Month: September 2012

It’s better left in the hands of another.

Here is a rough mix of a new song that may or may not show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. The chord changes during the “hook” are pretty much identical to what happens in another song that also may or may not show up on the album. What it’s going to come down to is which song fits in better than the other. ‘Cause we can’t have both of them hanging around. Only one can survive.

There’s nothing unusual going on with this one. Just a pretty simple song with a pretty restrained vocal performance, driven by the lyrics more than anything. It’s got a certain lazy mid-tempo lilt to it that I like, though. And I like how the words work their way toward something that could pass for tenderness, only to double back for a supremely bitter final verse. It’s fun to sing something venomous while treating it as if it were something sweet.

I don’t think there’s a single rhyme in there, either. I need to get back into writing more lyrics that break away from any kind of rhyming scheme. Things get a lot more interesting when you don’t have that option to fall back on.

One thing that’s different here — the acoustic guitar was recorded with a Pearlman TM-250 microphone. I bought that beast in 2010 while working on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART. I used it on my voice for four songs on that album, and then I didn’t use it at again all for a long time.

It’s not that it isn’t a great microphone. I was just set in my ways, I guess. The TM-1 is probably going to be my go-to vocal microphone until I die, and the TM-LE has become something of a Swiss Army knife everywhere else. It never really occurred to me to try using this pretty-looking new microphone when I already felt I had all my bases covered with my other mics.

Some months back I fired up the neglected TM-250 just for fun. It had probably been almost two years since I even turned the power supply on. I tracked acoustic guitar and some hyper-compressed backup vocals for a song, and I was a little gobsmacked by how good it sounded. I’ve gone on to use this mic more over the last few months than I did in all of the the two years I owned it before then.

Now it’s another tool to add to the belt. Figuratively speaking.

I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating — Dave Pearlman makes great microphones. The ones I have are a serious part of whatever production sound or sonic identity I’ve developed over the past few years. As I continue to get better at what I do the microphones almost seem to grow along with me. Even if I won the lottery tomorrow and could buy all the expensive vintage microphones I wanted, those Pearlman mics wouldn’t be going anywhere. I think they’re friends for life.

Another thing that’s different about this song is the acoustic guitar I used. Last summer I mentioned selling my 1983 Martin D-35. I liked that guitar, and I try to avoid selling equipment unless I know I’m never going to use it again, but money was tight at the time. I needed to buy supplies so I could get GIFT FOR A SPIDER packaged.

In a classic example of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone, it didn’t hit me how much I would miss the guitar until it wasn’t around anymore. I always meant to replace it with something comparable, if not the exact same thing.

Earlier this year I did replace the D-35…with something completely different. There were a few guitars at Folkway that were near-identical to the one I sold. For some reason they just didn’t do it for me. They didn’t have the same something extra my D-35 had. Mark and Rich pointed out a new Martin 000-15 they were fond of, I gave it a try, and within a few minutes I realized I didn’t want to put it down. It was around half the price of the other guitars I tried, which was another nice surprise.

So I left with a guitar that was a very different creature from what I thought I was after.

When I got home, I found I didn’t like the sound of it anymore. It was way too bright for me. I think the culprit was a set of new strings added during the final setup. New guitar strings and I have never been friends. I had a hard time finding the motivation to play a guitar that didn’t really inspire me anymore. At the same time, I knew it was only going to open up if I broke it in. So I played it as often and as aggressively as I could.

I’m happy to say it didn’t take long before the excessive brightness went away and a much more pleasing voice developed in its place. It doesn’t sound like the same guitar anymore, and I haven’t had it for much more than half a year. It started out in standard tuning. Then i dropped it into a slight variation on dropped D, and it’s stayed there ever since.

The 000-15 is all-mahogany, like my 1945 00-17, but there’s a very different feeling to it. At first it seemed like an instrument made for finger-picking. It took a little time for enough richness to develop that strumming sounded just as good. But it got there.

I’m looking forward to hearing how the tone continues to mature over time. So far I’ve written about twenty finished songs on this guitar, along with a few dozen other things that range from fleshed-out sketches that just need lyrics to ideas that have yet to grow into proper songs.

This is one of those finished songs.

Book on Tape

Someone else’s medicine
leaking out of the corners of my mouth.
The taste of almonds and burning bread.
No scent, but the vaguest of feelings
that all is not as it should be.
I’ll peel back my skull with the teeth you have given me
and find nobody home.

