An Absence of Sway (2009)
if THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE was all about six-string banjo and acoustic guitar, then this album is all about the piano (and, to a slightly lesser extent, ukulele) — and this time it’s a real piano. in a few places it isn’t quite perfectly in tune, but i enjoy the fact that it’s not a typical “perfect” piano sound at work. while the initial plan was to get an insanely sexy (and insanely expensive) grand piano, i think i’m glad i ended up with an upright instead. i’ve come to realize that i sometimes prefer the sound of an upright — or at least my upright — to that of a grand piano. there’s an earthy, organic quality that you just don’t really get from a grand, which can sometimes be almost too perfect. you’re not going to get as refined a sound out of a vertical piano, and the very lowest/highest notes won’t have the same power or clarity as a grand piano, but it was (and remains) the right piano and the right sound for me, and that’s the important thing.
on some level i think i’m still getting used to hearing a real live piano in my music. even though it’s grown much richer-sounding over the past few years as it’s really settled in, it sounds pretty spiffy here, right out of the box. on a track like new ways of saying old things, to cite just one example, the piano adds a weight to the music that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. a digital approximation would sound thin and lifeless in comparison.
in some ways this feels like a logical progression from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, bending that folky/bluesy atmosphere in some new directions. the sloppy multi-tracked vocals are still all over the place, with barely an unaccompanied voice in sight, and the roomy brushed drum sound is back again with a vengeance. but while there’s a handful of songs that might have fit onto CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN without too much trouble and my mixing job is once again pretty erratic, this feels like quite a different creature to me.
at the time i thought there was an oddly melancholy feeling running through the album; it felt more downcast and “heavier” than its predecessor. i now understand part of this was a matter of me projecting feelings onto the music that weren’t always there inside of the songs…and yet i still can’t escape that feeling of pensive sadness when i listen to this album. it was very much a winter album, both in terms of when it was recorded and the atmosphere a lot of the songs conjured for me, and it will always bring back memories of that one particularly turbulent winter for me. i was pretty much a mess, only i didn’t know it yet, trying to process a violent home invasion (during which i was threatened with rape and death) and unrequited romantic feelings for a friend (soon to blow up in my face) at the same time. by the time the next album came around, the gravity of what had happened and how thoroughly it had fucked me up would sink in, and i would find the music becoming more knotted and confrontational as a result.
in the meantime, this album doesn’t waste any time establishing that it won’t be a simple repeat of the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN formula; the first sound you hear is a percussive piano line repeating over and over again, as if announcing the arrival of the new beast, the first song (revenge is sweet) gradually finds itself, and then the first line is not a cryptic poetic image with no personal feelings attached to it, but rather a simple, naked admission unlike anything i allowed on the previous album: “i’m getting tired of wanting things that don’t take kindly to being wanted”. that one line says a lot about my state of mind at the time. there’s more going on here on a sonic and tonal level — on both the song and the album — than there was on the album that came before, but it still feels oddly sparse to me.
there’s also a serious drop-off in the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN electric guitar sound. i didn’t want to fall into a comfortable sonic pattern there, and made a point of filling up space with different sounds. there isn’t a single electric guitar line until the fifth song. a number of new sounds show up here, including the recorded debut of the hammered dulcimer. i doubt i’ll ever master that thing in any conventional way, but it was a fun sound to add to the palette. also showing up for the first time are some odd percussion items and a few more funky old guitars (thanks to that regal i was hooked), along with some other miscellaneous noise-makers from various walks of life. the old arp omni-2 analog synth even gets some love here after a long period of neglect, adding some nice colour to capricorn cloves, disowned umbrellas, and perhaps most notably during the instrumental coda for the ass, enchanted with the sound.
do the mountain hop is another one of those many songs that seem to bubble up from some mysterious other place, with no prompting from me. for whatever reason i felt the urge to try sounding a bit unlike myself vocally, which led to singing with my throat mostly closed. i’m not talking about a kermit the frog sort of sound…i’ve messed around with a lot of different voices over the years, but this was more like engaging muscles that are usually ignored and then not knowing exactly what to do with them. i wouldn’t recommend trying such a thing for any extended period of time, because after a while it gets a little uncomfortable and your throat starts to wonder what the hell you’re doing.
still, it was a fun little experiment, and i enjoy the fact that the singing doesn’t sound entirely like me. it kind of sounds like i was trying to emulate tim buckley circa 1968, at least until the very end when my normal voice breaks out for a brief wordless moment. i like how the title of the song is misleading, too; it sounds like it’s going to be some sort of uptempo stomp (do the mountain hop! it’s the hip new dance craze!), and then you immediately discover that isn’t the case at all and it’s actually kind of somber.
absence makes the heart grow fondue feels like the climax of the whole album, at least for me. i never anticipated writing anything like it on a ukulele of all things, but it just kind of happened, as did the improvised piano part that took over and altered the shape of the song to some extent. it was tempting to dip back into psycho johnny territory and unleash some screams, given the borderline aggressive energy of the song. alas, the urge to abuse my vocal cords hadn’t returned. i did at least end up turning in the most intense vocal performance i had recorded in a good few years. it felt a little cathartic, like there was more there and i was holding back a little. a little tension can be a good thing sometimes. (more on the song and its music video over here).
