Month: September 2009

When I was eating grasshoppers off of your chest, a mistake was a well-oiled heel.

sexy chicken

I put something “new” up on Spyspace just now in place of that new-compressor-testing sketch, just for something to do. I’ll explain the quotation marks around “new” in a moment. But first…who’s a sexy chicken? Who’s a sexy chicken? You are! Yes you are!

Sorry. The picture made me do it.

Anyway. The song on Spyspace is nothing like any of the things you should expect to hear on the next album. Instead, it’s one of about two hundred songs intended for the beastly in-progress project that calls itself THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. It’s one of several things that have been kicking around for a while more or less finished but unmixed. I thought I would mix this one, and maybe by this time next year I’ll finally pull all the disparate threads together, record most of the songs written for the album that haven’t yet been given their due, and emerge with a three-CD set. Or something.

This song was written at the old house on one of those days when I was going without sleep in order to fix my sleep, at a time when I didn’t yet need to do that very often. Hence the opening line, “Twenty-one hours and then you drop,” though my day was just beginning. I started playing a repetitive lick on an acoustic guitar, a bunch of words came pouring out, and there was a song. City workers were performing some pointless menial construction work on the street outside, and a piece of machinery made a strange beeping noise mid-way through the writing process. It sounded dissonant and melodic at the same time, and weirdly appropriate.

I wish I’d been able to capture it somehow, even in a rough demo recording. Alas.

I didn’t finally take a stab at recording the song until February of 2008, when I was still trying to get my momentum back in the new house. I got the guitar part down, messed around with some vocals, and then decided I wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling much of anything during that period, really. Aside from recording some tiny songs (some of which are also destined for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE), I didn’t get much of anything substantial accomplished until CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN shocked me back into productivity in the summer.

More than a year after the initial recording, during sessions for the collection of tender love songs that is IF I HAD A QUARTER…, I revisited the song and built on the unfinished bed that was there already. Overdubbed a lot of additional singing, added bass, drums, and piano, and then realized all of my vocal multi-tracking and stereo-recorded guitars had eaten up most of the available tracks and I didn’t have room left to do much of anything else. I could bounce a bunch of stuff down to two stereo tracks as a submix and start building up more things on the “wiped” tracks, but I don’t like to do that. It makes mixing the final product a lot more difficult. Most of the time if I can’t say it in fourteen tracks, it ain’t worth saying.

So the song still sounds a little unfinished, like it never quite made it to the epic/bombastic place it wanted to go. Then again, at just barely three minutes long it was never going to be very bombastic no matter what happened. I kind of like how the “chorus” is hinted at a few times before appearing in full just once, never to show its face again. And some of the vocal gibberish that first felt too goofy to keep ended up winning me over.

Really, it’s just a random song I aim to throw on a ridiculously ambitious, ridiculously bloated album that’s been years in the making (albeit on a very, very sporadic basis) and will probably end up being hailed by Pitchfork as my “White Album on steroids and Cialis”, assuming I ever finish it. I still think the singing is kind of dodgy, but I’m too lazy to do anything to fix that right now, and for some reason I feel like sharing it in place of anything that might actually clue you in on where the next album is going.

So there it be. It’s a very quick mix that gets kind of left-heavy near the end, but it’s good enough for now.

Woebegone tennis racket.

jeff koons' "hanging heart"

My sleep is a mess no longer. My soggy brain is stronger.

That wasn’t meant to rhyme, but I’ll take it anyway.

I think I’ve got a clearer idea of where I want to go with the next album now. Got piano/bass/drums and some guide vocals down earlier in the week for a pretty ambitious new song that’s about twelve minutes long. While the meat of it is there already, it needs a lot more work, so yesterday I was chipping away at it. And it just…wasn’t coming together.

I don’t have a lot of banging-my-head-against-the-wall musical moments. Usually I just roll with whatever happens when I’m recording, and if something doesn’t work I throw something else at the wall until it bounces back and hits me in the face. This time it wasn’t happening at all. I think it’s one song that isn’t going to be done in a day. It needs time to unfurl, and I need to experiment with a lot of different sounds and decorative touches before I can figure out what works where.

