ZYZZYVA Staff Recommends July 2021: What to Read, Watch, & Listen To


With the Delta variant running amok in San Francisco and elsewhere, the great indoors are looking more and more inviting with each day. Fortunately, we’re back with a Staff Recommends that offers plenty of books to read and music to listen to while we wait out the dog days of summer.

Ray Levy Uyeda, Intern: A couple years ago, when I first started writing seriously in an attempt to develop my craft, I wanted for a community of writers and creatives, and a space, both emotional and physical, where all my questions about creating would be held with tenderness, as one would a small bird or child, or even the very dreams of being a writer (whatever that means). I craved location where conversations on craft—how it can be both integral to my health and so goddamn difficult—were happening without the shame of appearing superfluous. 

I found The Creative Independent, a collection of interviews and warm thoughts, introspections and details on the joyous slog of plucking out words on a computer. The website features conversations with musicians, poets, visual artists, and comics, those with enough heart to create and sufficient ego to think that others might like to peer into said creations. I forget how I stumbled upon the website, though that detail is as unimportant as it is boring, but once I did I treated the website and its words as a new friend, with unrelenting observance and patience, and a true desire to get to know it. In addition to community, the interviews feature a list of recommendations, kind of like a brief ZYZZYVA Staff Recommends, which is where I’ve learned of some of my favorite writers, songs, and internet Easter eggs. There are also essays and how-to’s, Zines and other fun things.

I’m still working to build a material, corporeal creative community, which means that The Creative Independent is my de facto community while we learn to open back up—both in the COVID sense and emotionally. Mostly, at a time when the world looks like this, when there is a deep need for art and creativity and very little institutional support for creation, The Creative Independent reminds me of why we make things and how those things help us heal.

Anna DeNelsky, Intern: As an indie singer-songwriter, discovering new artists and bands is a daily hobby of mine. This month’s top discovery: French Cassettes.

Hailing from the Bay Area, French Cassettes is a hidden gem that deserves more recognition. After a seven year hiatus, the band released Rolodex in December of 2020 and successfully re-entered the music scene. Consisting of eight tracks, Rolodex is filled with mellow, yet upbeat summertime tunes. The album’s relaxed and charming indie-pop sound is enriched by catchy melodies and hooks, making the music extremely palatable. They experiment with layering clean and fuzzy guitar sounds as well as intricate vocal harmonies.

French Cassettes’ lyrics are specific and quirky, invoking a kind of calm contemplation. “I float entirely off the ground sometimes/Depending on where you’re standing,” sings Scott Huerta in “Sunday Soda.” There is a sense of freedom and wanderlust both sonically and lyrically as the band reflects on growing up, relationships, identity, and the subtleties and hiccups of daily life. As the band puts it themselves, Huerta’s lyrics “are often presented as semi-autobiographical puzzles.” His lyrics are both detailed and eclectic, often leaping from one thought to the next. In “Utah,” one of my personal favorite songs on the album, the band meditates on the concept of change in terms of physically re-locating and how that may spark inner or emotional change. “I wish I could reset the mood for you/We could do the things that we used to do/You’ll know it when I go with someone/What do you mean I’m gone?”

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By the end of the album, French Cassettes has successfully defined their own sound; no song feels forgotten and the album truly functions as a cohesive unit. As Huerta describes on the band’s Spotify page, “I adopted the mentality, which was probably unhealthy, that every song I wrote needed to be my favorite song…I lost my mind so many times in the middle of the night.” Huerta’s sentiment is definitely visible in all his songwriting on this album. I sincerely hope that French Cassettes takes a far shorter hiatus this time around, as they have left me wanting more.

Oriana Christ, Intern: Sally Rooney is a big name in the current literary world, largely due to her second novel, Normal People. The book, which found significant success within its first few months of release and even more after Hulu’s acclaimed adaptation, follows the lives of two ordinary but engrossing characters to which nothing especially remarkable happens. In spite of this, Normal People remains one of my favorite books because of Sally Rooney’s ability to turn common experiences into captivating fiction and to pick at the sometimes ugly insides of “normal people” and pull from them complex characters. Her newest story, “Unread Messages,” recently published in The New Yorker, echoes this from her previous work. The story is pulled from her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, which will be released in September.

Like Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends, her newest title follows the intertwined lives of four people, three of whom we meet in “Unread Messages.” Written in signature Sally Rooney style, with dialogue blending into narrative in a way that lightly disorients readers just enough to demand their focus, Eileen and Simon are introduced namelessly at first and developed into distinct, compelling characters. The story focuses mostly on the two of them but includes a few mentions of Alice. In what is probably its most intense scene, which takes up no more than four lines, Eileen finds out that Alice is in a psychiatric hospital. When learning the craft of fiction, writers are always told to show, not tell, and this is something Rooney has mastered—when difficult moments come up in her narratives, she describes material things, the characters’ surroundings, their movements, the words they speak, but almost never their feelings or thoughts, and then she moves on. She doesn’t shy away from painful subjects, but she also doesn’t prey on them in a way that is typical of most entertainment (TV especially). Instead of latching onto hardships, digging through them until every last nuance has been overturned and all the trauma and tragedy has been exhausted, Rooney carries her readers and characters through them in realistic portrayals of the way time and life don’t wait for people to recover. Rooney loves to let emotional tension build slowly, and in “Unread Messages” readers can find the base of her next literary mountain that is sure to reach as compelling a peak as her first two novels. For Rooney readers, the excerpt offers a familiar but enticing peek into her upcoming release, and for those who have yet to hop on the Sally Rooney bandwagon, it’s never too late.

