Medium-Fi Music for Mentally Unstable Young Lovers (2011)

The name of this album served as this blog’s secondary title for a good two or three years. It’s always been my go-to description when someone tries to get me to pick a genre for my music. It was the only thing that ever felt like it fit as a blanket term for whatever it is that I do.

It felt like it finally made sense as an album title here. Think of it as a warped variation on Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!

Instead of following up a double CD with another double CD, I thought I’d make two separate standalone albums that would act as companion pieces. The first is this one. The second album got put on the back burner so GIFT FOR A SPIDER could assert itself, and it remained “lost” until the bulk of the material found its way onto THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE much later on.

If you prefer your album primers in video form, here’s a video progress report that will give you some of the same information that’s on this page, with a little more musical content to spice things up.

If you’d rather read my thoughts about this album instead of watching and listening to them, read on, brave soul.

Like AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, this is a fall/winter album. The similarities pretty much end there. In the beginning I had an uncharacteristically narrow vision for what this album was going to sound like. The idea was to make a reverb-drenched “singer-songwriter” album. Of course, as Homer Simpson might have said, “The best laid plans of one-man bands often…something something.”

What you have here is a contender for the most eclectic single-disc musical statement I’ve ever made. It might even be more all-over-the-place than MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART at half the runtime.

Electric guitar plays a more prominent role than It had on any of my albums in a good six or seven years. Instead of just being the background/atmospheric thing it usually was on the previous handful of albums, it gets several spotlit moments, and there are a few unhinged guitar solos that are as close as I’d come to the dissonance of the Guys with Dicks days since…well…the dissonance of the Guys with Dicks days.

The nastiest, most distorted bits are almost all coming from the 1960s Teisco, which I think is kind of hilarious. That guitar is more versatile than it has any right to be. Compare the clean, twangy lines on songs like “Blue Cheese Necklace” and “Thief of Idle Breath” on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN to the jagged chunks of sound it spits out here on Giving up the Ghost or Nine Shades Darker Than the Day, or the reverb-soaked dreaminess of No Better Than Before, and then consider this: all of those sounds are being generated by the same instrument with no discernible model or serial number — a guitar that looks like someone from another planet tried to make their version of a Fender Strat without really knowing anything about what a Strat looks like or how it’s put together. It’s also a guitar with only one functioning pickup, and what kind of pickup it is, no one seems to know.

That thing might be the best music-related purchase I’ve ever made in the $300 range. No matter what strange tuning I’ve asked it to deal with or what kind of sound I’m after, it’s never let me down.

An actual Fender Strat and a neglected Les Paul get a bit of action on this album too. Even the first electric guitar I ever bought — the mysterious Strat copy that saw a lot of use back in the old days — makes a few unexpected appearances on I Love You and Meat Slurry.

I guess you can only push the electric guitar into the background for so long before it gets fed up and decides to assert itself.

As far as acoustic guitars go, the stars of the show are the well-worn 1945 Martin 00-17 and a new (to me, at the time) 1951 Gibson LG-2. A lot of other axes show up in different places, too. There’s the 1932 Regal, the 1983 Martin D35 (which would sadly be leaving soon), the 1932 Washburn 5200, the dirt-cheap classical guitar that became a huge secret weapon on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, and even a bit of National Resophonic.

The ukulele gets shafted again, but the banjo starts to make a bit of a comeback. There’s even an explicit (if brief) CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN throwback on The Duck Demon Man with an Ashtray, written and recorded in part to prove, if only to myself, that I could still produce music with that specific flavour to it if I really wanted to.

Laugh like a God of Death is what I like to think a modern day/grownup Guys with Dicks song might sound like. The slapback echo I used to drench my voice in back then is present and accounted for, there’s some discordant guitar-playing, and at the same time there’s a lot of space, along with a surprise jig at the end. Sure, I’m not screaming my guts out about some girl or wanting to take drugs like I was back then, but there’s a warped energy there that — at least for me — recalls the GWD days of old, albeit with better production values.

After five or six albums in a row of kicking things off with the first song recorded because it just felt like the best thing to open with, that tradition gets ignored. The first thing recorded for this album was To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free. For a while I was pretty positive it was going to be the opening track, but over time No Better Than Before (a pretty explicit Slowdive homage, because it’s fun to do that sort of thing once in a blue moon, and Pygmalion is an album more people should know about) came to feel like it was a better beginning.

I can’t really explain it. For me, the first and last songs on any given album choose themselves. At some point it becomes very clear to me which two songs want to live in those places, and I have to put them there. I’m not about to start asking questions. That way madness lies.

