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Alex Carnevale

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Mia Nguyen

Reviews Editor
Ethan Peterson

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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In Which We Regret Divorcing Ben Gibbard

Thinking It's A Sign


Ben Gibbard released a new song with Jenny Lewis a couple weeks ago. You’ve probably heard it already. It’s called “A Tattered Line of String,” and sounds pretty good. It’s a satisfactory Postal Service song with lots of synth beats, a handful of soppy-sad lyrics and a not-so-subtle reference to New York.

I didn’t think the song stuck with me until yesterday, when I had a dream about the pescetarian indie king himself. I was reading at Kafein, a local late-night coffeehouse that unfortunately turns into a hub for cringe-worthy performers every Monday night — the much feared and often forgotten Open Mic Night. Predictably, there’s the hoody-clad comedian who can only recite jokes about genitalia, the English-Theater double major slam poet, and the sensitive future engineer who has a knack for 1-5-6-4 chord progressions to accompany lyrics about heartbreak.

Tonight, the latter happens to be Gibbard. As he approaches the hemp rug that designates the performance area, I happen to look up from my extra foam soy cappuccino. Behind those horn-rimmed glasses, he averts his glance and grimaces. He is the sensitive future engineer, after all. He begins to strum his mahogany Taylor guitar with the Indian print woven strap. “And when I see you, I really see you upside down,” he sings in his honest voice, opening the acoustic ballad with a conjunction because why not. But my brain knows better. It picks you up and turns you around, turns you around, turns you around. He bobs his head ever so slightly as he plucks the simple rhythm. The stark twang of his melody reverberates in the hot, dingy café, pulling heartstrings and reigniting a roomful of teenage angst. He looks very sad and very cute in that plaid shirt.

If you feel discouraged that there’s a lack of color here, please don’t worry, lover. It’s really busting at the seams for absorbing everything, the spectrum from A to Z.

I brush back my overgrown bangs and hope to once again share eye contact with the gangly, longhaired crooner. But before the song could end, and before I could catch Ben Gibbard’s fancy with my unassuming whimsy and printed vintage dress, I woke up. I don’t have bangs. I’ve never had bangs in my life. I hate cappuccinos and I am not Zooey Deschanel, thank god. But Death Cab comprises well over half of my coming-of-age OST, and Ben Gibbard is unabashedly everything he was in my dream, heartthrob included. When I really got into Death Cab, my palette of emotions consisted of angry and sad. In my privileged, post-90s adolescence, this phase was dubbed angst.

I was in a small town high school, I hated my parents and I was recently dumped by a douchebag who always smirked at my music library because he listens to the Smiths. I really, really liked him. Anyhow, my life was characterized by the trifecta of teenage suffering and Ben Gibbard just happened to make himself available to me in the form of a pirated MP3 file. Naturally, I gravitated toward his earlier, darker stuff — songs for which he clearly took influence from the likes of Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins, the real angsty deal.

It would make sense to write Gibbard off as the chronically depressed hipster sellout from the Pacific Northwest, who dresses like a white guy and probably dances like one too. Or if you’re unfamiliar with Gibbard’s musical repertoire, you know him as the guy who married your favorite manic pixie dream girl. Ugh. On an outward level, Gibbard did sell out. After all, he did move to L.A.

Death Cab sold out stadium shows, and even wrote for the Twilight soundtrack. But it’s easy to forget that he’s been in the industry for 16 years, a period long enough to demand change. Before going platinum, before Madison Square Garden and before Zooey and that god awful collaboration with her on their last album, Codes and Keys, Gibbard and his indie setup were a bona fide basement rock band that fully embraced the local Seattle music scene.

Gibbard was an engineering student at a Washington university, performing on the side as the guitarist for a band called Pinwheel. He started Death Cab as a solo project and released his first demo on cassette in 1997 — You Can Play These Songs with Chords. It included tracks that would later be part of his first studio albums, like “Amputations” and “Champagne from a Paper Cup.” These were the original ballads that exhibited Gibbard’s signature sweet-and-sad disposition. The Postal Service came about before Death Cab’s launch into the mainstream with the perfectly pop-oriented 2003 album, Transatlanticism. As a side project, Gibbard collaborated with Jimmy Tamborello and Jenny Lewis by sending edited electronic tracks back and forth via mail — the U.S. Postal Service, hence the name. The trio released Give Up in February of 2003. I was hooked on Give Up long before I took a substantial interest in Death Cab. “Such Great Heights,” however ubiquitous in commercials and crappy TV shows, is pleasant, intelligent and emphatically catchy, all rolled into one four-minute track.

