Month: October 2010

She’s got Bette Davis eyes…but whose mouth does she have?

It’s video progress report time.

This one is the longest yet — just a hair shy of half an hour. I didn’t plan it that way. I guess I had a lot of stuff to ramble about. I could have said even more if I really let myself go. I feel like one of these days I’m going to end up making a video progress report that’s close to an hour long…though it’s probably best to keep them in the twenty-to-thirty-minute range so things don’t get too tedious.

This month’s re-contextualized public domain film is Of Human Bondage from 1934. Quite a different beast from Bride of the Gorilla. Bette Davis chews the scenery and creates a character so hateful it’s almost surreal. She did her own makeup for the scene near the end of the movie when she’s a prostitute dying of tuberculosis to make sure she looked sufficiently grimy. pretty daring stuff for the time. RKO Pictures made some interesting movies during their heyday, that’s for sure.

A few things worth noting:

THING 1: The CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN-inspired collage book/magazine is about thirty pages of brain-bending awesomeness. You only get a bit of an idea of what’s there from the video. You kind of need to see it in person and put in some time to see all there is to see. That still has to be the best surprise I’ve ever received after sending music to a friend.

THING 2: While talking about that album, the “reissue”, and why it’s one of the more important things I’ve done, I could have mentioned that it also marks the exact point at which I made some sort of peace with more conventional song structures after spending quite a while treating repetitive song forms like they were a contagious disease I didn’t want to come near. By the time it occurred to me to mention that, I was already close to being finished editing the whole video and didn’t feel like throwing the whole thing into disarray for one more twenty-second observation. You can read about it on the album’s proper page over on the sidebar, anyway.

THING 3: The way I’m slouching while playing guitar near the end of the video kind of creates the illusion that I’ve got a beer gut, which is a little funny. I’m not nearly as lanky as I used to be, but I don’t think I’ve reached paunch territory yet. That won’t happen until Faith Hill chains me to a radiator and forces me to eat homemade pumpkin pie after every meal. That’s right! Faith Hill will feed me pumpkin pie under duress! You mark my words. Someday it’ll happen.

THING 4: This is the first progress report video I’ve edited using Sony Vegas. The results are pretty much as I predicted. Things are a little bit smoother in general, though nowhere near being “slick”. While there was a bit of a learning curve, I managed to figure out how things work pretty quick without relying on the interactive tutorials (which I hear are quite helpful). The program is a fair bit more intuitive than I first thought it was. I do have to say the way it’s set up for editing the audio volume of individual clips is a little strange to me, but it does the job. It just seems a little more complicated than it needs to be. While past progress report videos necessitated turning the volume up pretty high because I had to bring a lot of the levels down to match the quiet output of the Flip video camera, now I’m able to even things out at a higher volume without anything getting ugly. Ultimately, in spite of a brief period of frustration when it seemed like Vegas wouldn’t do half of what I wanted it to do, I think the video editing crisis worked out alright in the end.

THING 5: WMV still seems to be the best file format to use for these things. As I discovered a few weeks back, MOV files look pretty impressive for how small a file you end up with, but the sound suffers far too much from the compression. When I tried rendering things as MPEG or MPEG-2 files I wasn’t too fond of the video quality, though the sound seemed to hold up fine. WMV seems to be the best compromise. In this case the uncompressed AVI of the full video comes out to an ass-shaking 35 GB. WordPress starts to get grumpy when you try to upload anything larger than a single gigabyte. The most I’ve ever managed is close to two, and even then it’s dicey, takes the better part of a day, and often fails at some point in the uploading process. I’m not aware of any video hosting/embedding service that will handle 35 GB files. So being able to shave that all the way down to a little less than 600 MB while losing almost no noticeable quality is alright by me (it’s not like my footage started out looking amazing). The old movie clips are the only things that really take a noticeable hit, especially in scenes where there’s a lot of black on the screen. What can you do?

THING 6: Just to be clear, the little intro song is not meant to make light of suicide at all. It’s a parody of moronic love songs that reach for pathos only to come away with clumps of rooster crap, hence the song’s title, “Every Slightly Angry Love Song Ever Written, in 43 Seconds or Less”. It’ll show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE eventually.

