A final note about this whole remastering thing as I make the last few tweaks and double-check my work:
Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finish is an inability to master in any conventional way due to the nature of my equipment. I think when most people tackle this stuff, they have all the songs gathered together in one place. Usually their setup is at least somewhat computer-based, so they’ll have the whole album in a Pro Tools session or something. This way they can compare any songs they want with ease, right down to split-second sections of music, and work to achieve something approaching sonic continuity.
I can’t do that. I don’t work with a computer when it comes to music. Outside of recording GarageBand demos on my laptop, everything I do happens inside the same Roland VS-1680 I’ve been using for almost twenty years now. Technically you could say the mixer itself is a computer, sort of, but it’s a very limited one, and the only one I use.
Back when I didn’t routinely max out all the tracks I had to work with, recording all the songs on one file and keeping them together was an option, even if it didn’t allow for much creativity when it came to sequencing the songs. A lot of the Guys with Dicks albums were recorded this way, with the songs transferred to CD in one shot, left in the order they were recorded, separated by track markers but with no spaces between them.
That’s not an option anymore. Now I have to work on one song at a time.
As you can imagine, level-matching after the fact often turns into a huge pain in the posterior. I try to make life as easy as possible by mastering all the songs at several different volumes, making microscopic adjustments, so I’ve got a lot of play when it comes time to put all the pieces together. Achieving a good balance by guessing and hoping is just about impossible, though I did manage to pull it off sometimes on much older albums when I had a pretty solid, if crude, template for how I recorded and mixed everything.
Still, no matter how much legwork I do, after settling on a good overall master volume I always have to go back and revisit at least a few songs to make them a little quieter or a little louder so they fit in with all the rest.
So when I say doing this involved remastering a hundred and eighty-eight songs, I mean that in the most literal sense. It was very much a drawn-out, one-song-at-a-time process.
I thought I was finished before I really was. All the hard, time-consuming work was done, but the final step of getting everything to live in a pretty consistent volume range remained. This is the “smallest” job of all, and also the most important.
The goal, at least for me, is to be able to set your volume — whatever device you’re listening on — in one place that’s comfortable, and then not have to make any adjustments from the beginning of an album to the end. There are going to be quieter and louder passages. You want those dynamic moments to be there. But as long as the loudest moments in those songs all live close to the same place, hitting a similar apex, the ears will adapt to the ebbs and flows of the album the same way your eyes adapt to changes in light. If I’ve done my job right, those ears will still be feeling pretty fresh when the headphones come off or the speakers stop singing, and they’ll have gone on a bit of a sonic and emotional journey along with the rest of the body and brain.
I wasn’t always great at this. I think I’m getting pretty good at it now.
I thought both of those things. I was wrong on both counts.
I got MEDIUM-FI MUSIC almost all the way there on the first pass. I couldn’t believe it. A few small changes and it was right where I wanted it to be. Even a song like “I Love You”, which was always tricky because of the harshness of its vocal sound blurring the line between perceived and actual volume, was sitting in just about the best place it could hope to be.
NIHILISTS has taken at least half a dozen tries. I knew it was a dynamic album. I didn’t realize it had this much dynamic range until the clipping was gone and I could hear everything that was going on with more clarity. In terms of the way so many songs move from near-silence to huge, sometimes violent crescendos, it might be the most extreme album I’ve ever made.
I think I’ve got it about as good as it’s ever going to get now. And I’ve accepted that this is one album where there’s no avoiding the need to manipulate the volume control a little while listening to it, unless your ears can handle the extreme soft/loud dynamics (and maybe they can…I know mine are more sensitive than most).
AN ABSENCE OF SWAY is the last one I need to do this final precision work on. It should take a day or two. Then this will all be finished, and I will never have a need to remaster anything else again if I can help it.
You make a thing. You decide how you feel about the thing. Sometimes you know while you’re making it. Sometimes it takes a while before you know. Sometimes you think you know, and then your feelings shift.