that song is another one of those things — like “a well-thought-out escape” from the previous album — that’s made up of just a few chords repeated over and over again, and it’s basically all buildup with no release until it simply dissolves into nothing, but it felt right and has always been one of my favourite things on the album. similar story with your sweaty golden mouth; just a few chords, and i was tempted to layer things a lot more than i did, but it felt like it came out as it needed to be. i like the little ukulele harmony bit right at the end. will work for food is simpler still: a two-chord song written in five minutes. somehow it sounds buoyant in spite of the fact that the lyrics don’t tell a very happy story at all, and it’s probably one of the catchiest things on an album that doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of peppy, uptempo songs on it.
this album isn’t quite as packed as the last one in terms of the number of songs, and that’s mostly down to the fact that there are some longer ones this time out. the first four tracks alone take up about twenty minutes between them. it felt like it was time to start working with longer forms again. naturally, several little song shards were going to worm their way into the fabric of the album one way or another, many of which were unexpected improvisations, but at the same time there are things like new ways of saying old things and the sun is a red ball of lies tonight that get the chance to stretch their legs quite a bit.
the ass, enchanted with the sound is one of the longer closing tracks on any cd of mine from recent years, and it starts out sounding vaguely like a ballad before going somewhere a little…different. everything about it was improvised except for the lyrics. and though the words had been written, i had no idea how i was going to sing them while i was in the process of recording the vocals. it’s fun building something when you don’t really know where it’s going to go, letting the music surprise you every step of the way. all these years later, it’s still a surreal experience to listen to something that was created/recorded in such a way and realize that it sounds like i sort of knew what i was doing, when i really had no idea.
i like the way the first half or so of the tracks on the album lead into one another pretty smoothly, and then after that things get a little jerky and a lot stranger. it definitely feels like there’s a divide there between the first and second half, like two sides of a vinyl record. there are little moments of nakedness and truth in some of the stranger songs that the casual listener probably won’t pick up on. shoelaces of the world untie, for instance, sounds like a simple exercise in silliness, but note how the only actual words in the song are “obviously there’s something wrong with you”, immediately followed by a crazed-sounding vocal shriek. and while roof rats is mostly instrumental, i felt then (and still feel now) that i somehow managed to capture in the music a little of what the inside of my head looked like at the time. there’s always been something creepy and claustrophobic about that song for me.
i like that there’s viola on the sun is a red ball of lies tonight, which is the only thing on the whole album i didn’t play myself. i thought i would get a few friends to lend their voices and instrumental prowess to a few things, and that was ultimately downsized to just asking anna (who wrote “wait all morning” from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN) if she would be into playing on a song or two. hence the first guest musician credit on one of my solo cds since 1999. i didn’t give her any direction at all; she listened to the song once, and then i hit the record button and she played what you hear on the cd, completely winging it on christmas eve.
i already liked the song before, but i think her playing elevated it to a different place entirely. i think this still stands as one of the best songs i’ve ever written. anna and i are no longer friends (she did something pretty repugnant to me that put a violent end to any good feelings i ever had about her), but i can at least be glad i was able to get that little bit of magic viola out of her before it all went down the tubes.
the funny thing about the song is that it’s a narrative piece delivered in the voice of a made-up character — something i haven’t dipped into very often in the past decade or so. ever since around the time of NUDGE YOU ALIVE, when i started consciously moving away from how personal and emotionally naked i had allowed things to become over the stretch of albums from SUBLIMINAL BILE to OH YOU THIS, my lyrics have grown increasingly elliptical. often they’re more about images or impressions than telling any kind of linear story. instead of returning to the demented role-playing that came before all the emotional nudity, i’ve gone in a more willfully obscure direction.
so it’s interesting to me when a song goes against the grain and decides it wants to tell a story in a voice that is not necessarily my own. this one isn’t a happy story, but i think it ends the only way it really can, and it’s an ending that has always made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. there isn’t much music made by anyone that’s capable of doing that to me, so it’s a little weird when one of my own songs is able to make it happen.
something a little odd: the word “heart” shows up in three different song titles (all of them are ukulele-driven tunes, as it happens), yet never appears once in the lyrics. i also find it kind of amusing that a song like when your heart skips a beat had the potential to be something with pop appeal, and i guess it is pretty catchy…but it’s undercut by a pretty weird vocal approach (particularly during the second verse), a stripped-down arrangement, and some intentionally dissonant bugle blasts during the instrumental break. it’s always fun taking a catchy tune and messing with it in different ways.
another fun little detail is johnny smith saying “happy new year” in shoelaces of the world, untie, just before everything drops out for the mason jar percussion coda. he’s a little buried in the mix, but if you listen closely you should be able to pick him out. and finally, fun random little detail # 4: anything that sounds vaguely like a mandolin is actually a ukulele (there’s no mandolin anywhere on this album). it’s surprising how versatile those little things can be once you get one that isn’t a toy and actually has solid intonation up the neck. on the ass, enchanted with the sound, the uke even manages to sound a little like a classical guitar.
this seems to be several people’s favourite album of mine. it’s roughly tied with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN in that respect, as far as i can tell. i’m not sure why those two in particular stand out, but there you go. maybe it’s because, for many, they were the first two albums of mine they ever heard. where CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was a pretty happy album for me, this one was a murkier affair, as i mentioned. and for whatever reason, those murky times seem to be when some of the most interesting stuff falls out creatively.
revenge is sweet
new ways of saying old things
do the mountain hop
the sun is a red ball of lies tonight
defenestrate your heart
survival of the least fit
water to town
centipede marriage proposal
will work for food
shoelaces of the world, untie
your sweaty golden mouth
evil kid has a square torso
when your heart skips a beat
this bed is a bear trap
absence makes the heart grow fondue
the ass, enchanted with the sound