Creative Nightmares (2009)
well, i said it was time for a change after the previous three albums seemed to form something of a loose/unintentional trilogy, and this was definitely a change.
i wasn’t sure how i felt about this album at first. i went into it intending to do something very strange, inaccessible, and synth-heavy, and instead ended up with a much more eclectic album that felt like some of the more accessible work i had done at the time. it was the first time i ever decided to go to the trouble of printing the lyrics with the album itself (i later doubled back to reissue CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and AN ABSENCE OF SWAYso they too could benefit from the lyric booklet treatment), and i felt a little strange about that as well.
over time, i’ve come to realize that i really like printing the lyrics, in spite of my initial misgivings, to the point that i now can’t imagine not doing it with any new album i release. it’s also gradually dawned on me that this was a pretty important album for me; if CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN shook me out of a funk and got my ass back in gear, this one marked the beginning of a deeper interest in the production side of things. with almost every album i made before CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, i would rarely spend more than 30 minutes or an hour on the recording and mixing of any given song, just getting down the bare essentials of what i thought the music needed and then moving on to the next thing. here i began to treat each song as a sonic entity unto itself, and every album since has grown more ambitious in that department and — dare i say — a lot more interesting on a sonic level.
it’s somewhat atypical of my post-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN work in that there are only 13 songs, and none of them are “tiny”. that makes for a shorter, less scattershot album by my standards, but there’s a lot going on here. pre-prom plastic surgery goes somewhere very different from anything that was on the previous album right out of the gate, sounding like some sort of dub-tinged electronic jazz-funk workout. the catalyst/inspiration for the track was something as simple as accidentally setting a delay effect improperly while messing around during a ragtag rehearsal for the field assembly cd release show, yielding a dubby sound i’d never used before.
at about two in the morning, long after everyone else had left, i thought i would run some synth drums through the accidental new effect, played with my fingers in real-time with no music to work off of, and then see what happened. i went back and added some synth bass on top of that. the next day i added a bit of singing, some wah-enhanced electric guitar, and improvised some jazzy piano. and then there was the song. it was fun trying to wring as much as i could out of a bass line that almost never strays from one key. i like setting myself musical challenges like that sometimes.
it has to be said that a new toy was responsible for some of the songs and a lot of inspiration on this album; a lot of the more interesting sounds here were generated by an alesis micron, which packs a mighty punch for something so small and relatively inexpensive, and it tends to show up in some form on almost every song, even when it isn’t the driving musical force. it’s mostly eric welton’s fault for unexpectedly lending me his alesis ion (the micron’s big brother) for a few days in may, which led to the recording of weird sex dream #72. that song was the first thing i’d ever done with vocoder in it, and it was interesting trying to use such a universally cheesy sound in a way that wasn’t cheesy. the resulting song is like some sort of weird abstract electronic ballad (and one of my favourite things on the album).
this was precisely where i started to move away from the ubiquitous triple-tracked lead vocal approach of the previous few albums, allowing my voice to stand on its own more often than not. it’s also some pretty dark shit for a summer album. there are references in the lyrics to being tortured and drowned, the loss of identity/individuality, frozen fish(es) thawing and being revived only to die on dry land in short order, broken relationships, the protagonist failing while the villain prevails, using selective memory to make the past seem sunnier than it really was, broken bones, physical mutilation, and violent inflammatory pyogenic bacterial infections.
the danger of all things adhesive is a love song delivered to an urn of someone’s ashes after they’ve been cremated, with the narrator unable to let go of the person who used to be there (dig the elongated wordless backup vocals, and the way the melodica somehow worms its way into a synth-dominated song without seeming at all out of place). the penultimate kiss still stands as perhaps the most cynical, defeated piano ballad i’ve ever written, and also one of the best, concluding that no physical affection is worth the emotional fallout that tends to follow when things go to hell (ask me about that on another day and i may claim a different position, but never you mind).
generic love song to play at your wedding stands out as something happy and goofy, but it’s sung to a hypothetical person who doesn’t exist, so it ends up getting skewed as well, with lyrical weirdness like “let me stroke your reptilian vanilla spine / let me drink your saltwater tooth brine”. zombies on parade has to be one of the best marriages i’ve ever managed between a really catchy, upbeat tune, and lyrics that work against the catchiness every step of the way. “leaking pus from every orifice / warping minds like a psychologist” is still one of my favourite couplets i’ve ever written, for whatever reason. my good deed for the decade has always felt like one of the more single-worthy songs of mine, which is odd, because it doesn’t have anything that even resembles a chorus, and it would have died a shameful death on commercial radio (assuming anyone was insane enough to play it in the first place).
