Medium-Fi Music for Mentally Unstable Young Lovers (2011)
the title for this album served as this blog/site’s secondary title for a good two or three years, and it’s always been my go-to descriptor when someone tries to get me to pick a genre for my music. it was the only thing that ever felt like it fit as a blanket term for whatever it is that i do. for whatever reason, it felt like it finally made sense as an album title here.
this came very close to turning into a 2-cd set. while i eventually decided it made more sense to make two separate albums that would act as companion pieces (the companion album got put on the back burner in favour of GIFT FOR A SPIDER, and then remained “lost” until the bulk of the material finally found its way onto THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE), this is still a pretty sprawling affair — perhaps even more so than MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, which really was a 2-cd set.
if you prefer your album primers in video form, here’s a video progress report that will give you much of the information that’s on this page, with added hair and sex appeal, and a bit more musical content:
if you’d rather read my rambling instead of watching and listening to it, read on.
like AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS before it, this is very much a fall/winter album…because that’s when it was recorded. and the similarities pretty much end there. in the beginning, i had a fairly narrow vision for what this album was going to sound like, but what was planned as a thoroughly laid-back, dreamy collection of songs ended up branching off in several different directions. as homer simpson might have said, “the best laid plans of one-man bands often…something something.” this, then, is not my “reverb-drenched singer-songwriter album” after all. instead, it’s a contender for the most eclectic single-disc statement i’ve ever made, with the music refusing to sit still for any length of time.
there’s probably more prominent electric guitar here than there had been on any album of mine in a good six or seven years. instead of just being a background/atmosphere thing as it generally was on the previous handful of albums, here it takes center stage several times, and there are a handful of unhinged guitar solos that are probably as close as i’d come to the dissonance of the guys with dicks days since…well…the dissonance of the guys with dicks days.
the nastiest, most distorted bits are almost all provided by the 1960s teisco, which i think is kind of hilarious. that guitar is more versatile than it has any right to be; compare the clean, twangy lines on songs like “blue cheese necklace” and “thief of idle breath” on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, to the jagged chunks of sound on giving up the ghost or nine shades darker than the day or the reverb-soaked dreaminess of no better than before here, and then consider that all of those sounds are provided by the same instrument with no discernible model or serial number — a guitar that looks like someone from another planet tried to make their version of a fender strat without really knowing anything about what a strat looks like or how it’s put together. it’s also a guitar with only one functioning pickup, and what kind of pickup it is, no one knows, though it doesn’t sound to me like anything else i’ve heard or used. it just might be the best music-related purchase i’ve ever made in the $300 range.
the fender strat and les paul get a bit of action as well, and even the first electric guitar i ever bought — the obscure strat copy that saw a lot of use back in the papa ghostface / guys with dicks days — makes an unexpected appearance on meat slurry. apparently you can only push the electric guitar into the background for so long before it gets fed up and decides to assert itself again.
as far as acoustic guitars go, the stars of the show are the 1945 martin 00-17 and a 1951 gibson LG-2. a lot of other axes show up in various places — the 1932 regal, the 1983 martin D35 (which would sadly be departing soon), the 1932 washburn 5200, the dirt-cheap classical guitar, and even a bit of national resophonic slide. the ukulele gets shafted again, but the banjo starts to make a bit of a comeback here, and there’s even an explicit (if brief) CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN throwback on the duck demon man with an ashtray, which was written and recorded partially to prove to myself that i could still write music with that flavour to it if i really wanted to. alas, going backwards is tantamount to committing creative suicide for me, so you’ll have to settle for a brief wink in that direction instead of a running leap.
laugh like a god of death is what i like to think a modern day/grown-up guys with dicks song might sound like. the slap echo i used to drench my voice in back then is present and accounted for, there’s some suitably discordant guitar-playing, and at the same time there’s a lot of space there, along with a surprise jig at the end. granted, i’m not screaming my guts out about some girl or wanting to take drugs like i was back then…but there’s a warped energy there that — at least for me — recalls the gwd days of old, albeit with better production values.
instead of the psychotic weirdness i used to swim around in back then, this is more like barbiturate garage rock or something. if we lived in some bizarro universe where my albums were released commercially, this song would have probably been the single; it’s catchy at the same time it refuses to settle down for very long, and it provides a small taste of what the album has to offer without giving any juicy secrets away. for me, that’s just what an album’s first single should be.