I like to say it takes me a year or two before I can stand back and really see where an album fits into the bigger picture. That isn’t always so. There have been albums that felt like some of my best work when I was recording them and still feel that way today, albums I thought were shaping up to be great only to find they sounded like garbage to me not long after they were finished, and albums that felt kind of slight or sub-par at first but have grown on me over the years — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
Since the world didn’t end the other day, in spite of all those doomsday theorists doing their best to convince us all that this time they were right and everything was gonna go kaboomy-bye, I thought it was time to revisit this album. Plus, I was doing some final level-matching tweaks as part of the remastering process and had to listen to it from start to finish to make sure I got it right anyway.
I was never sure how I felt about this one. I was waist-deep in the making of another (still unreleased) album when the need to do something different bubbled up because I found myself with some serious butterflies in my stomach about someone when I didn’t think butterflies were something I would feel again after some of the soul-destroying romantic adventures of yore. I got all of three or four warm and fuzzy songs written before it all went to hell, and suddenly instead of making my first true album of love songs for a living, breathing human, I was making a breakup album when I didn’t think I’d ever have a reason to make one of those again.
There’s no clearer illustration of the jarring shift in tone than “Nightside”, where you get to hear the change happen in the space of one three-minute song.
The words and music were written when I thought the burgeoning relationship had a great future ahead of it. I’d just finished spending the better part of a weekend with the person I was pretty sure was my new girlfriend, and it felt like I was gliding with my feet a few inches off of the floor when I walked. She really did jump sideways on the bed to get to me. It was a fun moment.
The spoken addendum was improvised later, after things fell apart, trading in sunny-eyed optimism for foul-mouthed venom.
I liked the songs but couldn’t tell how well they played together as a larger piece of work. A lot of them were coming less from craftsmanship than a need for catharsis. I had such a difficult time sequencing everything in a way that felt like it made sense, I got a headache trying to suss out the order of the songs.
In all the years I’ve been making music, I can’t say any other album I’ve worked on has ever done that to me. And I’ve made double and triple CDs that have been packed with as much music as the media could handle.
When it was done, it just felt too raw to hang out with for any length of time. It wasn’t one of those cloying, maudlin breakup albums full of self-indulgent exercises in self-pity. It had sharp teeth. It had a goofy rap song and some insane slowed-down scream-coughing in-between songs of love and post-love. It was pretty eclectic, both sonically and emotionally. But it took a lot out of me, taking all the mixed feelings I had in the aftermath of that intense, ill-fated, whirlwind relationship and shaping them into songs. It isn’t a coincidence that I haven’t made a solo album since (though that’ll change soon enough).
I listened to it once or twice to make sure everything felt like it flowed okay. I played some of the songs live at the second Mackenzie Hall show (though not very many of them, which is pretty funny in hindsight, since that was the only proper “album release show” of my own I’ve ever played). After that, I kind of wanted to keep my distance. The last time I gave it a listen all the way through was about five years ago at Kevin Kavanaugh’s studio space, when I was knocked out by how good it sounded on his mega hi-fi system, even with my too-hot mastering job. Those speakers of his meant serious business.
Listening to the album now, it’s not so raw anymore. It’s amazing what some moisturizer and half a decade away from something can do for you. And I’ve gained enough emotional distance from what inspired the songs to realize something: I like this album.
“Some Things Are Better Left Buried” felt a bit like filler at the time. It doesn’t anymore, especially now that all the stupid distorted vocal peaks are gone. I really enjoy the way some of the catchiest, most uptempo music on the album is juxtaposed against some pretty morbid lyrics. I liked “A Puppet Playing Possum” fine back then. Now it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. “Light Sleeper” remains the bruised heart of the album for me. I can still feel the hope and uncertainty that went into that one.
Part of me still wishes the last section of “Different Degrees of Wrong” wasn’t such a tease. The segue from a rare venom-free love song into the violent lunacy of “Surrender to Thee” will probably always crack me up. And a fresh, saner mastering job allows me to hear that I did a pretty solid job with the recording and mixing side of things, when I wasn’t so sure at the time.
