Notes on the Special Pillow, the Holdout, Mikey Erg, and Alice Bag
Or: An Open Letter to My Bandmate, Former and Future, John Ross Bowie
You still subscribe to Razorcake, right? What did you think about Donna Ramone’s recent column, where she writes about listening to favorite punk albums with new lenses? I love her line about needing to clean off “the nostalgia grease from this mirror and see some of that punk I love for what it really is.” We texted later and she said the column came out of group chats, spiraling with friends about old punk records. “Fear? Is Fear…ah fuck. What about the Dwarves? I can’t handle this.” She described it as a conversation she wants to keep having despite the discomfort. Old favorites and new standards don’t always jell.
I’ve gone through that, too, though sometimes it’s not the lyrics or attitudes. It’s just listening fatigue. (Am I really going back to those All records that haven’t moved in a decade?) Other times, like Donna said, values shift out of sync. But I’m also experiencing the flipside, bands that resonate more than ever. That’s the genesis of this new playlist I’m obsessing over. I started with the Special Pillow and Holdout records and thought, Who would dig this line up more than Bowie? The Mikey Erg and Alice Bag records only heighten that hunch.
Plus, I still feel there’s a cultural trade deficit for me to reduce. You made so many eye-opening mix tapes for me back in the day. Dischord deep cuts, Southern California hardcore, and the sounds of weird New York. (Maybe I’d have heard King Missile otherwise, but not the False Prophets!) You also had a way of affirming what I was thinking about music back then but seldom shared. I remember being at a college radio staff meeting and exchanging mutual admiration for the clarinet solo in the Dead Kennedys’ “Terminal Preppie,” and talking about the Devo poster in my dorm room after coming back from an Amnesty International petition drive. So, in the spirit of balancing cultural budgets, I have four records to recommend.
Leading off is the Special Pillow led by Dan Cuddy, from Hypnolovewheel, and Katie Gentile. Special Pillow seems like a new band to me even though they go back to 1994, after Hypnolovewheel broke up. It was probably around the time of that show in the meat packing district. Do you remember going to see HLW at the Cooler? We overheard someone say the band wouldn’t be playing that night because they’d broken up. No one from the Cooler announced it, just word buzzing through the crowd. It was such an abrupt, unceremonious end. I wondered if I’d misread the ad or maybe the band broke up a couple of hours before they were supposed to play. I was confused. We bailed before the other bands played and wound up vandalizing the club. It was the enclosed box just outside the door where they listed upcoming shows. Who knows why it was unlocked or why we noticed it was unlocked, but before I knew it, we each had a pocketful of letters that had spelled out “Hypnolovewheel” only moments before.
I asked Dan Cuddy about that night. He said it was a free Monday night show, January ’95. HLW had broken up just a few days before, too late to pull their name from the Village Voice ad. He also said there was overlap with the bands. Special Pillow started as one side of the HLW double 7-inch Sybil, where each band member got a solo project side (ala Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma or the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime). The solo sides were Tom Scharpling’s idea. He commissioned the project for his label, 18-Wheeler. So technically this was still under the umbrella of HLW, but the other people playing on Cuddy’s side were paving the way to the Special Pillow. (“Let’s see other people” is always the sign of a breakup no one’s yet acknowledging.) Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo really liked Cuddy’s side and asked him to open for YLT. The gig went well and the band, as it were, continued recording. Along the way Dave Rick (King Missile), James McNew (YLT) and Peter Walsh (HLW) were involved. So was Katie Gentile.
Despite the lineage I put off diving into the Special Pillow for ages. Then early in the pandemic, after revisiting the Hypnolovewheel records, I finally took the plunge. So good. Cuddy and Gentile treat pop songs like taffy—sweet, sticky, and stretchy though less messy. Think of the poppier Shimmy Disc records or Syd’s Pink Floyd (though more wine than acid). Mind Wipe maintains the whimsical, psych-pop Cuddy and Gentile have cultivated so well for so long. My favorite track, “So Inclined,” is also the longest. The violin and viola conjure the Velvet Underground, but with a levity Lou and Cale never conjured. And I like the world suggested by “Organic Panic.” It’s playfully spooky and sounds like the theme song for a cheeky early ‘70s variety show. (I was thinking it’d be the show that followed Dark Shadows, but then I found out Dark Shadows aired at four in the afternoon. Imagine coming home to a gothic romp like that every day after school?)
