Quitting while you're ahead

In the book Don't All Thank Me at Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller, Brett Milano tells the story of Scott Miller, leader of the bands Game Theory and the Loud Family. Have you heard of them? If not, that's not surprising. One of the main points of the book was how Miller never became as well known as many of his contemporaries. Miller wrote great songs and, like many talented musicians, deserved to be famous, or at least better known than he was.

I was strongly affected by reading the book. I felt that I understood a lot of what Miller went through and what I perceived to be his thought process. I feel the same way as he did about music, have always sought people who were as passionate as I am, and have never found them. I understand his bafflement that others can't see how wonderful it is to make great music and that it's worth the effort to try to have that music heard more widely and indeed to make a living at it. I also understand writing songs that come out of real experiences, songs that are sometimes cutting, sometimes even cruel, or at least seem so. Writing songs, good, bad, and ugly, is that way songwriters deal with their lives.

Scott Miller ended his own life in 2013. As much as I related to his story, I am not him. But the similarities are striking, similarities that include thoughts of suicide. That is want I want to deal with here. You have been warned.

Miller's suicide stunned everyone, including his wife. Those close to him knew that he had lived with depression for a long time, but no one anticipated him making an early exit, especially at a time that he seemed to be doing well and to have plans for a new recording.

I have read that people don't commit suicide when they are in the depths of depression. That makes sense. Taking your own life requires energy, and you don't have any when you're at the bottom. I have also read that the time when depressive people commit suicide is when they have just come out of a hole, when enough energy has returned. They said that about Kurt Cobain.

Maybe it's true for some. But I have a different idea.

Be aware that while I do have thoughts about ending my life, I have never gone so far as to make an actual plan. Even much of my thinking about it is more along the lines of "maybe everyone around me would be better off if I were gone" or "I'm making so little difference, what's the point?" That's not even close to a plan. I have managed to muddle along thus far in my life and imagine that I will continue to do so.

Still, there are times, more than I would like, when thoughts about shuffling off this mortal coil are strong. Certainly that's not when I'm in a serious, draining funk. But for me, at least, it's not when I'm coming out of a funk either. When that happens, I feel hopeful. Even a tiny bit better is welcome and keeps me going. No, the times when the thoughts are strongest is when you might think suicide to be the least likely: when things are going well and I'm feeling very good.

How can that make sense? Why would I think about suicide when things are good and I'm doing well? It's called going out at the top. I hate depression. I hate the lows. I hate the lack of energy. I hate the sadness. I struggle against it. I don't do suffering very well. So when I'm feeling good, I don't want it to end. I don't want to go back into the deep. I want to die happy.

From what I know, Kurt Cobain was actually in a pretty good place just before he left us. He had his troubles with his wife Courtney Love, but that was ongoing. He dearly loved his daughter Frances Bean and loved being a father. As is the case with many men, being a father gave his life a purpose that fulfilled him in a different way than music. Maybe he was afraid of losing that. By committing suicide, of course he did lose it. But he wasn't around to know.

Is that similar to what happened with Scott Miller? We might never know. If his wife Kristine knows, she's not telling, and that must be respected. But maybe it was precisely because his life was at a pretty good point. He was married to a women he loved and who loved him, and they had two daughters whom he adored. He was a good father. He had a good life. He still had a fanatical cult following, and he was planning a new project. Did it all seem too fragile to him? Was he afraid that things would go bad again? Did he want to nip a decline in the bud?

I don't know. But I can't imagine that I am the only person who gets stronger suicidal thoughts when things are good because of fear that the good won't last.


My musical 2015: an embarrassment of riches

I'm not a music reviewer. I'm just a musician who loves music, both a music maker and a music fan. Some music touches me deeply, resonates with my body, fills me with emotion or intellectual appreciation or both. Some does not do any of that. That's pretty much how I evaluate albums.

These are the albums released in 2015 that I bought (or, in one case, was given—thanks!). I listened to each album as a whole, at least a few times. I also put the songs on my phone with shuffle play on so I could listen to individual tracks on car trips. That way I heard songs out of their context, which is a different experience. Sometimes it made me realize there were more good songs on an album than I had realized. Sometimes I found myself skipping tracks in the car that I enjoyed when listening to the album.

