Month: March 2011

Beware the man with wild hair and a paralyzed eye.

Things have been a little slower than usual here on the blog over the past few weeks, mostly because my life became a lot busier and more complicated once March rolled around. Here’s this month’s video progress report video to help explain.

You get to see Sappy Romantic Johnny Who Has a Girlfriend transform into Cynical Single Johnny in record time. Get out yer popcorn and Sprite.

I’m pretty happy with the way the introductory little “music video” turned out. My face never really appears in the frame, but that was intentional. I wanted you to see what my hands were doing more than anything else. I think I did a bit better with the editing and filming this time, though I still think my first attempt turned out pretty decent.

The bulk of the public domain film content comes from the 1953 film The Hitch-Hiker, which is a pretty effective little thriller. It’s surprising how low-key and realistic it is for its time. The two men who are being held hostage by the psychotic killer are not macho heroes. They don’t make any daring escapes. They’re uneasy and they try to play it smart, as most people probably would in a similar real-life situation. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but there are far worse ways to kill an hour and ten minutes.

One thing I didn’t mention in the video — the box of CDs at Dr. Disc is pretty much empty again. I’ll fill it back up sometime this week. Also, somehow MEDIUM-FI MUSIC… is back on the CJAM charts again.

Look at me, trying to be seductive.

Somehow I’ve wormed my way back onto the CJAM charts again, and now MEDIUM-FI MUSIC is at #11. How did that happen? The obvious answer is, “People have been playing my music,” but since when have we gone for the obvious answers? I think the real story here involves dinosaur fossils and peppermint.

Now, because you like lists as much as I do (don’t try to deny it), here are all the songs that may or may not be on the next album (I’m still not sure what I should call the thing) and what’s going on with them.

I took an improvised fragment of music from back when Max and I were recording piano/bass duets and built a song around it. The whole thing turned out better than I expected. This has been finished for a while. I just need to find an album it belongs on. If not this one, it should eventually show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, whenever I finish that big hulking thing.

Light Sleeper
Finished, and slated to be the first song on the album. I keep feeling like I’ve yet to nail the mix. I either end up thinking the electric guitar is too loud and the vocals aren’t prominent enough, or it’s the other way around. There’s a solution somewhere. Maybe it’s liquorice.

Ain’t No Friend
If you pop in here on occasion, you probably heard this song back when I posted a video of the recording process. It’s finished, but I’m not sure if it’s quite album material, even though I like the way it turned out.

The Lexicon Is on Your Lap
A filthy electric guitar part led to an oddly catchy song. It’s most of the way there, but it still needs a little something. Maybe some acoustic guitar.

Cold Rain
Sort of a shoegazey languid thing. I was originally going to sing on it but could never find the right words or vocal approach. Now I think it might work better as an instrumental. Mostly there, but needs a little more wallpaper.

Mail Order Bride
Just a working title. I wrote this song before even CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was underway (it kind of has that warped folky/bluesy sound to it), and the music came from a dream. I think it might fit in here for some odd reason. It’s pretty much finished. I just need to mix it.

Surrender to Thee
About forty seconds of complete insanity. Finished.

Pizza Pockets
A rap song. Yes, you read that right. I don’t know if it really fits in with the other songs. Then again, I don’t know if it would really fit in anywhere. In the end, it amuses me too much not to be included. This one is also finished and CD-ready.

And I Failed
This was going to be the opening track until “Light Sleeper” stole its place. A song that’s beyond cynical but comes off sounding oddly happy. Finished and CD-ready.

Trauma of the Truth
Even if I never end up using “Bitter Bearded Balladeer” as an album title after all, at least I used the phrase in this song. It’s been just about finished for a long time. I need to add organ or some other glue and then mix it.

Sexual Vertigo
The ukulele returns. Again, this song needs a little extra something to glue it together, and then I can mix it.

Held Is Not Holding
I posted this song here not long ago. It be finished.

Slow Birdies
A really happy-sounding instrumental track with most of the rhythm made up of eavestrough elbow. Still needs a little something extra.