after five or six albums in a row of kicking things off with the first song officially recorded for the album in question, that tradition is finally put on hold; the first thing recorded for this album was to be frail is to begin to be free. and, for a while, i was pretty positive that was going to be the opening track. eventually no better than before (a pretty explicit slowdive homage, when i don’t tend to record homages to anyone) just came to feel like it was a better beginning. i can’t really explain it…the first and last songs on any given album kind of choose themselves, and at some point it becomes clear beyond any shred of doubt which two songs want to live in those particular places. i’m not about to start asking questions; that way madness lies.
as i mentioned in a few progress report videos and blog posts along the way, early on this album was intended to be something of a return to the messing-with-structure-until-the-song-starts-to-cry approach. it didn’t quite turn out that way…or maybe it did, and i’m just going about it differently. where in the past i would force songs to keep shifting and evolving until they ran out of things to say, here repetition becomes another way of subverting conventional song structure; a few songs are built around a single riff/progression that almost doesn’t change at all, leaving plenty of space to build up dense layers of sound and then pull the carpet out from beneath the feet of the music when things are lined up just right.
at the same time, there are songs that do follow the “keep mutating until you die” path (fat mouth and tiger bootstrap death threat both start out sounding like their feet are planted in one place, only to gradually twist in on themselves and end up somewhere very different from where they began). the rapid-fire tiny songs are back with a vengeance after tapering off a bit, and here they’re even more all-over-the-place than usual. the politics of friendship might be both the catchiest and most venomous 26-second song i’ve ever recorded, while i love you is acerbic and self-mocking to the point of insanity, built around a dying, de-tuned tenor banjo and dissonant synthesizer shrieks. shrink is loss features the return of the arp omni-2, and what has to be the most spastic drumming i’ve ever played in alternating 7/4 and 5/4. some of the tiny songs act as segues, while others serve the purpose of sudden musical jump-cuts. a few of them are among the most accessible things on the album, which i think is kind of funny.
you can look at the whole album as an exercise in messing with structure, in a larger sense — as soon as it seems like things are heading in one particular direction, there’s always a curve ball just around the corner to disrupt that rhythm. a piano ballad might be followed by a borderline punk song, and that might be followed by a shoegazey mood piece. i guess some people might find this sort of willful abstraction a little maddening. on the other hand, if you have the musical equivalent of attention deficit disorder, it’s entirely possible that this will be your favourite johnny west album ever.
the closest frame of reference, if there is one, would probably be LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. that was also an album i went into with a specific vision in mind, only to watch as the music quickly developed a mind of its own regardless of what i thought i wanted it to do. having said that, this is a much denser affair (if i thought that album was one of my less accessible offerings at the time, this one makes it look a good bit leaner by comparison), and instead of putting pressure on myself to do something wildly different, i just let the music flow. and man, did it ever flow. this was the closest i’d come to maxing out how much music one cd can accommodate since IF I HAD A QUARTER.
some of the most “normal” and accessible songs come right at the end of the album, only because, emotionally, it felt like it was where they needed to go. more thought than usual went into just how the songs should be sequenced; where a transition seems jarring, it’s meant to be. sonically, there’s a lot going on here as well. there aren’t really any electronic excursions this time out, with a lot of organic and acoustic sounds dominating, but there’s quite a bit of manipulation going on, from subtle stuff like delay and reverb treatments, to backwards guitar and piano parts, to…whatever i did to create the pitch-shifted weirdness of taylor swift sings death metal in my dreams.
because i’m still working with the same 16-track digital mixer/hard disc recorder i’ve been using as the “brain” of the studio for more than a decade now, i can’t just reverse things after the fact with plug-ins and play around until i figure out what i want — i have to do it in real-time, running whatever it is i want to warp into an effects processor using a backwards delay effect while recording, and what i get is what i’m stuck with unless i want to record it again. the whole backwards sound hadn’t really ever shown up in anything i’d done before this, with the notable exception of one brief moment at the end of “skull jugglers” on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. there are places on this album where it works so well (like the backwards electric guitar that comes in during the climax of fat mouth, or the backwards guitar and piano on a different flavour for every faucet), i’m not sure why i never thought to mess around with it much before.
as usual, a few of my favourite things here kind of crept up on me. i liked purgatory waltz alright when i wrote it. at the recording stage, though, it took on a whole new life. it’s something about the arrangement…when that “chorus” hits and the electric guitar and glockenspiel come in (later joined by banjo), it’s one of my favourite musical moments on the whole album. i like how things shift gears completely at the end, too. i didn’t have much of an arrangement idea in my head; it all came out of messing around while recording.
