Monthly Archives: August 2015

Fred Mills: Why Snatches of Pink Was the Greatest NC Band of the Late ‘80s & Early ‘90s

Snatches

North Carolina’s Michael Rank, currently on a creative roll, has been on the scene for decades. An appreciation of his early band. Above, L-R: Sara Romweber, Rank (note leather pants), Andy McMillan.

By Fred Mills

UPDATE 8/17: Rank has the Snatches albums posted for free download at his Bandcamp page.

Listening to Tarheel singer/songwriter/rocker/twanger Michael Rank’s stunningly great new album Horsehair a lot lately—hell, it’s been a goddam fixture on the office and car stereo for weeks now. It finds the former Snatches of Pink frontman collaborating with Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, and it’s a match made in Gram ‘n’ Emmylou heaven. As we noted in the BLURT review of the record, he marries back porch soul to countryish roots rock, and “matters of the heart rarely stray far from Rank’s worldview, as he colors the rest of these outlaw folk tunes with nods to ex-wives, current flames and, of course, son Bowie Ryder, his most consistent muse.”

I practically had to arm-wrestle contributing editor (and Blurt blogger) Michael Toland for who was going to do the review honors as Toland is as much a fan of the dude as I am. (Go HERE to read his review of 2013’s Mermaids, and HERE for my review of 2012’s Kin.) Ultimately I said “uncle” and gave Toland the review, since I’ve written about Rank so frequently over the years that I risk being viewed as not particularly objective when it comes to his records. Well, fuck objectivity, y’know? The whole notion of “being objective” when it comes to discussing art, and particularly rock ‘n’ roll, is a journalistic smokescreen; you can’t write about an emotional experience from a distance, and when critics attempt to do so, their lack of engagement with their subjects shows. I’ll take passion over objectivity any day, because the whole reason I got into rock writing in the first place was because I realized that just listening to music wasn’t enough for me—I had to share my enthusiasm, share the wealth so to speak. In that regard, “Rock Journalist” became the proverbial accidental career.

Rank by Andy Tennille

Horsehair is Rank’s fifth solo album in three years, last year’s Deadstock and 2013’s In The Weeds joining it and the other two mentioned above. That’s a pretty impressive output by any measure, and it’s not an overstatement to say that Rank’s been on an extended creative roll during this time; release-wise, he basically went silent in 2007 following the release of the final album by his previous band Snatches of Pink. In absorbing Horsehair of late and thinking about what Toland wrote, I found myself thinking back to when I first encountered Rank and his music—the aforementioned Snatches of Pink.

It was 1985, and a cassette tape arrived in the mail with little fanfare. Titled The Stupid Tape and boasting a somewhat primitive-looking dark blue j-card, it featured six songs performed by what was at the time a 4-piece Snatches—Rank on guitars, Andy McMillan on vocals, Sara Romweber on drums and Jack Wenberg on bass. Raw and ragged but definitely right, the six-song tape had a primitive, careening-yet-hard-twanging cowpunk/garage quality to it on such eventual Snatches classics as “Salty Dog” and “Ones With the Black” that seemed thoroughly at odds with the prevailing jangly college rock of the day.

Stupid Tape

1987’s Demonstration/Demolition, also a tape, continued in the aesthetic, and by the time of the first “proper” Snatches release, 1988’s Send In the Clowns LP (released on the Athens-based Dog Gone, a short-lived indie label founded by then-R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt) the group was also developing into a solid live act with a decent fanbase.

I forget exactly when I saw the group play for the first time, but it was probably around this time in Charlotte, at which point I was the resident Music Editor for alternatively newsweekly Creative Loafing and it had become my “mission,” as it were, to cover artists that the other local media either overlooked or deliberately ignored. Snatches of Pink certainly fit that bill, lurching into town from Chapel Hill on gas fumes and truckstop tacos and aiming to shake some action while shaking up the populace. “Where is the nearest liquor store?” most likely was the first thing they would ask when they arrived at the club.

Booze clearly fueled this band, which had slimmed down to a trio, McMillan having assumed the bass position (and sharing vocals with Rank) for 1989’s Dead Men. This LP, along with next year’s 4-song mini album Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, which was cut live at CBGB as a promotional radio release, is what solidified their image as a hard-drinkin’, unrepentantly badass group who clearly did not give a shit what folks—and, significantly, club owners and bookers—thought about the band as long as they came out to the show. That was another quality about Snatches which more than simply endeared me to ‘em: hailing from a long line of rock ‘n’ roll rebels that included such miscreants as the Rolling Stones, Iggy & the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Johnny Thunders and the Replacements, the Rank-McMillan-Romweber musical mafia were long, and I do mean loooonnnng, on attitude. They lived the part and looked it, too, each member’s shaggy, unkempt hair shrouding his or her face to the point that you figured it was only a matter of time before someone tumbled off the edge of the stage (no doubt this happened on a number of times, but I can’t say if it was due to not being able to see or simply too fucked up to walk). Rank in particular had a British rock star thing going for him, part Keef, part Nikki Sudden, part Hanoi Rocks, what with his penchant for tight pants, flowing shirts and colorful scarves. I mean, he probably wore eyeliner as well, but since I couldn’t see his eyes from under all that hair…

Snatches promo photo

Snatches of Pink were the kind of group that drew a line in the sand between them and the “nicer” artists that the Triangle generally sent down to Charlotte, and a lot of us opted to join ‘em on their side of the line. My good friend Michael Plumides operated the city’s 4808 Club and was an early supporter like me, his own thumb-your-nose-at-the-powers-that-be sensibilities fully in synch with Snatches’. On more than one evening, standing in the audience watching the trio in full spin cycle and at maximum decibel, he and I would marvel at their undeniable outlaw charisma while assuring ourselves that, yes, this is the best fucking group in North Carolina right now. The band was a helluva lot of fun to hang out with, too, whether passing the bottle around or yammering on about the latest records we’d bought or bands we’d seen. During this period I struck up a friendship with Rank that I am proud to say endures to this day; he knew I was a fan, first and foremost, but I think he also knew that I “got” where they were coming from and weren’t simply fostering an image for no other reason than they could do it. He was a guy that understood rock ‘n’ roll tradition and wanted to find where he fit in to it.