The album title was one I had kicking around for years before I knew what to do with it. At the house before this one, for a while there was a spider that spent a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom and the bathroom. I started to think of him as something close to a pet. I wondered what to get him for Christmas, if he stuck around that long.
He didn’t. He came out of nowhere and bit me on the back of the leg while I was sitting on the toilet one night. I don’t like to kill any living thing if I can help it, aside from mosquitos (fuck those guys), but biting me when I’m dropping off some kids at the pool…that ain’t right.
I’m sad to say I didn’t develop any Spider-Man-like super powers.
There’s also the whole “partner as a spider trapping you in their web” thing I lucked into as a useful accidental metaphor for a breakup album.
Finding cover art to play off of the title was always going to be tricky. But around the time of MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, Johnny Smith hired Bree Gaudette for a photo shoot and she captured a bunch of evocative images out in the county. I kept coming back to a few shots of a dilapidated barn. They just happened to feature a pretty prominent spiderweb.
As much as I liked the original colour version of the picture that became the cover image (seen above), there was something about the black and white edit I couldn’t shake. Something in there felt right.
There’s another accidental meaning behind the album title — something I never knew it meant until just recently.
There’s something called a nuptial gift. “Food items or inedible tokens that are transferred to females by males during courtship or copulation,” trusty old Wikipedia says.
It isn’t specific to insects by any means, but in certain species of spiders the male will offer the female a gift wrapped in silk as a way of enticing them to mate. As a rule, what’s being offered is prey caught by the male. If the female accepts the gift, she eats it while the male hops on and does his little sex dance.
Some spiders are crafty, evil little shits. Because of their ability to wrap and obscure the gift they’re offering, the female has no way of knowing what’s inside until she removes the proverbial wrapping paper. Two specific species have been known to wrap plant seeds and insect exoskeletons devoid of any edible parts. By the time the female figures out what she’s been given and realizes how useless it is, the male has already done his business.
That an insect with a brain the size of a poppy seed would think to do something so duplicitous is kind of amazing. I wish I could say I knew about this and it was in my head when I was deciding to dust off that old title for this group of songs, but I had no idea.
What’s strange about relationships as doomed and damaging as the one that fed into this album is the way the passage of time seems to dull some of the bad feelings while shining a light on the little pockets of happiness.
One unexpected bit of common ground I shared with the person a lot of these songs are about was a still-strong affection for the animated disney films we loved as kids. We watched Oliver & Company and The Aristocats while she leaned back on me and ashed her cigarette in a coffee mug. I felt like I was five years old again, only now I was a five-year-old in a grownup body with my hands cupping someone’s breasts through the thin fabric of a thing they called a shirt.
All five-year-olds in grownup bodies should be so lucky.
The suits at Disney have marketing down to a fine art. They take these classic movies everyone loves, the ones that helped shape your childhood, and they deny you access to them for years. Decades, even. Then they make a big show of releasing one of them on home media, letting you know it’s only going to be a limited release before the movie goes “back in the vault”.
It allows them to charge a ridiculous amount of money for something people will be glad to shell out for, given its scarcity and sentimental value. And if the movie you’re after is out of print by the time you show up, well, you can always find someone generous enough to sell you their used copy on the internet for a week’s pay.
The one she wanted most but couldn’t find was The Lion King. Disney had put it back in the vault. I wanted to surprise her. I found someone selling it on DVD for a pretty decent price and bought it.
With a perverse sense of timing the best fiction couldn’t invent, it showed up in my mailbox the day after we broke up. I chucked it in a dresser drawer and made myself forget about it.
Six years later, I’m doing some long-overdue cleaning and reorganizing when I dig The Lion King out of the bottom of its wooden tomb, still in the bubble bag that has my address written on the front. Now it’s nothing but a relic from a few weeks spent trying to pry love or something like love from the mouth of indifferent animal instinct. Now it’s a little bit funny.
