The Chicken Angel Woman with a Triangle (2008)
while i was working on the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP and THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, i got this idea in my head that i needed to completely revamp the “studio”. i was convinced certain pieces of equipment would take my music to a whole new level. i also felt it was time to make a huge, ambitious, sprawling musical statement of some kind, and it dovetailed nicely with all the new gear i started to piece together. i was writing furiously, but instead of recording the things i was writing like i normally would, i started stockpiling them, biding my time until i had everything just the way i wanted it. this was the beginning of what would eventually become THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, though i had no idea it would take me anywhere near as long as it did to pull all the disparate strands of the thing together.
just when i felt i had everything i needed in place, three guys moved in next door at the old duplex and started running a drug den. they sold pills, powders, pot, crack, and who knows what else to high school kids and anyone else who happened to drop by. they clearly did well for themselves, because they never had trouble paying rent. they also held parties practically every day and night…all day and night. the music was so loud, it literally shook the walls of our house. for seven months we lived with this, and my sleep was ruined countless times in the process — to the point that i still struggle with sleep issues today. more frustrating than messing with my sleeping habits, all the noise destroyed my ability to get much of any recording done. i was limited to rapid-fire “tiny songs”, because that was all i was able to squeeze into the small pockets of relative peace the drug dealers afforded me once in a while.
ultimately we found another place to live and my ability to record at my leisure returned, but by this time the pile of unrecorded songs and ideas had built up to something so intimidating, it didn’t seem possible to ever get anywhere near caught up. moving and taking all of my equipment apart just to set it up again was also exhausting and strangely demoralizing, and even when i had things up and running again, i had little motivation to record. i didn’t release a single thing in the year 2007. given how prolific i had been in the past, even when i was in pretty rough emotional shape, that was kind of unsettling. i started to think i’d simply lost the spark. i kept writing new things all the time, but i no longer saw any point in doing anything with them.
i started this blog in early 2008, thinking it might be a good way to guilt myself into getting things going again. i started making a little bit of progress. then i would get discouraged again by all the piles of music i’d accumulated, and whatever momentum i’d managed to build up would evaporate.
one day i found myself at a vintage guitar shop in guelph, playing a regal parlour guitar old enough to be my grandfather. i’d never had any interest in older guitars before; i was pretty shallow at the time when it came to instruments, and if they didn’t look pretty to me (i.e. shiny and new), i didn’t want to give them the time of day. this old thing spoke to me, though. i found myself playing bluesy things that weren’t like anything i’d ever thought to play on a guitar before. that same day, i picked up a dirt-cheap 1960s japanese-made teisco of indeterminate origin, with only one working pickup. that one spoke to me too.
i took those guitars home with me, and then something unexpected happened. the regal, the teisco, a six-string banjo, a wurlitzer electric piano, and a melodica all combined to form this whole new creative voice, i decided to put THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE to bed for a while, and THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE came pouring out.
this was a watershed album for me. it was also the album that seemed to put me “on the map” once and for all, at least locally, and i watched with amazement as my audience multiplied more or less overnight, and then multiplied some more, after years of few people having much interest in what i was doing.
there’s a rootsy, rustic atmosphere to this music that hadn’t been hinted at by anything i’d done in the past. i would listen to things like blue cheese necklace and a well-thought-out escape repeatedly after i’d mixed them, at once puzzled and excited by the way the songs were sort of crawling toward a slanted take on alt-country or something. a lot of the songs follow some pretty repetitive structures, which was another thing i didn’t plan, and something i had intended to avoid for the rest of my life. some things just felt too good to play for only half a minute and then never revisit again.
it was kind of ridiculous, but after going so long without writing anything approaching a conventionally-structured song, dipping tentatively back into it was like this exciting new musical direction, as if it was something i’d never done before. a song like a well-thought-out escape, for example, is basically just the same three chords played over and over again, and yet i think it still stands as one of my greatest “hits” in terms of audience response and radio airplay, and it’s still one of my favourite songs i’ve written from any period. i guess i’d spent enough time violently avoiding repetition to gain a new appreciation for it, and to accept that it isn’t always such a bad thing.