There were naysayers and detractors too, one of them also owning a local rock club. I remember having a long conversation with Jeff Lowery (R.I.P.) of the 13-13 Club in which he groused about how unprofessional and arrogant Snatches was. Lowery was an astute booker and brought hundreds of terrific acts to town, but since he was coming from a businessman’s point of view, it probably wasn’t surprising for him to have a problem with a group that knocked over mic stands and monitors, left broken bottles on the stage and ignored the soundman’s pleas to turn down the volume and distortion. I have no doubt that Snatches left a trail of disgruntled club bookers in their wake during their initial run.

Not that their reputation among fans didn’t precede them. They scored a semi-major label record deal for 1992’s Bent With Pray; Dog Gone was, by design, a regional indie, so the distribution and marketing oomph of NYC’s Caroline Records was a no-brainer. In addition to benefiting from a decent recording budget the record found the band experimenting with a softer, psychedelic, more overtly melodic side; just opening track “Mother Crane” alone, with its strummy acoustic guitars, dreamy backing vocals and modal vibe, suggested some heretofore only intermittently displayed folk and roots influences. They didn’t go soft, however, merely expanded the range and depth of their songwriting and arrangements—which, I reckon, is the product of any band’s natural evolution and maturation—while still being able to rock out on a moment’s notice.

The album also served to introduce the stylistic shift displayed on Rank’s subsequent solo debut, 1993’s Coral, also on Caroline, which was dreamy and gorgeous and bursting at the seams with plangent guitars and no shortage of 12-string flourishes. In retrospect, these two albums can be viewed as a foreshadowing of Rank’s current incarnation as a folk/country-tilting troubadour, not necessarily examples of proto-Americana (the records have more of a baroque British feel) but certainly a glimpse of where his songwriting was headed. They also suggested great things loomed for Snatches, given the proper marketing and a healthy touring regimen to get their music showcased outside their immediate region.

And then—silence. In the summer of ’92 I left for Arizona, and as a result, lost touch with a lot of NC friends in the pre-Internet era. Meanwhile, no more music would emerge from the Snatches camp until 1996, and when it did it was, confusingly, under the name of Clarissa rather than Snatches of Pink. Perhaps someone at their new label, Mammoth, had convinced them that the original name was a tad too suggestive for the brave, bold, politically correct new world of commercial alt-rock; or maybe the band just viewed the three-year hiatus as an opportunity to start with a clean slate, but either way, it was a misfire, strategically, as the group’s Silver album failed both to capture a new audience and to hold on to the old Snatches fanbase. Of the former I am certain, because I was working in a Tucson record store and observed firsthand how Mammoth totally dropped the ball in terms of exploiting its distribution arrangement with Atlantic to effectively market Clarissa; of the latter, well, this particular fan thought it was a wonderful record, but my gut feeling is that a lot of people just thought Snatches had disappeared off the face of the earth.

Which it pretty much did after that, at least until 2003 when Rank resurfaced with not one but two albums, one as a heavy-rocking reconstituted Snatches Of Pink, Hyena (featuring Romweber on drums, Marc E. Smith on second guitar and a procession of bassists) and the other as a new group, Marat (whose Marat album was a co-writing project of Rank and John Ensslin, late of NC’s Teasing The Korean). The new-look Snatches would also go on to release Stag in 2005 and Love Is Dead in 2007, with Marat issuing Again in 2005, and all five of these Rank-helmed projects from the ‘00s are worthy entries to the man’s discography but none of them really got the exposure they deserved.

At any rate, this story is less an abbreviated history of Michael Rank and more a belated appreciation for one of my favorite North Carolina bands, the classic Snatches lineup of Rank, McMillan and Romweber. I dearly love those core records and I cherish every memory of seeing them perform live.

Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of info out on the web about Snatches; there aren’t even all that many good early photos of the band online. And the Trouser Press entry is relatively succinct, and incomplete, while the Wikipedia listing is criminally bare-bones and way out of date, with a bunch of dead links listed. There is an official Snatches of Pink website, although it appears to have gone dormant in 2009, and it doesn’t really deal with the early lineup(s) and albums, just the latter-day incarnation. It’s worth noting, though, that during that phase an indie documentary about the band, Now It’s A Rock N Roll Show, was released in 2007 by Trickle Down Productions and directed by Daniel Adams so you can get details about it at the site. (Below: two trailers for the film, which includes plenty of early-days content)

Meanwhile, Bent With Pray, Rank’s Coral and Clarissa’s Silver (which in my mind is a Snatches album) are all readily available, and fairly inexpensively, at eBay and sundry online sources while the three Dog Gone titles surface from time to time (the somewhat rare CD version of Dead Men is even showing currently at Discogs, ranging from $9 to $35). The more recent Snatches CDs can be found easily too, and Love Is Dead is also available at Rank’s Bandcamp merch page along with all his recent solo titles.

Almost as good, and maybe even better considering the ease of access: Rank has posted Send In the Clowns, Dead Men, Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, Bent With Pray, Hyena and Stag all at that Bandcamp page as free downloads (even though I own physical copies of everything, I have been downloading each title while writing this because, well… just because). Speaking of free downloads, back at the Snatches website is a link just called “bootleg” and whattaya know, it is 13-song, lo-to-medium-fi live show from the group’s trio days, Charlotte’s Fucking Web, pictured below, featuring such Pink gems as “Ones With the Black,” “Goin’ Down” and “Salty Dog” plus a ridiculously thrashy cover of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home.” I’ve got a pretty good idea about that concert tape’s provenance, but I’ll leave that to your fertile imagination, fellow Snatches buffs.

charlottesfuckingweb

Bottom line: don’t just take my word for how great the band was—find out for yourself by listening to ‘em. The stuff’s out there. Then go get that new Rank album Horsehair. Dr. Toland and I command you.

It’s been a great run, Michael. Salute! Keep ‘em coming, brother.