It’s good when you get to a place where you can laugh about the things that used to sting.
Ron was here earlier today to lay down a few things. It’s always a treat to hear that fella in my headphones.
The last time Ron came over to record, he played the Takamine guitar he’s had forever on all but one of the songs we recorded. I think it’s an EF341SC? I’m not positive, but that’s what it looks like.
I’m pretty sure that was the first time it was ever brought into the studio. It’s always been more of a gigging and songwriting guitar. The thing is a beast. When I caught Ron playing with Kelly Hoppe at Taloola, I was convinced he was hiding a small amp somewhere. No way could a dreadnought — with a cutaway, even — put out that kind of volume without a little help.
I was wrong. There was no amp. Just an axe with a lot of love to give.
With a few mics in front of it, the Takamine almost seems to morph into a different guitar. There’s some nice natural compression happening when Ron digs in a bit. It’s bright, but not in a bad way. It’ll retain a nice amount of punch no matter how dense a mix might get. That’s a valuable quality for a guitar to have.
This time Ron played my old Gibson LG-2. He’s got such a distinctive way of playing guitar, he’s going to sound like himself no matter what, but it’s interesting to hear the different personalities of the two instruments. I think they play well together, even if they haven’t found themselves both being played in the same song.
We’ve got seven and-a-half songs in the can now. Two and-a-half more and I can get to work on figuring out what shirts and shoes they want to wear. I’m looking forward to it. This album is going to have a pretty different feel to it from Tobacco Fields, but the songs are great, and Ron’s great. So if I don’t screw it up, the end result should be…triple-great.
The music video as an art form is far from dead. There are plenty of people out there creating compelling things full of imagery that encourages thought and stirs the emotions. But these are sad days for television as a medium for the transmission of music videos.
MTV was where it all began, and they stopped showing videos eons ago. MTV2 followed suit not long after. That was a real shame, because they made a habit of dusting off some cool things you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. BET doesn’t show music videos anymore unless you pay to subscribe to some of their sister channels. Otherwise their programming now consists of 80% Tyler Perry shows, 5% late night televangelist mind control, and 15% censored movies.
MuchMoreMusic phased out a lot of their more interesting programming — spotlight programs that played half-hour blocks of music videos broken up with interview snippets, semi-obscure videos popping up in the wee hours, a weekly show that took a look at artists from other countries who weren’t always well represented in North America — before dissolving into nothing a year ago and being replaced by a cooking channel. Even Bravo used to show some interesting music videos sometimes. Now their programming seems to be made up of Hallmark movies and crime procedurals that are little more than CSI retreads, and nothing else.
There are a handful of specialty channels you can pay for if you want access to music videos on your TV. So that’s a thing. But if you’ve got any kind of sane or semi-affordable cable package, chances are all you have left now is Much (or, as we used to call it, MuchMusic). And if you’re not a fan of mainstream top forty music and the creatively bankrupt music videos made to accompany most of the sounds living in that world, about all Much has to recommend itself to you now is an afternoon block of videos from the ’80s and ’90s called Much Retro Lunch.
Even here, music programming is falling by the wayside. A few weeks ago Much Retro Lunch was running for three hours every weekday. Now it’s only a one-hour segment. In place of all the music videos they used to air in the early evenings we’ve got Anger Management and TMZ. A one-hour-a-week “alternative” block that resembled the decaying corpse of what The Wedge used to be has gone the way of the dinosaur and Elton John’s falsetto. I imagine somewhere in the not-too-distant future Much will stop showing music videos altogether, just like the rest of the pack.
CMT is dead too. Oh, it’s still calling itself by the same name. It still lives in the same place on your digital cable box. But the only thing left on the schedule that has anything at all to do with what was once “Country Music Television” is Reba McEntire’s mid-2000s sitcom Reba.