Drowning the Wedding Party
An endlessly shifting pseudo-ballad that cracks the ten-minute mark. The meat of it is there. I just need to add some sonic wallpaper. This could be a highlight of the album. There’s even a pretty ambitious harmony-drenched a cappella breakdown at the end.

Apex Predator
Again, the important elements are there, but I think I need to re-record the drums with a different approach. Maybe I should take another pass at the lead vocal too.

Happy Backwards Guitar
Obviously a working title. I really like the music. I need to write/improvise words, and sing them, and maybe add other things too.

Night Side
A sketch that needs to turn itself into a song.

Gift for a Spider
Almost made it onto the last album. Might make it onto this one. It’s one of those weirdly tender/macabre balancing acts I pull sometimes (see: “Peculiar Love”, “The Danger of All Things Adhesive”, “Slow Dancing in the Small Intestine of a Rather Large Animal”).

Talk to Me
Interesting piano thing. A little more sonic goodness and it should be done.

I’m Dyin’
Working title. I recorded a rough take on it, but I think I need to take another pass. Very CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN-ish and folky.

Brother Monoxide
I think this one has the potential to be something pretty interesting. Grungy electric guitar meets floaty ambience, with a little jazzy dissonance thrown in for good measure. The words are there, but I need to find a better vocal approach/melody.

Returning the Favour
Sort of the flip-side to “Motivation Behind the Method” (off of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART), where the woman kills the man. Mostly finished.

Liars and Salesmen
Another kind of shapeless piano thing. Maybe not album material.

And there are a few songs I still need to record, along with a few things I like that probably won’t end up making the cut.

I’m also thinking about playing live at the Shores of Erie Wine Festival in September. With a rhythm section. Johnny West with a band.

Be afraid.

The dog wags the tail of the man who is pale.

I have a friend named Kevin who lives in Pennsylvania. He’s one of those people I send mail to who actually sends mail back to me. I guess you’d call that a pen pal. Though we’ve never met, I consider him to be a good friend and one of the most fiercely original, creative people I’ve ever been lucky enough to come in contact with. When CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was new he made me an insanely intricate collage book that was sort of a review and a response to the album as well as an exploration of the themes it opened up. I talked a bit about it in a progress report video some months back.

Kevin will usually write his impressions when I send him a new album, and it’s always fascinating to read what he has to say. The guy has a way of writing that just makes your brain split open in wonderment. Today I was surprised to find I had mail, and it was from Kevin. It was his “review” of the latest album as a two-sided piece of collage art.

On the front is the main event.

And there’s a cool homage to LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS on the back, with some of the album’s actual physical packaging repurposed.

A transcription of what’s on the front, in case you have trouble following the text:

There is music you play when you need to see. Sounds that define vision. Johnny West’s new record, “Medium-Fi Music for Mentally Unstable Lovers”, is a magic periscope into the brilliance of the present. This is music of the now, peeled back like an orange, full of flavor, succulence, and dripping excess. It is clay in the fingers, a melody running across the electric strings and sprightly piano, imprinting itself into the required form, particles colliding and forming something new.

Perfect love casts out fear as we make ourselves willing to love someone for who they are. Yet, this by far is the hardest thing anyone has tried to do. It requires communication, the ability to speak the same language and connect through collision and reform, allowing evolution to smooth out a finish over time. This is the soundtrack. These are stories told to drips of water. Tales of woe, of heartbreak stolen. These are pictures, smells embracing the one who comes home. A door open. A sun appearing. A night not as long as expected. This is music for the hopeful.

I turn music on in an attempt to understand who I am and what I have to give to someone else. I hear my own narration in these songs, as if I am under my breath contemplating the next step. What is next? It doesn’t really matter as long as I possess vision, motivation, inspiration, and experience. A sound which accompanies the effort is the hidden treasure.

That is so fucking perfect for my life right now, I can’t even put it into words. Thanks for that, my friend.

Also, on a completely random note, I don’t know if anyone who reads this is at all familiar with male adult film star Randy Spears…but it occurred to me that he would be the perfect guy to take on the role of Charlie Sheen if they ever made a porn film parody of his current bizarre career flame-out.

