Month: January 2020

A brand new thing dressed as a memory.

Two months shy of six years after I first started work on it, YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished. Over the next few days I’m going to proofread my art files for the booklets and inserts until my eyeballs liquefy. Then I’m getting them printed and bringing this baby home while it screams at me and throws up on my shoulder.

It usually takes me at least a few months after the completion of an album before I’m able to listen to it in something approaching an impartial state. I get the feeling it’s going to take a little longer with this one. I feel good about the sequence I settled on. I think it strikes a nice balance between unpredictability and plotting out a clear sonic and emotional arc. But it’s very strange to hear all of these songs together in one place after all this time, and it’s beyond strange to think of the album as a finished thing. I don’t think the reality of it is going to sink in until I’m holding the first official artwork-enhanced copy in my hands.

There’s always some minor snag or curve ball that comes along to slow me down when I’m gearing up to finish an album. Sometimes an essential piece of equipment dies on me right when I need it the most. Sometimes my immune system says, “Oh, you wanted to accomplish something? Here’s some sickness! Good luck hearing through six layers of snot!” Sometimes a pony gets the blues.

This time I couldn’t seem to make a master copy of the album that didn’t have a few glitches in it somewhere. The external CD burner I’m using has never let me down before, but it’s eleven years old now. It makes sense that it would start to break down after how hard I’ve worked it in that time.

I went out and bought a new external burner. It worked like a charm. I burned a disc, gave it a listen, and didn’t hear any glitches, but it sounded…off somehow. The high frequencies seemed to be exaggerated in an almost imperceptable way.

I was reminded of the time I tried about five different brands of recordable CDs when I was making copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and every one of them sounded different to me. For all I know, my brain convinced my ears I was hearing something that wasn’t there at all. And maybe that’s what happened again with this CD burner. It doesn’t make any sense that two copies of the exact same recordable media would sound different just because they came out of two different optical drives.

It’s a subtle difference. It might be an imaginary difference. But if I went ahead and made a bunch of copies of the album with that perceived change in sound and then shared them with other people, it would bother me for the rest of my life.

One thing led to another, and I discovered my crusty old CD burner wasn’t the problem at all. It was the CDs themselves. I’ve been lucky over the years and haven’t had to deal with too many “coasters” (a common slang term for defective discs), but I finally ended up with some duds at the bottom of a spindle.

Here’s the irony of it all: my recordable CDs of choice for twelve years now have been JVC-branded Taiyo Yudens. A different company took over the production of these CDs a few years ago. I read a lot of horror stories about a dramatic drop-off in quality control. So I bought up as much old stock as I could while it was still available. A lot of people consider CDs to be a dying medium, and reliable media is getting more and more difficult to come by. I only ended up with a few batches of the dreaded CMC-branded Taiyo Yuden discs when the one store I found that still had some of the JVC-made ones ran out and sent me the new guys instead.

The dodgy CDs? They were my trusty old TYs. I tried some of the new ones just to see what would happen. The glitches disappeared.

Burn burn, spin spin, oh what a relief it’s been.

I was determined to fit fifty songs onto these two CDs. I almost pulled it off, until two songs found themselves on the cutting room floor very late in the game. Every other song that made it onto the album earned its place there. Losing even one of them would knock over the whole chain of dominoes. These two tracks, though — they could go and I wouldn’t miss them. It was a good thing they were expendable, because once I dropped them I had just enough space to cram everything onto two CDs.

Since they don’t really give away any surprises, here are those two last-minute out-takes.

I’ve talked a bit before about the experience of writing songs for other voices. It isn’t something I plan on doing again after this. I’m pretty sure at least two-thirds of the grey hair now living in my beard is a direct result of being given the long-distance runaround by so many flighty and uninterested singers. Most of the people I had in mind to sing the vocal parts I didn’t want to handle myself aren’t even on the album. Almost all of my first, second, and third choices expressed at least some interest in working with me only to turn to dust when I tried to make concrete plans with them.

I’m not at all disappointed it worked out this way. I was forced to get creative and reach out to people I might not have thought to contact otherwise, and now I can’t imagine anyone else in place of the featured guest vocalists who are on the album. I think the songs were ultimately sung by the singers who were meant to sing them.

Being able to see the positive side doesn’t negate the mind-numbing frustration I had to endure. I’ve got stories galore. Some of them are so bizarre you’d be forgiven for thinking I made them up.

I’ll save all that stuff for a post that digs into the making of the album and all its songs in a week or two. Trust me — it’ll be worth the wait.

I only mention any of this here because the first of these out-takes is one of those things I wrote with someone else’s voice in mind. I was thinking of a singer who sounds a bit like Frazey Ford. I tried to emulate that when I recorded the demo, with mixed results.

The Inverse Is Also True (demo)

I wrote an instrumental section to graft onto the beginning, worked out a horn arrangement both for that part and for the body of the song, and brought in Kelly Hoppe to play it. When I told him my lead vocal was a scratch track and I planned on replacing it with someone else’s voice, he said, “I like your singing on this one. You should keep it.”

After a year of trying and failing to get the singer I was communicating with to commit to anything, I decided Kelly was right and recorded a more serious vocal track of my own.

The Inverse Is Also True

There are a number of things on the album that thumb their noses at the conventional rules of song construction. This song does that too, but it was the one instance in which I felt I could see the seams between the disparate sections a little better than I wanted to.