there was an odd sense of purpose with this album — i felt i was working toward something fairly concrete pretty much the whole time, where in most cases i don’t know quite what an album will sound like until it’s finished, even if i think i’ve got it all mapped out beforehand. aside from two or three tracks that were recorded in the spring of 2008 before i had figured out what to focus my energy on, this cd was recorded over a period of three weeks as june bled into july, with many songs recorded and mixed very quickly. a lot of times i was feeling pretty lethargic, so i’d tell myself i was just going to track some banjo or acoustic guitar, that way i could say i at least did a bit of work on something and make myself look productive to the three people who were reading my blog regularly at the time. half an hour later, a song would be completely finished, and more layered than anything i’d done in years, if not ever. then i’d go on to do the same thing three more times in the next hour or two. after feeling adrift and indifferent for so long, now it was almost like i was possessed.
a lot of times i would mix the songs immediately after they had been recorded, and in some cases a bit of time and distance probably would have helped a little. but even if some of these songs are mixed erratically, with the drums often leaning left of center, i liked the energy of these mixes and didn’t feel that their going under the knife would have made a significant difference. i’m never going to find the “perfect” mix or put out something that sounds like it was engineered by someone in the big leagues anyway, so i don’t see the point in trying to polish things up when the end result isn’t going to be that different from what i started with (though i’m happy to say my production skills, which had already come a long way, would go on to improve significantly over the course of the next several albums).
during the making of this album, i shook off the gearslutism that had infected me while revamping things at the old house, and reacquainted myself with the art of flying by the seat of my pants, just making music with whatever is at hand. i like inhabiting that space; it’s where i’m at my best, and it was nice to finally be back there again, where i belonged. somewhere along the way, i also developed an affinity for multi-tracking my voice all over the place, sometimes sloppily-so. i think “fidget” back on the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP may have been the turning point, when i triple-tracked my voice on a whim and realized i liked the sound a lot more than just double-tracking, which wasn’t something i’d done very much of as it was.
there are only a few songs here without omnipresent vocal overdubs of one kind or another, and my voice had never been more upfront in the mix or more free of effects of any kind (no delay, no reverb, no artificial doubling…nothin’. except for a solution improvised with yellow electrical tape, which is all reverb, all the way). i don’t know what it was…i guess i just liked the sound, and for a few years i would rarely record something without feeling the urge to at least triple-track the lead vocal. maybe it was part of a subconscious attempt at building up a somewhat communal sound in the absence of other musicians/voices to join me.
or maybe my odd relationship with my voice had simply undergone yet another mutation. i think it’s funny how, over the years, i gradually progressed from burying my voice in the mix, slathering it in slap echo, and eschewing even the most basic harmony vocals most of the time, to getting rid of the effects, pushing the voice way up in the mix, and harmonizing with myself all over the place. i’m still not always a big fan of my voice, but i’d more or less made my peace with it as my primary instrument by this point, and i seemed to have settled into singing as “myself” most of the time, instead of trying on different voices and roles in every song like i did back in the old days. at the same time, i took everything i’d learned from all the years of vocal experimentation and threw it into the pot. kind of like what happened with returning to more conventional song structures after avoiding them for so long — i felt more comfortable in my own skin, and instead of going out of my way to be weird for the sake of weirdness, i let my stranger creative impulses become an organic part of what i was doing in a more relaxed way.
i think there’s a parallel to be drawn here with BEAUTIFULLY STUPID, at least in how quickly it all came together, and that feeling of being charged with an electric sort of inspiration (along with having the album title before i even began recording it). but back then it was pain and anger i was drawing my inspiration from, and this time it was all coming from somewhere completely different. there are no angry songs about girls and drugs here. well, there are some songs about girls…but none of the girls i’m singing about/to actually exist.
this was the most enjoyable and pain-free experience i’d had making an album in a long time. granted, when you do so much of the work yourself that the only thing you’re depending on anyone else for is cover art (sometimes) and printing up the inserts for you, there isn’t much that can go wrong if you at least kind of know what you’re doing. but this was like coming back home after a long vacation and discovering that the skills i’d been neglecting to some extent had somehow sharpened in my absence…as if i had been wood-shedding the whole time, when really i was just staggering around with no real direction until something random caused a spark and it all finally came together.