 

Photo of Michael Rank by Andy Tennille

Fred Mills: VNYL Pt. 2 – For the 2nd Round, the Subscription Service Ups Its Game

VNYL

Second time’s the charm, eh folks? In our latest shipment, the arrival of choice LPs from the esteemed Fat Possum, Ubiquity and Glassnote labels—including a just-released album—suggests that the VNYL folks heard the withering criticisms and realized they had to do it right this time around. Guess what? They succeeded! (Go HERE to read Part 1, “Love Will Find a Way: The VNYL Subscription Service Blows It?”)

BY FRED MILLS

I’m almost tempted to publish just the header and subhead and be done with my latest, second report on the VNYL record subscription service (motto: “Join the record club of your dreams”). For my above description pretty much summarizes in full what happened with the second installment of my three-shipment subscription, which I initiated back in the early spring by pledging to the startup’s Kickstarter campaign.

To recap briefly: recall that a couple of months ago I wrote about my first shipment, which yielded a trio of aesthetically moldy (if, condition-wise, clean, shiny, and mold/scratch-free) slabs of ‘70s drek, namely Worlds Away by soft-rockers Pablo Cruise, Hydra by the ever-pompous, eternally sterile Toto, and Make Love to the Music by Leon Russell (along with wife Mary Russell) at a point in his career when he most assuredly was not The Master Of Space And Time. These were, put charitably, 99 cent bargain bin titles, the kind that BLURT’s sister business, Raleigh-Durham’s Schoolkids Records, can’t even move during half-off sales. In that report I also provided some background and context for how VNYL operates and included details and anecdotes from other media outlets and frustrated subscribers; my conclusion wasn’t necessarily as harsh as some of the others, many of whom flatly stated they thought the club was a scam, but I did point out that in the wake of a fairly appealing Kickstarter campaign, the ultimate execution was a huge misfire and a public relations disaster.

VNYL 1st

“While I am still interested to see what my next two VNYL shipments will yield,” I wrote at the time, “this initial installment in the series is not all that encouraging. In fact, it reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about Australian table wines: this is a shipment with a message, and the message is “beware.” In 2015, nobody is going to their local record store and looking for records by Pablo Cruise, Toto and Leon & Mary Russell, much less willing to pay twelve freakin’ dollars for a copy.”

Sharp-eyed readers will also recall that after I posted a shortened account of my experience to the popular Steve Hoffman forums, the response to my post ultimately yielded a message board thread that ran for well over a month—and still generates comments to this day. Translation: it’s a topic that was not only resonated with the entire Hoffman community of record and audio geeks, it also generated the type of sputtering outrage and withering sarcasm generally saved for, I dunno, Justin Bieber (or, in an earlier era, Courtney Love). Concurrently, Stereogum had also taken a look at the matter in an article titled “VNYL Sliding: Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess” and the consensus over there wasn’t much rosier. Worse, for VNYL at least, the comments section at the actual VNYL Kickstarter page was overflowing with frustration, with more than one angry backer indicating they had filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

***

Needless to say, I was simultaneously dreading and looking forward to my second shipment. But as I had signed up via the Kickstarter campaign, you could say my check had already been cashed, so I sat back and waited. And waited. And waited…

The first shipment had arrived on May 13, but by July 2 nothing else had arrived. During that time frame I had moved so, while my mail was being forwarded, I realized I should update my address with VNYL and then inquire—politely—about the delay. Lo and behold, I received a reply in less than 24 hours, impressive for any business’s customer service relations department, letting me know that they got the address update, but that I had not yet selected the “vibes” category for my second shipment—clearly my mistake. I immediately logged in at http://my.vnyl.org and made the selection of “#poolparty” for my vibes, having already taken a test run with #work for the initial shipment. Then I sat back and waited. And waited. And…

By July 24 nothing had arrived so I emailed the same staffer who had been so prompt with my earlier inquiry, and received the following reply, also in less than 24 hours: “Hi Fred – We apologize for the delay on that! One of our team members actually did a special order for your second Kickstarter order for you, and it’s taking a little longer to come in than we anticipated. It should be shipping out next week. I think you’re really going to love the shipment and I promise it will be worth the wait!”

Fair enough. But interestingly, one of the aforementioned Kickstarter backers’ comments had stood out. Posted on July 3, it read, in part, “I have experienced [a delay] but I sent them and e-mail asking why was it taking so long, politely. The response i got is they have so much of a demand there is a little backlog in the category that you might of chosen.” Hmm…. Perhaps, just perhaps, this time around VNYL was going to be a bit more professional with its “curation” process, and rather than just grab some bargain bin junk they had lying around to send out, they were actually going to eyeball the members’ profiles (which included likes and dislikes as well as a suggestion that we provide them links to, say, our personal Spotify playlists), and from there come up with a reasonable selection. With that in mind, my curiosity was piqued. So I sat back once again and waited…

***

Somewhere in the middle of all this I received two additional emails from VNYL, on separate days, both essentially canned memos sent from the main hello@vnyl.org email address rather than personally drafted by a staffer. The first one, sent in early July, announced that “Your VNYL trial is about to end.” Say what? At that point I’ve only received one shipment, and they’re telling me the trial is about over? Well, I’m guessing that due to the canned nature of the email, it was simply synched to the roughly three-month time frame that the original Kickstarter agreement laid out, so that didn’t really worry me. It was just a standard notification.

What DID get my attention, and keep it, was the second canned email that showed up a couple of weeks later telling me the credit card they had on file was about to expire and I needed to update my billing information. Ha! Well, sorry folks, but I’m going to hold off just a bit on that until I’ve gotten all three shipments guaranteed to me in the Kickstarter agreement—and the credit card situation better not cause any delays or hiccups in my receiving the shipments. Now I know what you are thinking: since I stated in my previous report that when I originally heard about VNYL I decided to pledge during the campaign as much out of curiosity as sensing that there might be an interesting story here for BLURT, maybe I preemptively registered a card I knew would be no good if they subsequently tried to bill me. That’s not the case, however; I just used the card I always use for online shopping, and it was purely by chance that it was set to expire at the end of July. It was only after the fact that I heard of several instances when members did get charged without their authorizations. That duly noted, the lapsed conspiracy theorist in me did briefly consider the possibility that if VNYL has burned through all that Kickstarter funding as well as the money that came in from early subscribers—VNYL also opened a brick and mortar store in Venice, Calif., which couldn’t have been a small expense—then they would need to keep the cash flow moving if they wanted to purchase reasonably attractive product and not bargain bin junk to send out to subscribers. But I’m the kind of person that likes to give folks the benefit of the doubt, so I just didn’t worry about the credit card deal (nor, incidentally, have I registered a new one at VNYL yet).

