It didn’t matter that some beneficent soul at Raleigh’s Sorry State Records had taken a pen to the price tag to offer a $10 discount for the $50 seven-inch record I needed. Last week, had the mood and lighting been conducive, I might have paid double.
On Friday night, the store posted an online photo of A Careful Workman is the Best Safety Device, the third-ever release on Merge Records. It was the only output from Metal Pitcher. That short-lived trio featured Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, who would rise to prominence with Merge and Superchunk, and Jeb Bishop, then a drummer who has since become an esteemed improvisational trombonist.
Aside from its membership and the title’s antediluvian position in the label’s catalogue, though, there’s very little to recommend the two-song 1989 single. It’s tinny, noisy, mid-tempo indie rock, bleated by a particularly adenoidal McCaughan. Still, I knew that, come Saturday, I had to own it.
For years, the seven-inchlimited to 300 copies more than a quarter-century agohas remained perched near the top of my must-buy list of Triangle releases. I’d heard the music, sure, but the record felt like a little piece of local history that I ought to own. Available copies online range from $60 to nearly $500, so on Saturday night, I handed the cashier my debit card and considered myself thrifty.
The purchase felt well-timed, too, because during the last month, I’ve learned a lot about both the past and present of North Carolina bands simply by keeping a close eye on my Facebook feed. On Feb. 3, Julie Humphrey, a longtime local musician who now plays bass in the Durham band Shipwrecker, started a local social media game: “Top ten favorite bands from NC,” she wrote. “Ten bands. Ten descriptions. Ten days. Ten people tagged.”
The point, really, was to highlight North Carolina acts you loved while tagging your friends so that they would do the same, creating an ad hoc network of favorites that others could explore with YouTube links and the like. Sean Hart, a high school friend of Humphrey from Wilmington, had started the game through his Facebook account. (Another friend of Hart’s actually launched the challenge but lasted only a day, he says.) Humphrey lived on both sides of the state before settling in Durham in 1999; she began tagging people far and wide, and the game became a veritable virus among local musicians and enthusiasts in subsequent weeks. For a spell, it constituted maybe half of what I saw on Facebook.
Inevitably, there is some clubhouse back-patting with a chain game of tags like this. You find out how limited some people’s interests have been and for how long, or that the music they like really is the music their friends make. And some have selected the inevitable, with many votes going to Superchunk or the dB’s, or to more recently popular groups such as Whiskeytown, Megafaun and The Avett Brothers.
But the most satisfying result has been the mountain of tiny releases that have been revealed as townies reminisce about bands that never got their true due. Humphrey, for instance, first extolled Rights Reserved, an often-overlooked outfit of Durham aggressors; Glenn Boothe, the former owner of Local 506, inadvertently reminded me that it had been far too long since I had pulled out any records by Transportation, the Chapel Hill pop-rock masters.
By now, the timeframe has stretched to half a century. In effect, the local music community spent part of February doing the work that reissue labels can spend years doingplundering a collective memory and excavating the best stuff that went underserved or, at this moment, seems at risk of such a fate. Of course, all of it is transient, fading quickly into timeline oblivion, but any reminder of the deeper narrative of North Carolina bands is better than none at all.
“A lot of smaller and more obscure bands have come to light,” Humphrey says. “It’s become a tapestry of different time periods.”
I haven’t played the game yet. To be honest, I’ve enjoyed sitting on the sidelines too much, considering others’ picks and learning from them. The process has added a few titles to my must-buy categories, many of them less fabled and certainly less expensive than the Metal Pitcher piece I was able to strike from the docket at last.
Good thing, too: I like when those lists grow almost as much as when they shrink.
If you notice a trend in Brian Walsby’s North Carolina illustrated Top 10, it’s because he played drums in all of these bands. Now, for Brian Walsby’s real North Carolina Top 10
Corrosion of Conformity, Animosity
Kenny Roby, Rather Not Know
Erectus Monotone, Erector Set
Orifice, single and demos
Polvo, In Prism
Angels of Epistemology, Fruit
Regraped, The Mangled Demos
Confessor, the three demos before Condemned
No Labels, Bloodmobile, Stillborn Christians & Corrosion of Conformity, Why Are We Here?
The Honor Role, The Pretty Song (I know they were from Richmond, but they practically lived here for a few years. This is still the best music to come out of South, so I have to include them.)
This article appeared in print with the headline “Tagged files.”