Brooklyn’s Vassals have just released their fantastic EP, Halogen Days. You can listen in full via the band’s Bandcamp.
We caught up with Shay Spence from the band to find out some of the songs that have influenced her over the years in this week’s Life Is Like A Box Of Records…
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” – Black Sabbath
It’s so not rock n’ roll that my friend’s dad turned me on to Black Sabbath, but the roads to mega bands from 20 years before you were born are broad and few. Sabbath was my first foray in celebrating darkness. This song introduced me to my all time favorite melodic interval: the minor 5th. And Geezer Butler’s bass tone rules. Every dipshit teenage car ride started with this song and that rain and thunder intro.
“Tyler” – The Toadies
This song is a pretty obvious Pixies ripoff and way problematic. From the perspective of a kidnapper? Rapist? Pretty gross, Batman. Nevertheless, my high school band pretty much formed around this one song, and we covered it at every single show. I didn’t relisten to “Tyler” in the writing of this list (I think I’d cringe myself into oblivion), but just thinking about that two-note intro guitar that’s basically “Where Is My Mind” backwards brings me back to being wrapped in secondhand smoke, hanging around with my weirdo friends in muggy Texas bars, talking about how we’re gonna get out of this stupid city while secretly loving every little thing about it.
“A Better Son/Daughter” – Rilo Kiley
I mean, there was no dearth of sadcore in my life as a post-nirvana youth, but this song’s depiction of anxiety/bipolar disorder rang so clear then that it stopped me cold. And it works so well. I would put it on when I felt especially low, to wallow in that opening verse, but then the whole band comes in and those cheesy Blake Sennett guitar riffs and I couldn’t ever not feel a positive charge from it. And forever being in love with Jenny Lewis, this is one of those “omg she’s speaking directly to me” kind of experiences.
“God Is A Number” – Sleater-Kinney
My introduction to this song was timed perfectly with the Great Religion Disillusionment of my mid-teens. It was the first of Sleater-Kinney I’d ever heard, thanks I’m sure to whatever p2p platform that was popular at the time, and just zapped me instantly. Everything about the guitar tones, the song form, Corin Tucker’s wild voice, it was just perfect, and I loved to passive aggressively blast it from my bedroom on Sunday mornings before being carted off to church. I don’t think the song is really expressing anything agnostic or anti-religious, seems more critical of technology or conformity or something, but still the repeating, titular chorus felt so deliciously sacrilegious to 15 year-old me.
“On Tour With Zykos” – Okkervil River
One of the many things I gained from my First Big Relationship was a love for Okkervil River. Their music has been a constant in my life for well over a decade now, Will Sheff draping his disarmingly textured lyrics over the shifting, sometimes too-slick production shapes of each album. The Stand Ins came out right around the end of my Second Big Relationship, and this song is the main reason the album has been saved on every iPhone I’ve had since. The whole song makes me mad with how much it makes me feel. The twinkly piano melody that is constantly reaching upward then falling on itself, the lines “I go home, take off clothes, smoke a bowl, watch a whole TV movie. I was supposed to be writing the most beautiful poems…” He’s singing so personally from this female character’s perspective and it tangled with my murky gender issues in ways I didn’t even understand at the time.
“Everything Ending” – Katie Von Schleicher
Full disclosure: Katie is a long time friend of mine, and I’m sure that fact colors my experience of her work, but god have I always been so jealous of her songwriting. Her release of Bleaksloitation happened to coincide with a lot of heavy personal changes for me, and I found myself clinging to the album for dear life several times. It was difficult to parse what track from this record could represent its importance to me, but “Everything Ending” could win based on title alone. When she comes in singing “In my life I’ve been untrue / everything changes in my life”, I feel immediately quantized to that tortured, sped-down tempo. It’s a trick I rely on now, like a pacesetter for feelings that would otherwise accelerate into a flash of superpanic.
“Harvest Moon” – Neil Young
A friend passed away suddenly, and his family and close friends organized a musical tribute to him that I was able to attend. The evening was a celebration of his own music and music that was known to inspire him, and the whole thing closed with a tender performance of “Harvest Moon”, citing his late infatuation with Neil Young. It was brutal. I had never really paid attention to this song before, with its goofy hoedown music video and renewal-of-vows kind of vibe, but in the context of loss it is absolutely arresting. One time I found a printout of its chord changes at work and promptly cried in the bathroom.
“Candy Says” – Velvet Underground
I would listen to this song on repeat though my early 20’s, and even used it as a basis for a classical theory project in college. I didn’t have a clue who Candy Darling was when I fell in love with this song, but when Doug said that Lou said that Candy said that she’s come to hate her body and all that it requires in this world, I couldn’t have agreed more. Its opioid languidness and soft admissions were a salve during train rides home after drinking too much in strange places.
“With a Girl Like You” – The Troggs
She was doing additional recording for her album in Boston. I was either visiting from California or had just moved to New York, but had tagged along and was hanging out in the control room, perusing the books and things that decorated the studio. There was a box set of the Troggs discography with a thick booklet of liner notes; I ended up reading it cover to cover while our friend overdubbed oboe. Somehow the confluence of everything led me to exploring their catalog and falling in love with this maddeningly simple song. Five years later we danced to it, unrehearsed, staggering in laughter, in our finest clothes and in front of our favorite people.
“Unfucktheworld” – Angel Olsen
I could probably just fill this 10-song list with Angel Olsen songs, maybe next time? Unfucktheworld, from title to closing refrain = me right now.