Colton Alstatt, Intern: Pop artist Frank “Hobo” Johnson is known for his energetic style of self-loathing. For a young audience, his songs are relatable and, despite the content, fun. 2019’s “Uglykid” contains the couplet, “You’re like a summer sunset in Stockholm / I’m like being stuck in fucking Bakersfield and walking home.” In addition, Johnson’s angst has a unique temporality: his young rage often fizzles out quickly before turning inward and becoming uncertain. In “Peach Scone,” Johnson’s first popular song, a young man falls for a taken woman and, when trying to explain his bullish attitude toward the woman’s boyfriend, shows Johnson’s trademark self-conscious temper:

I love the thought of being with you
Or maybe it’s the thought of not being so alone!
The second one’s way sadder than the first one
But I don’t know

This month’s The Revenge of Hobo Johnson expands that formula into subject matter more pressing (to Johnson) than teenage romance. “I want you Back” spends only moments on the titular “you” before devolving into a conversation on Johnson’s mental health, the state of America, and its role in his justifiable depression. Each song contains a conscious avowal of the pop impulse (seen in his earlier music) to seek correction in romance, time and again attempting and failing to place blame on any one person rather than a system. In what is either an attempt to make his content palatable or a wariness about alienating his fanbase, Johnson begins many songs with the semi-sunny tone of his previous music before, as above, failing to maintain it. It is a resistance to distraction, a painful revelation experienced over and over, an inability to look away from the incinerator at the end of the conveyor belt.

What results are enigmatic lyrics hesitant to say what the songwriter means, lyrics that quickly double back and return to the self-doubt that made him famous—Johnson showing his belly and willing to be kicked for having the audacity to speak up. “I want to see the World,” for instance, narrativizes his disillusionment with globalization in a silly voice that ironizes the whole journey. In “My therapist,” Johnson expresses his hopes for a better economic system between longer descriptions of his mental unwellness and self-loathing refrains like “most think that I’m dumb, I fucking think I’m a loser.”

By believing he will not be heard or, should he be heard, that he will be ridiculed for his stupidity, Johnson is beaten before he begins. Yet he begins anyway. The Revenge of Hobo Johnson is a powerful exercise in vulnerability and I encourage you to give it a listen.

Alana Baer, Intern: I would read Tao Lin’s Taipei in the sweltering heat of New York City. I would carry myself into coffee shops with natural light and high ceilings together reminiscent of the adjacent sky.

The novel narrates the life of an autobiographical Paul in the third person as he takes drugs, travels between Brooklyn and Taipei, and between his laptop screen and everything else. Lin peers inward on a forward-moving, gamyfied Paul. The programmatic form of Lin’s prose objectifies subjective experience, such that a depersonalized Paul is enclosed in his own narration, while his reader remains monotonously suspended at arm’s length and an aerial view. With quotation marks hugging words, nothing is implied. And so Lin’s style differs from his subjects; his robotic tone describes “thrilling” subjects (drugs, sex, and travel). That there is not so much tension here (between style and subject) as there is harmony marks the impenetrable and existential beauty of the 2013 novel. Taipei is good and it is unquotable: no thing, thought, or action, holds more significance than any other. In his newest book, the more subdued Leave Society, Lin as Li refers to autobiographical writing: “he liked his self-catalyzing properties too much—how it made life both life and literature—imbuing both with extra meaning.”

Unfolding my laptop, I leave my first review on Goodreads, labelling Taipei as “Good” for two followers.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Guided by Voices—that’s it, that’s the recommendation. Except that would be borderline cruel: the Dayton, Ohio band is notorious for releasing an album a year, or more, nearly every year since their inception in 1983. The sheer volume of their back catalog has long made the band’s barrier to entry seem artificially high; after all, I can remember a college classmate posing, how do you know where to start when an artist has over forty albums to their credit? And that’s not even counting the EPs and singles. That’s why the prospect of new band Cub Scout Bowling Pins proves so inviting: this side project from Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard has only one EP and album to their name, both released this year. (…yes, Pollard’s songwriting output continues to be so voluminous that one imagines he needs side projects like Cub Scout Bowling Pins just to contain the overflow).

Side project or not, the band’s album Clang Clang Ho offers some of Pollard’s most infectious songs in years, from the laid back psychedelia of opening track “Magic Taxi” (“Take a ride on my magic taxi,” Pollard invites the listener, “I wear a hat and uniform”) to “© 1-2-3,” an uber-catchy rocker that could have been a breakout single if Pollard wasn’t 63 years-old and content with his longtime obscurity. I’m of the opinion that the best Guided by Voices tracks are the ones that rarely go over to the two-minute mark and nestle in your brain with McCartney-esque melodies, and Clang Clang Ho does not disappoint in that regard—case in point, the album has twenty tracks and still clocks in at less than forty minutes. Highlights include the outright rocker “Sister Slam Dance” with a sludgy riff worthy of vintage Cream, and the baffling “Everybody Love a Baboon,” which somehow proves even weirder than its title.

There’s a particular pride and disappointment in being a devotee of a band like Guided by Voices/Cub Scout Bowling Pins—with Clang Clang Ho, there’s the distinct sense that you’re experiencing one of the best albums of 2021, alongside the realization that most people will probably never listen to it. (Spotify confirms this new side project has about 8,500 monthly listeners; I only heard about them because I follow GBV on social media). No matter, I simply encourage you to turn up the summery jam “She Cannot Know” and enjoy the latest batch of gems from a songwriter who has long sketched mini-masterpieces in popular music’s margins. If Robert Pollard pulls up in a Magic Taxi and offers to drive you “a thousand miles,” you take the ride. No matter what, you know the soundtrack will be good.

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