***

Yesterday was August 17 and my latest VNYL box arrived via media mail, postmarked August 11. I knew it was en route because that same day I got an email announcing it had been shipped. Below you can see the results (extra points if you can identify the logo on the shirt I’m wearing):

Jackson Scott – Melbourne (2013, Fat Possum) hashtag #poolparty $16.99 retail/$12.99 cost

Various Artists Rewind! 5: Original Classics, Re-worked and Rewound Vol.5 (2006, Ubiquity) $15.99 retail/$11.25 cost

Son Lux Bones (2015, Glassnote) $17.99 retail/$12.74 cost

The cost and retail listed are taken from the Alliance Entertainment (AEC) website; AEC is probably the largest distributor of CDs, LPs and DVDs in the US, selling both major label and indie product, and while the cost price is usually somewhat higher than it would be if a store ordered from Sony, Universal or WEA (or, in the case of indie records, directly from the indie labels), with its huge selection and two-day shipping, it’s probably the main distributor for the majority of stores here in the States so the prices are representative (There are other indie distributors around the country as well but none with the same depth of catalog.) The actual retail prices in stores, which are based on the manufacturers’ suggested list prices, will vary depending on their policies—for example, a lot of $16.99 albums might ultimately be priced in their bins at $17.99 or even $18.99. Profit margins are ridiculously thin for vinyl. And it’s non-returnable, too.

All in all, not a bad haul, eh? I think the three titles speak for themselves: sealed, pristine new pieces, not promos or cutouts and definitely not bargain bin leftovers. As I said in my video, the Jackson Scott record didn’t knock me out when I heard it a couple of years ago, but it’s still not a dog. And as I have always dug titles on the Ubiquity label, I am eager to spin the 2-LP Rewind!, what with its eclectic roster of funk and downtempo DJs and musicians serving up an even more eclectic selection of covers, among them Nuspirit Helsinki tackling Led Zep’s “No Quarter,” The Randy Watson Experience (aka ?uestlove and friends) covering Sting’s “Be Still My Waiting Heart” and Danish duo Owusu & Hannibal for—get this—Beach Boys classic “Caroline No.” Regarding the Son Lux platter: I was definitely already a fan and I had definitely not heard the album because it’s not even two months old yet, having been released in late June! Toto, we’re not in moldy ‘70s territory anymore.

VNYL 2nd

As with the previous shipment there was a nice note enclosed from my personal curator, Teal, and it suggested that she did indeed eyeball my VNYL profile to see how she might line up the records with my tastes. “Saw you listen to Little Richard on Spotify,” she wrote, “so think you’ll really enjoy Rewind! 5, an amazing soul compilation… Gave you Son Lux, a post-rock project and rally promising up and comer.” (I had listed post-rock among my “likes” on my profile.)

Big salute to you this time, Teal, and hope there are no hard feelings from my comments a few months ago. I’m not going to be stingy with my kudos here, either, and plan to report back to some of the same correspondents and outlets that I interacted with for my initial commentary. Admittedly, while I’m definitely not eating my words from before—they remain accurate, I believe, and where I engaged in speculation I clearly labeled it as such—I am choosing to believe, for the time being at least, that Round #1 represented an extreme case of growing pains, and for Round #2 the VNYL crew made a concerted effort to up their game, and succeeded.

But Round #3 looms, and I am about to head over to my VNYL account to select my #vibes for it. Leaning towards either #lazysunday or #danceparty this time. What will I get in the mail in (hopefully) another month? Well, that recent deluxe box for the reissue of the Stones’ Sticky Fingers sure seems mighty appealing, hint-hint. But who knows? As the saying goes… to be continued…

 ***

Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT. Extra thanks to Elijah Mills for the camera work. There will be a #poolparty in your honor very soon, bruh.

John B. Moore: Shovels & Rope

SR-Cycle-1-by-Molly-Hayes

“It’s your job just to go out there and throw your punches”: the sonically pugilistic Americana duo shows its moves to the BLURT braintrust.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

The Americana duo Shovels & Rope is an anomaly in music these days: a critically-hyped band that actually manages to live up to all of the effusive praise.

Charleston-based husband and wife team Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst originally had no intention of combining forces, both seemingly content as separate solo acts. But a couple of fortuitous gigs in which each act served as the other’s sideman, years ago at a North Carolina club, got the pair thinking about the benefits of combining forces. Three albums (including their latest, 2014’s frankly amazing Swimmin’ Time, released on the Dualtone label), a handful of awards, and millions of fans later, Trent and Hearst are still living up to the hype.

The two took some time recently to talk to BLURT about the band’s beginnings, making a documentary and holding their own at festivals.

BLURT: I’m sure you’ve heard this question a lot over the years, so I apologize for you having to hear it again: You both started out as solo musicians; how did you decide to come together as a band?

TRENT: We had made a record while we were still very much doing things on our own and that record ended up being titled Shovels & Rope, so it was already like we had a toe in already. We hadn’t planned on every being a touring act or anything, but people would respond to that in a way that was different to the way they responded to the other things we were doing. At some point, there was one specific weekend when I had a gig in Charlotte at a club called the Evening Muse and Cary was my back up for that gig, and the very next weekend she had a gig at the same place and I was her sideman. It just seemed ridiculous at that point – we could probably put on one pretty good show between the two of us. We could actually stay out on the road for a while if it was both of us doing it together.

How much did that change the way you go about writing your music? Obviously when you’re solo you don’t have to run a song by anyone else to get their buy in.

HEARST: It doesn’t change the way we write together, but sometimes Michael will write by himself and sometimes with other band members; I, 99% of the time, wrote by myself and so before we started touring really hard we co-wrote the first Shovels & Rope record together – he brought in some songs and I brought in some songs… When we started touring together, we’d spend all of our time together and realized it was fun to write together. We still write separately and together for records.