I gave up on that one and went on to work on something else instead. Things clicked in spite of my dour mood, everything dour evaporated as I got sucked into the music, and everyone had sex. The end.

It was interesting to discover that as nice as the new compressor is, it hasn’t made the one I’ve been using for the past several years obsolete, and there are actually some things I prefer the less sexy compressor on. Go figure. But on bass, there’s no contest. The UBK Fatso lets me punch it up without things getting too low-end-heavy or tubby. It’s a lovely thing.

All that gear is really just a very expensive toolbox, when you break it down. You can build yourself a quaint little deck, or you can hammer nails into your feet and scream. It all depends on what you want to do.

I think it’s time to get back to going out of my way to avoid verse/chorus song structures again. It’s been a while since I worked that way for a whole album, and it’s always an interesting challenge to build something that keeps changing until it dies. Especially when the song is twelve minutes long. That one track is either an anomaly and the other songs will end up being much shorter, or it’s a harbinger of things to come, in which case there will only be eight songs on the next album because they’ll all be gargantuan. All will be revealed in the weeks to come.

I can tell you one thing for sure: regardless of how long the songs are, I think the end result is going to be pretty wintery by the time it’s release-ready. Everything I do seems to come out sounding melancholy lately. Must be the Bryan Adams influence creeping in.

The song I ended up recording yesterday when I gave up on the epic one is about as close as I get to ballad territory, and it doesn’t really follow the “avoid repetition at any cost” credo, but the dynamics are kind of odd and it breathes in a strange way. It also threatens to fall apart at one point, only to put itself back together. And it features the return of the bugle. Because I couldn’t let things get too comfortable or too pretty. That wouldn’t be right.

You know how I said I kept listening to that compressor-testing sketch over and over again and it felt like one of the most perfect things I’d ever done? I take it back. The song I finished yesterday is better. I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the right title for it yet (I kind of like “Knee-Jerk Howl”), but that’ll come in its own time.

I’m also realizing that for better or worse I’ve developed some sort of “sound” or “style” that’s more or less unconscious at this point, and no matter what I do or how much I mess with it, I seem to end up sounding like myself in the end. I guess that could be a good thing. I mean, it’s better than having everything you do come out sounding like it’s the work of an evil Russian spy or a rabbit with tuberculosis.

The JESUS-SATURATED BOYFRIEND EP is being put on the back burner now, and it won’t be showing up in the next few weeks after all. It might not even show up this year. I like that ridiculous title and won’t let it languish forever, but right now I think it makes more sense to focus my energy on an album that isn’t made up of musical leftovers.

So you’ll have to wait a few months before something new appears. But I think it’ll be worth the wait. And if it isn’t, just give me a few more months after that and I’ll have another one ready for you.

Just a fool to believe…she’s got no fins.

My sleep is a mess for the nine hundredth time. Soggy brain. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum. Add sugar. Add salt.

But I do have this thing now.

polaroid spectra 2

It’s a Polaroid Spectra 2. A woman in Windsor was selling it for ten dollars. That’s a no-brainer for me. Film for this camera is hard to find and in some cases absurdly expensive, but it is out there, and I did find some. It’ll probably get here next week sometime.

In the meantime, there were about three exposures hiding out inside of the camera. Who knows how long they’d been there. I took a picture of myself and watched it develop. There’s always been something I liked about Polaroid cameras. Almost a nostalgic thing. It’s hard to put into words.

Been working a bit on songs intended for the JESUS-SATURATED BOYFRIEND EP. If it isn’t finished by the end of the month, I expect it should be out there come early October. That is, assuming the songs work well enough together in EP form. It’s shaping up to be one of the longer EPs I’ve put together, closer in length to something like BRAND NEW SHINY LIE than, say, the PAVEMENT-HUGGING DADDIES EP. But I guess we’ll see what happens as it gets closer to the finish line.

