This was supposed to be a double CD. The first disc was going to be what OH YOU THIS wishes it was during all those nights of drunken self-flagellation, and the second CD was going to be disc one’s drugged-out cousin. It might have been a little like what I ended up doing years later on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, only without the gear and production skills I would have by then.
But it’s not a double CD.
What happened was, in the middle of one of the most productive creative periods of my life I messed up the recording of the tracks that were supposed to constitute the beginning of this album and later became the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP. Or at least I thought I messed them up. So I had to rethink the whole thing.
I had too many songs to work with and didn’t feel up to recording a lot of them when it came down to it. I was working on a few different albums at once, and there were at least thirty songs I wrote for this one that were never recorded at all, along with another four or five that were recorded but didn’t make the final cut.
One thing that does survive, though, is a kind of trade-off — most of the songs are either short enough to vanish before interest has a chance to wane, or they’re structured in such a way that any listener who happens to be a pop-purist will gradually be driven insane. Maybe two discs of that would have been a little too much.
The non-chronological sequencing approach of the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP got another look-in here. I thought this album in particular might benefit if I gave some actual thought to the ebb and flow of the thing as a whole, instead of just plopping the songs down according to the order in which they were recorded — something I did with every album I made for years but would never do again after this one.
I Died in My Hair is still one of the sludgier things I’ve done, at least for the first four minutes or so. It might be the only song I’ve ever written that has a real breakdown in it, metal-style. There are even a few speed metal licks in there.
A few of the guitar riffs go back to the time of BEAUTIFULLY STUPID, just before the band broke up. I wanted to work them into a GWD song at the time. I thought the music would appeal to Gord and Tyson, who were both metal-heads at heart. Nobody was the least bit interested. So I thought I’d dust those riffs off, graft them on to a bunch of new ones, and make something out of them myself.
The results are probably weirder and more interesting than anything that would have happened to the song as a band vehicle. I don’t think I would have thought to sing about velvet bras in my purse back in 2002. I’ve always liked the way the song shifts gears around the halfway mark after a false ending and becomes a dreamy thing that sounds like it’s been flown in from a different album.
Nobody Loves You When You Don’t Exist was meant to be a piano/bass/drums piece, but I couldn’t get a take or a sound I liked behind the drums. I gave up and forgot about the song for a few months. Then I thought I’d try getting rid of the drums and adding a little bit of electric guitar in their place. Suddenly I found I liked the thing a whole lot more. Likewise with Symbolism Therapist. I recorded drums to accompany the mandolin, and this time I liked the sound and the take, but it just didn’t seem to fit. The song felt better naked.
Chimera is the only song from the pile of stuff recorded using less-than-ideal mixer settings I was able to re-record without losing the inspiration that was there the first time around. It doubled in length when I took another stab at it. The body of the song is kind of the same as it was the first time through, but the first four minutes weren’t there before. All of that long instrumental section was written in bed one night while watching The Diary of Evelyn Lau (an interesting early role for Sandra Oh). Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was the beginning of my bed becoming an important songwriting space for me.
The drum sound changed again here. I removed the front head on my kick drum for the first time ever — a fragrant experience — loosened the remaining head until things sounded about right, stuck an actual kick mic in there for once, changed the position of the other mics to get a sound that had a bit more air in it, and tuned my new maple snare drum up a lot higher to get more of a crack out of it. Only about half the songs feature drums at all, though.
The unadorned acoustic stuff feels a million times more natural to me here than it did on TEMPORARY AMNESIA. Maybe it’s because the songs are shorter, the lyrics are a lot more interesting, and the singing is so much better it’s insane. There are fragments of personal things in some of these songs — though not to the extent of GROWING SIDEWAYS — but you probably wouldn’t know it. Some of the lyrics that sound personal aren’t, and some of the things that sound like random weirdness have a lot more meaning sewn up in them than it might seem.
You’ll Play Belligerent is — or at least it begins as — a love song for a pile of vomit. So, you know, there’s that too. And there’s Plinth on Fire, which could be the strangest song I’ve ever written about sex, stripping it of all common language and imagery, and all its eroticism.
On the subject of singing, I think this is where all the experimenting that began on TEMPORARY AMNESIA stopped being experimenting and just became the way I sang. By now I’d tested my voice enough to have a pretty good handle on what I should and shouldn’t do with it. I got rid of the things that didn’t work and absorbed the things that did.
This might be where whatever my vocal identity became after putting the angry, raw, screaming-prone GWD voice to bed found its first wholly successful expression. There’s some singing on NUDGE YOU ALIVE and the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP that gets close, but this is another level up, and it’s kind of the way I’ve sung ever since. Sometimes I’m going to sing words that aren’t really words, or throw in a falsetto shriek or wordless harmonies. It’s not about reaching for effect, and it’s not a thing I think about or go out of my way to incorporate. It’s just what happens.