THING 7: I should reiterate that I shouldn’t have said “most” people don’t acknowledge getting CDs from me. The majority of the people i send CDs to do acknowledge them, and I appreciate it. There’s just a small handful of people who consistently fail to respond in any way, and I guess that tends to stand out a bit. It gets a little frustrating when you go to the trouble of putting packages together, which involves a bit of work (cutting bubble wrap, copying and printing CDs, folding CD inserts, paying for the shipping, and writing letters by hand, to name a few things), but don’t even get the slightest acknowledgment for it. Like I say in the video, it takes time and money to do this. So I think I just won’t send new CDs to those select few people anymore, and then I won’t be frustrated. Maybe that sounds a little passive-aggressive, but these days I’m not a big fan of spending my time and resources on people who for all I know don’t even bother listening to the music I send them at all. I already did that back in the day with record labels. I’m not about to do it again now.

THING 8: I did get around to recording my take on “Wind Chimes Sing with Her” shortly after I finished editing the video, and I think it might fit nicely on the next album after all. It might even end up being one of my favourite things on the album, and it’s not even a song I wrote myself.

Eight things are probably more than “a few”, but never you mind.

All in all, I think this might be the best video progress report yet. You’ve got A Tender Moment with Elliott and the chopped-up-bits-of-old-movies thing both making their mark as permanent fixtures, cameos from Fuzzy Duck, Wenceslaus, and Nikolai (the latter now complete with subtitles), at least three or four little montages, some snippets of new and unreleased music, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Paris Hilton insult, and — as usual — a whole lot of me talking about random stuff. There are even proper end credits that aren’t insanely minimal for the first time ever, now that my video editing program gives me some actual wiggle room in that department.

The future looks bright for no-budget videos, I tells ya.

Elsewhere, the box of CDs at Dr. Disc was empty again…so I refilled it again, this time with a bit more variety (I threw in some reissued things). As of the early evening time, the box at Phog is also full of CDs once again. Who are all these people who keep taking the CDs? I have no idea. It’s long passed the point where things normally die down. They just keep going, and going, and going…

Kick it in the sleep pants.

I don’t know why it never occurred to me until just now to put this up here, but here it is for anyone who may be interested — an alternate mix of “Insomnia Kick”. And I’m not someone who tends to do alternate mixes.

Insomnia Kick (alternate mix)

I think only about two people have heard this version in full. The meat of the song is the same as the released version on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, but the drum performance is different, and I think it changes the feeling of the song in a pretty serious way. This was the way it sounded before I got the hankering to pick up the brushes and try something different behind the kit just for kicks. And then it took me a few weeks to figure out which mix I liked better.

The best way I can think of to describe the difference is this: the mix that made it onto the album, with brushed drums taking more of a background role, sounds like a deep album cut. This mix with the more propulsive/upfront drum performance sounds more like a “single”. It gives the whole thing a more uptempo and somewhat more conventional feeling. That’s not a bad thing, really. Either mix could have made it onto the album. I just found myself liking the more laid-back drum performance a hair more when it came down to crunch time. I still feel like it could have gone either way.

Just goes to show how altering one specific element of a song can have a pretty serious impact on the whole thing.

Breadsticks and wooden guns.

Not a whole lot to report over here. The vampire sleep schedule made me pretty useless for a while, but now I have returned to the land of the living. I did find the digital still camera I almost forgot I had — I haven’t used it in a year or two now. There are about two hundred pictures on it, some of which I’d forgotten all about.

Here are a few of my favourites from the stuff that was unearthed. Yeah, I took a lot of pictures of myself. I have no idea why.

There’s also a video function on this camera. The quality is pretty terrible, but about two years ago I used it a handful of time to get down some ideas. A few things ended up on various albums, a few still need to be recorded, and a few I forgot ever existed. Here they are in one place, mostly without any visual representation because I tended to record them late at night with the camera face-down.

The next progress report video will be along soon, closer to the end of October. I think it’s the best one yet (it’s definitely the longest so far), and I seem to have convinced the new video editing program to do my bidding. Paint be praised.

Happy Thanksgiving to me.

