noun: tributary; plural noun: tributaries
- a river or stream flowing into a larger river or lake.
What is Tributary?
Tributary is a newsletter focused on music that isn’t available on most streaming platforms (i.e. Spotify, Apple Music, etc.)
Why am I starting this?
I’m known amongst friends and family for a strong hatred of the streaming music industry, particularly Spotify. I’ve used both Spotify and Apple Music (and even tried out a free month of the reinvented Napster) for brief periods of time, but predominantly make it through life with a 1TB hard drive, a robust Bandcamp collection, and a rolodex of sources for mp3 downloads.
This is partly a moral position, as I don’t want to give money and data to the companies devaluing and destroying the art form I hold sacred. It’s also largely borne out of the same instinct that makes one repeatedly decline iOS software updates: a curmudgeonly resistance to new technologies when “The old ones work just fine for me, thanks.” As someone who came of age in the era of mediafire downloads and mp3 blogs, I’ve always felt like iTunes was the easiest and most intrinsic way to maintain a library including music that never became available on streaming platforms.
However, since most people (understandably) don’t have the same fastidiousness about library maintenance, streaming has become the default of “what exists” as far as music to listen to, putting a vast wealth of music at risk of being lost forever to the digital dustbin. This is my contribution to the small (if persistent) chorus of listeners arguing for the sweep pile on the floor. This isn’t meant to be an argument in favor of my Sisyphean hobby; rather it’s a little opportunity to ramble about a few of my favorite songs that exist a little off the beaten path and the ways in which I found them.
So without further ado…
- Somebody’s Basement - “I Think the Neighbor Kid is Making Serious Strides”
One Friday freshman year of college, I was perusing the AbsolutePunk “Free Music Friday” threads and downloaded a 3-song EP by Connecticut-based emo band Somebody’s Basement called i think the neighbor kid is cracking. The songs were rough-hewn and tinny, with the seams proudly on display. You can hear the band trying out musical ideas and production flourishes just out of their reach, growing in real time.
“I Think the Neighbor Kid is Making Serious Strides,” the first single from their full length follow-up, tightened the screws on the band’s previous efforts, the drums just a bit crisper, the guitars ever slightly more focused. Somebody’s Basement was able to sublimate these tweaks into a grand statement of purpose, one that deals equally in homage and self-mythology; the part of the movie where they work the title into the dialogue. Bands can toil indefinitely trying to write a song like this; no band gets more than one.
“Serious Strides” opens with a single stanza of vocals and guitar. Singer Chris Nicastro (via guitarist and lyricist Jack Brannigan) invokes some of the more famous songs in the genre’s recent history; by the song’s conclusion it reads like one hell of a called shot. Like many great emo songs before and since, there’s very little in the way of song structure, just an endless progression of new ideas that build to a wailing catharsis. It makes no sense but it makes complete sense, because how else was this song going to go? There are refrains but no choruses, the lead guitar doesn’t play “parts” so much as carry a parallel melody to Nicastro’s off-kilter tenor, all individual pieces pushed to their breaking points. The lyrics exist in the vague space between self-immolation and self-improvement, cigarette butts strewn about parking lots as references to the band’s older material abound. But their homage is more mutation than replica: reinventing the wheel is a foolish exercise rooted in science, and Somebody’s Basement were more interested in alchemy.
In another world, “Serious Strides” could be canonized alongside the songs referenced in the opening stanza instead of consigned to internet purgatory, destined to be evangelized as one of the great unheard emo songs by a small subset of true believers. In supreme emo fashion, Somebody’s Basement broke up shortly after releasing their sole full-length, somewhere else, with “Serious Strides” as the closing track. It’s tempting to speculate what a second album could have sounded like, but at the same time, “Serious Strides” stands as a towering achievement to close their career.
- mrs. hopewell - “Blake”
Towards the end of Somebody’s Basement’s run, Nicastro started releasing solo recordings under the moniker mrs. hopewell. The cigarettes and self-loathing carried through but these newer songs hewed closer to the nascent bedroom pop of the mid-Atlantic DIY scenes, played at more varied tempos and packed with literary allusions. In 2017 he released goodbyes are just shitty see you laters which opens with “blake”, a perfect lo-fi indie rock gem and his best song to date.
In many ways “blake” is an archetypal post-emo band song, a demarcation line contextualizing adolescent solipsism in the more concrete crises of early adulthood. Rebellion is no longer the governing force, instead replaced by the more mundane anxiety. “blake” is also a fucking colossal banger, all Strokes-ian riffs and metronomic rhythms, stuffed to the gills with falsetto backing vocals and doo-wop harmonies. This nervous energy undergirds Nicastro’s lyrics about the all-consuming fear of wasting your limited time on Earth: will you finish the books on your nightstand before they pile up and crush you? Will you never amount to anything because you were too lazy in college to set yourself up for future success? He ends on a note of foreboding optimism: “I guess dying all alone is just a risk I’ve got to take.”
Nicastro still records music under the name mrs. hopwell, although the bandcamp page does go dark from time to time (it appears to be currently inactive). However, when it’s up and running there’s a wealth of releases with their own hidden gem songs to be discovered (the title track of 2020’s the anatomy of mel and cali is a delightfully bitchy song about getting dumped for a New Yorker writer). I once got to tell him in the course of my day job how much I’ve loved his music over the years and I’m not sure if he believed me, so if you’re reading this, please know I truly meant it.