The mesmeric tune, sentimentalized by Iron and Wine with an acoustic cover, occasionally creeps into the most unforeseen moments of my life and before I even recognize it, I’ll already be humming the melody. Give Up is so charming that after the real postal service had threatened to sue over their trademark name, the band was able to win the government agency over to cooperate in some cross-promotional marketing. At one point, the USPS store actually sold the album, contributing to its platinum status.

With the exception of Give Up, I glossed over Death Cab’s earlier music, Transatlanticism included, until I heard “I Will Follow You into the Dark.” Unfortunately, I never stopped hearing it. Placed smack in the middle of Plans, the somewhat overrated acoustic ballad soon became Death Cab’s namesake song, and I regrettably was the culprit, along with Starbucks, elevators, and my high school classmates. Everyday for the entirety of 2006, I played the song on repeat.

When I began taking guitar lessons, I told my instructor Brian, a failed musician in the local Pittsburgh scene, that I absolutely needed to learn it. Little did he know what I truly wanted was to be serenaded by it. I’ve always believed Death Cab was the original emo band. And so just as I started getting into their earlier albums nearly a decade after the release of their debut, Something About Airplanes, my first boyfriend, the Smiths douchebag, broke my heart. No more serenade daydreams, and no more of that “love of mine” shit. The timing could not have been more apropos. I’ll react when faces find you with jealous fits that gag and bind you, Gibbard sings in “President of What." Cause nothing hurts like nothing at all when imagination takes full control.

I think Gibbard’s charm has always been that his songs projected his understanding of being broken, to the point that fans have become sadistic for his misery. Sure, he also has that shy, man-boy hipster image pinned down to perfection, but that might be more or less incidental. As Sharon Steel writes in a Stereogum deconstruction of Gibbard, “The singer-songwriter’s sadness certainly has a twisted currency in the indie rock community.” And that’s absolutely true. He writes songs about anxiety, numbing heartbreak, disillusionment, and any kind of mawkishness that fits under the category of deliciously sad. For the marginalized, the delicately heartsick or the existentially lost — archetypes anyone can take on — Gibbard’s music serves as a haven of comfort by normalizing and even romanticizing misery. Among the likes of Sylvia Plath, Tennessee Williams, Picasso in his Blue Period and Adele, Gibbard’s work revels in discontent.

That’s precisely why Death Cab fans criticized Codes and Keys as insincere. Pitchfork gave it a solid five, claiming “Death Cab weirdly sound like they are imitating themselves.” With lyrics like, “If there’s a burning in your heart, don’t be alarmed,” and “life is sweet in the belly of the beast,” it seems as if Gibbard had abandoned his Hancock of melancholy. It comes down to the fact that the album, on top of Gibbard’s 2012 solo record, Former Lives, resonate a sense of — god forbid — happiness. In “A Tattered Line of String,” we get a taste of that classic Gibbard despondence. “Everything never seems to hold,” he sings in the bridge.

Satisfactory indeed, but I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of guilt. His aching-for-heartache fans have objectified him to be the gospel for all that is angsty and disenchanted, when maybe he just had a phase. You know, the whole Soundgarden-and-Smashing Pumpkins-and-probably-Nirvana-too phase. Maybe he’s just a guy who had a quarter-life crisis in college and wrote songs about it, who gained a huge following for his relatably sad music, who later made the mistake of courting and marrying a vapid actress, who still writes pretty damn good music. Ben Gibbard is 36 years old. He is no longer a vegan. He ardently advocates for gay rights, and is living in Seattle again, where I presume he has a cat.

Gibbard denies rumors about The Postal Service’s reunion, but I have my fingers crossed. I’m building a fire to keep you warm long after I retire, he sings in the last track of his solo album. ’Cause this body is bound to expire/And the embers will glow, remind you what you already know, that the night is only a temporary absence of light, of light. It’s called “I’m Building A Fire,” and reminds me of the original Ben Gibbard serenade classic, “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” It has just a haunting acoustic accompaniment and the lovely motif of death. And maybe, just maybe, I’m ready to be serenaded again.