I can see it so clearly. I think it’s the part Randy was born to play, and the legacy Charlie wants to leave behind for us all.

Light sleeper.

So it turns out I’m a bit farther along than I thought I was with this follow-up album to MEDIUM-FI MUSIC… (which is at #9 on the CJAM charts this week). Maybe an April release isn’t such a stretch after all. Between the songs I didn’t finish in time for the last album and the stuff I’ve been working on lately, there are twenty-two songs that are already recorded, in various stages of completion, in addition to some out-takes and sketches that probably won’t make the cut. I need to record about four more songs, do some work on several of those that have been recorded, and there’s another album done.

I think it’s already starting to carve out its own personality. I was planning on kicking the album off with a track about writing a horrible love song and eventually dying through mind-boggling ineptitude, but the other day I recorded something that feels like one of the best songs I’ve written in a while and it became clear this one needed to be the opening track instead. And so it shall be.

I’m not sure what I’m going to call this next album. I’ve got a few ideas on the shortlist, most of which have been kicking around for at least a few years. There’s always a surplus of potential album titles hanging around. It’s just a matter of figuring out which one feels appropriate at a given time.

Face to face, ankle to wrist.

Remember Serious Cat? Well, now he’s got a nemesis. A smelly doppelgänger nemesis. Behold the glory.

Also, here, for no particular reason, is a rough mix of a new song that will probably end up on the next album. It started as an idea I captured on video a few weeks ago in this post HERE. A few days later it cohered into a proper song. Now it sounds like this.

Held Is Not Holding

I guess this is the sort of thing you could call a ballad, at least by my standards. It kind of sounds like a bitter song about someone from Ye Olde Past Place, and yet it wasn’t written with any actual person in mind at all. As usual, the lyrics just came out in their own time and kind of decided on their own what they were going to be. I still have no idea where the stuff comes from.

It’s interesting to me to look at how much my approach to recording has changed since CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN — itself an album that changed my approach for the sixty-seventh-some-odd time. Back then I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the “production” side of things. I just threw songs together with the bare essentials I felt they needed and then moved on.

Some of the songs on that album were more layered and fleshed-out than anything I’d done before, but at this point it’s at a completely different level. There are textural things going on in a lot of songs on the past few albums that I wouldn’t have even thought to attempt a few years ago. I think it’s become more interesting to me to try throwing more and more things into the mix, just to see what will happen.

Not that this song is super layered, but there’s a fair amount of stuff going on in there. Aside from the piano and the lead vocal there are harmony vocals, several acoustic guitars with a phaser effect on them, bass, drums, shaker, and my old friend the bugle.

The point, if I have one, is that even a more stripped-down song like this feels denser than anything I was doing, say, five or six albums back. And I like that. Instead of sticking with the first take behind the drums like I normally do, I recorded at least five completely different takes, playing with sticks, brushes, dowels, and changing the patterns and rhythms I played each time until I arrived at something that felt like it fit. The dissonant fall-apart at the end happened because I hit a wrong note and wanted to see how far I could take it.

As much as everything else might change, improvisation and mistakes like that are always going to be an important part of what I do.

Most of the lead vocal is the first take, and what I generally think of as a “scratch track”. I could have polished it up a little, but I didn’t really feel like it. I punched in one or two little bits where I hadn’t been sure of the vocal melody I wanted to work with right away, and left the rest alone.

The other day I recorded a silly little station ID for CJAM with Adam (aka DJ Dahma) using the insane song “I Love You” as a backdrop. That was fun. Maybe you’ll hear it on the radio at some point and be touched by my message of love. Tomorrow morning I’m unloading two more of those microphones I put up on Kijiji (huzzah!), and in the afternoon I should be filling up the box at Dr. Disc with a more varied selection of CDs. I think it’s about time I mixed it up a little instead of only having copies of the newest album available.

As for the evening, well…maybe I’ll turn into a werewolf and surprise everyone by being vegan. And then this blog will become The Hairy Adventures of a Vegan Werewolf.

Hey, it could happen.