Here’s something a little different.
For years now I’ve had this idea in the back of my head to do a covers album. Maybe i’d call it Other People’s Songs. Just like the album made up entirely of songs that have come from dreams I’ve had, it’s one of those things staying lukewarm on the back burner while I work on other stuff.
I have a long list of songs to tackle when/if I get around to working on this album of other people’s songs. Some are obscure. Others are cheesier than you might expect. Some would be played pretty straight. Others would be reworked so as to be almost unrecognizable (like the trippy four-string cigar box guitar take on “I Put a Spell on You”).
For whatever reason, I felt like taking a crack at one of these covers when I was deep in the sessions for MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART and ended up recording a take on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”.
I’m not a Springsteen apologist. I’ve loved the Boss since I first got into him when I was twelve or thirteen, and I’m still a fan. Some of his work doesn’t do it for me (I still think The Rising is overrated, with only two or three songs I really get something out of), but a lot of it does, and my favourite Bruce albums tend to change according to what headspace I’m in. Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town are always going to be at the top of the list, but sometimes The River, Born to Run, or The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle will give them a run for their money.
The man is also a Suicide fan — the band, not the end-of-life choice — and you can hear it clear as day on “State Trooper”. Another big plus in my book.
I’ve wanted to cover “I’m on Fire” for a while now. I know it’s not the most creative choice when it comes to Springsteen, and I know other artists have covered it already. I just like the song, and I like playing it in a sort of fingerpicked version on the funky old Kay acoustic.
One day about a month ago I found myself playing the Kay after not giving it much attention for a while, and I thought I might as well record this song and see what happened. I recorded two different guitar parts and some rough vocals, along with some harmonica that I liked at first but ended up ditching. I added some bass. Then I stuck the pickup I was using back in the Tara Watts Band days into the new 1983 Martin D35, plugged it into the little old Paul tube amp, and recorded some electrified acoustic guitar. I liked the sound of that.
I recorded drums and added some organ and synth-related sounds using my friend the Alesis Micron. Took a more serious pass at the vocals and noticed the song seemed to open up a bit when I got rid of the drums. Also threw the slapback echo I was so fond of back in the Guys with Dicks days on the vocals and acoustic guitar. It felt more or less complete, but I left it unmixed while I continued work on HELLHOUND.
Yesterday I thought I’d dump it back on the mixer and give it whatever finishing touches it needed. I messed around with adding some Wurlitzer for fun and liked it a lot more than I was expecting to. That’s probably the fault of this microphone, which has become my go-to Wurlitzer mic.
It just sounds tasty in front of a Wurly. I seem to use it a lot more on acoustic guitars with the passage of time as well, and it’s all over the new album in both of those applications.
Anyway, then I added some piano on top of that to beef things up even more. I hadn’t really intended to add anything more to the song at all, but the Wurlitzer and piano seemed to give it whatever it needed. And then I mixed the thing.
It’s not a reinvention as much as it’s just the way I play the song. I think the Bat for Lashes version is pretty brilliant, and any creative overhaul I attempted could never hope to match that one. So I just left the song in its original key and played it the way I felt most comfortable playing it. It’s got no place to call its home for the time being, but I kind of like how it turned out. So it can stay here for a while.
What was interesting to me was how finishing work on that song became the catalyst for something else. I was listening to the piano part, really liking the sound of a few chords I played low on the keyboard. I don’t tend to play chords down that low. Octaves and fifths, sure. But not full-on meaty chords. They sounded really rich and full. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that Ric just came and tuned the beast a few days ago. It’s got that extra sparkle it always gets when he tunes it.
I sat down at the piano and started playing a few simple chords, much lower than I normally would, just kind of letting them hang there with lots of sustain. Within about thirty seconds I started singing a melody. About five minutes later a song was there where none had existed before.
Funny how something as simple as the sound of a piano chord can trigger something like that.
I recorded the piano last night along with some drums, holding the snare strainer just open a titch with one hand to get a sustained, deep, detuned sound, while hitting it with a drumstick in my other hand. Sometimes I think I should use more than just the stereo ribbon microphone in front of the drum kit, but I’ve grown so used to it by now, I don’t have the patience to futz with anything more complicated. And I like the roomy, unpolished sound most of the time.
I find myself disliking modern studio drum sounds more and more. They sound so hyped and artificial. Let me hear drums the way drums sound in a room, and instead of sound-replacing them and chopping them up and quantizing them to death after the fact, let me hear the hesitations and mishits that make it clear a fucking human being is hitting those things.
This morning I recorded some bass and Wurlitzer, mostly just to shadow what the piano was doing. I still need to record the singing and other stuff, but I like where the song is going. It doesn’t sound like anything on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART. I think I want to keep it pretty skeletal. I like hearing the spaces between the notes.
I guess it’s probably the beginning of another album. So much for taking a break.
Hopefully I’ll be able to start sending out copies of the new album in the mail by the end of the week. Still waiting on those ink cartridges to get here.