This is not my tale to tell.
It’s better left in the hands of another,
unafraid to desecrate all I hold dear
in an effort to wrestle
meaning from that which resists meaning anything.
Parse blood from the throat of a bloodless twist of fate
given something to read,
and so something to say.

I hope the voice is strong and clear
without tipping over,
without growing arrogant.
A voice that will sit with you in the dark
and cradle you gently
and rock you to sleep
with its effortless enunciation,
kissing the words I have placed on its gossamer lips
so delicately.

And I hope this ending leaves you feeling cheated,
with no one to curl up next to,
just you and your deepest disappointments
alone in the dark.

I’ll keep holding on.

It took me until i was well into my twenties before I was able to appreciate just what a good song this is. I always enjoyed it when I would catch a bit of it on the radio (back when I still listened to the radio), but it was little more than a pop song to me. It wasn’t until I sat down and listened after not hearing it in years that it hit me in the gut. Maybe I had to live a little more before I really “got” it.

I guess I’m always going to have an easier time with 1980s production touches than some people, because I grew up listening to that stuff. But I think this is one of those songs that transcends the time in which it was made. It’s also a great example of how effective simplicity and economy can be in songwriting. There are really just two chords to the entire song, and they never change. It never feels like they need to change.

There’s even something about the music video that I find strangely evocative. It’s one of those things where you can’t explain why something speaks to you. You only know it does.

There’s method in the madness, if you’re mad enough to find it.

These days when I write lyrics they tend to fall into one of three categories. The words are either a direct response to a person/experience (or a manifesto of sorts), a bunch of random brain-spill, or they’re something a little more complicated, sometimes involving things outside the realm of my personal experience and knowledge.

This third way of writing is often the most interesting. Sometimes I’ll read about something and it’ll incubate in my brain for a while, to the point where I’ve almost forgotten about it. Then, when enough related or unrelated ideas have formed around it, the collected information will bubble to the surface, fuse itself together, and a song will happen.

I wrote a song the other day that drew inspiration from some pretty unexpected places, and there was much more thought given to what the song was saying than is usually the case for me. Instead of something I just allowed to happen, there was some actual craft that went into it.

The thought process went something like this.

“I’ll give you a shot and you won’t feel a thing.”

There’s my first line. I have no idea where to go with it. Let’s say the shot is a sedative. Think about the way it would effect the mind and body. I’ll come back to that later.

The immediate question is, who is telling me they’re going to give me a shot? It has to be a woman. As long as I’m me, it’s almost always going to be a woman.

I can’t see her, but I can hear her voice. What does it sound like? Is it round and warm? High and thin? Cold and emotionless? Wry and conspiratorial? Those are all possibilities. Or we could take it somewhere more interesting.

“I’ll give you a shot and you won’t feel a thing.”
Her voice filled the room like a floodlight,

just confident enough to make you feel insecure.
If floodlights could speak, I guess they’d sound like her.

What do I know about floodlights? Not much. But let’s run with that.

A powerful projector on any line.
If you were a floodlight, you’d do just fine.
You’d distribute your glow in an even array.
If you were a floodlight, well, what would you say?

There’s the first verse in the bank. Now I’m thinking the song should be called “Sedatives and Alcohol”. She’s given me a shot of something. I’m drifting away. Where is my mind going? I’m probably thinking of someone from my past. But who?

It has to be a woman. Again. Even if it’s someone who doesn’t really exist.

I knew a girl who was tender and sweet.
I remember her face but not her name.
Her hands were as soft as a cool summer rain.
When it parted my hair…

I like where this is going, but the word “it” feels a little clunky. The rain didn’t part my hair. Her hands did. Singing “they” in recognition of the hands doesn’t feel right either. I’ll just say “she”.

When she parted my hair, I was sugarcane.

Now we’ve moved from floodlight metaphors to sugarcane. Even if it doesn’t make much sense to take that leap, I like it.

What do I know about sugarcane? Nothing. I read up on it a little. What really gets my brain going is learning about how the stuff is harvested. When you harvest sugarcane by hand, the field is set aflame. The fire kills pests and eliminates unnecessary leaves. Then you cut the cane with a knife.

What happens if I’m sugarcane and things take a bad turn? Maybe the rules change.

She set fire to the field to burn the dry leaves.
The stalks and the roots would be safe, you’d assume.
But the flame had a mind and a will of its own.
Now I’m scorched earth where nothing will grow.