Do you ever feel you have to stand up for a song that the other one doesn’t like?

TRENT: Usually one of us is standing up for a song that the other person wrote, that they don’t really like,

HEARST: That’s exactly right.

TRENT: We’ll have a very honest conversation with each other: “You have to show me all of them, even the ones you may not think are any good.” A lot of times, it’s those (songs) that end up striking a real chord with the other person and end up turning into special songs.

I love my wife dearly, but could never imagine working a job with her every single day. Being married and in a band together, did you ever have a discussion up front on how to make it work?

TRENT: We thought the exact same thing, so don’t count yourself out.

HEARST: Yeah, it wasn’t either of our ideas as the ideal thing to do, spending that much time together.

TRENT: But it has actually worked out and we give each other space when we need it. At this point, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way. But at first, we were both like “no, we shouldn’t do this.” It took a minute before we both came around to the idea, primarily because we’d both been doing our own thing for so long that it would be weird to go in with someone else, especially your spouse… It’s been great.

HEARST: Ever since we got married, and we’d been together a real long time before that, we’ve been traveling ever since our honeymoon. We’ve been on the road ever since, so we honestly don’t know any different.

Can you talk a little bit about the documentary, The Ballad of Shovels & Rope?

HEARST: The documentary is a super precious, awesome experience that we cherish. We’re also humbled by watching ourselves. I think some people really love to see themselves on camera and neither of us, even someone who is as big a ham as I tend to be, neither of us really love to watch ourselves when that deep dark mirror is shining back on you. You say stupid things and don’t realize it until afterward.

TRENT: The way it all came about in the first place, when we first decided we were going to do this, that we were going to be a band called Shovels & Rope, we heard about these guys and did some live videos with them, so that we would have something to put on our website so that we could get gigs. We spent a day with them and just made all kinds of videos. A couple of weeks later they called us back and had this idea that they wanted to do a documentary about us. We didn’t have anything going on at the time. Nothing.

They just sort of wanted to document the way a family band was just working, how we did our thing. It was supposed to a couple of months and then it ended up lasting a year and then two years. Things just kept popping up. They ended up following us around for about three years when all was said and done.

HEARST: Yeah, we really became great friends with them… the fella that produced it ended up becoming our manager during the course of making the documentary. Those guys are great artists and we had a really great time working with them… We’ll be so gratefully to have this looking back 40 or 50 years. We’ll be able to prove to our grandchildren what we did.

So is this just the first step on your path to a reality show?

HEARST: Oh yeah (sarcastically). It’ll be called Take My Eyes Out with a Dull Spoon.

You guys have a very packed summer, based on your tour schedule. You’re also playing a lot of festivals. Do you enjoy those are or they kind of a necessary evil at this point?

TRENT: It’s just different and every festival is different from each other. The smaller ones definitely feel a little more special. The big ones can be such a spectacle, there’s so much going on and so many people, I sort of feel like it’s harder to connect than if you’re playing in a club. You’re also playing to all these other bands’ audiences as well as your own. Whereas headlining show all of those people are there to see you.

It’s a neat opportunity, it’s just a little different.

HEARST: It’s trial by fire. You’re standing before the gun line and you give everything you have and you only have half the time to do it. Thank you Cleveland!

Have you ever had the situation where you’re playing to a crowd and you guys just don’t fit it?

HEARST: Oh yeah! But I will say that we’ve also played in front of crowds that we don’t necessary get into, but I will argue that we hang pretty tough. We’ve never gotten the idea that anybody is like “I hate this band. Get them off the stage.” People will let you know that they like you and they’ll also let you know that they’re just waiting for the band you’re opening for. That’s ok. That’s just part of the game. It’s your job just to go out there and throw your punches.

TRENT: We’ve got to go all 12 rounds.

Photo Credit: Molly Hayes

Fred Mills: VNYL Pt.1 – Did the New Subscription Service Blow It?

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Would YOU pay $12 a pop for crap albums from Toto, Pablo Cruise and Leon & Mary Russell? Ye olde editor engages a hip new subscription service that promises “hand-curated vinyl records” to its eager—and apparently young/newbie—clientele. (Additional reading: Stereogum’s “Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”)

BY FRED MILLS, Blurt Editor

Like many of you, the BLURT braintrust was excited—or, after reading the fine print, at least optimistically enthused—by the January news that a new record subscription service was preparing to launch in a couple of months, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, which would adopt some of the (wildly successful) Netflix model features —but utilizing used vinyl LPs instead of DVDs, and instead of subscribers making their own choices, have their albums picked (“curated,” in today’s misnomer-strewn parlance) by employees of the service. The classic Sub Pop Singles Club and the Vinyl Me, Please services were also cited as inspirations.

Dubbed, somewhat minus-a-vowel cutesily/trendily VNYL (motto: “hand-curated vinyl records delivered to your door”), the service, founded by software/app developer Nick Alt, promised early backers that they would receive their initial shipments in February and the general public in March. As Rolling Stone reported at the time,

For a monthly fee, members of the just-launched venture VNYL can choose from a list of categories, called “#Vibes,” and receive records in the mail much in the same way they used to receive Twin Peaks Season 1 DVDs at home before streaming services. Although it is not set up like Netflix, in the sense that members select the records they want, VNYL still caters to subscribers. Once a member has selected a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance) the company will send three albums curated to fit the “vibe” by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.”

Founder Alt added, “The real magic that I can bring to this is the community aspect. People who listen to vinyl are not connected [the way online users are] unless they go to a record store, so why can’t we bridge that for people who are really into listening to vinyl.”

Fair enough. Yours truly — who has passionately collected vinyl records since the late ‘60s, from LPs to 45s to 78s to even the stray 5” single or flexidisc (ask me sometime about the 10” flexi of Australian indie bands I curated, er, compiled in the ‘80s for rock mag The Bob) — quickly became a backer of the Kickstarter campaign for VNYL, not only feeling seduced by the possibilities but also sensing a great story about what it means to be a collector and lover of records. I pledged, put in my credit card info, then sat back and waited, having been guaranteed three free months’ worth of records (translation: nine LPs), after which I could maintain my official subscription or cancel any time.

