If I Had a Quarter… (2009)

If I Had A Quarter... album cover
This was the meanest, most emotionally naked 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. It went very wrong in short order, 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 any of that.

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 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 the initial feelings of 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 it’s quite a full-fledged breakup album. But it was the closest I’d come to that sort of thing since the trilogy of solo albums I made in 2002, 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 “rock” territory than usual, 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 been a little too same-y 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. It’s a song that 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 jazzy-bluesy stripped-down piano interlude, and then continues to grow in intensity and pile discordant 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 a bruised quality that I don’t think would have been there if I’d written and recorded it for CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN or AN ABSENCE OF 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 again.

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, from drum ‘n’ bass dementia (The Croutons of Your Mind) to a mandolin-driven rave-up where the bass part is sung instead of played (Bacon Bits in Your Lingerie). 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. CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN is the golden child who surpassed all expectations without ever combing his hair. AN ABSENCE OF SWAY is the elusive older daughter with a lot going on behind her eyes, but she doesn’t give up her secrets easily. And this album is a bit of shit-disturber — unpredictable, sometimes chaotic, but always honest.

Some of the songs I had the most fun with were 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 even 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 still stands as the most forceful F-bomb I’ve ever dropped in the middle of 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 person and actually put on an album in something like four years, setting off a domino effect of songs inspired by the same person 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 the phrase, “Only to be alone,” during the refrain, or chorus, 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 on its own, 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 this 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 my old pal the 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 how the initial plan might have panned out. I think I’m pretty happy with the clothes the song ultimately ended up wearing, though. Dig the clanking percussion accents, care of Canada Salvage.

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 Matt Romain’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 life as a sad waltz-time acoustic song before morphing into a propulsive Bo Diddley/John Mayall-inspired thing. And there’s Getting out of Character. It was little more than a fragment I meant to flesh out into a much longer song. Before I did that, I thought i’d try playing it back with the recording speed slowed down past any sane place, just for fun.

All at once, it 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 the song sounded like it was missing part of its soul whenever I played it back at the proper pitch. So that’s how it ended up sounding like this. Check out the hungover-sounding slide guitars at the end. That’s the Teisco working its funky magic 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 things 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 trying 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 my messiest drum-work on CD, 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. But there are a lot of unorthodox fills in there I’ve always had a real soft spot for. It was almost as if not really knowing any of the rules or 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.

As an album, this one is a bit of a mess, but it wouldn’t have been honest otherwise. I was a mess when I was making it. I think for all its random and self-destructive moments, it still hangs together pretty well. Out of all the CDs I mastered too hot during my stupid “I must make things loud because everything else in the world is loud” phase, this one might have got hit the hardest, but in 2017 I finally got around to making a quieter master, and it was a bit of a revelation. Hearing it without all the nasty clipping that marred the original master made me realize I like this wild, wounded, freewheeling album more than I thought I did.

The album title…now that’s a bit of a mouthful. You’d think it was 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 silliness of it appealed to me. The main thing is, at long last, the rubber-band-firing wooden gun I’ve had since I was a kid got some of the attention it deserved. I knew its moment would come someday.

TRACKS:

Getting into Character
Once More, Without Feeling
Getting out of Character
Cinders
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
Maybe Someday
Is You My Lover Still?
Lake Louise
Where There’s Smoke, There’s a Smoker
Sad Excuse for a Muse
Abandoned House Burning Down
Guilt, Nausea, and 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, and Where It Stands
Bacon Bits in Your Lingerie
Hostages
Midland Michigan
How These Things Tend to Go

LISTEN:

Cinders

Is You My Lover Still?

Abandoned House Burning Down

2 comments

  1. Hey Matt…thanks for the kind words. There should be copies available at Dr. Disc and Phog Lounge if you find yourself in Windsor. But if you’d like, you can shoot me an email with your mailing address and I’ll send you a bunch of CDs. As I like to say, you never know when some extra makeshift coasters and frisbees may come in handy.

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