i also liked emaciated crack monkey well enough when i wrote it, but the warped electric guitar bits i ended up adding at the recording stage took it to a whole new place, and i enjoyed making the somewhat ballsy move of getting rid of everything that was holding the rhythmic pulse down for part of the bridge section, leaving my voice supported by nothing but free-floating ambient guitars. i think it’s the only thing i’ve ever written in 11/8 time…well, it starts out there anyway, before moving into a jerky 4/4, and then a jerky 6/8 alternating with 5/4, and then no firm rhythm at all, before finally ending in 6/4. if that ain’t jumpy, i don’t know what jumpy is. and yet, somehow, it feels natural to me. i also think that song is home to some of my best singing on the whole album. and again, all that electric guitar is the teisco.
fat mouth was meant to be a “deep album cut”, until i recorded it and it too grew a whole lot more interesting. the more i listened to it, the more i started to think it needed to show up a lot closer to the beginning. it came close to being the very first track on the album until no better than before edged it out.i’m kind of proud of that harmony vocal arrangement, which is not really an arrangement at all as much as it was just a case of throwing wordless vocal lines on top of one another spontaneously while recording. i like how the whole thing builds to a pretty dense wall of sound (at least by my standards) while wearing the clothes of a piano ballad, before getting progressively shaved down and twisted until it doesn’t even resemble the song it started out as anymore.
most people probably would have cut the song off around the 4-minute mark and kept it relatively nice and palatable. me, i enjoy seeing what a song decides to do when it finds itself being unexpectedly ripped to shreds. in this case, it gets pretty jazzy for a while, and then it grows dissonant and the bugle makes its triumphant return after not popping up at all on the previous album.
your favourite songs might be completely different. that’s part of the fun, right?
there are a number of instrumental tracks here, though they weren’t all meant to be free of words. giving up the ghost, for instance, was supposed to be about at last letting go completely of any hope i may have had of someday reconnecting with the girl who was my best friend in the second grade, before she moved away never to be seen again (save for one brief moment of reconnecting at a wheels inn a few years later). all of my attempts over the years to find out where she was and get in touch with her came to nothing, and after a while i realized she probably wouldn’t remember me even if i did manage to find her someday.
i was always somewhat haunted by the fact that what felt like one of the most meaningful relationships i ever had with a member of the opposite sex was a brief friendship i had when i was about eight years old, and that it had been ripped away from me so quickly. i figured it was time to let go of that, stop giving a shit, and admit defeat. the lyrics were written after the music had already been recorded, and yet even without them the song still feels like it’s purging something. i also wrote words for a different flavour for every faucet after improvising the music, but in the end i liked the song a lot more without any singing.
at the same time, i like the lyrics in a lot of the songs that do have singing. rhyming “thoroughbred-siring” with “talia-shire-ing” is definitely a new sideways high for me, while the strange story of the mind is blown when the fight is thrown is a word-for-word retelling of a pretty odd dream i had. 1969 is also very heavily dream-inspired, if a little more impressionistic. wicked town could be read as an atheistic or anti-religious statement, though it was just another one of those songs that seemed to write itself.
one of my favourite songs here is one i didn’t even write myself — wind chimes sing with her, which was written by my friend travis reitsma. it was always a standout track on BLUEBEARD for me, and i ended up singing it live a few times, so i thought i might as well try my hand at recording my take on the song. i ended up slowing it down far more than i ever had before, stretching things out, improvising, and adding some bits of backwards guitar/vocals. while none of that was planned, it felt like it fit.
it’s another one of those songs that falls into the interesting category of “things that are only made up of a few chords, with no chorus or hook to be found anywhere, but it feels like it shouldn’t be any other way”. kind of funny how what could be the prettiest, least messed-up song on the whole album is the one thing that didn’t topple out of my own brain. by this point, i had grown so close to the song, it almost felt like it was mine in a strange way.
as i’ve said before, all of my albums are really just snapshots of wherever i happen to be when they’re recorded. this just happens to be one of the more far-reaching snapshots. i enjoy the fact that you could hear one or two songs out of context, pick up the album, and then wonder what the hell happened, because no piece of the puzzle on its own comes even close to giving you an idea of what the whole is like. at the same time, i think it does work as an organic whole, and it all makes sense somehow.
like i said, the plan was to follow this album with its intended companion piece. of course, life has a way of laughing at your plans, and the next album turned into something altogether different from what i was expecting it to be. so it goes.
no better than before
laugh like a god of death
taylor swift sings death metal in my dreams
to be frail is to begin to be free
giving up the ghost
shrink is loss
the politics of friendship
flatten the learning curve
finding the body
a different flavour for every faucet
emaciated crack monkey
wind chimes sing with her
everything matters, everyone cares
tiger bootstrap death threat
nine shades darker than the day
the duck demon man with an ashtray
i love you
everyday i wipe the dust from my eyes
the mind is blown when the fight is thrown
a soft kiss from cold lips