Y'all ever get tired of music nerds telling y'all how getting into music was different back in the day? Yeah, me neither. Liner notes, zines, cable access shows, blind buys, VFW halls and later message boards, chat rooms and P2P networks. It's all word of mouth, in one form or another — the most obnoxious orators spitting out snobbish takes on what's worth your hard-earned cash.
If memory serves, which gets fuzzier every year now, Damien Jurado was recommended to me on one of the message boards I used to infrequently post via 56k modem, likely Slacker 66. I may have even bought a CD copy of Waters Ave S. through Slacker 66's mailorder, but do remember a handwritten note that accompanied the package: This one's special. Great pick!
When I was a teenager just getting into punk, hardcore and emo (and very narrow subsets of those scenes vis-à-vis the Christian underground), I had a limited understanding of what punk sounded like: loud, fast and hard. If it didn't satisfy at least 2 of those parameters, it could not be punk / I just wasted 12 bux. (This led to an early misunderstanding of Nothing Feels Good by The Promise Ring; thankfully, its pop-forward lessons were quickly learned.) So when I hit play on Damien Jurado's Waters Ave S., which was first released by Sub Pop and licensed to Tooth & Nail in 1997, my instincts kicked in: This is too slow and too soft! Where's the distortion?! I guess this is sorta emo, but what's with the acoustic guitar?
But then I started playing along to the songs on my guitar, which was pretty easy because "Wedding Cake," "The Joke is Over" and "Purple Anteater" were basically power chords + open strings. (Achievement unlocked for any punk just banging on two strings!) I liked his voice, which was unlike anything I'd heard at the time: nasal, but bellowing. Damien strained at his upper register, but was lost in the moment and the mess. His melodies were unruly, but charming. There's a sense that Damien wasn't really sure what kind of songwriter he wanted to be, yet, so there's a cocktail bossa nova ("Angel of May"), sing-alongs led by trombone ("Yuma, AZ") and theremin ("Space Age Mom"), straight-up punk ("The Joke is Over") and the quiet, acoustic songs that sorta defined his early career ("Halo Friendly" and "Treasures of Gold").
The thing is that Damien had bona fides: he'd had a punk band with David Bazan, he got mixtapes from Kurt Cobain, he lived at the House of Funk in Seattle, his bandmates included members of Blenderhead and Rose Blossom Punch. I didn't know any of that back then, but the more I listened to Waters Ave S., the more I heard a punk growing outward, not to mention a romantic with an open and easily broken heart.
Then my teenage brain had a eureka moment: It's all made up. Everything's punk. Nothing's punk. All that matters is the song. My relationship with the music that lit my world on fire started to flicker just as soon as it sparked… decades later, I'm still in a constant state of love and disillusion with punk. (Side note: In a conversation about Nirvana a little over a decade ago, Damien told me he started listening to folk music as a reaction to punk: "Yeah, for me, it was the year punk died.")
In these songs, I found feeling. You told all your friends, "He's someone I'd regret" / He's out there setting fires to / The demons in his head. I fell in love with the characters, some kooky and others just next door. She's wearing my sweater / She's asleep in my bedroom / She'll borrow my wardrobe for a week. I mistook finding light in the cracks (à la Leonard Cohen) for musings on heaven. He came from a nearby town / And showed up at your door / Says, "I'm here to take good care of you / And your children four."
That rough and ready restart after a decade in punk would find more stability by Rehearsals for Departure (1999) and as he'd experiment for the next two decades — from heartland rock (I Break Chairs) to the brilliant stretch of spacey soul records made with Richard Swift (Saint Bartlett, Maraqopa, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, Visions of Us on the Land) to the last few years that take a longview of his career but also just sound like records that only Damien Jurado could make. —Lars Gotrich
Stream the Viking's Choice playlist via BNDCMPR. Tracklist below:
Damien Jurado, "The Joke is Over"
Big Rig, "Crying in a Corn Maze"
Pinkshift, "i'm not crying you're crying"
TRUEORFALSE, "NEVER ENOUGH"
Plasmodulated, "Microscopic Horror"
Pays du Mat, "Kurugan"
Chris Forsyth, "Experimental & Professional"
Rudi Mahall & Michael Griener, "Einige Tage später im Polizeipräsidium..."
Tomotsugu Nakamura, "Poolside"
The Reds, Pinks & Purples, "The World Should Be Ashamed"
Clouds Collide, "Swandive"
The Lost Year, "Ghost (Bop Demo)"
Oren Ambarchi, "I"
Sam Gendel, "Uroko (鱗, fish scales)"
Laura Jean, "Teenager Again"
Horace Andy, "Feverish"
Tiers La Familia, "u came thru 4 me"
Unsane, "Organ Donor"
BlackLab (feat. Laetitia Sadier), "Crows, Sparrows and Cats"
Spider God, "The King of Denmark"
Minami Deutch, "Steller Waffle"
Chisel, "Do Go On"
Fred E. Scott, "Journey Within"
Swap Babies, "Catalyst"
Vorlust, "Venomous Scent"
Peter Brötzmann & Keiji Haino, "The beginning or the end which will be the first to admit its opponent?"
Eüsh, "Speaking Stones"
Plastic Furnace, "Dave Named Our Band (Slide)"
Aggi, "Jerry Hates Me"
Tuluum Shimmering, "Planet Caravan"