Here’s another big leap forward.
By this time we’d reached a whole new level of improvisational fluidity. I wrote the words for two of the songs (Be Sorry and Head Kicker), Gord wrote some of the words for one of them with his then-girlfriend Amanda and ad-libbed the rest (Rotten Fruit), and everything else was improvised as it was recorded. A few of the songs on the second disc might be a bit superfluous, but that’s only because the first disc houses some of the best PG songs of all time, chief among them the passively psychotic Don’t Go and Gord’s Rotten Fruit, which is like a never-ending campfire song on a happy acid trip.
The sound quality here is a significant improvement over anything we’d done before. Even without the advent of any mic preamps or outboard compression or EQ, I’d learned a fair bit about how to get things to sound less crude and how to prevent everything from overloading when I screamed, and I took my time mixing these songs — so much so that a few potential album titles came and went before SHOEBOX PARADISE revealed itself (This Little Toenail Went to Tulsa was one of them; Y2Kondoms R Better Than 1 — a nod to the Y2K scare — was another).
It’s pretty insane how much we were able to squeeze out of just six tracks (two of the eight always had to be left open for mastering and bouncing down to CD). Nowhere is that more true than on Don’t Go, an unhinged slab of inarticulate longing set against a reggae rhythm. That track is still one of my favourite things I’ve ever done from any period, and I hear new things in Gord’s “mad guitar” every time.
It was the first time I ever put some real thought and effort into the mixing of a song as a musical act in itself, though that was partially out of necessity. I had to make a lot of creative fader moves and panning decisions to keep everything together with bass, keyboard drums, lead and harmony vocals, two electric guitars (one — Gord’s — recorded in stereo, the other — mine — in mono), piano, and imitation electric piano all vying for attention on the six available tracks. I think the keyboards, harmony vocal, and my electric guitar all had to be recorded on the same track at different points, given the limitations of the time.
There’s a lot of variety on this album, from sing-along filth that sounds like a crude attempt at dub mixed with scrambled cable TV porn (Sewer, complete with a vocal cameo by Elmo and one of the only instances of me ever rapping in a song), to dark explorations of imaginary relationships (Sex Ain’t What It Used to Be), to languid stream-of-consciousness philosophizing (Thinking Too Much), to weird mood pieces (Your Bicycle Is Melting, Jesse/Bill Blues, Buried Alive), to just plain fucked up shit (Mr. Clean Is Dead), and more. Be Sorry manages the neat trick of being both one of our best songs and one of the most accessible, and Gord and I both felt the instrumental coda was one of our finer moments at the time.
The Old House remains one of my favourite PG spoken word pieces, drawing on childhood horrors while opting for a different approach than the usual unhinged screaming. There’s an educational bit that explains in detail how to burn your house down while your parents are sleeping, and how to make it look like arson, getting out unscathed while making it appear to everyone that you perished in the fire. I have no idea where that came from, but it was a fun tangent to follow.
Another favourite is Thinking Too Much, though I doubt that one has ever stood out for anyone else. It’s the sort of thing I used to be able to improvise in my sleep, but there’s a quiet, ruminative quality to it I’ve always liked, along with a strange sort of tenderness. It isn’t clear if the protagonist is an ex-con living in a halfway house, or just someone who doesn’t fit in anywhere and can’t quiet their thoughts. Either way, it was an interesting character to inhabit for eight minutes or so.
Wave in the Sky is one track that doesn’t quite get where it wants to go. It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. It was almost an album highlight. Five or six minutes into the song we reached an explosive climax. I started screaming like I was possessed and playing a lot of ringing harmonics on the guitar. It was one of the biggest head rushes I ever felt while recording.
When we were finished, I went to hit the stop button and saw we’d run out of recording time on the mixer halfway through the song. None of that climax had been recorded.
We tried to recapture what had been lost after I moved some things around and freed up some space, but it was a one-time thing. The magic wasn’t there the second time around. We couldn’t even really remember what we’d improvised to end the song the first time, and I was too spent to scream like that again. That’s why it fades out and then back in again. It ends feeling like it’s missing something fundamental — because it is.