As mentioned in a few progress report videos and blog posts along the way, early on this album was meant to be something of a return to the messing-with-structure-all-album-long-until-the-songs-start-to-cry approach. That didn’t happen.

Or maybe it did happen, but in a different way. Where in the past I would force songs to keep shifting and evolving until they ran out of things to say, here repetition becomes another way of subverting conventional song structure. A few songs are built around a single riff/progression that almost doesn’t change at all, leaving plenty of space to build up dense layers of sound only to pull the carpet out from beneath the feet of the music when things are lined up just right.

At the same time, there are some songs that do follow the “keep mutating until you die” path. Fat Mouth and Tiger Bootstrap Death Threat both start out sounding like their feet are planted in one place, only to end up somewhere very different from where they began.

The rapid-fire tiny songs are back with a vengeance after tapering off a bit over the last few albums. Here they’re even more all-over-the-place than usual. The Politics of Friendship might be both the catchiest and most venomous twenty-six-second song I’ve ever recorded. I Love You is acerbic and self-mocking to the point of insanity, built around a dying, detuned tenor banjo and dissonant synthesizer shrieks, with a surprise porn guitar ending. Shrink Is Loss features the triumphant return of the Arp Omni-2 and the most spastic drumming I’ve ever managed in alternating 7/4 and 5/4 time.

Some of the tiny songs act as segues. Others serve the purpose of sudden musical jump-cuts. A few of them are among the most accessible things on the album, which I think is pretty funny.

Really, the whole album is an exercise in messing with structure in a larger sense. As soon as it seems like things are heading in one direction, there’s always a curve ball just around the corner to disrupt that rhythm. A piano ballad might be followed by a borderline punk song, and that might be followed by a shoegazey mood piece, and a dreamy mid-tempo number might lurch into atonal noise before cutting to a flamenco guitar piece without warning.

The closest frame of reference, if there is one, might be LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. That was another album I went into with a pretty specific vision, only to watch as the music developed a mind of its own. Having said that, this is a much denser affair. If I thought that album was one of my less accessible offerings at the time, this one makes it look a bit leaner by comparison. And instead of starting out by putting pressure on myself to do something wildly different from anything I’d done before, here I knew better and just let the music happen.

Some of the most “normal” songs come right at the end of the album, only because emotionally it felt like that was where they needed to go. I tend to take my time figuring out what order I want the songs to go in ever since the “just slap them on CD in the order they were recorded” approach was left behind around the time of the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP, and more thought than usual went into the sequencing of this album. Where a transition seems jarring, it’s meant to be.

There’s also a fair bit happening on a sonic and textural level. There aren’t really any electronic detours, with a lot of organic and acoustic sounds dominating, but there’s a lot of sound-manipulation — from subtle stuff like delay and reverb treatments, to backwards guitar and piano parts, to whatever I did to create the pitch-shifted weirdness of Taylor Swift Sings Death Metal in My Dreams.

Because I’m still working with the same sixteen-track digital mixer/hard disc recorder I’ve been using as the “brain” of the studio for more than a decade now, I can’t reverse sounds after the fact with plug-ins and play around until I figure out what I want. That isn’t an option for me. I have to do it in real-time, running whatever I want to warp into an effects processor using a backwards delay effect that’s 100% “wet” while recording, and what I get is what I’m stuck with, unless I want to record it again from scratch.

The whole backwards sound hadn’t really shown up in anything I’d done before this, with the exception of one brief moment at the end of “Skull Jugglers” on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. There are places on this album where it works so well (like the backwards electric guitar that comes in during the climax of Fat Mouth, or the backwards guitar and piano tracks on A Different Flavour for Every Faucet), I’m not sure why I never thought to mess around with it much before this.

As usual, a few of my favourite moments kind of crept up on me. I liked Purgatory Waltz alright when I wrote it. At the recording stage it took on a whole new life. It’s something about the arrangement, I think. When that “chorus” hits and the electric guitar and glockenspiel come in (later flanked by banjo), it just feels good. I like how things shift gears at the end, too. Not that I had much of an arrangement idea in my head, beyond wishing I knew how to play the musical saw and trying to emulate that sound with electric slide guitar. It all came out of messing around while recording.

I also liked Emaciated Crack Monkey well enough when I wrote it, but the warped, improvised electric guitar bits added at the recording stage took it to a whole new place, and I enjoyed getting rid of everything that was holding the rhythm down for part of the bridge section, leaving my voice supported by nothing but free-floating ambient guitars. I think it’s the only song I’ve ever written in 11/8 time. It starts out there anyway, before moving into a jerky 4/4, and then a jerky 6/8 alternating with 5/4, and then no firm rhythm at all, before finally ending in 6/4. If that ain’t jumpy, I don’t know what jumpy is.

