Ballast from the past.


Most of the time, when I’m figuring out which CDs I want to send someone who either doesn’t have any of my albums or only has one or two, I stick with things from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN forward. It’s simpler that way. I think some of my best solo work has come on that most recent stretch of albums. My priority tends to be giving people an idea of what my “modern” music sounds like, because if I start digging into the vault it can be difficult to know how far to go. There’s a lot of stuff in there.

I decided to break with tradition when I was putting together a package for someone who asked for a copy of STEW. I figured that album could use a bit of context for a listener who’d never heard any Papa Ghostface music, so I thought I’d toss in a few early PG albums. Then I thought it might be useful to contrast an older solo album already in their collection with some of the things I did right after it was finished — things that expand on what I was trying to do on that album and, at least to my ears, pull it all off with a lot more confidence and effectiveness.

One thing led to another, and I’ll just say you wouldn’t believe me if I told you how much music is getting stuffed in that package now. It’s a good thing I’ve got some hefty mailer-things kicking around and a surplus of bubble wrap.

I needed to make copies of some CDs I didn’t have any leftover stock for, and it led to a little bit of listening and revisiting. I’ve tried to limit it to a song or two here and there. You fall down the rabbit hole of your own musical past when it’s full of meth-addicted rabbits and taciturn lampshade creatures like mine is, and there’s no telling when you’ll make your way out.

But there was one album I hadn’t listened to in so long, I remembered the broad outlines but not all of the subtleties. I thought it was about time for another visit with BRAND NEW SHINY LIE.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about this one. Always liked it, but I felt like it never quite got to where it was supposed to be. We’re talking about a projected double CD that came out the musical birth canal as something that fits on one side of a 90-minute cassette. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll go the rest of my life without ever making a full-length album that short again.

I sat down to listen to it front to back the other night, for the first time in probably six or seven years. And I’m here now to tell you how badly I misjudged this thing.

When the album was pretty new, a friend told me it was the best thing I’d ever done. “Sorry to be the one to tell you this,” he wrote a decade ago in a fascinating series of mini-reviews for a stack of CDs I gave him, “but you’ll never surpass this. Better you hear it from me than read it in Spin or Rolling Stone.”

I thought it was bizarre at the time. We’re still friends, and I think he would tell you his opinion has shifted a bit over the years as I’ve continued to make music. But for the first time, I think I heard a bit of what he must have been hearing when he got so excited about it back then.

This album is so stripped-down compared to what I’m doing now, it’s a bit of a shock to the system. The closest it gets to “layered” is a few electric guitar parts, bass, drums, and a few vocal tracks happening at the same time. And that only happens in a few songs. There are very few creative sonic touches, aside from a few guitar effects and some reverb and delay here and there. I was very much in “get down the bare essentials of what the song needs and then move on” mode in those days.

But damned if it doesn’t work all the way through. This might be the single best example of the violently anti-chorus, anti-rhyming, anti-repetitive way of writing I was forcing myself to stick to at the time. The thing I’m proudest of after reacquainting myself with these songs is the way it never feels like a trick. It always feels natural. A few songs even go places I forgot they went, but the changes always make a strange kind of sense.

And the lyrics might still be some of the more interesting I’ve written. How I got from countless variations on, “Why can’t I find a girl to give a shit about me?” to a line like, “Without tires, there is no mendacity for a vehicle to crave,” in such a short period of time is a mystery to me. But I got there.

Now I think this might be one of my best albums — not just from that specific period, but from any period, full stop, without any caveats.

GROWING SIDEWAYS was recorded at the same time. The non-repetitive way of writing is alive and well there too, but that album has always had a very different personality to my ears. It’s interesting to listen to the two of them back-to-back, and to consider how they’re similar, and how they’re not.

All of this listening has been a catalyst for further re-evaluating. A few of the write-ups on the album pages have changed a little to reflect that. It took me until today to figure out, eleven years after the fact, why WHO YOU ARE NOW IS NOT WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE has always felt like it wasn’t quite on the same level as GROWING SIDEWAYS, even though they’re as close to being siblings as any two albums I’ve ever made. And I think I’m only realizing now that SIDEWAYS is a much more personal album than I thought it was at the time, in ways I wasn’t cognizant of when I was making it.

I wasn’t expecting this to happen, but now I’m giving some serious thought to “reissuing” some of these things. They were important albums for me on a creative level, they were the first things I did that got any significant airplay on CJAM, and it would be fun to repackage at least a few of them with lyrics, now that I don’t feel awkward about the whole “printing the lyrics with an album” thing anymore. I think having the words there would be a little more interesting than the brief “here’s what the deal is with this album” blurbs I printed on most of the bare-bones, period-correct inserts.

I have no interest in trying to remix or remaster anything. I’ve never had any issues with the way these albums sound. And I don’t think I’ll be spreading the CDs around in any meaningful way — I already did that when they were new. I just think it might be a fun little mini-project to give some of them a few little liner note tweaks, for myself.

I wanted to throw a song up here that would tie in with all of this. Most of the existing BRAND NEW SHINY LIE out-takes landed on the MISFITS compilation, but I thought I might get lucky if I threw “Nobody Loves You When You Don’t Exist” back on the mixer and took a listen to the drum part I ended up junking. A fun little revisionist mix of “Symbolism Therapist” happened some years back when I reinstated that song’s lost drum part and added bass and electric guitar. I was hoping a similar thing would happen here and I’d find myself saying, “Hey! This drum track is pretty cool after all!”

Nope. Not gonna happen. Turns out there was a reason I felt like the drums were never really working on “Nobody Loves You”. They stunk then, and they still stink now.

So here instead is one of the first songs I recorded for BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. It didn’t make the cut. You can hear how I still had one foot planted in OH YOU THIS territory, and while there isn’t anything like a proper chorus, the structure of the thing is pretty normal. For that reason, along with a bit of a rough vocal performance I never got around to touching up, it was never serious album material. I kind of like it now, though, roughness and all. That high note at the beginning must be one of my longer held notes on CD, and it would be a long time before I would let myself cut loose with an extended guitar solo like this again.

Random tidbit: I wrote the lyrics while feeling a bit of a Tylenol 3 buzz in the first few days after having my wisdom teeth removed. The jury’s still out on whether or not I lost any wisdom when those teeth went away.


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