The other night I was watching Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. He talks about lantern consciousness versus spotlight consciousness. With the former, we’re really focused, aiming our attention at one thing. With the latter, everything in the vicinity is illuminated at the same time, all points rather than a fixed point. Mind Wipe is a lantern record, even the short songs have a way of opening things up. Cuddy’s lyrics aren’t topical but reflect a writer in touch with the harsh realities of the contemporary world, but also buoyed by the absurdities. I’ve never been good with the latter, which is among the reasons I keep going back to Mind Wipe.
A few weeks back I was watching Game 3 of the WNBA finals. The Connecticut Sun were steamrolling the Las Vegas Aces, clicking on both ends of the court. It was a team effort but so much hinged on their center, Jonquel Jones. She anchored a stifling defense, allowing her teammates to play further from the hoop knowing Jones was behind them. On offense, her teammates kept feeding her in the post even though she was consistently double teamed. It was uncanny watching her cut through the Aces’ defense. She didn’t have the best stat line of the night (Alyssa Thomas had a triple double), but Jones was the cornerstone.
Vocalist/bassist Andi Camp plays a similar role in the Holdout. She doesn’t play the soaring guitar lines that color the band’s sound (more on those later). She doesn’t highlight herself or her contributions in the liner notes or album cover, but so much goes through her.
In a just world merely saying, “There’s a new Andi Camp record” would yield a response to the effect of “All right! How does it compare to The Things That Brought Us Here or The Speed of Travel?” She has a remarkable track record going back to the mid-‘90s. We played with two of her early bands, Underside and Stella. Then she played with Ribbon Fix and Temper and Hold, and released several solo records before her latest band, the Holdout. All those records are on her label, Grafton Records, too. Bigger legends have been built on far less.
The Holdout template is built on the intricate patterns Camp churns out with drummer Paul Johnson—active but not busy. Think Jawbox through the first three records (the last one was a bit cluttered for my tastes). There’s certainly some J. Robbins and Bill Barbot in the guitar lines, atmospheric sounds that could fill stadiums while remaining tethered and melodic. I hear some Rush, too, especially on “All In.” I’m thinking of later Rush when they cut back on the bombast, swapped out the Ayn Rand apologist lyrics, and collaborated with Aimee Mann. Come to think of it, that period may have only lasted one song. Regardless, guitarist Aaron Blanchard is a wonderful foil for Camp and Johnson. There are prog rock threads in the tapestry, but the big picture is rooted in swaying, passionate, old school emo. Ironically, these are sounds I find more appealing now than when I first heard them back in the ‘90s. I’m more open to earnest songwriting.
Camp’s lyrics come from a similar perspective. She tends to circle and imply ideas more than soapbox. I doubt I could pinpoint the central theme to any of the songs, but always feel like I’m picking up what they’re putting down. Every song on the album hinges on the use of “we.” The plural pronouns seem to refer to couples as much as groups, holding onto that special someone as well as leaning into the collective, intertwining the personal and social. Won’t Be Leaving Here Today offers shelter and solidarity as much as the songs’ narrators seem to be seeking those same things. All while gesturing toward anthems but holding back in favor of implied righteousness.
I started wondering about my Camp-centric view of the Holdout, so I reached out to Andi.
“Our songs are very much group writing. Most often Aaron will bring some riffs to practice, and then Paul and I will jump in and that often changes them quite a bit, and then we work together to weed out the good and bad and form a structure, write new parts where needed, etc. Then I usually put the vocals together, unless Aaron has parts he wants to sing. And sometimes things will shift a little more after I get the vocals going. Very collaborative. As an aside, it still, even after four or five years, surprises Aaron what happens to his song ideas once they get to practice and we holdout-ify them.”