As always, this is nowhere near the number of albums, possibly significant ones, that came out this year. But you don't need me to review Adele's 25, right? My taste skews toward indie rock—with guitars—but I expanded my horizons a bit this year (helped by Jessica Hopper, a live show, my former choir and, believe it or not, So You Think You Can Dance). Sweetie says I need some male artists, but I'm just not feeling male vocals these days, although I would like to check out more of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, which sits atop several "best of" lists.

If anyone thinks there is no good music coming out now, they aren't looking very hard. 2015 was a banner year.

PINS - Wild Nights

This might be the best album to come out this year. Or maybe not. But it's definitely the one that I love to listen to the most, that makes me feel good, that resonates with my own musician self more than any other. That's what PINS have done for me from the start, and even more with Wild Nights, their second full-length, on which they have taken their psychedelic pop rock to a new level. I love the beauty of wonderfully blended guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums. I love the individual musicianship and the ensemble playing. I love the sound of musicians playing in an actual room, with drums sounding great but also very real. I am impressed with the drum recording but even more with the drumming. I love the songs—really all of them, but maybe especially, "Young Girls," "Curse These Dreams," "Too Little Too Late," and "Molly." I love the songs individually (in my car) but even more in the context of the album. I call this album an absolute gem, and I bet PINS have much more to show us.

Seeing PINS live for the second time just added to the enjoyment. Even when the room is nowhere near full (as by all rights it ought to be), these women put on an energetic, fun, spontaneous show. And they are friendly and personable and good for a chat after a set. What more could a fan ask for?

Wax Idols - American Tragic

I have been a fan of Wax Idols since their first album of reverbed punk pop that shone with great songs. Each subsequent album has challenged me, made me decide whether I was going to go along with the musical shift or not. With American Tragic, I'm definitely on board. With each listen, I'm more impressed with just how powerful and assured a record this is. Leader Hether Fortune has dramatized her marriage and subsequent divorce into a nine-song personal journey. The early releases "Lonely You," "I'm Not Going," and "Deborah" are all stand-outs. "Severely Yours" grabs me at least as hard, as do the lead-off song "A Violent Transgression" and the closer "Seraph." I'm not going to get all stalky about lyrics talking to me, but lines like "I am punished for my dreams" and "I'd do anything, anything for love" go straight to my soul. And I really admire the cheek of a songwriter lifting one of the most famous Bob Dylan lines ever, not to mention the cheek of an indie performer creating an album this big, this accessible, this potentially commercial. In a just world, Wax Idols songs would be all over the radio.

When I heard Wax Idols were finally on a tour that would take them as far as Seattle but not Vancouver, there was no way I was going to miss that, damn the distance and expense. The show (and getting to chat with Hether, who was delightful) was impassioned, well worth the effort to get there.

Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer

I discovered Speedy Ortiz through She Shreds, the awesome magazine and website for female guitarists and bassists. No sooner had I become enamoured of the twists and turns of their debut album Major Arcana when they released Foil Deer, their killer follow-up. This is the first album on my list that shows up on pretty much every other list as well, and deservedly so. I marvel at how singer-guitarist Sadie Dupuis comes up with these weird chord patterns that nonetheless end up melodic in a strange but pleasing way. She is also one of those lyric writers with an extensive vocabulary and ability to put words together in arresting ways. She and her band (with new guitarist Devin McKnight) create a great musical ensemble. As I read in one review, the guitars and bass seem like they shouldn't even fit together, and yet they do, wonderfully. "Raising the Skate" and "The Graduates" are obvious stand-out songs, but "My Dead Girl" and "Puffer" get very stuck in my head.

When Sweetie and I saw Speedy in Vancouver last spring, Sadie and bass player Darl Fern were hanging out before their set, watching the band that played before. It was nice to say hi and chat a little. She's shy, so I appreciate that she even hangs out.

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett makes some of the most refreshing sounds to come out of my speakers/headphones in a long time. She's a rock musician! A guitarist with a great (and hairy) rhythm section! There are so many great songs on this album. I love Barnett's lyrics, her way of observing, her storytelling. "Elevator Operator" and "Pedestrian At Best" are killer opening songs. "Dead Fox," "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party," "Debbie Downer" are all great. "Depreston" makes my cry. And I hope I get to see her play live before too long. From videos I've seen, she plays with passion and fire, and I love that.