Still, Gord’s bass riff is a monster, and there are some nice moments of voice/guitar interplay. It’s just a shame the best moments were lost.
Juice is one of the rare solo pieces that showed up on a PG album before WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD, with me playing piano and looping my voice in real-time through the Digitech guitar box. Normally I would have thrown something like this on a solo CD without a second thought. For some odd reason it felt more at home here. Gord thought I sounded like John Lennon in one part of the song when he first heard it, though I could never figure out which part he was thinking of. I’ve always liked the bit near the end where I start singing like Lou Reed on bad speed.
Then you’ve got Mr. Clean Is Dead, which has to be one of the strangest spoken things ever to show up on any album I’ve ever been a part of. And that’s saying something.
First, a song called “Dead” was recorded. It sounded a bit like dilapidated funk. With me growling lyrics like, “Why did you kill me? Why am I dead? Where did the pain go? Where is my head?” it wasn’t anything too special.
Then a funny thing happened. Something inspired me to slow down the playback speed of the song far past any sane point. It started to sound like music they might subject you to in a waiting room in hell, and once my singing had been slowed down it took on a whole new demented quality. Gord and I recorded some new tracks on top of this, with me delivering a weird spoken rant while he made bizarre vocal sounds through his Zoom pedal. At one point he’s playing a harmonica, but because of the effect he’s using it sounds almost like a dying circus carousel.
For a long time I wasn’t able to put the song on CD in its proper form. There’s a complicated issue with slowing the sampling speed down and not being able to burn something on CD in that format. I didn’t hear it in its true form for years, so I’d forgotten there was a reference to YOU’RE A NATION highlight “Nothing from Nothing” near the end. As spoken word things go, this one doesn’t have the narrative heft or invention of that one, but I’ve always had a fondness for its somewhat aimless lunacy, complete with me talking to my slowed-down self.
Rotten Fruit, The Vertical Dance, Sewer, Sex (Ain’t What It Used to Be), Be Sorry, and The Old House were all recorded in one afternoon, along with two out-takes (“If You Were Mine” and “You Are Me”, both of which show up on A BUNCH OF LOOSE ENDS). That was an insanely productive day. Not far behind was a session from about two weeks earlier during which Head Kicker, Fluid, Pemeal Steak, Thinking Too Much, and a bossa nova version of “You Are Me” were recorded (sadly, this last one was lost when I erased it without thinking to commit a rough mix to CD).
It felt like we were on fire at the time. Ideas kept pouring out with ferocious speed whenever we got together in my little music room and I hit the record button on my mixer. In the aftermath of YOU’RE A NATION we’d figured out what our musical identity was as Papa Ghostface, and a whole new kind of creative confidence grew out of that.
As double CD sets go, this is a universe away from HORSEMOUTH (& OTHER BEDTIME STORIES). It doesn’t even really sound like it was made by the same people. To say it’s a more consistent and developed piece of work would be an understatement. Granted, it took me a few years before I put everything together in the proper two-disc sequence, so for a long time no one heard the whole thing the way it was meant to be presented. But still.
Early on, when I was some distance away from finalizing the song order, I toyed with the idea of pretending the whole thing was designed as a concept album, grafting on a narrative about a guy (played by me!) who loses his grip on reality following the dissolution of a romantic relationship before being redeemed by the power of recording a few surprisingly accessible songs after a short stay in a mental hospital.
Check it out.
I abandoned that idea pretty fast. It was probably for the best.
In the grand scheme of things, I think this is one of the most satisfying Papa Ghostface albums from the early days. At the very least, it’s a serious favourite of mine. There seems to be a sporadic recurring theme of sprawling double CDs feeling like some of my best work (see MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART a decade later).
If I could only give someone one album to try and sum up what we did before STEW came along, this would probably be the one — though YOU’RE A NATION and PAPER CHEST HAIR might give it some stiff competition.
The Vertical Dance
Sex (Ain’t What It Used to Be)
Wave in the Sky
Thinking Too Much
Partners in Crime
Mr. Clean Is Dead
Your Bicycle Is Melting
The Old House