i guess you could say this is one of the “happiest” things i’ve ever done. putting it together was a joyous experience, as strange as it feels to type that when so many albums have been borne of anger, frustration, cynicism, and a need for therapeutic expression. this was just about enjoying making music, plain and simple, with nothing at all cathartic going on…and yet it somehow turned into what is arguably one of the best things i’ve ever done, and i think it will continue to stand as a high water mark in my catalogue in the years ahead.
it’s always been hard for me to center out songs as highlights here, because this has always felt like an oddly cohesive album to me in spite of its length, and i’ve never thought there was any fat or filler that would have been better off left on the cutting room floor. even the tiniest songs and the silliest segues are integral to the bigger picture. having said that, i knew blue cheese necklace needed to be the opening track from the beginning, even before it took itself in an unexpected direction at the recording stage. merry christmas, tinseltown has this slowly unfurling, subtly creepy aura about it that i’ve always liked.
and some of the very best stuff comes near the end, like peculiar love, 95 streets to the right (one of my favourite instrumental things i’ve ever done, though it’s just a pretty melodically simple improvisation), and heart of liquid gold. some of my favourite things are the tiny songs that other people might look at as throwaways, like brooke ballentyne claps her hands, a question without a question mark, simple proposition, and the completely demented it is decided in fogos (who knew beat-boxing and hoedown banjo picking went together?).
i think heart of liquid gold brings everything full circle in a nice way, and if this had turned out to be my last album, i think i would have been pretty happy to have it end on this note, with me wailing, “may all your dreams come true!” (not part of the written lyrics, but a spontaneous addition that just felt so absurdly appropriate for some reason, even though it’s completely out of character for me to ever sing something like that and genuinely feel/mean it). it’s still one of my favourite closing tracks i’ve ever put on an album. of course, this wasn’t the last album i would ever make. not by a long shot. but it felt like that song would have made for a suitable swansong at the time, had things worked out differently.
at the time it came out, this was the longest album i had put out in a good six years. it remains home to the most songs i’ve ever squeezed onto one cd. it felt like one of the less accessible albums i’d made in a while, and i wasn’t expecting anyone else to really be into it. i mean, its a pretty weird album when you really think about it. there are a number of oddball tracks and asides that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern day papa ghostface cd. i’d never done anything like mary anne says grace before and, as brief of an interlude as it is, i couldn’t resist throwing it in with the other songs.
actually, quite a few songs fall into the “not even remotely like anything i had ever done before” category, like you don’t need ideas when you have other people to steal them from; i always wanted to write a song that laid bare my feelings about how pathetic the music business is and what a joke most popular music has become, and i did write some things on that subject that went unrecorded, but i never expected i’d come up with anything like the a capella bluesy stomp i ended up with here. it was a lot of fun to record, and i like how it ends up sounding a little like a slightly more modern spin on an old field recording.
on a random note, the line “and the rest, as they say…” shows up in two different songs for some reason. not sure what that’s about. but at least what they say is different on each occasion, so that’s something to be thankful for.
another way in which this was an important album for me — there are a number of sonic shifts that would go on to become an integral part of whatever production sound/style i have.
for one thing, the drum sound changed here again, for something like the twelfth time. the only mic used to record the drums throughout the album was an AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone, placed something like four or six feet in front of the kit and at about head level. or at the level of my head, which may not be at the same level as your head. we’d have to get together and compare heads to be sure. there were no close mics to speak of on any of the drums or cymbals, and i couldn’t position the ribbon mic exactly where i wanted it because the swivel-mounting clip-thing AEA provided me with — which would have given me a bit of play — turned out to be defective and useless. my first instinct was to use the ribbon mic on the overheads, throw in a kick mic, maybe a snare mic, and then see what transpired. i had never tried a FOK mic before (dig that acronym), but now it became my only real option. given all of that, somehow, this was probably the hugest kick drum sound i had ever recorded, and there was no dedicated kick mic to speak of.
i played the drums with brushes almost exclusively. they just seemed to suit most of the songs better than sticks. i brought an old brass snare drum back into the fold after ignoring it entirely for five years, and discovered that it had matured into exactly the sound a lot of these songs needed. i found myself wishing i had brought it out of retirement even sooner so it could have made its mark on please remember to forget me, because the deeper sound of that snare probably would have been a better fit than the higher-pitched maple one i initially used, but i didn’t feel like going back and re-tracking the drums for that song after it had been mixed. so, of course, i didn’t.