Before the end of the month, Bryan Ferry has a new album coming out, on which several Roxy Music members appear…

That documentary about Harry Nilsson is finally being released on DVD, now that the music rights-related issues have all been taken care of…

And, most surprising of all, two unhinged live performances by John Cale from the early 1980s — when he was arguably at his most musically confrontational and uninhibited (yeah, cocaine addiction will do that, but the music he made in that state was/is brilliant) — are being released on CD, DVD, and LP.

Happiness.

I’m also starting to get the hang of this “new” video editing program. Even managed to finally figure out how to edit the volume of individual clips, and how to create fades, and all the fun stuff that used to be a little simpler to execute before. I miss a few of the weird effects Windows Movie Maker provided, but I think I was starting to rely less on those to spice up my videos as I got a bit more confident with the editing anyway. And any initial difficulty I had with figuring things out is a happy trade-off for no longer having to worry about the program crashing thirty times when I try to render a video. I think my monthly profanity stats have already dropped at least 3% since I’ve no longer had to deal with that frustration.

So the next end-of-the-month progress report video may come out looking more polished. But only a little bit. Hey, as Pete Townsend sang, “Sometimes a little is enough.”

God is a concept by which we measure our pain.

In celebration of what would have been John Lennon’s seventieth birthday (a convenient excuse to milk the cash cow some more), Yoko Ono has seen fit to release a whole whack of stuff — mainly remastered versions of the studio albums (with a few strange omissions, like the Live in New York City album), a few home demos, a few superfluous compilations, and a box set to hold it all in one place. I was tempted to shell out for this thing, even though it seems a bit ridiculous to me. Then I found out the individual CDs were being sold separately in repackaged/remastered form. So I grabbed the four I really wanted, some of them albums that were always difficult to find on CD, and saved myself at least a hundred bucks in the process.

I’m sure the box set is a cool collector’s piece to have, but I can’t justify getting it. Yoko Ono already released remixed/remastered versions of some of these albums a few years back, which I thankfully never got around to picking up, so I can at least justify getting these new versions of a few albums since they’ve been remastered from the original analog tapes instead of using squashed-to-hell and cleaned-up new mixes.

It’s a bit of a relief to find the dynamics are intact, at least on the 1970s albums. The overall sound seems to be a marked improvement over a lot of the original CDs, which were muddy and leaned a bit too heavy on noise-reduction. I’ve never understood why some people have such a problem with a little bit of tape hiss. The same team that worked on the remastering campaign for all the recent Beatles reissues worked on most of these Lennon albums, and again they did a nice job of clarifying the sonic spectrum while preserving the dynamics and integrity of the original mixes. It’s a nice thing to hear when the Loudness War is still raging on around us.

I listened to Plastic Ono Band last night and heard things in it I never have before — and this is not an album with many layers or things tucked away in the stereo field. It’s raw and stripped-down to the core, and while Phil Spector has received production credit for decades, it turns out he barely showed up for any of the recording sessions. The true architect of the album’s sound was John himself, along with the two engineers sitting behind the mixing board.

This album had a huge impact on me. I’ve listened to it more times than I could count over the past fourteen or so years. But this is the first time I’ve been able to hear John’s fingernails striking his guitar on “Look at Me”. It’s the first time I’ve been able to distinguish between his and Billy Preston’s separate piano parts on “God” — a song I always liked, but has now become one of my favourite things Lennon ever wrote after hearing it in this remastered form. For the first time ever, I realized “Working Class Hero” is a composite of at least two different takes combined to make one complete song, because I could hear the change in acoustic guitar sound halfway through — something that was undetectable on the previous CD issue.

The hammond organ part on “Isolation” still has a muted, ghostly quality, but now I can hear that it’s an organ in no uncertain terms, when I used to think it was Yoko, who was mysteriously credited with “wind” in the liner notes. Klaus Voorman’s great bass-playing comes through clearer than ever before. The little walking lick he plays at the beginning of each chorus on “I Found Out” is brilliant stuff. I can hear the reverb tail on John’s piano in the first seconds of “Isolation” for the first time ever — and this is a very “dry” album, free of obvious effects for the most part, aside from some slapback echo.

