cw

My Love Affair with Carissa's Wierd

Show Date: November 16, 2003

"Let's start at the beginning" Mat Brooke said as Carissa's Wierd launched into "Heather Rhodes" and the first song of their last show. The only way for me to truly talk about their last show is to start at the beginning — maybe not the beginning of Carissa's Wierd itself, but the beginning of my love affair with the band.

It seemed fitting that my experience with Carissa's Wierd started at the same place it would end: the Crocodile. Back in November of 2000 when I went to see the Delgados, I noticed a lot of Stranger press for the opening band, Carissa's Wierd. That night, that first show, was one of the best moments. I still remember: I was leaning against that post near the devil-headed bar in the back and they started to play. It was one of those moments that you see hundreds of unknown bands for, when you suddenly raise your head from getting liquored up and find yourself squarely faced with brilliance, and push forward through the crowd trying to get a better look at the band members, while thinking "What's this? This is it!"

They had the soft, melancholic intensity that has always been dear to me and drawn me to it — like Elliott Smith, Belle and Sebastian, or Leonard Cohen. That first show was a wonderfully personal show full of nervousness and misqueues and it felt fresh and new. I bought a copy of Ugly But Honest that night and began listening to the cd for the first of what must be… well, I listened to it a lot.

It was the best of times, like with any new love affair. I poured through the tracks, through the unrefined but beautiful songs like "Drunk with the Only Saints I Know" "One Night Stand," and the aforementioned "Heather Rhodes," songs that blended the voices of Mat Brooke and Jenn Ghetto along with the elegant violin of Sarah Standard and percussion that would be covered by many different people, but always seemed to include Ben Bridewell.

It was the little things I loved about CW in those early days when I was dragging friends to the shows with me. You know those little things: the way Mat Brooke always played sitting down and spent forever tuning his guitar (and the other band members gave him a hard time for it). The sheer appreciation that the band members had for you being there, or that people were actually 'shushed' for talking during the show. The little things, like how Microsoft Word would automatically switch the 'ie' back to 'ei' and how you could spend a couple of hours trying to turn that little 'feature' off.

Those were the best days because it was all so new and I was trying to soak up as much of that radiance as I possibly could because, well, you never know what is going to happen with bands, or love affairs, and I was very, very afraid. I feared that CW's second album could not possibly top the first.

{ed note: commonly known as the Exile in Guyville effect. -igDana}

And then, so slowly, You Should Be At Home Here came to exist.

I had heard from a friend that CW would play some new material at the Baltic Room in what must have been early 2001. They had just finished recording the album, and this was going to be the first real chance to listen to them go through the new material. This seemed dangerous, it was a weekday night — we were tired, they were tired, and we had never heard the music. Plus, rumor had it most of them were sick with the flu. How can that go well?

But it did go well, and I immediately noticed three things about the new songs. First, Jenn Ghetto only did back up vocals on the album and I thought that was bad. Second, the violin was much more integrated into the music and I thought that was great. Third, it didn't really matter what some pretentious fan like myself thought: it was obvious that CW knew exactly what they were doing on their own path, and I was totally lucky to buy a ticket and enjoy the ride. After the show there were only really two questions — when and where could I get my sweaty little palms on a copy of the cd, record, or 8-track tape? Then it became apparent that it was going to be a much longer wait than I wanted.

See, you actually have to have this thing called money to put out an album — and it turned out that Carissa was going to be a very poor girlfriend. As the months began to pass by the rumor started circulating that Sonic Boom was going to pony up some money to help cover the cost of making cds.

Finally the day came, along with a midnight release party at Sonic Boom in Fremont, and then an official release party a few weeks later at Graceland. Several friends and I showed up early in Fremont for the show and it was a great, intimate affair where I learned one very important lesson: don't try and get a good 'seat' for the show at a record release party — go get the record first, because sometimes they run out of that little cd and you have to wait until the 'official' record release party. But that was ok, because anticipation is often something enjoyable in itself.

{ed note: this was the first time I ever saw Carissa's Wierd, and the monumentous event did indeed occur at Jake Barnes' influence. JB, I thank thee. -igDana}

The Graceland show began a long string of Carissa's Wierd appearances — that first Graceland show was not to be forgotten because they had the "You Should Be At Home Here" poster by 'Paulus' that reminded me of Mexico's the Day of The Dead.

The next six months of shows were the really good days for Carissa's Wierd. They seemed to be building enormous momentum and there were always rumors that they were about to be signed. Show after show was packed. You see, it turned out that "You Should Be At Home Here" was not a good album, it was a great album. It moved into my High Fidelity Top Ten Albums of All Time, like "XO," the Smith's and the Psychedelic Furs' self-titled albums, "Exile in Guyville," PJ Harvey's first two albums, "The Head on The Door," "Frank's Wild Years," and "Unknown Pleasures."