I think I’ve listened to the finished version of that sketch I put up here (the full version is up at Spyspace for the time being) about eighty times now. It feels like one of the most perfect things I’ve ever done. Which makes no sense at all, because it’s a not-all-that-well-recorded improvised sketch I just padded out to make it more like a proper song.

Must be the soggy brain. I mean, when you start dreaming about Amy Grant and Marc Jordan being a couple, leaving the music business behind to make handmade acoustic guitars without any interior bracing, something strange is going on.

Either way, I think I’m starting to figure out where I want to go with the next proper album. I’m going to shoot for a December release. Gotta try to get one more out there before the year is gone.

Sun comes up, and it’s not a one-legged seagull at all.

Here’s a piece of something new for all of you whose tongues are blue.

Stone Cold (sketch)

It’s really just a test of a new piece of gear — in this case, a new compressor. Yes, my friends…I decided it was finally time to get a good compressor. After stepping up my EQ game, it felt like that was the one weak link left.

I’m no compression aficionado. Not even close. I’m a big fan of “set it and forget it” when it comes to compressors. There are too many variables for me to work my head around for too many different sources, and too many ways for me to screw it up.

This is why I was in no hurry to replace or supplement my last compressor. While it was nothing awe-inspiring, it did what I wanted it to do (i.e. tame wild peaks and make things more consistent) without imparting much of any sound or really even sounding that much like compression. For things like drums that needed an extra kick, I’d dial in some in-the-box compression from the VS-1680. Probably not the best way to go, but it worked for me.

Now I have this thing.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Jesus, man. You must really like spending money.” But no. Most of the time I prefer to stare soulfully at money and whisper to it that we will never part — until, of course, we do end up going our separate ways.

Still, when it comes to gear, I can usually find a way to justify parting with some money, as I did in this case with the UBK Fatso. It’s pretty. Pictures don’t do justice to how nice it looks in the rack — or, if you’re me, on top of other stuff on the desk that you use to organize outboard gear instead of racks. It has nice knees. And man, I wish I’d bought it a year ago.

The simplicity of the controls is a big plus for me. No futzing with the ratio, threshold, or release. Just “more” or “less” compression, and several different kinds of it, all with their own personalities. The “warmth” circuit from the original Fatso really does something special all on its own. I don’t think it’s a substitute for tape, but it has a wonderful way of taming the harshness that can show up in digital recordings, especially when you’re using a fair amount of compression. It’s a subtle thing, and I’m not sure I’ll use it much, but it’s a nice option to have.

Even this little sketch has a warmth (go figure) that a lot of the things I’ve spent a good deal more time working on don’t always possess. The vocals have this woolly quality to them that I like, and the bass goes deeper than ever before. And it isn’t a good mix, or even a good recording that I spent any time working on. Just something I improvised in two minutes because I was liking what was happening with the “glue” compression setting engaged.

I recorded some acoustic guitar with the microphone several feet away and angled nowhere near the guitar, using an axe I’ve been neglecting lately. Then I added some more noodly/mandolin-ish guitar bits, improvised some singing on top, added some beefed-up bass, and realized I was starting to like this half-assed sketch quite a bit. It sounds sort of like a cousin to “As It Was, as It Were, as It Is, and Where It Stands” from IF I HAD A QUARTER, but without the bitterness that song was soaked in. I think I might even like this one a little more.

Not long after recording this sketch, it grew into a proper song. I’m tempted just to use the sketch that’s already there and flesh it out instead of re-recording it from scratch, because I like the feel of it. Probably need to re-record most of the singing and push the lead vocal up a bit in the mix, though. And maybe that bass has just a little too much beef to it.

The point is, I have to work pretty hard to make this compressor sound bad, which is a great thing for a blind fumbler like me. If I can get sounds out of it I like this much with no real effort, that bodes well for what will happen when serious recording happens. I’ve had new instruments inspire new songs before. This is the first time a compressor has ever done that.

That’s the way the quarterback fumbles.

This is almost definitely going to be boring beyond belief to watch, but here you go anyway. This is what I mean when I say I don’t write songs as much as they just sort of…happen.