At the same time, things don’t sound like they’ve been polished or digitally enhanced. It sounds the way the CD always should have sounded. And “I Found Out” and “Well Well Well” still sound far ahead of their time, like some sort of stark proto-grunge. This is the only album John ever made where he was the only guitar player. In the years ahead he would rely on session guitarists most of the time, relegating himself to background/rhythm parts, though he did play the slide guitar that’s pretty much the driving force behind “Mind Games”. His playing on Plastic Ono Band is wonderfully rough and jagged, with not one masturbatory solo in sight. It’s also hard to imagine a better drummer for these songs than Ringo, who never sets a foot wrong.

For me, listening to the remastered CD was almost like hearing the album for the first time again. Aside from the original vinyl LP, this is probably as close as anyone is going to get to the way things sounded in the studio when the recording sessions went down.

I have very mixed feelings about Yoko Ono. I’ll just say I think she’s a very smart businesswoman whose decisions don’t always make a whole lot of sense to me. At least she hasn’t pulled a Courtney Love and released Lennon’s private diaries for public consumption (after editing them herself to get rid of any negative comments directed at her, of course). Though I have to say, in spite of the murky moral implications, I would have a hard time not buying john Lennon’s private writings if they ever became available. Who doesn’t want to read the private thoughts of the man who was arguably the most interesting and human Beatle?

Anyway, there are a lot of things Yoko has done that I strongly disagree with, but two things she’s done win her some points in my book. The first was releasing the four-CD Anthology of alternate studio takes, private recordings, and home demos. While the full breadth of unreleased material could probably fill twenty CDs, if not more, I bought that box set the day it was released back in 1998 and found what was there deeply fascinating. I think it was a brilliant decision to strip all the overdubs, orchestration, and effects off of some of the overproduced mid-’70s material, because it reveals just how great a lot of those songs were — particularly the Lost Weekend era stuff. I think a lot of the Walls and Bridges songs on the Anthology set beat the more ornate album versions. “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” is so much more effective in stripped-down form, it’s kind of staggering. I always thought the bombastic take on “Be My Baby” was great too, and using John’s own artwork and doodles on all the packaging was a nice touch. I still listen to the music on that box set and enjoy it, which isn’t something I can say for too many box sets of out-takes and demos.

And now there are these remastered CDs. Yeah, on some level I’m pretty sure it’s just another attempt at cashing in. But at least the remastering was done right, and the music sounds the way it should have in the first place. You get the lyrics uncensored as well…though I have to say I did always get a laugh out of how the dirty words on Plastic Ono Band were represented by nothing more than asterisks in the lyric booklet the first time around — “Omitted at the insistence of EMI,” the booklet explained, because the words “cock” and “fucking” were too harsh for virgin eyes. I’d say if you have old issues of the albums on CD and you’re happy with the sound quality there’s no reason to pick any of this stuff up, but if you have a good hi-fi or a good pair of headphones and/or you’re missing some of John’s solo albums, it’s worth grabbing at least a few things individually.

Again, I’m sure the box set looks cool and all. I just can’t justify spending that amount of money on yet another box-shaped cash-in, and I don’t want to read any more drivel about what a beautiful fairytale the John and Yoko romance was and how idyllic John’s last days were when there’s more than a bit of evidence that all was not smiles and rainbows. To be fair, I can see how it would be tempting to rewrite history the way you would have liked it to be (or the way you’d like other people to believe it was) if you were in a position to do such a thing. Not that having the power to completely control or alter the public’s perception of someone else’s life eliminates the moral issues raised.

Now, if Yoko would release the professionally-shot video footage of the Double Fantasy recording sessions, that would be interesting to see. Alas, it doesn’t look likely to happen anytime soon. But I guess you never know.

Stranger things have happened. I never in my life thought I’d get to see the fabled footage of Alex Chilton recording Like Flies on Sherbert in the studio. After a while I wasn’t sure it existed, even if what little I read about it was tantalizing. Not a week after he passed away, it suddenly appeared on the internet — some forty or fifty minutes of footage. It’s not as interesting as i built it up to be in my mind, but it’s still pretty cool to see. I now know, for instance, that the odd bass sound on “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” was achieved by slapping an upright bass with a large wooden stick. And there’s also this.