I like the intro. It was inspired in equal part by the simple, declarative, powerful melodic statements John Coltrane made at the beginning of some of his songs (“Seraphic Light” comes to mind) and the brief, mournful saxophone interlude in the middle of David Bowie’s “Sweet Thing” suite on the album Diamond Dogs. I was trying to capture something of that quality when I wrote the melody Kelly darts around on tenor sax. I like that a lot of the singing is pretty high in my range without dipping much into the falsetto register, at least until the last section. But I can’t shake the feeling that I never quite nailed the lead vocal, and I couldn’t come up with a smooth transition between the final fading sax harmonies and the piano-driven coda.

It just felt a little too thin to me when I held it up against the other songs. And it seems appropriate that I would take what might have been one of the catchier moments on the album and chuck it right out the window.

Here’s a bit of video (from the time of Maximum Beardage, no less) demonstrating the outrageous difference in richness between my initial synth-sax guide track and the real thing.

The other last-minute cast-off is a much simpler affair. It’s not quite a fragment or a full-length song. It lives somewhere in-between those two poles.

A Will to Love (demo)

I went through a few different arrangements for this one before settling on something a little more pared-down. There are handclaps and lap steel tracks that didn’t make it into the final mix, among other things. I thought about getting a few people together for some group vocals at the end, but by this time my patience for being strung along was at a pretty low ebb. I’m still not sure if I should have left in that random drum flourish at the end or cut things off right before it happens.

The main acoustic guitar used here is a 1932 Washburn 5200. It’s not an axe I pull out often — it’s in a somewhat weird C tuning that only works for certain things — but when I do I’m always reminded how well it records. It puts out a lot of sound for such a small-bodied instrument. And it’s got the nicest smell to it. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s sweet without being saccharine. I’ve never experienced a fragrance quite like it with any other guitar I’ve held in my hands.

A Will to Love

Self-portrait in silhouette.

Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. So said Al Swearengen in the first season of Deadwood. As much truth as there is in that sentiment — and as often as I’ve set goals for myself only to fall short of achieving them — it’s still fun to start a new year on an optimistic note.

These are the things I hope to finish in the year of perfect vision.

Year of the Sleepwalk

This one’s a no-brainer. I have one mix left to work on. Once that’s out of the way and the mastering is taken care of, I can go ahead and get booklets and inserts printed. Everything should be done by the end of this month.

The Angle of Best Distance

A.k.a. “the albatross I’ve been wearing as a necklace since I was in my early twenties”. I can see the appeal of an album that goes on growing without ever being finished — a musical map that traces something approaching a lifetime of artistic development — but I think fourteen years is long enough. It would serve as a nice counterpoint to YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. While that album is the most ambitious thing I’ve done in terms of overall vision and scope, this one covers a longer period of time and doesn’t feature any guests.

It would also be a nice way of bringing this specific chapter of my creative life to a close with a swift two-punch combination. I feel like I’ve said all I have to say for now in the realm of more conventional song forms. Both of these albums are home to some songs that do some pretty radical things with structure and dynamics, and I can count the number of songs with conventional choruses on one hand, but I think it’s time to get back to the way I was writing during the BRAND NEW SHINY LIE period. Not to recycle or repeat what’s already been done, but to challenge myself to sustain that method of song construction over the space of an entire album again.

I’ve said this before and it hasn’t happened. I’ve let the music take me where it wants to go and written whatever kind of songs want to come out. This time it’s different. I feel in my gut that it’s time for a change, and I’ve already starting writing some things that are leaning in this direction. I want to hear what happens when the non-repetitive way of writing gets funnelled through everything I’ve learned about production in the intervening years.

We’ll see if that actually happens.

Out-takes, Misfits, and Other Things (Volume 2)

I’ve amassed such a large collection of misfit songs at this point, it’s getting a little crazy. I learned a lot from the first misfits compilation. That one was pretty haphazard and just kind of thrown together for the sake of giving a bunch of cast-offs a place to call home. A lot of things probably shouldn’t have made the cut. I mean, even out-takes albums should have standards. And discussing the songs in chronological order in the booklet while sequencing them in a completely unrelated way on the actual album is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time but makes no sense to me at all in hindsight.

The second misfits compilation will pick up where the last one left off, covering things that have fallen by the wayside from the time of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to the present. I think this one will be a much more interesting and illuminating assemblage of music, and it should work better as a continuous listening experience.

A posthumous Papa Ghostface compilation

This would act as a more wizened sibling to KISSING THE BALD SPOT — the out-takes collection I pieced together following the end of the first phase of Papa Ghostface only to discover it worked pretty well as an album in its own right. There are a number of worthwhile things that didn’t make it onto STEW or WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD for one reason or another, along with a few things we never got around to recording that I’d still like to take a crack at. I don’t expect the results to upend FLOOD as the definitive ending to the PG story, but it would be nice to take care of some unfinished business.

The first order of business is polishing off SLEEPWALK. Once that’s done, I’m going to dip my toes back into THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE and see how the water feels. If it starts to get overwhelming, I’ll kick it to the side (again) and get to work on something else. If, on the other hand, I get in a good rhythm and figure out how to sequence the mess of music I need to untangle, I just might manage to tame that savage beast once and for all.