there’s a whole hell of a lot of piano on this cd. i must like playing that thing. even on songs like learning to float, kamikaze daybreak and molly go home (and the list goes on) where it isn’t at all the main instrument, it was fun to just hit the record button and improvise some piano on top of a song to see what happened. so that’s what i did. there’s also a lot of electric guitar, but the 1960s teisco that saw a ton of action on the previous few albums is entirely absent here; this time almost all of the electric guitar parts are provided by either an unjustly neglected fender strat, or a 1950s kay thin twin (that funky thing’s biggest, shiniest moment is probably on molly, go home, though it’s also all over several other tracks).
there’s no bugle, almost no melodica or ukulele, and no banjo to be found anywhere. i didn’t intentionally set out to avoid those instruments that i had come to enjoy playing and recording so much over the last few albums. the sounds i was after this time just didn’t seem to involve them. there are featured spots for things like mandolin and scrap metal, anyway, and there’s probably more organ here than there’s been on any other album i’ve made, before or since.
for me, molly, go home is kind of the centerpiece of the whole album, and also the turning point, after which things get a little stranger, darker, and less accessible. it starts out sounding like something that could have fit on any of the last three albums without much trouble, very much in tune with the whole organic/naturalistic/folksy thing, and eventually mushrooms into a mantra-like wall-of-sound ending that isn’t quite like anything else that exists anywhere in my discography. i would have kept building it up to truly gargantuan proportions, but only having 14 tracks to work with (the last 2 were generally reserved for bouncing down to cd, because i hadn’t yet discovered that i could free up those final two and bounce down to other invisible tracks) held me back.
maybe that’s for the best. i wanted the last few minutes of the song to be at once melodic, pretty, gigantic, and sickeningly distorted, and by not being able to take it as far as i might have, the melodic aspect remains completely intact, probably making the repetition a lot more pleasant to listen to. when i was mixing the song, i would listen to that long ending over and over again, not quite believing something like that had come out of me without much coaxing.
meanwhile, what i planned to be two of the most radical tracks on the album didn’t even end up making the cut. first there was a ten-minute juggernaut called “gun to the temple of love” that was going to be sort of a funk/krautrock-influenced workout, though it would eventually veer off in other directions. it was a good vehicle for what was going to be some of the nastiest guitar-playing on a cd of mine in a long time (we’d have to wait for the next album to hear that too), and an excuse for some fun wordplay. alas, i stopped working on it before it was anywhere near complete, after realizing it would derail the flow of the whole album and probably become the “revolution 9″ of the cd (i.e. the track everyone skips over). i’m sure we’ll see it show up on some other album down the road, though, when i buckle down and commit to finishing it.
then there was a cheerful tune called “the only figure skater i’ve ever been attracted to is now a meth dealer”, which was going to make the cut until i changed my mind about it at the ninth hour. it would have been the bleakest thing on the album by far, and i went for a bit of a thom yorke-ish thing with some of the singing, which isn’t something i’ve ever thought to do anywhere else. in this case it felt like i needed to warp my voice a bit (without relying on effects) to get what the song needed. the whole thing was inspired by a blog entry i found randomly on wordpress that was a somewhat abbreviated version of the song’s title, briefly examining the strange story of nicole bobek.
in the end, it sounded a bit too much to me like i was trying to emulate a twitchy radiohead electronic track, and as much as i like the fact that it doesn’t sound much like me (the horrific mess of synth noise at the end is pretty fun, too), again it seemed like something that would derail the album. i also realized once i mixed it that it simply didn’t seem quite up to par with the other songs anymore. it was heartbreaking, if only because i ended up losing the most amusing and lengthy song title the album had. but what can you do? at least it found a home on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE eventually, and now it feels like that’s where it was meant to be all along.
the penultimate kiss went in the other direction. to regurgitate a bit of what i posted on the main part of the site before the album was finished, it had an interesting time arriving at its final destination. it was first written on an old 1940s parlour guitar, with a rather propulsive rhythm, while i was watching the 2009 grammy awards in bed, hoping against hope that mickey rourke would get a taste of victory. it wasn’t written about anyone in particular, but the defeated and cynical atmosphere was very much in keeping with what i was feeling at that time thanks to the girl who inspired a good chunk of IF I HAD A QUARTER. i sat on it for a while, not sure if it was worth recording at all (it didn’t even get a look-in on the album it had been written for), and then about halfway through the recording of this album i thought i’d take a stab at turning it into a piano song instead, basically winging it while recording and changing some of the chords in the process. i kept the first take, hesitant as it was, because i grew to like the hesitations.
the challenge then became taking a fairly uninteresting (to me) piano ballad, and fucking it up to make it something worth putting on the cd. i added some synth and vocoder, but it wasn’t doing it for me, so i left it alone. i kind of liked it…i just wasn’t sure if it was really album material. when i revisited it after some time away, i suddenly found that it appealed to me a lot more than it had initially. the vocal is a scratch track that i eventually came around to liking enough not to replace with a better take. i kind of like that it’s a little uncertain and imperfect, in the same way the piano performance is. you can hear me experiencing a moment of brain freeze after the first line of the second verse, stammering while trying to remember the words without the lyrics in front of me, and then recovering.