When the CRTC licensed a series of new Canadian specialty television channels in 1994, one of those channels was The Country Network. This was the beginning of CMT as we knew it in Canada. In the US it had been around in one form or another for ten years by then. The Canadian version got its official launch in 1995 as NCN (New Country Network) and was relaunched in 1996 as CMT.
Almost all of CMT’s programming — 90% of it — was made up of country music videos. That was part of the deal with the CRTC. It dropped to 70% in 2001, and then to 50% in 2006, with Nashville, live music programs, and the occasional sitcom making up the balance.
Last year the CRTC decided the folks at CMT were no longer obligated to play any music videos at all, as long as they invested 11% of their annual profits into the funding of Canadian music videos (they didn’t have to be country music videos). Even then, there were still blocks of music videos aired in the early mornings and afternoons, along with the long-running weekly Chevy Top 20 Countdown.
A week ago, all music video broadcasting on the channel ceased, and a major platform for country music artists went up in smoke. Their official website and Facebook page both neglect to tell you anything about this total overhaul, but CMT’s programming now consists of nothing but moronic reality shows and sitcoms that run the gamut from “good” to “ugh”. Fridays and Saturdays are twenty-four-hour Everybody Loves Raymond marathons.
For some of us, this is what hell looks like.
Maybe it’s a little strange that I would mourn the loss of this channel when I’ve never been all that into country music.
Well, that’s not quite right. The truer thing to say would be that I didn’t think I was into country music until I heard some of the artists who helped define what country music is, and some others who made a habit of colouring outside the lines — people like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Rodney Crowell, and too many more to mention.
In some ways CMT was the road that got me there, beyond the homogeneity of most modern mainstream country music, which at this point is just pop music with pedal steel guitar as far as I’m concerned (and it’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I always seem to want to hear a little more grit or weirdness or something that isn’t quite there).
I can’t claim I started watching with pure intentions. The long and short of it is this: I was going through puberty, and I thought a fair few country singers were nice to look at. Leann Rimes, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, and Beverley Mahood were especially pretty to my thirteen-year-old eyes.
But here’s the thing. In the mid and late 1990s, whoever was responsible for programming the videos would sometimes slip in some interesting songs that didn’t always fit under the country umbrella.
Bruce Cockburn’s “Night Train” showed up more than a few mornings when I was waking up my brain before heading off to school. Once in a while I’d catch Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Lennie Gallant’s “Meet Me at the Oasis” (a sweet, atmospheric ballad that deserved more love than it got). And every so often I’d run into someone who was a country artist on the surface but much more complex and compelling than they seemed at first blush.
Matraca Berg was one of those. Her songs were huge hits for Trisha Yearwood and Deana Carter. Her solo work only saw moderate commercial success, with no single she released ever cracking the top thirty. She had the looks, and the voice, and real depth as a writer. How she never became a huge star in her own right is a bit of a mystery.
My best guess is it’s another example of the catch-22 Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro got stuck in before her, where in someone else’s hands your songs become palatable enough to appeal to the masses, but your own superior and more emotionally three-dimensional readings of the same material are a little too idiosyncratic and real for the people who want wallpaper instead of art.
I will argue until my voice gives out that Matraca’s “Back When We Were Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written. I almost can’t get through it, and there are only a few songs that have ever had that kind of emotional impact on me. It was released as the second single from her 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. It didn’t even chart.
One of the biggest country singles that year was “How Do I Live”, sung by both Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. Trisha’s version sold three million copies and netted a Grammy nomination. Next to “Back When We Were Beautiful” it sounds like a bunch of half-baked manipulative treacle.
But don’t take my word for it. Have a listen.