Cathaleen Qiao Chen is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Washington D.C. You can find her twitter here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"I'm Building A Fire" - Ben Gibbard (mp3)

"Bigger Than Love" - Ben Gibbard (mp3)


In Which We Are Besieged By The Past

by Will George

The Inverse of Pleasure




It’s that time of year again, when I’m besieged by the broad past. I call it memory season and when it arrives I might remember in sudden, dense flashes being in the kitchen with my mother fifteen years ago or a hallway in a university building in the city where I grew up. I might remember with startling specificity the dates of minor events or the songs that were playing at a certain party. The scenes and settings — which overtake me in the aisles of the grocery store, in the middle of a run, at any moment they don’t belong — are not necessarily charming or dismaying or loaded at all, they are just there, but their accumulation feels intermittently unbearable. One drink helps it abate but two brings it back in full force.

I picture a barstool with a crosshatch tear in its leather that sat conspicuously empty beside mine one night. I recall a cold bench on Fifth Avenue in February. I think of beds with sheets that did not lie flat, of couches that couldn’t comfortably seat two, of high-rise windows with paper birds on them to confuse real birds away. I feel an abstract pang for each of these surfaces, for how I once knew them — felt the icy bars of the bench, saw the light penetrate the dirty windows — and never will again.

I think next, in a layered flash, of a large scar on a left bicep and the smell of cigarettes that were the cheapest you could buy in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in the year 2007, and a note with a stick figure rendering and my name in brown Crayola letters. You wouldn’t know by looking at it but the note represents proof that I once knew and later lost someone who loved me so much he’d reach over and scratch my itches for me, softly pull apart the knots in my hair. The scar and the cigarettes were his, too, and I had hoped to forget them forever along with the rest but, as it turns out, I did not.

The pangs are not as random as they first seem, either. They are, after all, not really for the pebbled leather surface of the barstool, the black pigeon cutouts on the windows. They are for the mood I was in when I sat at that bar (a little bit in love, a little bit confused: that condition of being twenty-two), for the moments when I stood by those windows (feeling, as a teenager, an unfamiliar magnetic sensation it would take years to name). But you know all this, of course: you were beside me on that winter bench, shooting me messages of comfort while I sat at that solitary bar stool.

I used to think I wrote to remember, but lately I have been finding that I write to forget. When you isolate an event on paper, commit its details to the page, you are free to release it from your consciousness, let the record of a time exist somewhere outside yourself. I write these lines in the hope not of commemoration, but of erasure. I write them to you in the hope that memory season will end.



by Will George


Once, when I was very young, I felt things acutely, physically. Disappointment would strike me below my ribcage; the effect of great beauty would hit me somewhere behind my knees. My cheeks were often red with thrill, my hands clammy with excitement. Anything could set it off: I remember with great acuity the sensations triggered by someone I saw on the city bus one afternoon.

But sometimes, for spans of several months, things would go dark. The space below my ribcage was still, my knees straight and immobile. My cheeks would stay pale, my palms would dry out until they flaked, papery. It had happened to many in my family, even to those generations now confined to thin sepia prints in leather albums. The photos could be categorized this way: there were the ones who had successfully killed themselves and then the ones who had tried, in ways that were not always so direct as to spare everyone around them. There was a time when it was difficult not to wonder which one I would be. 

by Will George

But then for years, things would not go dark; they would stay light, and I slowly stopped identifying as someone who had felt any darkness at all, I left it off the emotional resume presented to people who endeavored to love me. It had been something that had happened to me but was not a part of me. That past had belonged to some other, smaller person, a person with a different height, weight, haircut, glasses prescription — it wasn’t me. I never wrote about it because it would be dishonest to write about an experience that I did not fully identify with myself.

It has been so long since I was afflicted by it that I almost forgot what the dark is like. It feels different now then it did when I was very young. It used to be that when I felt the inverse of pleasure, it was not without its own joy, because to feel so intensely — to feel anything intensely — is one of the chief pleasures of being human.  Even a desire not to be alive, as I sometimes had then, seemed an acknowledgment of how very good life could sometimes be, a foolish way of saying: if I can’t have it as it should be, I don’t want it at all.