Kathryn Calder - Kathryn Calder

The band in which Kathryn Calder sings and plays, The New Pornographers, were short-listed for this year's Polaris Prize. This album, her third solo record, was not even long-listed. What a miss! There are some absolutely killer songs here. I started to list the ones that I love especially, but I was listing them all, so I stopped. "If You See My Blood" is particularly powerful. "Song in Cm" and "Arm in Arm" are two more favourites among favourites. Calder is a gifted lyricist and composer who always touches my heart and sometimes breaks it—in the way that music should.

La Luz - Weirdo Shrine

An homage to the Fender Twin Reverb amplifier, full of reverb (of course) and that beautiful tremolo. Also, real music made by a real band, a band that survived a terrible vehicle crash. I don't know if it made them stronger, but this is a really strong album. I also don't know how fancy La Luz got in the studio, but this music sounds basically live. And as much as I can appreciate studio craftsmanship, that's fine by me. I even love the amp buzz at the beginning of tracks, because it's real. This album starts quietly and explodes. The guitar solo on "You Disappear" is fierce! So many other great tracks as well.

Shana Cleveland & the Sandcastles - Oh Man, Cover the Ground

And now for something completely different—and yet by the same Shana Cleveland who is the guitarist and singer for La Luz. Oh Man, Cover the Ground was released earlier in the year and features her excellent acoustic guitar playing and singing. The songs sound like Americana folk songs, but they are her own creation. "Butter and Eggs," "Holy Rollers," "Itching Around" are all outstanding among other beautiful songs.

Chastity Belt - Time to Go Home

For a band that started as a joke—because they wanted to have a band called Chastity Belt—they sure aren't a joke anymore. This is a collection not only of great songs but of songs that say something about what it's like to be a 20-something woman in today's world. Sometimes they get carried away with their jams (I like "On the Floor" but the decelerating ending feels a bit much), but I do admire the audacity of musicians who dare to push themselves instrumentally. And what is rock if not audacious?

We could have seen them play live if we had squeezed going to the show into a day that was already too full when we were pretty knackered. I wish we had!

Florence + The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Right from the start, you can hear this is a different Florence + The Machine album than the previous two. More of that gorgeous, expressive voice, less bombast. Better songs. Still big production, but harder, edgier. Standout songs include "Ship to Wreck," "What Kind of Man," "Queen of Peace," "Caught." I got a bit weary of Ceremonials except for the hits, but I think this one will stay with me.

Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color

I was late discovering Alabama Shakes, but I'm glad I finally did. Brittany Howard's voice alone would be enough to win me over, but we also have a great band. Sometimes I think the performances are better than the songs, and I could do without the glossy production on this album—I think it works better when we hear more of the band. I love how the album starts with the quiet "Sound and Color" and then Howard comes in with that unearthly sound that sends shivers up your spine, and "Don't Wanna Fight" kicks in. "Shoegaze" is another highlight. Most of the songs work better for me in the context of the album rather than as individual songs on my shuffle.

THEESatisfaction - EarthEE

Cool jazz? Trip-hop? Smooth R&B? Space rock? THEESatisfaction don't let categories stop them from exploring whatever they want. When I saw them open for Sleater-Kinney (and engage me more than S-K did), the singing/rapping duo hit harder than what I hear on this album. Even so, they were more about drawing you in than getting in your face. "Planet for Sale," "Blandland," "Nature's Candy," and the title song stand out for me. Sometimes the music becomes pleasant background, but overall there's a lot to listen to here.

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love

Of course I wanted to love this album. And I think I approached it without too many expectations. And given that, I liked it well enough. I gave it the full treatment in a post I wrote when the album first came out, and I still feel pretty much the same way. I think the album sounds really good, with great playing (probably stronger than ever). And it sounded even better when I saw them live. But that concert also pointed out just how much better the older material sounds. "Mature" Sleater-Kinney is still pretty good, but there are younger, hungrier bands that get me more excited now.