As an aside, there’s a good discussion about the numerous online record sub services currently operating over at The Record Collectors Guild. Titled, succinctly, “Review of Vinyl Subscription Services,” it’s mostly positive in tone, basically describing VNYL, Prescribed Vinyl, Feedbands, Vinyl Me Please and Turntable Kitchen in terms of what you get for your dough. It also hands out praise for the brick and mortar record stores that still exist, enthusing, “Enter a museum of 12″ square canvases displaying amazing artworks, each unique to the album they represent. Have a funny conversation with the cynical hipster latte sipping record store employee. Learn something, share something, find new music, re-discover old goodies, buy a brand new record, or buy 5 obscure used ones, it’s all part of the experience.”

***

Part of that experience: Alt mentioned magic. Ask any practicing magician, and he’ll tell you that “magic” comprises a series of illusions that feed off observers’ need or willingness to believe what they are seeing or being told, irrespective of the objective facts.

It was May 13 of this year and my first box from VNYL arrived, postmarked April 29 and shipped via Media Mail from Venice, Calif. (The full address: 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA 90291-3314.) If you are doing the math, you have probably noticed that there’s been a slight delay from the original estimation of when backers and charter subscribers would receive their initial shipments. Intriguingly, in looking at my account profile at VNYL now, it says that I joined on April 5, but it was in early January that I made my Kickstarter pledge. But that’s no problem: the VNYL folks have kept all of us regularly updated, including at least one notification of a slight delay. So far, so good.

Worth noting: backers received an email indicating they needed to officially register and fill out a brief online questionnaire about our musical tastes in order that the VNYL staff might better “curate” our selections—for example, what categories of music we did and did not like, or the URL of our Spotify account/playlist or similar streaming services we utilize. The former was easy enough, and I faithfully documented my likes, which include indie and alternative rock, punk, classic rock, blues, singer-songwriter and more, but not classical, opera, rap and several others. The streaming-service question, however, was pointless: I don’t have a Spotify account for myself, only one that I maintain for BLURT. For that matter I don’t even need a streaming service: I have 10,000 friggin’ records in my collection and another 5,000 CDs. (Full disclosure: I’m in the process of dumping the CDs because their value is rapidly declining; nowadays you can barely get 50 cents a pop for ‘em. Meanwhile, the LPs and 45s are appreciating at roughly the same rate. Hey, Bob Lefsetz, maybe you have a blog post about this soon, hmmm?) And each time I tried to ignore that section of the questionnaire I was blocked from proceeding farther, so finally I just plugged in the URL for BLURT’s Spotify list so I could be done with it.

Canned Heat cookbook

I remained optimistic, and I had checked a box that suggested my initial VNYL three-LP shipment could fall under the general category of #work—I think other categories were #lazysaturday, #danceparty, #betweenthesheets and, uh, #cooking. The latter momentarily made me think of that album Canned Heat Cookbook that I used to own, and how cool it might be to have it again, but because I do most of my listening here at work—oh, did I mention that BLURT shares offices with Raleigh, NC, record store Schoolkids Records, and that I am spinning platters all day long?—it made sense to select that “work” hashtag for my category of preferred LPs for my first shipment.

“Magic” is clearly a relative term. I suppose you could charitably say that my first VNYL batch of goodies made me feel like being on the receiving end of a slick Three-card Monte operation.

Allow me to detail what I just tugged from my pink-interior VNYL box (displayed at the top and below), which also included a nice note from my personal hand-curator, Teal, who had affixed a photo of her smiling for the camera and clutching my records: “Hey Fred, Hope you like the records I chose for you. Love this Pablo Cruise album. Enjoy! – Teal”

 

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Pablo Cruise – Worlds Away (1978, A&M); hashtag #work, $12 value)

Toto – Hydra (1974, Columbia) ditto

Leon & Mary Russell – Make Love to the Music (1977, Paradise) ditto

 

Did you get that? Toto, Leon/Mary Russell, and Pablo Fucking Cruise. Gee, thanks, Teal.

If there is a single record store owner out there reading this right now who has any of the above listed albums in stock and they are NOT in the 99-cent bins, please tell me. Recall that I myself work in a record store, and I have worked in record stores on and off for, cumulatively speaking, nearly 20 years, for extended stints during the ‘70s, the ‘90s and, of course, the past three years during the contemporary vinyl explosion. So I know a little about vinyl. But—Lefsetz mode on here—VNYL values them at $12 apiece, at least that’s what a sticker on each plastic sleeve indicates. Jesus. There’s not a person on the planet who would pay that much for ‘em. They are titles we can barely give away at our store, sitting there in the junk bins alongside the Dan Fogelberg, Loggins & Messina, Poco, George Benson and Eddie Money albums. For $12, we have Dylan, Stones, Neil Young, Reprise-era Kinks, DEVO and the stray early Elvis Costello albums.

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Now let’s be fair: back in the day there were undoubtedly folks who cherished those LPs. The Pablo Cruise album even featured the mega-hit “Love Will Find A Way”; although the Toto album, the band’s second, was a relative flop, commercially speaking (chart monster Toto IV was still three years away), and by the time Leon Russell’s record was released, the songwriter’s hitmaking days were long behind him.

(Caveat emptor: that bassline in the Pablo Cruise song will stick in your head and keep you awake at 4:30 a.m. unless you immediately play some Twisted Sister after it finishes.)

But while each artist had its share of devoted fans, they’ve all since moved on, and it’s unfortunate but true that none of those albums have stood the proverbial test of time. Records from the same general era by, I dunno, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, KISS, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell have, however, and proof resides right here in my record store: when I get in used records by those artists, they don’t stay in the bins for long (Zep and Floyd are typically gone within 24 hours, in fact). See my above comments about our 99-cent bin….

Pink Floyd

As a side note, I will mention that the records were in outstanding condition, both the sleeves and the actual vinyl. That’s a plus, although it should be a given that VNYL won’t send out platters that look like they’ve been trashed, or that are excessively noisy or even skip.