Now it washes over me in a blank way that is devoid of pleasure. It is hard to see solutions. I remember calling you from Russia five years ago, when I last felt this way, asking permission to extricate myself from what had seemed to bring it all on (it was a fear, then, of giant falling icicles, speeding cars, of, at its core, not being happy again), and in telling me that I could I knew that I would not need to. I write in the hope that the same will happen now, that in asking—broadly, anyone—for permission to escape (the ceaseless snow, the sense that, unlike everyone around me, I was not divined for this), it will turn out that I do not need it.



by Will George


I’ve been riding through the middle of America a lot lately, trying to find a spot that works. I am calmest on a bus, irate driver on the loudspeaker, a book on my lap, snacks at my feet. I keep my polka dot backpack half-packed; the bus company website is always open on my browser. 

I think of what I would do if I weren’t here. I could go live in Los Angeles with my grandmother, help her out, hang out by the pool where the studio execs swim, hope that the proximity to their success renews the incorrigible belief I once had that I, too, would achieve something. I could move to St. Petersburg, get an apartment in the city center, jog along the Fontanka, come to inhabit, again, the language that was my favored one for so long. Or I’ll go to Beijing, live on your floor, make you coffee in the morning before you wake up. The alternatives are appealing but they remain abstract, hard to access, the here-to-there route unclear.

by Will George

Back here in the startling present, signs of spring are nowhere to be found but the sun seems to shine differently on the days it decides to shine at all and I am remembering the sense of prophecy that springtime brings, some glimpse into a panoramic future in which things look doable, or already done. When I, for instance, tie on my roller skates at the Rec Center here on a Saturday night, what I feel is not necessarily the fun of the moment—the whoosh of a cross section of town skating by me, the bass-heavy boombox playing three-year-old top forty hits, the thrilling uncertainty in my knees as they slide forward—but instead how good this will all seem years from now, when the town is behind me, the top forty tracks forgotten, my knees creakier than they already are. This future-perfect mentality is not a great way to live, but it is better than past-imperfect, and it is the way I know.

There’s a moment, at the end of a bus ride, when people start packing up. The bus slows, easing through residential streets, and the rummaging begins: bags are pulled from under seats or overhead compartments, purses and pockets checked and rechecked for wallets and phones, coats zipped, scarves tied in place, and people move to stand in the aisles, hands drumming impatiently on the tops of the seats. There is, in the aisles of the bus, a thick kind of impatience. I knot my scarf, hoist my backpack with the rest of them, but I stay put in my seat until the last possible moment, until I have to go. I wasn’t always like this — I used to be known for the expedience with which I could flee anything — but sometime lately I have come to fear the final paragraphs of chapters, closings of books, ends of ends. I write these last lines, too, in a kind of fear — a fear of what will happen if I do, but equally a fear of what will happen if I don’t.



Lucy Morris is the contributing editor to This Recording. She is a writer and translator living in Iowa City. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about living alone and losing the excitement.

"The Pattern Has Changed" - Samantha Crain (mp3)

"Somewhere All The Time" - Samantha Crain (mp3)

by Will George


In Which It Was Something We Cannot Explain

My Chagall Memwah


The Chagalls planned to return to Paris after the Second World War. They waited in New York, Marc and his wife Bella did, exhausted by its crowds and pollution, for their home in France to be free. Occasionally they stayed in a hotel in the Adirondacks to get away from the bustle. "Here the only Jews are God himself and us," wrote Bella Chagall.

To pass the time Bella penned her memoirs. (At this point in time they were not yet better known as memwahs.) Put down in her glorious Yiddish, she described her life in Russia before her family had been splintered apart and taken from her. She wrote for hours at her desk in her characteristic black dress. She had been afraid to tell her story before, despite encouragement from friends and family, because of her shyness. The Russia she reimagined then no longer existed.

Marc described his wife during their last months together.

All calm and deep presentiment. I can see her again from our hotel window, sitting by the lake before going to the water. Waiting for me. Her whole being was waiting, listening to something, just as she had listened to the forest when she was a little girl.

Bella died of strep throat six days after the American army liberated Paris.


"I don't recognize the world," Marc Chagall wrote after her death. In her biography of the artist, Jackie Wullschlager describes him turning his canvases to the wall. He wept uncontrollably during his wife's funeral, she tells us, shocking onlookers. As he dealt with her passing, news flowed in of relatives alive and dead in the war. Joy and grief intermingled freely. In his confusion he even addressed a letter to Joseph Stalin.