I think that song is home to some of my best singing on the whole album. And again, all the electric guitar sounds are coming from the Teisco.

Fat Mouth was meant to be a “deep album cut” until I recorded it and started to think it needed to show up a lot closer to the beginning. It came close to being the first track on the album before No Better Than Before edged it out. I’m kind of proud of that harmony vocal arrangement, which is not an arrangement as much as it’s just a case of throwing spontaneous wordless vocal lines on top of one another while recording and hoping it all sounds okay. I like how the whole thing builds to a pretty dense wall of sound while wearing the clothes of a piano ballad before getting progressively shaved down and twisted until it doesn’t even resemble the song it started out as anymore.

Most people probably would have cut the song off around the four-minute mark and kept it somewhat palatable. I like seeing what a song decides to do when it finds itself being ripped to shreds. In this case, it gets pretty jazzy for a while. Then it grows dissonant and the bugle pops its head up after not appearing at all on the previous album. And then it all sinks into a tiny bed of looped-sounding electric guitar.

There are a number of instrumental tracks here, though they weren’t all meant to be free of words. Giving up the Ghost, for example, was supposed to be something kind of angry and cathartic. I recorded vocal tracks, but they got thrown in the trash when they didn’t seem to fit. Even without them, the song still feels like it’s purging something. It’s just the guitar that’s doing the work instead of my voice. I wrote words for A Different Flavour for Every Faucet after improvising the music, but in the end I liked the song a lot more without any singing, so I left that one alone as well.

At the same time, I like the lyrics in a lot of the songs that do have singing. Rhyming “thoroughbred-siring” with “Talia-Shire-ing” was a new sideways high for me. The strange story of The Mind Is Blown When the Fight Is Thrown is a word-for-word retelling of a pretty memorable dream I had. 1969 is also about a dream, if a little more impressionistic. Wicked Town could be read as an atheistic or anti-religious statement, though it was just another one of those songs that seemed to write itself, and it’s home to one of my favourite bits: “God made us this way / You know he must have had a reason / Maybe he was too drunk to finish the job.”

I think one of the best songs here is the one thing I didn’t write myself — Travis Reitsma’s Wind Chimes Sing with Her. It was always a standout cut on BLUEBEARD for me. I ended up covering it at a few live gigs. Thought I might as well try my hand at recording my take on the song. I found myself slowing it down, stretching it out, improvising inside of the framework, and adding some bits of backwards guitar/vocals.

It’s another one of those songs that falls into the interesting category of “things that are only made up of a few chords, with no chorus or hook to be found anywhere, but it feels like it shouldn’t be any other way”. Kind of funny how what could be the prettiest, least messed-up, most personal-sounding song on the whole album is the one thing that didn’t topple out of my own brain. But I was so close to the song by the time I recorded it, in a strange way it almost felt like it was mine.

A Soft Kiss from Cold Lips goes on my list of favourite closing tracks on any of the albums I’ve made over the years. I was kind of trying to write a Ron Leary song there. That’s an impossible task if you’re not Ron, but I think I at least came away with a good Johnny West song. In a way it feels like a spiritual older brother to “Losing Light” on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK.

I’ve said before that I feel like all my albums are little more than snapshots of wherever I happen to be when they’re recorded. This is one of the farther-reaching snapshots. I like that you could hear one or two songs out of context, pick up the album, and then wonder what you got yourself into, because no piece of the puzzle on its own comes close to giving you an idea of what the whole is like.

At the same time, for all the effort I put into disrupting any easy rhythm the listener might be able to fall into, it feels like it makes a good amount of emotional sense in the way it moves. I’m not sure how that happened, but I’ll take it.

TRACKS:

No Better Than Before
Fat Mouth
Laugh like a God of Death
Taylor Swift Sings Death Metal in My Dreams
To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free
Giving up the Ghost
Shrink Is Loss
Wicked Town
The Politics of Friendship
Flatten the Learning Curve
Finding the Body
Purgatory Waltz
A Different Flavour for Every Faucet
Emaciated Crack Monkey
Wind Chimes Sing with Her
Everything Matters, Everyone Cares
Some Are Salt
Tiger Bootstrap Death Threat
Nine Shades Darker Than the Day
The Duck Demon Man with an Ashtray
I Love You
1969
Every Day I Wipe the Dust from My Eyes
The Mind Is Blown When the Fight Is Thrown
Meat Slurry
A Soft Kiss from Cold Lips

LISTEN:

Fat Mouth

Purgatory Waltz

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