We live in a world where Taylor Swift is a celebrated crossover artist who’s considered a great songwriter and a feminist icon when (a) she doesn’t even write her own songs anymore, or at least not without a whole lot of help (these days it isn’t uncommon to see half a dozen different writers credited for any given song on one of her albums), (b) her whole career is now seemingly built around a two-pronged attack of getting involved in short-lived romantic relationships that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame the other party in her music once the relationship ends without ever taking any responsibility for her own failings, and getting involved in short-lived platonic friendships with women that are little more than PR stunts so she can turn around and shame most of those women through her music when they dare to criticize her in any way or expose some of her blatant hypocrisies, bending one narrative after another to suit her own purposes, manufacturing feuds to sell more albums, almost always making sure to paint herself as the victim rising from the ashes, (c) her lyrics have grown so juvenile and devoid of anything resembling insight or real human feeling, it’s kind of hilarious, (d) she thinks nothing of stealing other people’s work and profiting off of it without giving any credit to the originator of the material, and (e) she once made a music video in which she played a silver guitar with so much glitter applied to it, the universe itself was made to squint and cry out in pain.
So maybe, when you get right down to it, it’s no big surprise that someone like Matraca Berg never became a household name. I just think it’s sad, the way we go on rewarding artifice and empty double-dealing while ignoring a lot of the people who actually have something to say.
The same applies to song interpreters. Nothing against Reba and Trisha and Faith, but Dawn Sears blew them all away. There was a mixture of power and emotional purity in her voice that was startling. She could take a mediocre song and make it sound like a classic.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Dawn Sears even if you’re a country music fan. I rest my case.
But I digress. Sort of. Maybe.
In recent years, CMT’s programming skewed more toward the mainstream than ever before. But you’d still get the occasional moment of stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty like this, even if most of those moments were limited to the more freeform Wide Open Country program.
There at least, for an hour a day, you could hear the likes of Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Brandi Carlile, Jerry Leger, and Serena Pryne — people who are making music that nods to country but refuses to be governed by genre. Bruce still made the odd appearance too, whether it was with “I’m on Fire” or something more recent like “Devils and Dust”.
There’s also this: without CMT, at least one of the songs I’ve written wouldn’t exist. It just happens to be the closest thing to a “hit” I’ve ever had, though quantifying that sort of thing is a little difficult when you don’t release singles.
When I played “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” live for the first time and told the audience it was inspired by Ashley Kranz (an on-air host at CMT for about a year), everyone thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
For years now I’ve been writing a lot of songs on stringed instruments in bed. Sometimes the TV’s on when ideas are born. Here’s some video of the genesis of what became “A Well-Thought-Out Escape”, right at its inception, with a little bit of what would later become “Everything He Asked You” mixed in.
I came up with this little cyclical chord progression I liked and kept playing it over and over again, trying to work out a vocal melody and some words. The words weren’t in any hurry to show up, so I sang random gibberish for the most part. I had CMT on in the background while I was playing the six-string banjo. Ashley Kranz showed up to introduce a video while I was trying to form this new idea into something tangible, so I sang her name to fill up some space.
Later on the words would arrive, beginning with the idea of someone selling their love at a yard sale for so little money they might as well be giving it away (don’t ask me where these ideas come from…I have no idea). And still, Ashley stuck around. It would have felt wrong to get rid of her. She was there from the start, after all. Instead of an incidental detail, her name became the climax of the whole song, a half-shouted mantra that broke the whole thing open.
(Side note: I always thought it was a shame they didn’t keep Ashley around longer. She had a fun personality. “Endearing” is the word that comes to mind.)
I don’t know if the bits of country music I heard in my channel-surfing travels had anything to do with the rootsy sound of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. It’s possible some of those sensibilities snuck into my brain when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s also possible the album only came out sounding the way it did because of the instruments I lucked into finding at the right time and the qualities they possessed — the twang of the dirt cheap Teisco that was the only electric guitar I used for the whole album, the earthiness of the Regal parlour guitar, and the…uh…banjo-ness of the six-string banjo.
I do know without Ashley Kranz on my television screen “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” probably never would have progressed beyond a half-formed sketch. I’ve always been tempted to send the song her way as a strange little thank-you, but I think it’s the sort of thing that has the potential to weird a person out. Maybe it’s best to leave it be.
Fare thee well, CMT. I’ll never watch you again, knowing what you’ve become, but I’ll always have the memories of what you once were.