Sub Pop isn’t the only Seattle-based label enjoying a landmark anniversary this month. 20 years ago this Saturday, Barsuk Records was birthed into our collective music conscious and became a hallmark institution for indie rock in the Northwest and beyond. Over the last two decades, Barsuk has shared astounding releases from artists like Nada Surf, Phantogram, The Long Winters, David Bazan, and – oh yeah – Death Cab For Cutie. (In fact, the release of Death Cab’s debut Something About Airplanes is the official birthdate of Barsuk!)
The label’s official anniversary is this Saturday, August 18th, and KEXP is counting down 20 of our favorite releases from this remarkable label, as voted on by KEXP's Digital Content team with support from DJ Sharlese, host of Audioasis. Tuesday through Friday, we’ll be breaking down five different albums. Then, tune in on Saturday to hear Barsuk co-founder Josh Rosenfeld on Audioasis with DJ Sharlese, talking about the label’s history and playing songs from the Barsuk catalog.
It’s ironic that as I write this, I’m sitting on a back porch in the countryside getting eaten alive by mosquitos – well, maybe not “ironic” so much as “annoying AF” – but it does make me laugh to be writing about the 2006 LP Get Yr Blood Sucked Out from Portland duo Viva Voce.
On their fourth album (but first for Barsuk), the husband/wife duo of Kevin and Anita Robinson continued to expand their psych-folk sound, taking their melodic feedback to a more stoner-rock place, resulting in the strongest album of their career. Sure, male/female rock duos were de rigueur at the time (see: The White Stripes, The Kills, etc), but The Robinsons brought the dynamic (and tension) of married life to their songs. Get Yr Blood Sucked Out was performed, recorded, produced, and engineered by the twosome from the comforts of their home. You get the sense that this gave them the confidence to try new things, but also by their fourth release, years of touring and playing live contribute to the boldness you hear in their playing. The songs are darker than ever before, with foreboding handclap-stomps and brooding backing vocals, but with titles like "How To Nurse A Bruised Ego”, "Faster Than A Dead Horse”, and perhaps most notably "We Do Not Fuck Around”, you can tell they’re still having fun.
Sadly, the band split up in 2013 when Kevin and Anita did. You can still find her playing around Portland with her new project Anita Lee & the Handsome 3, while Kevin has gone on to provide percussion for acts like Father John Misty and The Dandy Warhols. — Janice Headley
Putting the Days to Bed was The Long Winters third and last album, released in the summer of 2006. While frontman and sole constant member John Roderick has been teasing that the next will arrive “soon” for the past decade, it has yet to transpire. It makes for an interesting lens to look at their last album and the band themselves, who still occasionally — although very rarely — perform, including a performance at last year’s Upstream Music Fest + Summit, where Roderick proclaimed they’d only played together “maybe four hours in the past five years.” Putting the Days to Bed was received with tepidly positive reviews. Pitchfork proclaimed it "a solid effort-- a step in a promising new direction” while AV Club gave it a B. Robert Christgau went so far as to name it as one of his Duds of the Month. I, for one, wholeheartedly disagree. Songs like “Fire Island, AK,” “Pushover,” and “Ultimatum,” are all soaring, melodic anthems that age incredibly well. It’s why the band rose to prominence so quickly and also burned out so quickly. The Long Winters make songs that are meant to be belted at a live show, alongside hundreds of other people, hence the near-constant grueling touring the band spent nearly four years embarking on. Burnout is real. If we never get another album from the Seattle band, they did more with the three albums they put out than the majority bands and I’m satisfied with that. — Jasmine Albertson
The first time I ever saw Rocky Votolato perform was at one of the Makers release shows in 2006 at the now defunct Rush’s Book Swappe in Bremerton, Wash. I sat on the stage, quite literally at his feet, basking in every moment as he stood alone with just a Telecaster and a harmonica. It was the first time all of us in the room were hearing these songs, a group of disenchanted youth hungry for music that spoke to us. I picked up the CD and listened to nothing else for a week straight. I couldn’t imagine replacing the disc of harrowing, folk/country parables with anything else.
