The Long Winters’ debut album the worst you can do is harm is a Northwest record. Within it there is something larger than mere geographic origination, but the overall feeling is definitely Northwest. The songs and atmosphere suggest the empty open roads and gray skies of the region, and most importantly the feelings of what it is to live here.
That feeling is difficult to describe. Somewhere between Boise and the coast, between Northern California and the frozen Alaska tundra lies the Northwest. Far from Starbucks coffee and Portland’s self-conscious effort to be cosmopolitan is the ominous feeling of wide open space and threatening dark skies. In its earliest form “grunge” had it. The short stories of Raymond Carver have it. Stopping for gas after dark off the I-5 has it.
It is the feeling of being alone in the last great frontier of America, a frontier of lush greens and foreboding dark skies, of being alone even while surrounded. The Long Winters have it.
The Long Winters are the brainchild of Alaska native John Roderick. His story is not unique. He relocated to Seattle in the ’90s, played in a few bands and eventually found himself in a good one. The Western State Hurricanes were that band and after their moment of fame the buzz wore off and Roderick was just another guy with disappointing record sales who everyone wanted to accuse of being a rock star asshole. Maybe he was.
Roderick ran away to Europe to find perspective and walked from Amsterdam to Istanbul. He slept in parks and had strange adventures. He came back a different man. Eventually this led him back to being a musician. The result is the worst you can do is harm – a great debut record.
To say the album is confessional would be an understatement. Roderick has actually opened his life completely to the listener and invites us to look in. Amid bleached-out pictures of open Northwest spaces and pictures from Roderick’s life are notes from friends and his dark lyrics. While his lyrics seem to be a search for peace, or even atonement, the letters from friends show us why. It seems many of the people around Roderick couldn’t wait to call him selfish or even tell him to go fuck himself at some point. And the strength of this recording is the tension between Roderick’s wanting to do right while knowing he has done wrong.
And as the record spins on, the Northwest feel remains inescapable. Maybe it’s the grayness or the rain or the seemingly endless amount of terrain between places that leads to such self-deprecating introspection, but Roderick comes across like someone who could only be from the Northwest. Like Elliot Smith or Modest Mouse or even Mark Lanagen, Roderick spins his sad stories and searches for contentment with a plaintive but beautiful voice. Sean Nelson frequently harmonizes with him and the backing musicians craft familiar yet interesting pop songs.
After several listens The Long Winters forced me to look inside. Within these songs I realized that my first 20 years on the East Coast may have shaped me but the near 10 years I have lived in Portland changed me. I enjoy our ominous gray skies and no longer feel threatened by the expanse of open space. Drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and staring at the rain on a Saturday afternoon now passes for entertainment. And bands like the Long Winters are a welcome addition to my record collection. I have become a Northwesterner.