Shoebox Paradise (2000)
here’s another giant leap forward.
by this time, we had reached a whole new level of improvisational fluidity; i wrote the words to two of the songs (be sorry and head-kicker), and everything else was completely improvised as it was recorded. a few of the songs on the second disc might be a bit superfluous, but that’s only because the first disc houses some of the best PG songs there ever were, chief among them the passively psychotic don’t go and gord’s own rotten fruit, which is like a never-ending campfire song on a happy acid trip. the sound quality here is a profound improvement, and even without the advent of any mic preamps or outboard compression or EQ, i had learned a bit about how to get things to sound less frightening, and how to prevent everything from grossly overloading when i screamed.
it’s pretty insane how much we were able to squeeze out of just six tracks (two of them always had to be kept open for mastering and bouncing down to cd), especially on don’t go, which is practically symphonic in its depraved exploration of love taken far past the point of obsession…and set against a reggae rhythm, which somehow makes it even more sinister. that track is still one of my favourite things i’ve ever done, and i hear new things in gord’s “mad guitar” every time i listen to the song. it was probably the first time i ever put some real thought and effort into the mixing of a song as a musical act in itself, though that was partially out of necessity; i had to make a lot of creative fader moves and panning decisions to keep everything together with bass, keyboard drums, lead and harmony vocals, two electric guitars (one recorded in stereo and one in mono), piano, and imitation electric piano all vying for attention on the six available tracks. i think the keyboards, harmony vocal, and my electric guitar all had to be recorded on the same track at different points, given the limitations of the time.
there’s a lot of variety on this album, from sing-along filth that sounds like a crude attempt at dub mixed with scrambled cable tv porn (sewer, complete with a vocal cameo by elmo and one of the only instances of me ever rapping in a song), to dark explorations of imaginary relationships (sex [ain't what it used to be]), to languid stream-of-consciousness philosophizing (thinking too much), to weird mood pieces (your bicycle is melting, jesse/bill blues, buried alive), to just plain fucked up shit (mr. clean is dead), and more. be sorry manages the neat trick of being both one of our best songs and one of the most accessible, and gord and i both agreed that the instrumental coda was one of our finer moments.
my guitar playing had come a long way in eight months, though i still hadn’t figured out how to bend a string, nor had i realized that you even could do such a thing. my bass playing is also at a whole new level, most notably on the long and winding tale that is the vertical dance. the old house remains one of my best spoken word pieces, drawing on my shitty childhood and taking it in a different direction from the usual unhinged screaming, which makes it all the more ominous. there’s an educational bit that explains in detail how to burn your house down while your parents are sleeping and how to make it look like arson, getting out unscathed while making it appear that you perished in the fire.
wave in the sky is one track that doesn’t quite get where it wants to go, though it wasn’t supposed to turn out that way; about five or six minutes into the song, we reached a huge climax, and i started screaming like i was possessed and playing a lot of ringing harmonics on the guitar. it was one of the biggest head rushes i had ever felt while recording. once we brought the song to its conclusion i discovered that we had run out of recording time on the mixer and none of the climax had been captured, which is why the song fades out and then back in again.
we tried to recapture what had been lost after i moved some things around and freed up some space, but it was a one-time thing and the magic wasn’t there the second time around. we couldn’t even really remember what we had originally improvised to end the song, so it ends feeling like it’s missing a climactic explosion…which it is. still, gord’s bass riff is a monster, and there are some nice moments of voice/guitar harmony. juice is a solo piece with me playing piano and looping my voice in real-time through the digitech guitar box. generally i would throw something like this on a solo cd, but for some reason it felt more at home here. gord thought i sounded like john lennon in part of the song when he heard it on cd, though i could never figure out which part he was thinking of. i always liked the climactic bit at the end where i start singing like lou reed on bad speed.
mr. clean is dead has to be one of the strangest spoken things ever to show up on a PG cd, and that’s saying something. first, a song called “dead” was recorded, which was a bit like dilapidated funk. with me growling lyrics like, “why did you kill me? why am i dead? where did the pain go? where is my head?” it wasn’t anything too great. but then a funny thing happened, and something inspired me to completely slow down the playback speed of the song, far past any sensible point. suddenly it became this incredibly fucked up sound, like music they might play at a seedy club/waiting room in hell, and once my singing had been slowed down and deepened drastically it took on a whole new dementia.
gord and i recorded some warped stuff on top of this, with me delivering a weird spoken rant while he made bizarre vocal sounds with his guitar effects pedal. at one point he’s playing a harmonica, but because of the effect he’s using it sounds almost like a dying circus carousel or something, which i incorporate into my little rant. for a long time i wasn’t able to put this song on cd in its proper form (there’s a complicated issue with slowing the sampling speed down and not being able to burn something on cd in that format), but now i have a computer program that allows me to easily rectify that, and so this messed up tune finally appears on cd the way it was meant to sound. i had forgotten that there was a reference to “nothing from nothing” near the end. as spoken word things go, this track doesn’t have the narrative heft or invention of that one, but i’ve always had a fondness for its somewhat aimless lunacy, complete with me talking to my slowed down self.
rotten fruit, the vertical dance, sewer, sex [ain't what it used to be], be sorry and the old house were all recorded in one afternoon, along with two out-takes (“if you were mine” and “you are me”). that was a pretty busy day. not far behind was a session from about two weeks earlier, during which head-kicker, fluid, pemeal steak, thinking too much and a different version of “you are me” were recorded. it felt like we were on fire at the time, and ideas just kept pouring out with ferocious speed whenever we got together in my little music room and hit the record button. in the aftermath of YOU’RE A NATION we had figured out exactly what our musical identity was as papa ghostface, and a whole new kind of creative confidence came out of that.
as 2-cd sets go, this is a universe away from HORSEMOUTH (& OTHER BEDTIME STORIES), and it doesn’t even really sound like it was made by the same two people. to say it’s a more consistent and developed piece of work would be an incredible understatement. granted, it took me a few years before i finally put everything together in the proper two-cd sequence, but still. in the grand scheme of things, i think this is one of the most satisfying papa ghostface albums. at the very least, it’s a personal favourite of mine. there seems to be a sporadic recurring theme of sprawling 2-cd sets feeling like some of my best work (see MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART a decade later).
if i could only give someone one album to try and sum up what we did as papa ghostface, this would probably be the one — though PAPER CHEST HAIR might give it some serious competition.
the vertical dance
sex (ain’t what it used to be)
wave in the sky
thinking too much
partners in crime
mr. clean is dead
your bicycle is melting
the old house