"Wait, wait, wait!" I told myself at some point. "I'm just doing that thing that you do where you think you really are in love but it's all going to wear off and then you are going to just feel a little bit like a fool because you were liquored up and you compared some local band to the Smiths, right?" Well, no, that didn't quite turn out to be the case.

You see, "You Should Be At Home Here" is (and always will be) an amazing album. It is one of those records where you immediate gravitate to two or three songs and then slowly the album keeps rolling you into other songs that you enjoy for months and months. I grew to appreciate Mat Brooke's voice and why it was a good decision for Jenn's vocals to play a less prominent role (but hey, I always knew that I was partial to female vocals and in the end I got my cake and ate it too because S released the divine Sadstyle). The depth of the lyrics and the complexity of the vocals, violin, drums, and accordion/keyboards on the second album combined to make a masterpiece, with "The color of your eyes changed with the color of your hair," "You
Should Be At Home Here," and "Ugly Valentine" leading me gently to discover the rest of the record.

At some point there came the infamous letter to the Stranger (May 10th, 2001), pointing out that the Stranger had plugged Carissa's Wierd 38 times in the last year and half. The letter wasn't written to cry overexposure, but to express concern that the Stranger wasn't doing nearly enough because, "…this situation is clearly unacceptable. Carissa's Wierd is still nowhere near as famous as they deserve to be. The Stranger is just going to have to try harder in the future." This was the spirit of the times.

So 2001 rolled into 2002 and the momentum continued to grow. Then I finally heard that the band was working on the third album. Sometime that summer I went to a friend's house (actually the TIG house) and we listened to a couple of bootleg songs. They sounded great. Carissa's Wierd were moving from Brown Records to Sad Robot (I swear I see that Sad Robot guy at every single show I go to). With their improved distribution, it seemed like this was it; this was when they were going to make the jump to the national scene.

Songs About Leaving released at the pinnacle of Carissa's Wierd's success. The shows were great, and the record was great; there were long tours and 'go away' shows and 'welcoming home' shows and there was the best Valentine event I have ever experienced at the Crocodile, when the band dressed up and gave us loners something to do that night that didn't involve throwing food at couples in the middle of restaurants.

Then the fear began to rise in me. For the first time I began to really wonder if they would ever get signed to a major label. Now don't get me wrong, I didn't have any expectation that CW would become a Nirvana or Radiohead, but I did think they could do a lot better than bands that often topped the college charts-bands (say like Apples in Stereo or Low). That was the recognition (and cash reward) I felt they deserved, but it hadn't happened — and it seemed to be making people a little concerned. The band seemed nervous as they went off to tour, including an important show at South by Southwest (which I felt was probably the worst place for a soft sound band like CW to be 'discovered'). That show came and went without event, and then during an east coast tour (rumor has it, in North Carolina), it came up that they didn't think it was ever going to happen. And that that was it — end of show, time to move on and all that.

The news broke in Seattle and the goodbye shows began, including the final three events: a very large gathering of about 750 people at Bumbershoot, a surprise show at the Re-bar, and the final two shows at the Crocodile.

It's over now and I probably sound a little bitter about it as sometimes happens after things that you really like go away. I am not really sad about it: sometimes you know things have to end and that it is the right time for things to end. But I couldn't help feeling that last night that if the right A&R guy had showed up to one of the shows, if one of the soon-to-be-successful independent film makers had used a song on a soundtrack, that all of us would have seen Carissa's Wierd race up to the top of the college charts. In truth, the lack of recognition makes me feel very, very disappointed with the world but at the same time feel optimistic about living life.

Yes, I am disappointed because what does it mean is that so many bands are regarded so highly and they are just absolute crap. I mean, I thought that with all the Matador records out there that it would give the CW crew the recognition they deserved for their hard efforts — working jobs while practicing and writing songs and taking weeks out of their life to tour around to semi-filled venues where most people had never heard of them. I mean, I'm not complaining that people like Radiohead more than they like CW — I'm saying that they never got a major label record contract! That is pure insanity. It all makes me think back to the end of "The Bookshop," a story in which a wise elderly woman opens a bookshop in her small seaside town and tries and tries to make her dream come true. But in the end, not enough people buy books and the store closes down. The story concludes with, "As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop."

Conversely, I also must confess that CW's lack of commericial success has left me secretly elated in a very, well, weird (wierd?) way. I take comfort that in these days of the internet and amazon.com where it seems that you can find anything, buy anything, and learn anything — that no rock in the world has been left unturned — enchanting things still exist out there left undiscovered. It's profoundly amazing that you can chance upon something special, that at any moment you might look up from whatever drudgery you have bought into and say, 'What's this? This is it!' and unexpectedly fall in love with an idea, a book, or someone's music.

And if there is anything optimistic about the end of Carissa's Wierd — it's that.