bloodsucker blues in the lobby at dusk/ she blew smoke in my face and it felt like a bus/ the chef cut his finger off the waiter got fired/ I only took notes to try to come off inspired
Come on man. The refrain focuses on that magic hour between drinks 3 and 4, when matters begin to move from the slightly anxious first stage of the evening to something entirely other:
It takes 1 2 3 drinks/ and now she’s not so frightened/ it takes 4 and 5 and 6/ and then she’s sick/ but in the hour in between/ she feels holy and redeemed/ blessed and blissful/ painless and serene
And then Finn delivers this killer quatrain:
She left the room to put on her face/ I went through her purse/ it was all pills and mace/ she said its so hard to choose between space and time/ she mostly just smoked and drank wine
It was all pills and mace, baby. Man Craig Finn can write.
So anyway, my sneaky favorite on Tell No One is “Missing You.” The song starts like the others, high-speed power pop, and after two verses switches to a near-spoken word breakdown of the tug-of-war between a crush and the expectations of the world around. Guess which wins?
Something inside told me I shouldn’t do/ things that set my heart racing, the dreams I held to/ so I wrapped them up tight and hid them from view/ and gave them a name I called “Missing You”/
every cop in the city and the family I knew/ the church and the pastor all said I shouldn’t do/ but their pleas for contrition just couldn’t break through/ not one of them stronger than missing you
I officially support these sentiments. And look what the band does with the simplest rhyming possible: “knew,” “do,” “through,” and “you.” High level.
So that’s my sneaky favorite –doesn’t mean it’s better than “Crushed Out” (it isn’t) it’s just a little sneaky. I’m all about sneaky favorites, on all levels.
In addition to the Magic Eye, Bad Moves also engage in a little publishing. A little literature. Specifically they publish a pamphlet called “The Virtues of Wearing White.” Check this out:
Chatting with Katie, she acknowledged more than a passing familiarity with the literature of the Jehovah Witnesses. I love Witness literature. Both Witness and Bad Moves publications have a real “it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day” vibe. If you know me this is not a secret, but I’m a hardcore closet New Ager. There, secret’s out. I’ve messed around with all kinds of New Age action. Once I attended a Kabbala meetup in Manhattan. There were some hardcore New Agers there too, seriously. Those folks were not in the closet at all. Shining eyes, whatever color they are wearing. Me, I like black because it’s easier to launder, but Bad Moves have me thinking. (One other publication you should take a look at if you are into this kind of thing is the Christian Science Monitor. It’s a serious piece of literature. God is great baby, god is great.)
When I was younger my parents had a friend called Tom Hutchinson, who, predictably, went by “Hutch.” Hutch owned a boutique coffee shop there in town and I drove a delivery van for him for a bit. But that’s another story. Anyway, Hutch was a weird guy and he hated the Witnesses. It was one of his favorite topics. He’d call them the “Witlesses,” and say: “When they come to my house I turn the hose on ’em.” People thought this was pretty funny, but I was not that into Hutch’s attitude to the Witnesses. I mean, he didn’t want anyone trying to convert him on his property, which is fair; however, I felt, and still feel, that if someone wants to come to my door, give me a little literature, and talk about how god loves me I’m gonna let them. I genuinely like the Witnesses. They seem like lovely people.
I mentioned that I was introduced to Swearin’ by a music geek, and this is true. This dude was called Austin, and he was about 23 or so. Austin is the single biggest music geek I’ve ever met, and I’ve known a few. He’s the sort of guy who not only knows every song of his favorite bands, he knows all the details of the line-up changes, the label shifts, band drama, all of it. His favorite band was the Hold Steady, and he was there for all three nights of their stand at The Brooklyn Bowl. (I was just there for two). His musical knowledge was absolutely phenomenal, and he understood what a sneaky favorite was right away. In fact, I asked him what he thought my sneaky favorite Hold Steady/ Craig Finn song was (Finn has written about a dozen records since starting the Hold Steady), and he thought for half a second before guessing Three Drinks. I loved this guy Austin right away.
“How do you know so much about music?” I asked. “Well, it’s pretty much all I do,” he said “and I don’t sleep much.” Austin was working for some kind of real estate start-up in Virginia or North Carolina or somewhere, but he was up in NYC going to shows for an extended period of time. As a matter of fact, so was I. Austin was high-level all the way around, and at one thing he was world-class. On the first night he and I were among the early arrivers, and we hung out near the stage for a couple of hours before Bad Moves came on. Hold Steady fans are pretty much fanatics, and along with Austin and I there were a handful of serious Steadyheads who were there early to grab their slice of territory right in front of the stage. They were super possessive about the space they had claimed, and they all seemed to know each other. This crew was welcoming enough to me as a newcomer to their little universe, but they were also a little cliquey. At that time I was in my extroverted mode and I was rapping with all and sundry. There was this one guy I specifically remember who sized me up and said “I want to not like you, but there’s some kind of aura around you man.” Thanks buddy.
In any case, the Bowl filled up and by the time the Hold Steady took the stage there were over a thousand people, or more, and it was packed. Also, there was no side way back out of the crowd; if you were up front you had to pick your way back through the crowd. If you have to go to the restroom at a show like this it can be really tough to get back through everyone to reclaim your spot. That is, unless you are Austin.
During the two nights I hung out with him, Austin was a little distracted cause he was texting a woman who kept saying she was going to come to meet him at the shows but never did. So he was alternately watching the show from the front, and then slipping all the way back to the lobby to text. I saw him texting away on a lobby couch on night two and said to him, “You have the look of a man who is getting stood up.” “That’s what’s going on man,” said Austin.
However, even if he was in the back for chunks of the shows, when it was time for the encores Austin wanted to get right back up front. Now I have pulled this move off before as well, and it usually involves a highly strategic and painstaking process of looking for gaps in the crowd and gently nudging by people to get up front. Once you reach the general stage area, as mentioned above, people there are pretty stuck into their space and won’t be moved easily. I am generally happy in a big crowd if I can get into like the front 20% of the zone. So when Austin invited me to get back up front for the encores, I told him that might be tough. “Just follow me,” he said, and started moving through the crowd at a kind of half jog.
When Austin started moving, something absolutely incredible happened. The crowd parted in front of him without him seemingly having to touch a single person. He hit the holes like a halfback, had moves like Barry Sanders. I followed right behind him, just like he said and we were hugging the stage in a matter of seconds. I knew then that I was in the presence of greatness. I also knew that he was my friend.
Postscript: Bad Moves released their second full-length in 2020, which was called Untenable. My single (and theirs) from Untenable is “Party With the Kids Who Wanna Party With You,” which, predictably, rocks. Party with the kids who wanna party with you–that’s pretty excellent life advice right there.
Dedication: For Austin. And Katie, obviously.