What about me, then? CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN now has lyrics, and a full-colour cover image, and stuff like that. I think it looks pretty neat. I’m not planning on phasing out the first design by any means, and I’m perfectly happy with the way it came out looking the first time. I didn’t have a ton of the new booklets/inserts made up. You could look at it as a “limited edition special reissue for no particular reason” that just happens to come along a little over two years after the album was first released. I’ll talk about it more in the next progress report video at the end of the month. In the interim, I’ll try to drop off a few copies of the colour version at Dr. Disc this weekend, and maybe at Phog too, if anyone wants them. At some point I might look at making lyric booklets for AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and IF I HAD A QUARTER as well.

I had no idea I would ever want to print my lyrics with my CDs at all, or that I would up enjoying it as much as I do. Now I kind of wish I started doing it sooner.

Dan Hill always comes through.

I posted this video a little over a year ago when it was first recorded, but it’s buried deep in the archives now and I think it’s worth posting again, with one important change — much improved sound quality.

The first time around I just used the sound captured by the camera’s built-in microphone, which was decent enough. This time I thought I would marry the video to the proper recording. I would have done that in the first place, had I known how to do it at the time. The very beginning of the song was cut off on the video, and I seem to have lost the original, larger file in the whole virus attack thing that happened last month, so it takes a few seconds for the image to fade in.

Still getting the hang of this new video editing program, too. I tried rendering the file in a few different formats to see what would work best. As a MOV file the video quality was really good but the sound got hammered too much for my taste, so it looks like I’m sticking with WMV files. They seem to strike the best balance between keeping the video/sound quality at a good enough level while also keeping the file size reasonable (300 MB is a bit easier to manage and host than, say, a 10 GB AVI file).

This just reminds me again how much I like the piano/bass improvisations I recorded with Max. For a time I thought a whole album might come out of it. It could be an album if you put all the songs in one place, because there are about five pieces that are album material to my ears, and they range in length from about six to twelve minutes apiece. It just wouldn’t quite feel finished. I don’t think we did quite enough. Maybe if there had been a few more songs that went in different directions.

Still, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with these pieces, because I like them quite a bit and they aren’t really like anything else I’ve been a part of musically. I guess it’s safe to say they’re as close as I’ve ever come to jazz. I’ve wanted to find some way to “release” them, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it or where they should show up.

The idea I came up with a few months back was to throw this material in with the rest of the stuff that’s going to end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I talked to Max about this, and he was game, but he also felt we should remake and re-record the improvisations so they were tighter and more focused. “Scripted improvisation” doesn’t hold much appeal for me, though. Part of what I like about what we did record is there’s nothing premeditated about any of it. We weren’t working off of any preconceived melodic ideas. The music found itself as it went along, and you can hear it in the performances. I like the searching quality. for example, there’s a track called “Within the Tonality” that takes seven minutes before it finally settles into a steady groove. I like that it takes its time figuring out where it wants to go.

As much fun as it would have been to experiment with adding different instruments, I enjoy all of the space created by limiting things to piano and upright bass. I think a drummer would have been one cook too many in the kitchen, unless it was a very sympathetic and creative musician sitting behind the drums. When Max and I played at the FM Lounge last summer I almost felt like we were able to do more with just the two of us than we could have done if there were more musicians onstage with us.

I wish I had the little Flip camcorder back then to get that performance on video — especially now, when it looks like another show like that one isn’t likely to happen in my lifetime. Our jazzy take on Springsteen’s “State Trooper” and the stretched-out deconstruction of “Capricorn Cloves” were probably two of the best performances I’ve given in any live setting, and it would be nice to have some documentation of them beyond my memory of the show. The version of “Do the Mountain Hop” with bowed bass and me singing in a normal voice was pretty neat too.

At least I had the good sense to set up some microphones and hit the record button a few times when we got together over here, so we’ve got the jazzy improvised pieces, the best of which will probably appear on that gargantuan album whenever it pulls itself together. I think they’ll fit right in over there.

And the box of CDs at Dr. Disc was empty. Again. I’m running out of words for how nuts this is getting. As of today it’s full again with a bunch of different CDs. I even threw in a few of the old Papa Ghostface albums just for fun.