"Bella and Ida" 1916

In tandem with his daughter Ida, Marc worked through his wife's papers. His daughter's many friends flowed through the apartment; on any given day as many as six languages were spoken there. Family members returned to the Chagall's Paris home, and there was naturally celebration for those who had survived. He wrote his friend Jean Grenier to say "I am very miserable at this time. I have lost the one who was everything to me - my eyes and my soul. If I continue to create and live it is because I hope to see France and the people of France again very soon." And to another: "I must cure myself of myself."

Ida and Marc, 1945

Spring reinvigorated Marc Chagall's creative drive. He had grown accustomed to working with his wife - he considered her opinion on his work invaluable. Bella's favorite color was green; sometimes when she sat for him she read passages aloud from the Old Testament in Yiddish. His many paintings of his wife are not simply portraits, they show Bella Chagall in the act: of gardening, of drinking, of existing as if her husband were only moments away from entering the scene. The empathy they display - albeit for an extension of himself and his love for her - nearly screams.

detail of "Bella with White Collar", 1917


Ida Chagall met Virginia McNeil through a friend. Roughly the same age, Virginia required work: her husband was an insane, depressive drunk poet, and their five-year old daughter could not count on her father. The Englishwoman became the family's new housekeeper after repairing some socks, moving into the house with young Jean. Marc called the girl Genia because it sounded more Jewish.

Virginia McNeil could not help but be attracted to the older widower. Watching him paint, she took every opportunity to flirt, observing his shirtless attire during working hours. They hid the relationship from their daughters at first. When they vacationed in Sag Harbor, Virginia slipped in and out of Marc's room at night. This new, illicit relationship came out in his brush. "You must be in love!" his friend told him after seeing one particular painting.

Chagall did not get along with young Jean/Genia McNeil - he had never been fond of any children while they were children, not knowing how to relate to them. When his relationship with Virginia became more obvious and official, he demanded the girl be sent to boarding school in New Jersey. A month later, Virginia told him that she was pregnant.

in New York, 1942Their relationship recollected his marriage when it could. Marc suggested Virginia convert to Judaism, but that never came to pass. He settled for having her attempt to make Russian food. Before the birth of David Chagall, Marc preemptively left for Paris, enlisting a friend to circumcize the baby. The day he sailed for Paris on the SS Brazil, Virginia sent for Jean to come home from boarding school exile. Chagall had not even left her enough money to pay the bills.


He had planned to only visit Paris, staying in the rooms his daughter rented for him. Instead he remained apart from his child for two years. Ida tried to explain to Virginia, with whom she continued to consummate an uneasy friendship, that her father had purpose in Paris: "People are waiting for him. Their expectation is something to be treasured, not despised. He owes Paris at least a semblance of return. It's like a gift; it must be given at the right time. Paris is Paris, beautiful, decaying, full of sweetness and bitterness."

at the window of his apartment, 1958

Eventually, he did miss Virginia. Maybe he had from the start, but between gallery events and lectures, there had been too much to occupy his attention. He brought her to Europe instead. The happy family:

Her essential non-Jewishness haunted their life. As a replacement for his wife the goy remained inadequate. His paintings continued to be concerned with Bella alone: they were constantly surrounded by the woman in heart and in mind. When he talked to Ida, they spoke in Russian, excluding Virginia from their conversations. This use of language replaced any lingering respect he could have had for Soviet Russia after seeing what the country had done to his friends and relatives.

Jean was constantly envious of her new brother; they sent the girl to live with her grandparents in England. Marc and Virginia attempted to live together in France, but Marc had lost the sexual desire which tied them so closely before. As Virginia flirted with their hippie neighbors and entertained ideas of other men, Marc spent most of his time with the famous artists he counted as friends.

In June of 1951 they went together to Israel. Both were uncomfortable in this foreign place; they barely touched each other. The distance was obvious. Virginia wrote, "I longed for some of the passionate tenderness that filled Marc's paintings, and it was something I couldn't explain to him. By nature, Marc was shy and undemonstrative in love. He talked a lot about love in general, he painted love, but he didn't practice it."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about W.H. Auden coming to America.

with Bella in Marseilles, 1941

"Song For My Brunette" - Mathis Haug (mp3)

"Sad And Lonesome Day Blues" - Mathis Haug (mp3)

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drawing of Marc and Bella as a young couple