Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.
For months, we’ve been celebrating the rich history of a Seattle record label that could feasibly be described as a civic institution: Sub Pop Records. But that history is not just confined to Sub Pop proper. A modest wing of their offices holds Hardly Art – a subsidiary named after a lyric from the Thermals’ “No Culture Icons” and founded in 2007 – which has grown to become one of the most consistently great indie-adjacent labels in America. Since its inception, Hardly Art has always kept a keen eye on Seattle’s music scene, evenly highlighting some of the best local and non-local bands around.
Folks who consider themselves Sub Pop historians are very well-aware that prior to Hardly Art, Sub Pop’s track record with starting imprints has been less than favorable. The most well-known example of this is Die Young Stay Pretty, created in 1996 and folding in 1999, which basically served as Sub Pop’s Triple-A farm team. But by firmly establishing Hardly Art as its own thing, the label has flourished. In 2016, Hardly Art became, according to my research, the only record label ever nominated for a Stranger Genius Award. Last year, they celebrated ten years in business, which is a monumental achievement for any record label, let alone one founded deep in the era of file-sharing.
Without any further preamble, presented in alphabetical order, here are five essential songs spotlighting Hardly Art’s devotion to Seattle’s music scene.
Easily and often compared to the hazy, harmonious dynamic of The Velvet Underground & Nico and the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra pairing, the opening track of In Camera – Hardly Art’s maiden voyage into the world of record labeldom – is a song of movement. Taxis, trains, the image of leaving one’s parents behind, the sun moving farther up into the sky. With lots of atmosphere and the sound of woodwinds in the distance to augment the pleasant presentation of the song, the vibe is split evenly between “psychedelic” and “twee.” Grant Olsen and Sonya Westcott never made another album for Hardly Art as a tandem, and in feel and context, In Camera ten years removed from its release sounds like a choice record store find, the sounds within its grooves lost to history and waiting to be rediscovered.
Prior to the release of their Hardly Art debut, the Seattle quartet’s reputation as a college party band preceded them, with songs like incredibly fun (and mildly inappropriate) songs like “Pussy Weed Beer,” “Nip Slip,” and “Giant Vagina.” But the band always had a healthy introspective streak, which was ratcheted up on Time to Go Home. The album’s title track closes things out by capturing the silent moments before an evening out, struggling to find conversation of consequence to get the night going but still being optimistic about a fun time being had. Before anything remotely fun starts being described in song, the room starts spinning and it’s time to make the (hopefully short) journey home. Some nights are more meaningful than others.
Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison are both Seattle music scene journeypeople, their careers ranging deep before and after the tenure of their locally beloved duo, the Dutchess and the Duke. Their aesthetic of “campfire punk on a serious Stones bender” is never more apparent than on “Mary,” a lovelorn acoustic ballad of loss and distrust and misdirected anger, buoyed by Lortz’s rasp and Morrison’s casually soothing harmonies. Rarely is elegance and squalor presented as equal musical concepts, and few groups have done it as deftly as the Dutchess and the Duke managed to here.
Before the band left Seattle for the environs of Southern California, the garage-rock four-piece was easily one of the best groups in town, combining a palpable melancholy along with their deep melodic sensibility. Weirdo Shrine was loosely based off of Charles Burns’ graphic novel series Black Hole – a Seattle-area-based coming-of-age story as unusual and occasionally foreboding as the music of La Luz – with “I’ll Be True” being the album’s haunting peak. The song’s statement of devotion is colored by the music that accompanies the words, the band sounding like the house band for your favorite ghost town’s surf shop.
The Seattle quartet have been on quite the tear since releasing last year’s Nirvana, a whirlwind of songwriting described by our own Dusty Henry as “futile optimism” and blaring guitars which undoubtedly led Hardly Art to sign the band about a month and change ago. If the latter-day solo work of Thurston Moore were inspired by the skyline of trees that line the Pacific Northwest, his music would invariably sound something close to “Silver Dollar,” a tapestry of noise and melody that is not suffocated by what comes from the band’s effects pedal wizardry, instead evoking clear, open spaces and fresh air.
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