Mikey Erg has a new record called Love at Leeds. I have a copy and trust it’s great, but haven’t listened to it yet because his previous album, the self-titled one from 2020, is still in high rotation. It has one of the best opening one-two combos of any punk record. “Can’t Be Too Careless” is loud, fast, easy to grab hold of and equally easy to hold on to after the needle moves along. I appreciate the voice of caution in the chorus. It’s not admonishing or finger wagging, but helpful, or trying to be. It reminds me of that line “Maybe the dishes don’t get done” from Husker Du’s “I Apologize.” A touch of the domestic, a cautious narrator offering guidance, though I’ve started wondering if it’s advice to self rather than to someone else. Meanwhile, the band is tight but not polished, and there’s this exciting sense things might spill over during the verses. Credit drummer Chris Pierce. Among other things, he plays the hi-hat open, getting just enough of that splashy sound that might sound loose to the ear, but is definitely tight. He also keeps the fills to a minimum , just what the song needs quantitatively and qualitatively.
Then comes the Pearl Jam cover. It seems too early in the record for a cover, and Pearl Jam? Oy. Pearl Jam was never my band. You know this from my anti-Pearl Jam tirades. In hindsight, I was looking for allies, someone else baffled by Pearl Jam’s widespread success, which felt like infiltration, the guys from my high school wrestling team forming a band and passing for punk adjacent. Last week I heard “I’m Still Alive” at the grocery store. It no longer conjures the full force dread, but still no bueno. Mikey’s cover of “Spin the Black Circle,” on the other hand, which is the second part of that opening combo? Oh my. The guitar riff scorches and Mikey nails the vocals while rhythm section, Pierce and Fid on bass, pushes the pace. It’s a beautiful, desperate ode to loving records. It also glorifies the consumption of plastic discs, but I’m looking the other way when it comes to this vice.
The rest of side one is unrelenting—charged, barbed, and so damn tuneful. And fleeting. Five straight tunes under two minutes each. The only thing I’d change about side one would be to include “Denny Songs in Our Lungs,” which opens side two. The title references Denny from Sicko and (maybe) XTC’s “No Language in Our Lungs.” I love the idea of songs being more than words and sounds, the most worthy being the very things that sustain us. (Thus justifying that nasty vinyl habit.)
Mikey wrote the record in sequence in one sitting. “This was deep lockdown pandemic,” he said, “and me and the guys were sick of sitting alone in our houses, so we booked a session. I went down to Astoria Park and wrote the whole record in about an hour. I had 11 song titles written in a notebook, then I just wrote the songs. Lyrics were touched up, but the basic structures and melodies were there from moment one.” I take an hour to fold laundry and clean the kitchen. He writes a record.
The rest of side two runs in a few different directions. There’s a Green Day cover (“Going to Pasalacqua”), but the preceding originals are too hard to follow. Heidi Vanderlee joins on cello for “God Mic.” It’s a powerful pairing, sparse and focused, and has enough momentum to run longer. (“That was meant to be the outlier on the record, a gentle calm before the storm of the last song.”) I still don’t know about the long, dirgey album closer, “Give Up.” I like wrestling with Mikey’s long songs, though. Sometimes they come into focus after a dozen listens or so. Other times I admire the chutzpah more than the delivery. Isn’t that the way with many of the best albums, they have those songs that don’t resolve easily, that have to be grappled with even as the rest of the record sizzles from the first spin? Bonus points for the album artwork swiped from the first Clash album.
The kids and I visited my brother Pat in Boston last summer. We went to a record store in Somerville, and I saw a copy of Alice Bag’s Blueprint from 2018. The owner heard Maggie and me talking about one of the songs from that record, “White Justice.” The guy lit up, pulled out a copy of her latest album, and before I knew it, he was speed walking across the store to hand us a copy of 2020’s Sister Dynamite. Not pushy, just super enthusiastic. Then he pointed to a painting on the wall behind us. “I made that listening to this record.” This is what Alice Bag does to people. She’s a catalyst.