Bottom line: while I am still interested to see what my next two VNYL shipments will yield, this initial installment in the series is not all that encouraging. In fact, it reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about Australian table wines: this is a shipment with a message, and the message is “beware.” In 2015, nobody is going to their local record store and looking for records by Pablo Cruise, Toto and Leon & Mary Russell, much less willing to pay twelve freakin’ dollars for a copy. I posted a shortened account of my experience to the popular Steve Hoffman forums; below is typical of the numerous comments made.

 

Ha, well….I thought the idea was odd anyway.

Well, it’s not like first impressions count, or anything.

My guess is VNYL owns a record store a found a new way to get rid of that old, dusty stock.

I can only imagine weeks of dollar bin raids but who knows.

 

Indeed, if VNYL expects to make its subscription business a success, it’s going to have to do a lot better than trawl bargain bins and hit thrift stores in search of “product” for the subscribers. (Intriguingly, on the VNYL Twitter page the following info has been added: “New record store at 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA.”) It will also have to conduct some serious seminars in “hand curation” for its employees in charge of making selections for customers. Otherwise the negative word-of-mouth is gonna kill ‘em.

Strike one, VNYL. Three strikes, and yer out. To be… continued?

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POSTSCRIPT: Literally as we were preparing this article to post, the good folks over at Stereogum published their own piece entitled “VNYL Sliding: Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”. In it, writer Michael Nelson made some observations similar to ours, particularly along the lines of my 99-cent-bin complaints:

“VNYL subscriber Rob Baird talked to Stereogum for this story. For his #vibe, Baird told us, he chose the hashtag #lazysaturday, ‘based on [VNYL’s] Spotify playlist, which contained artists like Iron & Wine, Jack Johnson, Sufjan Stevens, Father John Misty, and Norah Jones, who I listen to regularly and are part of my record collection.’ Baird also shared with us a link to his Discogs profile. This not only helps to give you, the reader, an idea what he listens to; it was ostensibly consulted by VNYL personnel in order to help hand-curate musical selections based on his #vibe…. His first VNYL shipment included old releases from Jefferson Airplane, Dan Fogelberg, and England Dan & John Ford Coley.”

A number of the reader comments following the story took a similar tack, like this one:

“Damn! I thought this sounded like a cool idea and almost signed up. I ultimately decided to cheap out – and now I am so glad I did. I make enough questionable vintage record purchases without needing to pay $24 a month to get Pablo Cruise, Neil Diamond, and Kenny Loggins delivered to my door.”

Most of the Stereogum story, however, concerned an entirely different matter, that of whether or not VNYL would be violating the Record Rental Amendment Of 1984. It appears that VNYL became aware of this at some point and had to make some small changes in its operating model in order not to run afoul of the law. Writer Nelson delves pretty handily into this and it’s well-worth reading carefully.

He also talked with founder Nick Alt directly, who discussed that as well as some of the complaints that were starting to come in from subscribers. Among his quotes:

“VNYL was Kickstarted as a ‘Hand Curated Music Discovery’ project. I wanted to prove you could build the best human-curated music platform there is. After the campaign, I reached out to all our Kickstarter backers and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about VNYL and their own music experiences. I was really curious — what were they listening to? What genres do they like? What don’t they like? We’re all being sold these digital streaming services, but VNYL is about doing something anti-algorithm and focused on how people experience and actually listen to music.

“I also asked members why they backed VNYL. The vast majority (over 80%) chose to back us because they wanted to grow their vinyl collection, try a human curated service, and because they wanted to support vinyl as a medium. For a majority of our backers, the Netflix rental model just wasn’t the draw and actually created the most apprehension. Since we’re constantly making decisions around what the best user experience is for VNYL, it made sense to us to allow our backers and future members keep records they receive from us and pay us no additional costs…

“It fucking sucks when we disappoint our members. We honestly feel incredibly sad when a member doesn’t like what we sent. That sucks for them and also for us. It’s like you just spent all this time planning out what you think is an awesome surprise gift idea for someone and then they can’t mask the look of disappointment when they open it up right in front of you. It’s completely deflating. Unfortunately, this comes with the territory of being a human curated service.

“With time, VNYL will only improve. As shitty as it feels when someone doesn’t like our choices, when we do get it right, it’s a total rush. There’s nothing more rewarding for me or our curators when we see someone tweet or Instagram their open box of vinyl and are debating which one to spin first.”

Well, only “time” will tell, Nick. But judging from the growing snowball that is the court of public opinion, there’s not a whole lot of time to improve and “get it right.” Remember what I said about “negative word of mouth” at the end of my original article? It’s already started, and in a big way.

UPDATE, 5/16: Watch this video that Stereogum found by a, shall we say, less than pleased VNYL subscriber posted about his #danceparty selections:

UPDATE, 5/20: Another unhappy backer has posted a story about his experience at The Faculty of Thinking Blog. The writer’s conclusion: “VNYL charges $24 a month for 3 records via mail currently valued at less than $3 a record. Most of what you receive is not great and will feel more like a yard sale or goodwill or dollar bin find. If you’re into it, cool. You cannot return these records if you don’t like them. Very little about what you include in your profile, musical taste or “vibe” will influence what records you get. The records chosen are “hand curated” and possibly even with care, but from an extremely limited and low quality pool. There is nowhere to see the list of records that your selections are being curated from. Absolutely not worth the subscription unless you are trying to build a novelty library of quality over quantity. You are losing money in this current build.”

UPDATE, 5/20: Here is the first (to my knowledge) complaint about VNYL filed with California’s Better Business Bureau. It reads, in part: “When VNYL initiated a Kickstarter campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nickalt/vnyl-hand-curated-vinyl-records/video_share) in December 2014, it billed itself as the “Netflix of LPs.” As described by magazine Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/new-record-service-vnyl-distributes-lps-like-netflix-20150109), VNYL offered a subscription service that: allows member to select a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance). Once completed, “the company will send three albums curated to fit the ‘vibe’ by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.” I participated in the Kickstarter campaign and chose 3 months of service in late December 2015.On or about March 25, I tried to select vibes that had been promised on the Kickstarter campaign. I found that at least two vibes, #gamenight and #rainyday, were not being offered as promised. Nick Alt, creator and owner, noted that those vibes might be added at a later date. On April 25, I contacted Nick Alt again after receiving three albums that were not to my taste. They arrived with no prepaid return envelope, and I asked him how I could best return them. I also asked him to cancel my membership. He did not respond to repeated emails and Facebook queries until May 9th. His response, in part: “Those records yours to keep for no cost…but you dont have to do anything to get them back to us.”At this stage, I feel like the Kickstarter campaign was a bait and switch, an opportunity for VNYL to collect money and use it to open a brick and mortar record store as opposed to service members properly.Mine is not the only complaint.”

