Songs for Dead Skin (1999)
one of the stranger love/hate relationships i’ve had with an album.
the bloated double-cd HORSEMOUTH (& OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) seemed a little too unwieldy and unfocused for its own good, so i decided i would write the lyrics for every song on the next album i made with gord. this was a pretty bold move at the time, given how i normally avoided just about anything the least bit premeditated when it came to recording, leaving the lyrics i actually wrote to collect dust, because it was more fun to improvise and discover what the lyrics were going to be as they were in the process of being sung. i figured if i stuck to the ten songs that felt like the strongest material, we would have a papa ghostface masterpiece on our hands. it didn’t quite work out that way.
this is a pretty mixed bag, though the lyrics aren’t really to blame (there’s actually some pretty cool wordplay going on, if i do say so myself). the problem, in a nutshell, was that i decided to fuse these lyrics with improvised music that was given no time at all to develop, forcing elements of spontaneity and premeditation together in ways that didn’t always work terribly well. it would take me until the next PG album to figure out how to do it right. in the meantime, i added a digitech guitar effects box to my arsenal and a real electric bass, which at least made things a little more sonically interesting than they would have been otherwise. so there’s that.
compassion to deceive is the standout track by a proverbial mile, and it’s a weird one — a genuine ballad, or as close as i was going to get in 1999. it was written in math class to the tune of a keith sweat song i heard in passing before heading off to school one morning, which makes it even stranger, because it doesn’t sound the least bit like anything its pedigree would suggest. it’s a rough performance, with some off-notes from both of us, and it probably goes on for a minute or two longer than it needs to. but there’s an odd sort of tender bitterness to the whole thing (somehow a line like “saliva on the window of fate” comes off as weary instead of ridiculous). in addition to probably being the best set of lyrics here, it’s one of the few cases on the album where the words end up married to improvised music that feels like a perfect fit. i can remember recording it and being amazed at how effortless it was; the chords just fell under my thumb. that song title alone is still one of my favourite phrases i’ve ever invented, and it’s got a gravity to it now that i just couldn’t feel when i was 16.
there are a few other highlights in the shape of yogamo (atmospheric weirdness with a bit of quasi-operatic vocal gibberish, some wickedly unpredictable bass-playing from gord, and guitar work from me that’s a noticeable improvement over anything i had done before), i got my hair cut and i thought about you (wherein gord lays down some more ass-destroying bass licks and we both conjure an ominous atmosphere without using any words at all — my microphone was on, but i didn’t have any written words in front of me and felt odd improvising after sticking to the premeditated approach with the lyrics throughout the rest of the album), and the hidden track, unofficially called guitars in heat (which is just some atonal guitar noise, with me playing the unhinged “lead” guitar, that’s somehow more interesting than some of the proper songs). when three of the best tracks on an album that’s otherwise overflowing with words are improvised instrumentals, well…that kind of proves my point about not taking enough time to get the improvised and premeditated elements comfortable with one another.
aside from compassion to deceive, this is more a cd of great moments as opposed to great songs: gord’s kinetic mandolin playing and my brisk piano runs when home turns into an impromptu little jig at the end; the chorus of an unusual obsession, where gord’s guitar and my bass do things that shouldn’t work together melodically, but for some reason they do; the end of the otherwise middling nerve, which mushrooms into some disgusting noise completely at odds with the rest of the song; my guitar and gord’s bass weaving in and out of one another throughout the supremely wordy save me, with both of us offering up some of our best playing on the whole album; and the moment in the middle of we was dead where my headphones fall off and gord starts laughing (about a year later, a complete reinterpretation of that song would show up on CHILDREN HAVE NO EYES).
the moment it was finished, i thought this cd was some of the best work i had ever done, and i gave copies to jesse topliffe and my grade eleven drama teacher mr. lewsaw, leading to an unexpected musical relationship with jesse that would go a lot of different places over the next few years. as for mr. lewsaw, i’m proud to say i think i frightened him a little. i’m not sure why i thought this was a masterpiece when it was first completed, because now i see it for what it really is — not a horrible album, and not the worst papa ghostface album (that distinction will always rest with LIVE AT SILVERS), but nowhere near what we were capable of at the peak of our powers. it’s basically one great song, a few good ones, and a handful that never quite lift off completely. it feels kind of slight, which is weird for an album that’s more than an hour long…though it was a little short by our usual standards. i think part of what has always made it feel like such an odd album is the fact that it seems to lack the fiery insanity that was there on most of the other papa ghostface albums. as weird as some of the lyrics are, the music doesn’t really go off on many unexpected tangents, and things don’t truly explode into madness until that nearly atonal little hidden track shows up.
i remixed the whole thing in late 2002, with mixed results (oh look! a pun!). some songs benefited from being cleaned up, particularly home and we was dead, while compassion to deceive lost a tiny bit of soul when i decided to touch up the dodgy bits of my harmony vocal and remove the slapback echo from my acoustic guitar, and so did an unusual obsession when i stupidly changed the effect on gord’s guitar. nerve sounded so much better in remixed form, it almost caused me to re-evaluate it as a song, but it lost a lot of its charm without the hideous sonic mess that was at the end of the original mix. i also thought about re-recording the whole thing with gord from scratch, because i couldn’t shake the feeling that the album was a bit of a missed opportunity, and with a little more time and effort it might have been nearly as good as i thought it was for about five seconds, before objectivity set in. that said, time and perspective have done nothing to dull my fondness for compassion to deceive, which is still one of the best things gord and i ever did together, and some of my favourite lyrics i’ve ever written.
shifting feelings and slippery songs aside, this album led to a fascinating conversation with dustin, my on-again, off-again-until-he-decided-to-stop-acknowledging-my-existence piano teacher (i’ve taken to calling him “dust in the wind”). after one of my lessons at his house in late september of 1999, i played compassion to deceive for him and another student named ray, feeling a mixture of pride and embarrassment while we sat listening in the living room. he and ray were strangely reverent, staying silent for most of the seven and-a-half minutes it took to listen to the track, like they respected the music too much to talk over it. an unexpected beck comparison worked its way in there somehow, which i took as a compliment. then i handed dustin a copy of the cd, since i was still swimming around in my “this is the best thing i’ve ever done and everyone must hear it!” mindset. once he had digested the music, he brought it up at our next lesson.
“let’s say some people came to see you play live, and they had only heard this music and knew nothing else about you,” he said. “there were no posters, they didn’t know what you looked like or anything about your life, and they hadn’t heard any of the other music you had made. what do you think they would expect, coming to the show?”
“i…uh…well, i really don’t know,” i said. i had never even thought of such a thing before.
“i’ll tell you what i think,” he said. “if i were one of those people, i would think that you were a man, maybe in your mid-thirties, with a very dark past involving drugs, a lot of unhappy experiences, and some serious demons.”
i forget the rest of what he said, aside from complimenting gord’s playing and giving some advice about avoiding nasty digital clipping. but i found the whole thing flattering and captivating — that he would have these kinds of thoughts, even though there wasn’t a single moment on the album that was at all autobiographical or confessional. i visualized an audience gathering at a hall of some sort, inhabiting the space with a quiet-but-intense anticipation. what would their reaction be when they were confronted with a 16-year-old guy who played guitar on his lap, fretting with his thumb? i never did find out.
but as it turned out, dustin’s description might have been better directed at the very next papa ghostface cd…
compassion to deceive
we was dead
an unusual obsession
love those slippers
i got my hair cut and i thought about you