I start out with nothing more than a bit of a musical idea and seven words. There’s nothing at all in my head when I sit down and start filming. No words. No form. Nothing. Twenty minutes later, there’s a full page of lyrics and an almost-finished song. I’ve already changed (nay, improved) a few of the lines since the video ended, and the “bridge” section still needs some lyrics, but it’s just about there. In a few days it’ll probably be recorded and mixed.

The video isn’t all that well-filmed — you see my face but not much of my hands — and there’s a lot of pretty uneventful space where I’m writing down the lyrics as they come. There’s one tiny edit where I chopped out about a minute of musical searching so the file would be small enough for WordPress to upload, but aside from that sliver I had to excise it’s all happening in real-time.

I later ended up trying out a different free video editing program just to be able to use a cheesy transition effect to bridge the gap, and while I was doing that I found a way to compress the file size so it wouldn’t take three days to upload. But I still think we can do without that minute or so of aimlessness.

As such, the quality is a bit of a step down from the other videos I’ve been posting. But I don’t think it’s too gigantic of a drop. And I don’t plan on making a habit of compressing future videos to save time. It just helps make life a little simpler sometimes when you’re dealing with a file that’s twenty minutes long and 2GB tall. The program inserted black bars at the top and bottom of the image for some reason. I don’t buy that it was to preserve the aspect ratio (we’ll let the film festivals work that out), but it doesn’t bother me enough to do anything about it, so it is what it be.

I don’t think I’ll be filming or posting this sort of thing again anytime soon. I imagine once is more than enough to satisfy the curiosity of anyone, if it doesn’t outright bore them into a catatonic state. At least you’ll get a bit of an idea of what goes on over here when songs are being written. Not that this is an especially worthy song to demonstrate the “process” or lack thereof. It’s just another one of many that came from wherever it did.

Apparently CREATIVE NIGHTMARES is at #1 on the CJAM charts instead of #2, in spite of what the online charts say. That’s pretty crazy if you ask me. Not that you asked me. It’s always interesting for me to hear what songs DJs will decide to play on the radio. I’ve been hearing a whole lot of “Zombies on Parade” and “Generic Love Song to Play at Your Wedding”. The first and last tracks have been played a few times as well, but not near as much as those other two.

It doesn’t bother me that some of the songs I consider to be the better ones sometimes get passed over. I just like hearing what people decide to play, whatever their reasoning might be. Maybe some folks just like having an excuse to read some of my longer and sillier song titles on-air. Ha!

That “Generic Love Song” was one of the last things I recorded for the album. It was written in about five minutes and then recorded very quickly in an afternoon, almost as a filler track. The more I hear it, the more it grows on me. It’s got this weird almost quasi-soul-soft-rock-ish thing going on that’s not quite like anything else I’ve done. And I like that “sour cream” bridge section with the oohs and slide guitars.

On yet another subject, I think I just discovered my Holy Grail headphones. They’re going to be a fantastic mixing tool. They don’t flatter poorly-recorded/mixed material at all, but when you give them really good-sounding music the results are like sex for your ears. Ear sex. Earx. And I’m not someone easily impressed by headphones. I’ve got at least six pretty expensive pairs of them, most of which are considered recording studio staples, and I’d kick more than half of them out of bed without much thought.

It’s nice when something infuriating (i.e. my trusty old Sennheiser headphones — the one pair I really like, so of course they’ve been discontinued — starting to die on me) has the unanticipated side effect of bringing new love into your ears. But more on that some other time, maybe.

Of course, as soon as I wrote what I did up there about the songs people play on the radio, “Organ Smears” got some airplay. Alright! Debut action! Thanks, Mike. I think that song and “Kamikaze Daybreak” are the first times I’ve ever actually used the mandolin in a somewhat conventional way — as a lead/supplemental/frilly thing, instead of playing it more like a guitar and having it drive the whole song. And whadayaknow? It’s fun to play fiddly things on the mandolin on top of a song that already exists for a change.