album review: while no one was looking: toasting 20 years of bloodshot records

I’ve spent a lot of words proclaiming my love for Bloodshot Records over the years, but I mean this sincerely and literally and 100%: I am not sure that there is a record label out there who does compilations better than Bloodshot. They were my introduction to Bloodshot way back in the day, and they remain one of my favorite things that Bloodshot does. The cover of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Rex Hobart on Making Singles, Drinking Doubles (which also clocks in with the greatest album title ever for a record collecting tracks from 7″ singles) and the Waco Brothers cover of “Baba O’Riley” on Down to the Promised Land. All three volumes of The Executioner’s Last Songs.

But damn if they haven’t out-done themselves on While No One Was Looking, the double disc celebration of Bloodshot’s 20th anniversary. Look, just take the fact that the second disc contains the back-to-back punch-in-the-face of Frank Turner covering Cory Branan’s “The Corner” and Superchunk doing Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up”. This contains transformative versions of those two songs, which without even listening to them would make it the greatest celebration of a record label’s catalog ever simply because they exist, but there are 36 other tracks on here, and they are all that good.

The distinct memories I have of listening to Bloodshot comps is the fall of 2002, on my old blue Discman, riding the Ashland bus — CTA #6, yo — to my office just north of North Avenue on Paulina, and then down to my friend Mikey’s apartment in the Ukranian Village on Sundays to watch football and on Tuesdays to watch Buffy. Mikey and I smoked a lot of dope, and I would ride the Ashland bus back north again to the apartment the Ex and I shared, at Montrose and Clark, warmly stoned and listening to Moonshine Willy’s “George Set Me Strait” on repeat. (A few weeks ago I bought the actual 7″ of that song for two bucks from Bloodshot, when I was on a buying-Bloodshot-7″s binge. Just owning it delights me.) Now I drive around North Carolina, and all the bands on this album are familiar friends to me, the songs familiar and beloved, rather than the rush of new discovery that I had in 2002.

The thing is, though: the magic of this compilation, of all these covers, of people singing songs written by their friends and by strangers and by strangers who are probably now friends, is that it is an album of discovery, still, for me. It’s Superchunk turning “Come Pick Me Up” from quiet heartbreak into noisy, furious heartbreak. Noisy furious heartbreak is something I’ve been real good at this year.

OK, so, look: I’ve had this record for a month. I’ve listened to it dozens of times. And I can’t write about it. I can’t. I keep fucking trying, and I keep ending up with the same paragraphs that I’ve already written a million times, and none of it does this record justice.

In 2002, I saw Neko Case at the Metro, and I went home and I discovered Bloodshot Records. That fall, Making Singles, Drinking Doubles saved me, and Blacklisted saved me. And when I say saved me, I mean that. I mean: Bloodshot Records saved my life in December 2002. I mean: if I had not found them, I might not be typing this now. I’ve never been shy about both my mental illness and my problems with alcohol as subjects. I mean: obviously. Other artists have saved me at other times (maybe the only record review to include references to both Bloodshot and Pete Wentz? I’ll take that distinction), but Bloodshot — finding Bloodshot, and finding people who loved the same things that I did, that saved my life in 2002.

I was too shy to go to shows alone then. I went with the Ex, who didn’t really love that stuff, and grumped about the shows I wanted to see. It took me until late 2004 to go to shows alone, and even then, I was still too shy to talk to anyone when I went to Schubas or the Empty Bottle alone. But I went, and I saw Rex Hobart before he and the Misery Boys split, and I saw some great Waco shows, and I saw one of the sets that later became part of Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. I saw live music that kept me going long enough to escape Chicago — because I love that city with all my heart, but even as soon as I moved there after college, it was already full of ghosts for me. It is a place I love, and a place I can never go back to.

Frank Turner’s cover of “The Corner” is my favorite on While No One Was Looking, because back in the spring, at a reasonably briefly peaceful point in 2014 (which was wholly and completely horrific, except for Travis, and some great records, including this one), I saw Cory Branan twice in a month, and the second time, opening for my beloved Gaslight Anthem, he played that song for me. And he told a story about how a friend of his covers it, and sometimes he sings the wrong lyrics; he sings down on the corner of what I want, and what I intend to get.

What I intend to get. Honestly, I don’t even know what that means. But something about it digs at the itchy parts of my soul, and when Frank sings it the right way on this album, it scratches that itch. It’s something I don’t understand. It’s something I probably can’t explain. This won’t be even in the top fifty eloquent pieces about this celebration.

But it’s the one I can give you. It’s the honest one. It’s the one that says in 2002, I was scared and sad and lonely and in love with someone other than the person I was living with, and Bloodshot Records gave me something outside of all that to hold on to. They still do. 20 years later, while no one was looking, I’m a grownup, and they still do. I was looking. I was surviving on it, honestly.

And that’s what While No One Was Looking means to me. Objectively, musically, it’s staggering. It’s stunning. It’s flawless. It’s everything that Bloodshot has always done best: it’s unexpected, and the unexpected is perfectly normal, exactly what you expect from Blitzen Trapper covering Ryan Adams or anybody ever covering Alejandro Escovado. William Elliot Whitmore’s cover of “I Wish I Was The Moon” moved me to weeping. But ultimately, what this album means to me is that I’m alive, and Bloodshot is alive, and both of those are really fucking great things.

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