I think that’s a pretty solid metaphor for the end of a relationship and having no desire to ever allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone in that way again. I’ve used the phrase “scorched earth” in a song once before, back in “Will Work for Food” on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY. In that song it was more of a figurative thing, exaggerating how much heat the hypothetical sun was throwing off. Here the meaning is different.

I’ve read a bit about the “scorched earth policy” as a military tactic. It involves destroying anything that may be helpful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from a section of land. If you’re making your way into their territory, you destroy their assets — food, transportation, anything that could be of any use to them. If they’re coming after you, you destroy your own assets so nothing of yours will be any good to the invading forces.

One of the more interesting examples I’ve found is the Scythian people. They were nomadic herders, using the tactic against King Darius the Great of Persia, circa 500 BC.

When Darius the Great crossed the Black Sea
at the Bosphorus straits with a bridge of boats,
the Scythians drew him deep into their grasslands.
They destroyed their own pastures and poisoned their wells.

While his men were starving and dehydrated, Darius wrote a letter to the Scythian ruler ordering him to fight or surrender. Scythian ruler dude said he would do neither, unless Darius agreed to team up with him in an effort to locate the graves of both of their fathers and destroy them.

That has to be the strangest and most fascinating response to a call to arms I’ve ever heard.

All of these details are worked into the lyrics. Then I cut to describing the loss of consciousness, and we drift into loosely-implied death. “My speech is slurred, my reflexes slow.”

It feels like it works well enough as an ending. I like the way all the things I cared about in more lucid times are dismissed as nothing more than “dead skin” (that sort of cynicism is right up my alley). But the transition back to the first person isn’t very smooth.

After mulling it over for a little while, I’m not so sure this is the way I want to bring things to a close. There are several other lines and turns of phrase I come up with that I’m fond of, but they don’t feel like they quite fit either.

Where do I go from here, then? Maybe I can comment on what the Scythians did without regurgitating too many straight facts and twist it in another direction.

That’s one way to jump from a sinking ship
when you know it just isn’t your day.
No sense in going down with your cargo
when the hull has corroded and rotted away.

“When you know it just isn’t your day” is a pretty bad line any way you slice it. I’ll have to replace it when I think of something better. It works as a placeholder for now, at least. And there doesn’t need to be a rhyme there, since the first half of the verse has broken away from the established rhyme scheme already.

That’s one way to jump from a sinking ship.
Call it 
abandoned or derelict.

There. That’s a little more interesting.

Now I’m thinking about “ship breaking”, which is the self-explanatory process of breaking down a ship for scrap, as you would with a car. I want to do something with that. At the same time, the longer this goes on, the more disparate places my mind is going to drift, and the more difficult it’s going to get to draw all the threads together in a way that makes some amount of sense as a song. If I return to the metaphorical syntax and meter employed in the second half of the first verse, maybe I can bring things full circle and end in a more poetic way.

If I were a ship, I’d be well past preserving.
If you were a jewel, you’d be had for a song.
My judgment is questionable, my instincts erratic.
These things we knew all along.

The song no longer announces itself as a dying dream or a mess of thoughts before falling into drugged sleep, and “Sedatives and Alcohol” no longer feels like an appropriate title at all. Aside from one or two lines that could use some massaging, now it feels like a finished piece that knows what it’s saying, stronger for ending in a way that’s unresolved. What lives in the middle feeds what lives on either side of it.

And that’s how what started out as something of a drug song ended up touching on light sources, sugarcane, extreme military action, and the death of a marine vessel.

Someone once told me they felt I never gave any of my songs proper endings. I’m not sure about that. I think I let a song tell me where and how it wants to end. How many times have you trailed off mid-sentence in the course of conversation? Sometimes an ellipsis is more effective than a big bold period.

Johnny Too Bad.

Today is John Martyn’s birthday. He’d be sixty-four years old. Here’s the first part of a documentary I’ve been wanting to see for eight years now (thanks, internet!) that may give you some indication of what a fascinating, talented character he was. You can find the rest of it by clicking through to YouTube and following the linkage.

If what you see/hear interests you enough that you decide you want to check out some of the man’s music, I highly recommend the albums Solid Air, Inside Out, One World, and Grace and Danger. If you ever come across a vinyl copy of Live at Leeds pick that up too, if only for the live version of “Outside In”, which is almost twenty minutes of some kind of otherworldly floaty ambient jazz rock goodness (the CD reissue uses a different performance for some inexplicable reason, and it’s good, but it doesn’t have the same magic at all).