Mare Vitalis

Band/Artist: The Appleseed Cast
Album: Mare Vitalis
Best song: “Mare Mortis” or “Fishing the Sky”
Worst song: “Kilgore Trout” isn’t much

One of my favorite things currently online is a video series for Deadspin called “Let’s Remember Some Guys.” For the uninitiated, the basic idea of the series is that two Deadspin staff members (David Roth is usually one of them) look through decades-old baseball cards and they, uh, remember the guy on the card. Roth is usually the rememberer, with a younger staffer – young Deadspinners Lauren Theisen and Luis Paez-Pumar are the most frequent cohosts – holding up the card and hosting to ask Roth if he remembers each guy. It’s Roth’s brand, though, and he also hosts non-Deadspinners to bring in their own cards or remember guys even further back.

Recently, Roth went to California to the home of Dr. Seymour Stoll, who is the world’s foremost collector and chronicler of Jewish baseball cards and Jewish baseball players. It produced three videos in which Stoll showed off some of the coolest pieces of his collection and tell stories about the cards and the players. It was – as a fan of Roth, a big baseball fan, a Jewish person and someone who owned The Big Book of Jewish Sports Heroes – a video that was basically made for me.

But, ultimately, “Let’s Remember Some Guys” is more a series about memory and nostalgia. Roth is a former Topps staffer, so he’s more of a baseball card fan than many, but he’s also of an age in which the baseball card boom of the 80s/90s were near and dear to his baseball life. I am about the same age as Roth, so I feel this deeply. When Roth writes the following, he’s speaking for a generation of baseball fans like myself:

The shitty 1990s cards we open weren’t really made to be kept, and yet I’ve kept them all the same—in dusty leaning stacks and old sneaker boxes in my childhood bedroom, but also in my mind. I didn’t really sign on for that, officially, and lord knows I’d love some of that space back for other purposes, but also I like that they’re there. They’re part of me if only because they’re part of what I keep around.

I also have stacks of (mostly worthless) cards at my mom’s house and even a cigar box of cards I thought would be worth something. They are not. I was wrong, but looking through those cards still brings me nostalgic joy because nostalgia is so powerful at its base.

The older I get, the more I believe that nostalgia is the thing that runs everything in the United States. It certainly runs our political system; President Trump won in 2016 on the nostalgia-centric “Make America Great Again” slogan and the 2020 Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden is running on a platform that’s essentially “Remember the Obama years? Those were great, weren’t they?”

TV networks are rebooting shows of my youth left, right and center, movies are increasingly franchise-centric and musicians from my youth are doing well with reunions. I understand it from a business standpoint: Disney knows there is a ready-made audience for a “live-action” (read: CGI-heavy) reboot of any cartoon from my childhood, therefore they’re counting the money before they even put out the movie.

And I even kinda get it from an audience standpoint, however facile it strikes me. I love cover songs because the similiarity-yet-difference that they bring. Remakes, sequels and franchises are easy, both for the producer – there is no need to reintroduce the characters, plot, vibe, etc. – and the consumer – we don’t have to learn new characters or worry about getting confused about who is who. It’s easy to slide back into the familiar. Luke O’Neil, another of my favorite Internet personalities and writers, summed it up thusly in a recent newsletter (subscribe here):

In hearing Roth mention the guys’ names, it brings me back to when I was a kid. It, like all nostalgia, brings me back momentarily to the moment when things were not as bad or your knees were less creaky or when your life wasn’t as crappy or the world wasn’t as scary. Nostalgia works in politics because older people vote and older people love to be reminded of their youth because it makes them less scared of their inevitable shuffling off this mortal coil.

Nostalgia staves off, if only for a moment, ennui. It’s no shock that the post-post-modern generation of millennials has taken so well recently to the dumb “Whose table did you sit at?” memes; they rely on the notion of remembering a bunch of crap (music, movies, etc.) from whenever my generation-mates were in high school.

It’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” for bands, in the above case. Instead of Roth reminiscing about Brian Jordan or Dan Pasqua, it’s a bunch of Twitter CHUDs noting that they like Hole more than Oasis or whatever. It’s something familiar. It’s in a different order. Just like O’Neil says.

College radio mattered so much to me. I cared about KCOU so much more than everything in my college life other than my girlfriend; I rearranged just about every part of my life for the station. I loved writing little reviews for records and I loved having an omnivorous appetite for pretty much all music that crossed my desk.

The indie records that came out between 1999 and 2003 are my baseball cards. I find myself telling stories on Twitter and in real life that resemble Roth’s reminiscences about baseball cards, only they’re about seeing Appleseed Cast opening for Death Cab for Cutie at a bar in Lawrence, Ks. or meeting the Shins (nice guys!) on their first nationwide tour, opening for Modest Mouse. I could tell you stories about meeting Ian Mackaye or about seeing Sweep the Leg Johnny open up for Dianogah at a bowling alley or playing pool with Jason Molina (Of Songs:Ohia) or foosball with David Pajo (of Tortoise and Slint) or being asked by the dudes form Trans Am if I had any psychedelic drugs (I did not) and subsequently playing basketball with them. Doug Martsch is the nicest man I’ve ever met in indie rock, while Ryan Adams was the worst. I’ve got a million guys (they’re almost always guys, unfortunately) to remember and a quick spin through early 2000s indie rock brings it out in me.

So, it could’ve been a million records here, but the Appleseed Cast came up on one of those cafeteria memes and it instantly transported me. In Columbia, we looked down at Lawrence for the obvious reason that there was a MU-KU rivalry, but mostly because Lawrence is closer to a big city than Columbia is. I can still feel the jealousy of the bands that came through the venues in Lawrence, skipping over those in Columbia.

I saw the Appleseed Cast in Lawrence, in fact, when they opened for one band or another sometimes in my college years (I remember it as Death Cab, but the Internet seems to suggest I am wrong). In my memory, they were the first opener, but that could be totally wrong. Either way, I remember thinking that they were extremely fine live, making me think I should check out their records when I got back to Columbia later that night to see if there was a better indicator of their relative quality.

The record was 2001’s Mare Vitalis and the math rock-meets-emo sound that the band did at the show was far better on record than it was live. Listening to it now makes me appreciate how much that era of indie rock mattered to me; I still love the drumming and changes on “Fishing the Sky” as much as I enjoy the Seam-ish guitar work on “Mare Mortis.” The Appleseed Cast lived within, to me, the same space as Cursive and 764-HERO. They were bands that did a lot of things well – to work within the “Let’s Remember Some Guys” baseball prospect analogies – but their ceilings were not high enough for me to stick with them long after college.

But that doesn’t mean that Mare Vitalis isn’t good. It’s actually quite good, however much of its time it is (and it is very of its time. Just listen to the vocals on “Santa Maria” to get an idea of how all indie singers sounded in that era). I just kinda forgot about it. That’s why we have to be in the remembering business.

Nostalgia drives our media consumption as well in the form of Disney remaking the animated classic of my youth and the retro homage-y notions of shows like Stranger Things or films like Lady Bird. Ultimately, everyone wants to go back to our younger days, when things were better (or simpler or whatever).

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