throwing another mic or two in there would have yielded a much tighter and more focused sound, but i’m pretty tired of all the overproduced, squashed, compressor-pumping, ridiculously hyped drum sounds that are all the rage these days, so i thought i would go for the sound of — gasp! — drums in a room, being played by a human being. pretty daring, i know. besides, the unpolished/unprocessed drum sound is a good fit for the music, i think. i’ve futzed around with so many different mic placement strategies over the years, it’s nice just to throw a mic up in the room that’s roughly centered in front of the kit and leave it at that for a change. i like the roomy vibe, and i’ve stuck with it ever since. i also think it’s more interesting as a musician to have to alter the way i play if i want to get a certain sound, instead of relying on mic placement and after-the-fact tweaking to give it to me.
the only electric guitar used throughout the entirety of this album was the 1960s japanese teisco. the somewhat thin, twangy sound of the guitar was perfect for a lot of these songs, and i gave the tremolo arm a pretty good workout too. funny how it came into my life at just the right time, when i wasn’t even looking to get a guitar that was anything like it. i had never used electric guitar in this way on an album before — as purely a supplementary thing, with none of the songs using it as a starting point or the main instrument, and no proper solos anywhere. it was fun coming up with guitar parts that would work as melodic counterpoints or contrasts without overwhelming the other instruments in the mix, and i ended up double-tracking most of them.
it was interesting taking a very different and more austere approach behind the drums than anything i had attempted before, too; in some songs there’s just kick drum and tambourine holding down the rhythm. it’s not a sound i would return to often in the future, because it always felt like it was very specific to this album, but i like the way it subverts what you would normally expect to hear in terms of rhythm and gives some songs a different kind of propulsion.
a number of these songs never would have been written without the 1932 regal parlor guitar that came into my life at the same time as the teisco. i’m not much of a slide player, as you can hear (i haven’t really played slide with anything even approaching regularity since 1999), but something like beneath the darkening sky is proof that the instrument is almost definitely possessed. i just don’t play or sing like that. at all. ever. it’s funny how such a small, lightweight guitar can put out such a huge sound. it records ridiculously well, but then i think it would probably sound almost as good if you stuck a telemarketer’s headset mic in front of it. this was the very beginning of my love affair with vintage guitars, and over the next several albums my collection would continue to grow.
i now had far better mic preamps than anything i’d ever worked with before, revealing just how thin and fizzy some of my mics sounded, while bringing to life others that had previously seemed unimpressive to me. the rode microphones i had been so enamored with for four or five years were put back on the shelf, and my vocal mic of choice here became a pearlman TM1. the pair of neumann KM184s i had been lukewarm about before became my go-to close mics for acoustic guitars and stringed instruments in general. even the old SM57 got a new lease on life, and i finally fired up my guitar amplifiers again after neglecting them for years in favour of a POD and other guitar amp simulators. the difference in sound just about knocked me over, and i found myself wishing i had come to my senses a lot sooner.
all in all, i think this was the most organic and interesting-sounding album i had made up to this point, though it’s very stripped-down compared to what was just around the corner, and it felt like i had reached some sort of weird songwriting high without even trying. i’m still not quite sure why this was the album to lead to such a groundswell of interest in my music (like i said, i honestly wasn’t expecting anyone to like it at all, even though i was proud of it and realized at the time that it was an important one for me), but i guess you can’t argue with the chicken angel woman. i mean, look at her. she’s even got high-heels on, while standing on a cloud. that’s class.
blue cheese necklace
please remember to forget me
he was saved by poultry from the shadow of beef
a question without a question mark
merry christmas, tinseltown
everything he asked you
creepy crawly things
excuse me, miss…where might i find a bandana like yours?
a well-thought-out escape
your secret isn’t safe with me
mary anne says grace
every man needs to paint a face on his hand sometimes
wait all morning
you don’t need ideas when you have other people to steal them from
thief of idle breath
waterfall of teeth
condensed journey of a tree
weak bladder blues
random confessions of a failed lothario
brooke ballentyne claps her hands
never bring lined paper to a knife fight
what will become of luke perry’s nipples?
it is decided in fogos
sun comes up, it’s a one-legged seagull
95 streets to the right (is where i will find the heart of you)
a solution improvised with yellow electrical tape
beneath the darkening sky
heart of liquid gold