When I was test driving the playlist, I went back to Alice’s 2005 interview in Razorcake. (I’ve kept twenty years of back issues for just such an occasion.) It dawned on me that the releases I’ve heard the most about—her 2009 memoir and solo albums from 2016, ’18, and ’20—all come after the interview. She may carry a stage name from her younger years, but she hit full stride at an age when everyone else is winding down, and Sister Dynamite is a terrific companion piece to Blueprint.
Whereas Blueprint is almost punk cabaret in terms of the range of songs—punk songs alongside funk and ballads, horn sections and piano—Sister Dynamite sharpens the focus without diminishing the impact. Going back to the Michael Pollan analogy, Sister Dynamite is a spotlight to Blueprint’s lantern. Song after song, she pairs podium-thumping lyrics about gender, sexuality, class, and culture with hooks and riffs that hit and stick. The albums’ perspectives are comparable, and on balance they’re both celebratory and invigorating, though Sister Dynamite burns with a different kind of intensity.
When I spoke with Bag recently, she said “I really wanted a live performance album.” She described her first two albums as having “all the garnish, all the ingredients I could possibly dream of”—stylistically diversity, lots of guest musicians, and instrumentation beyond guitar, bass, and drums. This time she wanted to “cut out all the extras.” If we’d played Sister Dynamite in college, it’d be one of those “open choice” albums—play any song, you can’t go wrong.
Different songs pop into my head as I make my way through the day. Today it was “Spark”:
“Even when I tried to be normal
I always missed the mark
Hell no, I’m not dimming my spark”
Yesterday it was “Gatecrasher”:
“I’m pushing hard to get in so make way, you can’t keep me out
You hush the words I say, but the whole world will hear me shout”
These are the laser beam lyrics that illuminate my drive to work or raking leaves with a portable speaker filling the yard.
My favorite is “Sister Dynamite.” I love the way she elevates the title character to super heroic status. Like Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” she is not to be trifled with.
“She’s so tired of fragile masculinity
Going to blow it up
Yeah, she’s the TNT”
Bonus points for the arrangement, especially the third time through the chorus. Guitarist Sharif Dumani blends in these sparkling sci-fi effects and there are layers of angelic backing vocals. It’s breathtaking. Bag said the song’s origin story has multiple layers.
“I visualized AOC walking into Congress. There’s a picture where you can see pages and young men looking at her, like, Wow. She’s making an impact, just walking in, wearing all white, her heels clicking on the floor, and heads turning. I created a movie in my head about this woman that was going to blow up the past. But at the same time, I was working with a group of women called Turn It Up, which was to amplify the voices of women in music. We were organizing concerts and meetings and breakfasts for people to meet and network. All the women that were involved were just such chigonas, women who get things done. I love that feeling. They were all Sister Dynamite. It was one specific visual that inspired it, but it was a bunch of different women. When I was writing it, I was thinking of Malala. I was thinking of Dolores Huerta, so many women that are constantly doing what they can to move us forward.”
I think my daughter is developing a streak of Sister Dynamite. I bet yours is, too. I hope our sons have a genuine respect for the Sisters Dynamite in their lives. Likewise for you and me. I wonder if, back in the day, how I’d have responded to a record like Sister Dynamite. I also wonder which lyrics/bands I’ve overlooked. Songs I’m familiar with, but whose full impact has eluded me. Donna’s column has me thinking about how we evolve past the perspectives of older punk rock favorites. Meanwhile, Alice Bag keeps leaping forward and lighting the path ahead.
In a recent interview Lou Barlow said hardcore punk is like his polka, the music of his youth that he wants to keep leaning on, grow old with. I get where he’s coming from as long I and the music keep evolving.
Let me know what you think,
PS I intended to go back to the Company soundtrack so I could close with a Sondheim update, but I’ve only listened to it once so far. I got stuck on the lead, Dean Jones, also being the guy from The Cat From Outer Space and one of The Love Bug movies.