this was the meanest, most emotionally naked, messiest album i’d made in years. it started out as an attempt at taking an unexpected adventure with PTSD in the wake of a violent home invasion and channeling it into music. then, against all the odds, romantic ambiguity came my way, for the first time in a very long while, only to go very wrong, steering things in another unexpected emotional direction.
there are songs here that are influenced by both of those experiences and their fallout to varying degrees, along with a handful of songs that have nothing to do with either. early on i found myself feeling the need to toss out a few things because they felt a little too unguarded. i don’t think i’ve ever done that before. back when i was making really angry music on a pretty regular basis, almost no one was going to hear what i was doing anyway, so i had no reason to hold anything back. things were different now. i actually had something resembling an audience.
some of the songs that ended up on the album are a lot uglier and more unguarded than the ones i tossed aside. so i guess i got over that initial awkwardness pretty quick. and i guess i was due, after five or six years of trying to do anything but write about myself or sling genuine bile in the direction of any real person, to get back to something more personal and direct like this.
not that this is quite a full-fledged breakup album. but it’s the closest i’d come to that sort of thing in a long time, and it would stay that way until GIFT FOR A SPIDER came along two years later and went all the way there.
getting into character kicks things off somewhere closer to “alternative rock” than anything i’d done in a long time, but there’s this queasy energy swimming around, and the whole thing eventually splinters into the first of a few blatant attempts at taking what was going on in my head and hammering it into the music without singing about it.
there were meant to be a number of tracks that came out of the gate sounding pretty catchy and approachable only to descend into cacophony. i didn’t carry that approach over to every song. it would have got old after a while. but one of the best examples of that sort of thing in action is where there’s smoke, there’s a smoker, which takes a while to get going, lurches into a demented mid-section just when it seems to have settled into a comfortable groove, dials it back down again for a somewhat bluesy stripped-down piano interlude, and then continues to grow in intensity and pile sounds on top of one another until the whole thing collapses.
likewise with cinders, which would be one of the catchiest things on the album if not for the dissonant bugle blasts and the way the last minute or so of the song deflates the established rhythm, builds it up again, and then deflates it a second time.
once more, without feeling remains one my favourite things i’ve written on the ukulele (what i would do for you and hostages, both of which are on this album, would probably make the list too). it isn’t an angry song, and it isn’t one of the tracks that twists in on itself and implodes, but there’s something about it — a certain bruised quality — that i don’t think would have been there if i’d written and recorded it for CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN or SWAY.
there are quite a few places throughout the album where i felt like adding more wallpaper only to find myself settling for pretty stripped-down arrangements instead. it would take me until the next album to really shake off a lot of the sonic trappings i’d become comfortable with and start pushing things into uncharted (for me) sonic territory.
which isn’t to say this album sounds like a rehash. i don’t think it does. there are some new sounds and approaches here, with a further widening of scope. it’s just very much in the same family as the previous two albums from a production standpoint. i think an argument can be made for the three of them forming something of a loose, unintentional trilogy.
to extend the family analogy a little more, CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN is the golden child who surpassed all expectations without ever combing his hair. SWAY is the elusive older daughter with a lot going on behind her eyes, but she doesn’t give up her secrets easily. and i guess that would make this album the shit-disturber — messy, sometimes chaotic, but always honest.
the croutons of your mind is a complete curve ball that sounds like my attempt at making drum & bass, or jungle. or something. it was really just a quick improvisation that came out of nowhere. i thought i’d try recording a synth-based song as sort of a throwback to the GROWING SIDEWAYS period, but i got a bit bored with it halfway through, and what was supposed to be an ending at odds with the rest of the song took over and became a separate song unto itself. the spastic drum loop is not a drum loop at all, but something i played on a synth in real-time with my fingers, because i didn’t have the patience to make a loop or remind myself how to quantize it on the korg triton.
there’s a bit of distant melodic synth swimming around in there, but the main melody (if you can call it that) is carried by the voice. i thought it would be interesting to make the wordless singing the lead instrument while still having it flit in and out of the background. i could have extended it into a real electronic workout, but i liked it as a brief little hiccup of a song.
as was the norm by now, there are quite a few tiny songs sprinkled throughout, like the borderline demented bacon bits in your lingerie (which features a bass line that’s sung instead of played on an actual bass) and maybe someday (which acts as a nice little segue into is you my lover still?).
some of the songs i had the most fun with are the nastiest. there’s love song for the human race, which takes a simple, cyclical chord progression and spins it into a love song where hate rules the day. i wasn’t in a sour mood when i wrote it. i enjoyed the process of writing and recording the thing. for some reason it just came out sounding homicidal, with no prompting from me, complete with what’s probably the most forceful f-bomb i’ve ever dropped into a song.
there’s dr. squid bids a problem patient bon voyage, which carries the chronological distinction of being the first thing i’d written about a real girl and actually put on an album in something like four years, setting off a domino effect of songs inspired by the same girl who messed with my head and the thing inside my chest.
how these things tend to go is a pretty uninhibited song too, but in a different way. at the time it was written, it was more or less the theme song for my life.
it wasn’t planned that way. i bought a few harmonicas in different keys to pick up the slack left by my old standby in D that got misplaced in the move (it would turn up again later on). i thought B-flat would be an interesting key to blow in for a change. i started playing some chords on the piano with the temperamental old harmonica holder slung around my neck, one thing led to another, and a song toppled out.
i couldn’t stop singing “only to be alone” during the refrain, or whatever it wants to be called, and the rest kind of wrote itself. it was the day after valentine’s day, so the theme of romantic hopelessness seemed fitting.