Makers greatest achievement is its simplicity. It was a watershed moment for Votolato, who’d only just the previous year was still fronting the stellar, raucous indie rock outfit Waxwing. While he’d simultaneously been releasing solo works alongside Waxwing with albums like Burning My Travels Clean and Suicide Medicine, Makers struck a balance between the delicate new tones he’d been experimenting with and the astounding power of his voice. Yeah, most of the songs are acoustic, but it’s the way he delivers each line, veering between chill-inducing yells and softer whispers, that cuts to the emotional core of Makers. Votolato has long tackled narratives that explore working-class life, but the sparse and generous arrangements here let the stories resound more powerfully than anywhere else in his catalog. The frustration of “The Night’s Disguise,” the longing for escape in “Goldfield,” and lovers falling out of love with “Where We Left Off” and “She Was Only In It For The Rain” (the latter penned by the incredibly named Piss Pissedoffherson). Votolato ends the album with “Makers,” a whiskey toast with a friend to the futility of life and the march to keep trying. “Heaven or heavenless,” Votolato’s voice cracks, “We're all headed for the same sweet darkness.” — Dusty Henry
The Weight Is a Gift is Nada Surf’s fourth album, released in 2005. At this point, the New York-based band had seen different waves and types of success. First dubbed a one-hit-wonder because of 1996’s MTV-rotated single “Popular,” the band rose to create the critically (well, except for Pitchfork) and commercially successful 2002 record Let Go. It’s a lot of pressure to create under but the band, with Chris Walla at the producing helm, constructed a beautifully introspective and optimistic album. The band, at the time in their 30s, tackle internal issues and dole out advice like “to find someone you love, you’ve gotta be someone you love.” Perhaps some found his lyrics of optimism and self-growth to be cheesy, but after the sarcastic and self-loathing lyricism coming from rock in the ‘90s, it seems like what we needed were messages of love over hate, of growth over stagnancy. In an interview, Matthew Caws described his thought process behind the song “Your Legs Grow,” which shows the mind-state Caws was in while creating the album: "When a challenge presents itself to you, it is so easy to have a kind of panicky feeling where you think, 'Oh my god – if that happened to me, I would die. If I have to stay in this job I’ll die, or if I lose that person, I’ll die.' And once in a while, those things you think will kill you happen. You know, someone breaks up with you, or one of your parents gets really sick or something. But you make it through anything, really. And the image that was in my mind was that if you were out at sea, and you were freezing and thought you were going to drown – somehow we have the capacity to get over anything and the image that I had in mind was that your legs would just grow down to the bottom and you’d walk out. We are capable of rescuing ourselves." Who needs a self-help book when you have The Weight Is a Gift? — Jasmine Albertson
When Cellar Door first dropped in the chilly winter of 2004, the presentation of its songs was still sort of an outlier in indie and alternative music. As the neo-garage-rock boom started to fade into the midnight storm of dour post-punk and the dance floor filling cacophony DFA specialized in, articulate and tastefully produced mid-tempo songs — thick with melancholy and set just a touch off-center — were still about another half-decade away from being the scene's dominant style. John Vanderslice was starting to come into his own as a singular producer, as his work on the Mountain Goats' We Shall All Be Healed would be recognized with a good amount of fanfare when the album dropped a month later.
As a songwriter, he had already been a cult favorite, but Cellar Door cast his talents in a warm and bright spotlight. The twelve songs which make up the album feature short fiction set to immaculate and painstakingly arranged songs, dwelling in the psychological terrain of life, death, war, and family. In "Up Above the Sea," the protagonist shoots down a bluebird, a symbol he can't tell is a good luck charm or an albatross. "Coming and Going on Easy Terms" takes a train ride with a father who ends up ultimately relieved the young man under a coroner's blanket is not his son. "Promising Actress" and "When It Hits My Blood" are song-length interpretations of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, respectively.
"They Won't Let Me Run," with its themes of generational power and the shackles that come with it, is the album's most striking song, its proverbial laundry list of instruments requiring a one-story house's worth of power outlets. The musical and lyrical depth of Cellar Door (no pun intended) was just a tad ahead of its time in influence, making it one of the most quietly innovative full-lengths of its time. To be a little frank, most every band currently operating in the somewhat contradictory subgenre of "mainstream indie" owes at least a small percentage of their Spotify royalties to John Vanderslice's startlingly elegant fourth album. — Martin Douglas
KEXP continues the Top 20 Barsuk Albums countdown tomorrow with albums 11 through 15.