Positive No - GLOSSA

I can't remember why I followed Tracy Wilson on Twitter, but doing so led me to this album from her Virginia-based band Positive No. GLOSSA is an album I appreciate more intellectually than emotionally. The band is made up of four very creative musicians trading off each other, and that includes Wilson's vocals, which often are mixed like another instrument, barely rising over the top. The music is sometimes melodic, often dissonant, art post-punk. The lyrics are clever, with interesting turns of phrase and images like "bus stop cigarettes burn when you're gone." "Weird Hugs" "You Shoot, I Ladder" "Marjorie & Royal" are songs that catch my attention. I like it better when Wilson sings out than when she does breathy, almost whispered vocals, drawing out the words she is singing. I have listened to the album only a few times, and it's growing on me.

Waxahatchee - Ivy Tripp

Cerulean Salt was my introduction to Katie Crutchfield, who records as Waxahatchee. She was an indie darling, but even though I love primitive that album mostly did not not engage me. Ivy Tripp feels like a big step forward. "Under a Rock" (like vintage Crazy Horse), "Poison," "The Dirt," and "Grey Hair" catch my ear. Crutchfield goes full-on singer-songwriter on the three-quarter-time "Summer of Love" to beautiful effect. "Stale by Noon" makes me a bit crazy, but that might be because I hate the Fender Rhodes sound. The repetitive programmed drums on songs such as "Air" and "<" ("less than") I'm not big on either. Overall, though, I like what Crutchfield has done here. This is another that I like more in context than as individual songs.

Metric - Pagans in Vegas

Synthesizers have always been part of Metric's sound, no more so than on their album Synthetica. Now with Pagans in Vegas they have made a completely synth-based album. If there is any guitar in this mix, it's acoustic. Instead of playing, Jimmy gets to sing a song! I think this album works best when the songs are distinctly Metric songs, such as the way the album starts with "Lie Lie Lie," "Fortunes," and "The Shade," and later with "For Kicks." I also love the haunting "The Governess," which is really different than I have heard from Metric before. I think it works much less well when the song loses out to the purposely clichéd synth dance melody and beat. Really, "Celebrate" and "Cascades" could be any 1980s dance band. Is that the idea? I love Emily Haines's voice, but it can't redeem a sub-par song. And without that voice, the closing instrumental tracks are skippable. Apparently the next album will be back to guitars. I look forward to that.

Shannon and the Clams - Gone by the Dawn

Goddess knows I love vintage sounds and lo-fi production. And I know I'm supposed to like Shannon and the Clams. "Kinda like" is the best I can do. This record is touted as going beyond their 1950s and '60s nostalgia. Sometimes it does, but it feels mostly like shtick to me. And if you love that shtick, great. Shannon Shaw does have an interesting voice when she doesn't try to push it too low, and some of the songs stand out for me: "Point of Being Right," "Corvette," "Telling Myself." "Knock 'em Dead" is a curious bit of early punk. The on-purpose cheesy keyboard sounds get old for me—right off the bat, actually, on "I Will Miss the Jasmine." The repetition of the refrain on "If You're Gone by the Dawn" tries my patience. If find that I can enjoy listening to the entire album when I'm in the mood. On shuffle play in my car, I'm likely to skip to the next song.

Screaming Females - Rose Mountain

I love Marissa Paternoster's playing. I'm not quite as fond of her singing, although I think this is the best singing she has done to date. And even though her songs are fine, they're not great songs. For the most part, they don't stick with me, although the title song works well. Her playing does stick with me, which is really the point, I guess, although possibly not what Paternoster wants most. "Empty Head" is verse riff plus portentous metal chorus that doesn't fit with verse riff. "Wishing Well" quiet and melodic, good stuff (although solo goes a bit awry). "Hopeless" is slow as well with a strong melody.

Missing: Best Coast - California Nights, which I haven't bought, although they're getting very big and shiny these days. Veruca Salt - Ghost Notes, also don't have. I heard that they were great on their reunion tour.

Live shows: Sleater-Kinney (with THEESatisfaction), PINS, Speedy Ortiz, Namoli Brennet, Wax Idols, L7, the Richard Thompson Trio, and soon Tacocat. Sadly, the Potty Mouth show in Vancouver was cancelled.