Uncle Blurt: Do Prince’s Plans to Save Sinking Tidal Platform, Fresh Comments on “Slavery” Make Him a Douchebag?

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Exactly how many signed up for that fucking thing again? And what’s up with those gunbarrels on the dude’s album artwork?

By Uncle Blurt

If you are like most of America’s music consumers, you initially yawned, then laughed, at Jay-Z’s plan to save himself and fellow superstars from that big bad ol’ bogeyman “streaming music” by launching music platform Tidal. Precise figures are not available, but suffice to say that the utter lack of media excitement about Tidal, following the initial announcement back in late March mirrored the public’s general apathy towards it. For that matter, some artists publicly denounced it, like Mumford and Sons, Noel Gallagher and Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, and which left Jay-Z stuttering and sputtering on social media—to much mirth on social media— for people to “give us a chance to grow and get better.” Bloomberg Business even penned an op-ed/analysis of the service, “Why Jay-Z’s Tidal is a Complete Disaster,” concluding that Tidal’s artist-exclusivity angle is ultimately at odds with the way the music industry – and human nature – operates, and that for him to think he can “save” the music industry from itself is naïve at best, and in general, reeks of hubris.

It’s not as if people care how they get their fixes of Tidal artists Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Chris Martin/Coldplay, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kanye West, Madonna. Arcade Fire, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, Jack White, and Deadmau5, much less how much these well-heeled artists get paid. Ask yourself when was the last time you saw the hashtag #TIDALforALL… People are already pretty happy with Spotify, and since Apple’s new Apple Music platform basically just slots in beside that iTunes app on your smartphone, why go to the trouble of signing up for something entirely different when one click quickly downloads and synchs Apple Music. Not to mention the fact that $9.99/mo. for Tidal is highway robbery (grand theft auto if you want the $19.99 hi def version). The fact that less than 3 months after the launch Tidal announced it was offering a special $4.99 rate (or $10 for hi def) for students only highlighted how the business is already feeling the pinch. I mean, c’mon: that whole students-don’t-have-much-disposable-income is a total myth in 2015 (I guarantee you that the average freshman on a college campus spends WAY more money on music, movies, concerts and beer than I do), and students also know exactly where they can score free, pirated downloads of new releases anyway.

But wait, here comes the cavalry! It’s The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Who Yanked His Music From Streaming Services, aka Prince, a late arrival to the Tidal roster, who announced the other day that his forthcoming new album HITNRUN will be distributed exclusively via Tidal starting Sept. 7. His statement speaks for itself:

 

“After one meeting, it was obvious that Jay Z and the team he has assembled at TIDAL recognize and applaud the effort that real musicians put in2 their craft 2 achieve the very best they can at this pivotal time in the music industry. Secondly, TIDAL have honored Us with a non-restrictive arrangement that once again allows Us to continue making art in the fashion We’ve grown accustomed 2 and We’re Extremely grateful 4 their generous support. And lastly, in the tech-savvy, real-time world We all live in 2day, everything is faster. From its conception and that one & only meeting, HITNRUN took about 90 days 2 prepare its release. If that’s what freedom feels like, HITNRUN is what it sounds like.”

No doubt Jay-Z Is Extremely Grateful 4 Prince’s generous support, because he’s probably the only artist among all the others listed above that has total cross-genre appeal. I mean, if Tom Petty or, I dunno, Patti Smith were to go with Tidal, I would have to do some serious thinking about signing up. As I am now doing re: Prince’s announcement. Of course, there’s always that apartment full of college students across the street from the Blurt offices that I can appeal to as well come Sept. 7….

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But wait, as the saying goes, there’s more! Over the weekend Prince held a meet ‘n’ greet-slash-press conference at Paisley Park for a small assemblage of black journalists, ostensibly to drum up support for Tidal during the lead up to the album release next month. He’s clearly aware that Tidal has been taking it on the chin of late, so he rolled out all of Jay-Z’s talking points while talking about artistic freedom and about artists getting fairly compensated compared to the way record companies treat them. And echoing comments he uttered years ago when he divorced himself from Warner Bros., he invoked the “S” word:

“Record contracts are just like — I’m gonna say the word – slavery. I would tell any young artist … don’t sign.”

Fair enough; that’s your opinion, Prince, one which I’m sure is shared by many. Unfortunately, it’s based on a no-longer-useful model, one which may have been true back during the early days of the recording industry, when the status quo involved signing blues, jazz and R&B artists (read: people of color) to ridiculously one-sided contracts and oftentimes pressuring them to share or even surrender songwriting and publishing with their (white) producers, (white) managers and (white) label heads. Back then, there weren’t any options for artists: if you wanted to release records, you had to sign on the dotted line. Not for nothing was the music biz sometimes referred to as “a plantation system.”

But those days are gone. Nobody is forcing anyone to sign anything in 2015, and nobody is preventing musicians from earning a living. Last time I looked, Prince was doing pretty good for himself and has been doing pretty good from the time he released his first record in the late ‘70s. For him to use the term “slavery” in 2015, particularly given the recent heated dialogue over the Confederate flag, the Civil War and slavery, is worse than being disingenuous – it’s just irresponsible, and whether intentional or not, demeans the lives and legacies of those African-Americans who were actual slaves.

But as usual, whenever Prince talks about anything, even if on the surface it appears to be about a serious issue, in the end he’s just doing another sleight-of-hand magic trick. ‘Cos with Prince, it’s always gonna be about How 2 Benefit Me.

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Uncle Blurt is our official web guru, reality checker and house conscience. He is older than everyone out there, so fuck you.