i wanted to do a lot more with the arrangement, but the piano seemed to fill so much space all by itself, it didn’t make sense to add too much more. the guitar solo started out much busier and flashier until i realized it wasn’t working and i needed to simplify it to better suit the song. it’s odd to me that the thing somehow almost comes off sounding somewhat optimistic when it’s a half-naked admission of defeat. maybe it’s in the chords.
is you my lover still? is even more of a ballad. if i had to pick one song i like the best on the whole album, it might be that one. i have no idea why. it’s not a super complicated song, and the arrangement didn’t turn out anything like the way i planned it. i wanted to mimic a drum loop with live drums, recording them with one microphone going into the old digitech guitar effects box, and build around that. i hadn’t even plugged that thing in since i used it on a few tracks back on the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP. i thought it might fit here and impart the dirty, phased-out sound i wanted. i also thought some distant synthesizer washes might be the ticket.
i didn’t end up even trying any of that. instead, i recorded some scrap metal percussion, unprocessed drums, and electric guitar on top of the piano track. i’ll never know now if the initial plan would have worked out better. i think i’m pretty happy with the way it turned out, though. i dig the clanking percussion accents, care of canada salvage, and that funky 40-year-old teisco is in there working its strange magic once again.
i think it might be one of the saddest-sounding things i’ve ever written. i blame the old upright piano i was playing at someone else’s house when the music was born.
there were a few unexpected last-minute additions to the album that also became some of my favourite things here. there’s sad excuse for a muse, which began as a waltz-time acoustic song i wanted to beat into submission with a baseball bat, because i liked the music but didn’t think the lyrics meshed very well. they seemed too bitter to sing against strumming that deserved kinder words. at the same time, i wanted to wring a bit more venom out of the whole “breakup” thing. you know, just to be thorough.
one night i started playing this bo diddley/john mayall-inspired percussive thing on an acoustic guitar with the harmonica holder in place. while i was trying to think of what to sing on top, i wondered if the lyrics i already had might work better with this music. turns out they did, and they do. what sounded too mopey for my liking in 3/4 time with different chords became a lot more fun, and the original music got to live to fight another day, untainted by nastiness.
at the other end of the spectrum is getting out of character. i planned to flesh the idea out and turn it into something pretty long, but ended up recording it as the fragment it was and leaving it to waft away into improvisation. then i thought i’d try playing it back with the recording speed slowed way down, just for fun. all at once, the song took on a whole new feeling. the change in pitch warped it into something much stranger and sadder-sounding. what felt like an unfinished idea became a whisper of a song that sounded like it was on the brink of falling apart at almost any second. i liked that. my voice sounded…not much like my voice. more like scott walker on mars or something.
i fought with myself for a while over whether or not i should include the song in that form. i thought it might come off like a bit of a joke when that wasn’t what i intended. the more i listened to it, the more i came to like it, and the more it sounded like it was missing something whenever i played it back at the proper pitch. so that’s how it ended up like this. check out the hungover-sounding slide guitars at the end (that’s the teisco again).
on almost every song, the drums were recorded in one take, improvised, without any rehearsal or much of any thought given to what i was going to do behind the kit. that’s the way i like to do it as often as i can, but most of the time the first take will be an excuse to try and figure out what i want to do, screwing up on the way to working it out. this time, for some reason, i ended up with a lot of first takes i liked.
i still don’t think i am or ever will be a great drummer by any stretch of the imagination. but by this time i’d grown a lot more confident than i once was, and playing with brushes seemed to keep freeing me up to do things i wouldn’t have been near as comfortable attempting with sticks.
to that end, it’s kind of funny to me that some of my favourite drumming i’ve ever done is still on BEAUTIFULLY STUPID. it’s some of the messiest drum-work i’ve done, from a time when i was forced to become a makeshift drummer in the middle of recording the album, since my band was in the process of dissolving around me. it was almost like not really knowing any of the rules/rudiments of drumming freed me up to think more creatively and botch things in interesting ways.
i felt a little like i was in a similar place here. i’d learned and improved a lot, but i was still at my best when i wasn’t sure what i was going to do behind the drums and i just hit the record button and took off without a safety net. i’ve always felt that’s when a lot of the good stuff falls out — when you’re not trying so hard and you have no idea where you’re going, working off of instinct and an immediate reaction to the music.
the album title is a bit of a mouthful. it seems like it could be a snarky nod to the whole home invasion thing, but it isn’t. i thought of it a few months before that even happened. the main thing is, at long last, the wooden gun that shoots rubber bands got some of the attention it deserved. i knew its moment would come someday.
sound-wise, this is not one of my better self-mastering jobs. i was going through a dumb phase during which i thought it made sense to get things as loud as i could, in an effort to be competitive with commercial releases.
don’t ever do that. it’s a waste of time, and if you don’t squash all the life and dynamics out of your music (i didn’t, so at least there’s that), you end up with some ugly digital clipping (i did). they gave us volume controls on hi-fi systems and every music-playing device under the sun for a reason. there’s no need to make things loud in some eternal, ear-fatiguing way when you can easily get them as loud as you want after the fact.
the lesson here is, always value sonic integrity over built-in volume. ALWAYS.
i keep meaning to go back and remaster a few of the albums i pushed a little too hard one of these days. this one is at the top of the list.
getting into character
once more, without feeling
getting out of character
at least a dog lets you know where you stand
dr. squid bids a problem patient bon voyage
i must be your prey
the croutons of your mind
what i would do for you
is you my lover still?
where there’s smoke, there’s a smoker
sad excuse for a muse
abandoned house burning down
guilt, nausea, & other things that look good in bed together
with friends like these, who needs antifreeze?
love song for the human race
you won’t bond with the vine, but i can’t cut you loose
ghosts of dragonflies
as it was, as it were, as it is & where it stands
bacon bits in your lingerie
how these things tend to go