the plan was to build up layer upon layer of synth, guitar, and vocals, to create something sort of orchestral and bombastic, but i decided i was too lazy to do that. so the melody remains intact in spite of my best intentions to destroy and bury it. originally there was a lot more vocoder, until i decided it was a bit too much and cut out some parts. i think it works at least as well on this song as it does on weird sex dream #72, acting more as accompaniment to my unprocessed voice than a standalone thing. i also got rid of a silly wall-of-vocoder outro — it was fun, but ultimately a bit superfluous.
funny how this track and “figure skater” unexpectedly swapped places; the one i initially liked most ended up losing its appeal, and the one i assumed was destined for out-take status (as so many things are) ended up acquitting itself at the ninth hour. for a song that i initially didn’t even plan on including, i now can’t imagine the album possibly feeling complete without it, and it’s become one of my favourite piano ballad-type things i’ve ever written.
some of my very favourite things come near the end, and i think this album might have one of the strongest final stretches of anything i’ve done. a fine line between friendship and baked goods is sort of an unconscious marriage between the synth wankery i initially intended the album to be dominated by, and the triple-tracked lead vocal/organic thing that permeated the preceding three albums.the electric guitar here is another example of an improvised scratch track i felt iffy about, and then grew to like enough to keep…and finally grew to like so much, i couldn’t figure out why it had ever sounded substandard to me to begin with. the little four-note lick that uncoils itself right after i sing “it’s a travesty” is one of my favourite musical moments on the whole album.
kamikaze daybreak takes a song that might have once been at home on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, and then runs it through an electric cheese grater until it becomes unrecognizable. it also marks the return of the slap-back echo effect i used to employ so often back in the day, though the vehicle it supports this time is a little different from what was happening during the time of guys with dicks. it might be the busiest thing on the whole album, and mixing it was a pain in the ass because i was basically mixing three different songs at the same time. it starts out as a sort of ambient noise/sound collage piece, with some pretty out-there electric guitar insanity, segues into the song proper, and then abruptly becomes something else altogether at the point where you would expect it to end. the slide guitar coda was something i played for fun and didn’t intend to keep, so it’s not very well-played or recorded because i wasn’t really trying to make anything out of it. but i ended up liking it enough to fly it in so it could become the end of the song. that’s right. i totally just used obscure recording jargon in a sentence. fly it in!
anthropomorphism dance began as nothing more than the metallic percussion loop that runs through the whole thing, and stayed that way for a while, just a rhythm in search of a song. then i started singing on top of it, found a melody i liked, added some bass-playing that was unusually frenetic for me, overdubbed a spastic drum part unlike anything i’d ever played behind the kit before, added some electric guitar and ukulele, and it became something completely different. still, it was difficult to keep that rhythm going in tempo behind the drums, with the syncopation of the loop and the bass kind of throwing me off in places, and with how i had to smack the snare in a particular way to get that sound out of it, and you can hear me start to lose it near the end.
the last minute or so of the song felt like a bit of a lull without much direction, as i lost steam behind the drums and the whole thing seemed unsure of where to go. on a whim, i overdubbed some organ from the alesis micron, ran it into a guitar amp for some extra grit, and messed with some envelopes and filters throughout that lull. suddenly it sounded like exactly the ending that was needed, and more like a lopsided climax than a petering out. the end result is one of my favourite things on the album, and sonically quite a bit different from any of the songs that come before it — the ukulele has a brittle quality to it, almost sounding as if it’s a part of the metallic synth loop when it comes in, and the guitar is a simultaneously upfront and distant over-driven squall.
it hurt me a little bit to put it right at the end where some people might not hear it, but realistically i think it’s the best ending the album could have had. it’s definitely the most rhythmic and uptempo thing to close an album of mine in a very long time, if not ever, and like a bizarre ray of partial sunlight after all the downcast stuff that came before it. it felt good. it felt right.
on a random note, there’s only one dirty word on the whole album, and it isn’t even one of the dirtiest ones. what’s up with that?
if you want to break it all down, the three-album stretch from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to IF I HAD A QUARTER would be my “mining the organic folky/bluesy thing for all it’s worth” period, bending it in different directions and expanding my sound palette while generally working within a fixed template, while CREATIVE NIGHTMARES begins a period of throwing all of that out the window, tearing up the most recent rulebook i had written for myself, and starting again.
i’m not so sure anymore if this really is one of my more accessible albums after all (that feeling may have just been a knee-jerk reaction to the absence of tiny songs), but it continues to grow in my estimation and now has a solid place on my own list of the best things i’ve done.
pre-prom plastic surgery
zombies on parade
weird sex dream #72
my good deed for the decade
learning to float
generic love song to play at your wedding
molly, go home
the penultimate kiss
a fine line between friendship & baked goods
the danger of all things adhesive