There are a number of tracks here that are very brief, more fragments than full-bodied songs. The opening track (Last of the Two-Finger Typists, a brief character sketch that pokes around inside the head of a potential serial killer as the last of his sanity trickles away) is one of those. Peachy Pear and Strange Cats are two more. It was a harbinger of things to come — though, as with the writing-in-bed thing, I had no idea these “tiny songs” would become such an integral part of my songwriting language. And then there are some pretty lengthy tracks to play off of that, like the aforementioned Chimera and I Died in My Hair, along with Paper Sword, which is the almost-ballad “Incandescent” wishes it was. All of those are more than six minutes long.
This is very much a guitar album, with only two songs featuring any piano or keyboard sounds. It’s also a pretty unembellished one. There isn’t really anything going on in the way of layered sounds or sonic trickery, aside from some reverb and delay here and there. Not that there was much going on with the production of my albums in general in these days — my mentality was very much get down the bare minimum of what the song needs and then move on — but the overall sound does seem a little more refined than anything I’d done before.
And the drumming might be some of my more interesting work behind the kit. What sounds like a percussion overdub on Paper Sword is really just me leaning over and taking a break from normal drumming duties, whacking the African drums with my sticks while playing the kick and hi-hat with my feet (you can hear Tyson do the same thing a few times on some of the late-period GWD albums). I was confident enough as a drummer by now to do a thing like that in the middle of a song without even thinking.
For a good long while, I felt this album was kind of slight. Even before the days of huge, sprawling solo albums like MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART and MEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS, a forty-five-minute album seemed pretty short for me.
Maybe the best allusion I can make is with film. Let’s say you set out to make a four-hour epic, but you only get halfway through the shooting script. By that point, you’re already in the middle of working on a few other separate films, and your head isn’t really in this projected magnum opus anymore. So you set it aside. In the end, you do return to the unfinished film, but you realize you can’t add much in the way of new footage. All the actors and crew have moved on to other projects, and you’ve already moved beyond it yourself.
Still, you want to have something to show for your work. So you play around with the existing footage, bolster a few scenes with additional fragments shot with improvised methods, and whittle the two-hour assembly (itself only half of what you intended to finish) down to a lean eighty-five minutes in the editing room.
That’s what happened here, more or less, if you make adjustments for time and medium. I started recording the album before GROWING SIDEWAYS got underway, gave up on it halfway through that album’s sessions when it became clear I was never going to be able to make it the double CD set I wanted it to be with everything else going on, and then came back to it when SIDEWAYS was finished and I was waiting to have it mastered (in hindsight, I’m not sure why I didn’t give this one the mastered-by-someone-else treatment too). I mixed what was there, wrote and recorded two more songs (Symbolism Therapist and We Sing and we Dance), and instead of adding anything more to existing songs, I did some subtractive mixing, junking a few of those drum parts and overdubs that didn’t feel like they worked and dropping some songs that felt superfluous before calling it a day and releasing both albums at the same time.
I liked this album. There wasn’t a song on it I wished wasn’t there. But I had the strong feeling I’d done better before and would do better again. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around a handful of people deciding it was the best thing I’d ever done. Not that I had much of an audience at the time, but this was one of my more popular and widely-heard albums before CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN came along a few years later and changed everything. Check out one of the first times I ever showed up on CJAM’s charts (I’m at #9).
Over time I’ve come around to the realization that this is one of my best albums — an everything-comes-together moment from the restless period when I was forcing myself to tear it up and start again, having burned all the raw-to-the-point-of-occasional-embarrassment, emotionally naked stuff out of my system. This is where I feel like I really nailed the non-repetitive, mostly-non-rhyming way of writing I’d been working toward and developed a new kind of songwriting language for myself. It works in a much more organic way here than it did on OH YOU THIS, maybe because I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do and a lot more confidence.
It’s still leaner than I meant for it to be as an album. But now it feels like it’s exactly what it was supposed to be. Even the way it’s sequenced, right down to the spaces between the songs, feels like one of the best jobs I ever did in that department. I “reissued” it a decade after the fact with the lyric booklet it never got the first time around, just because.
You can get an idea of some of the other things that might have shown up on the album from cast-offs like Husk and Easy Four, which got their due a few years later on OUT-TAKES, MISFITS & OTHER THINGS. And hey, this is the last full-length album I ever made under my own name that was short enough to fit on one side of a ninety-minute cassette tape. That’s pretty funny right there.
Last of the Two-Finger Typists
I Died in My Hair
Nobody Loves You When You Don’t Exist
Plinth on Fire
You’ll Play Belligerent
You Missed Your Turn
We Sing and We Dance