I’ve always had very mixed feelings about this album. A torrent of stupid crap cast a pall over everything during the post-production phase. In most cases a botched mastering job would be the final indignity. Here it was just an appetizer. But that was residual stuff, and I let it colour my feelings for the music for too long. It took me more than a decade to untangle the real reasons this felt like a bit of a step down after GROWING SIDEWAYS.
Similar to what happened with TEMPORARY AMNESIA and KEEP YOUR SCARS, there wasn’t really any break between the two albums. The day after I mixed “You Go Away”, I recorded Skinny Ditch and a whole new album was already underway. The unconventional song structures are still here, and the Korg Triton is still running the show. But something feels different.
On the surface this is a near-twin to GROWING SIDEWAYS. It’s got nineteen songs to that album’s twenty and a similar sonic palette, with another Fender Rhodes cameo (no electric guitar this time). Things are a little less skeletal. There are more dirty words. There’s more fake Wurlitzer electric piano. The Wurlitzer sound was one of the main reasons I got that Korg Triton, really, at a time when owning a real Wurlitzer seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. More of the songs have actual bass lines, and there’s more variation in the drum loops. Sometimes one song will go through two or three changes in synthesized percussion before hitting the finish line.
Those subtle shifts are all normal enough. That’s what some people call “progression”.
I think what felt a little strange to me then, and what it took me so long to hear with some real clarity, was the way this one came out a little more…refined. With GROWING SIDEWAYS I was on my honeymoon with the Triton, working out how to use it to do my bidding on the fly. Here I’d pretty much mastered it as a song-sculpting tool. And as strange as this is going to sound, I think that hurts the album a little.
A certain searching quality gets lost. You don’t hear me improvising over a drum loop as much. The music doesn’t often die down to nothing only to swell back up again. This time the songs are a little more sure of what they are and where they’re headed.
I think that’s what I miss — those feelings of freshness and uncertainty that were coursing through GROWING SIDEWAYS. The singing was a little better on that album as well. For all the falsetto swoops and moments of improvised gibberish here, there are a few bits of singing I’ve always wished I took another pass at, and in some places I might have pushed my voice up higher in the mix than I needed to.
I was pretty conservative with the mixing of the bass parts. I expected the professional mastering job to boost the bass a bit again, so I thought I’d compensate for that a little. I shouldn’t have bothered. What the mastering engineer did to the songs this time wasn’t musical at all (it’s a long story), and after three separate passes that were all unusable — and some condescending snark from the douchebag studio manager who tried to pawn off responsibility on me, when I wasn’t the one who left the songs to master themselves over lunch after listening to no more than a third of each track — I was back to doing it myself.
I didn’t feel like going back and remixing everything after that. So in some songs the low end isn’t as pronounced as it could be. Aside from that, I never felt like there was anything wrong with my master. It’s not as loud as the last album. That’s about the only difference. Turn it up a bit and you’re fine.
I do like most of the songs, and they seem to fit together well enough. The person who ended up acting as a serious muse on GROWING SIDEWAYS came back into my orbit when I was recording this one, and she was the source of most of the bitterness. Half the songs were recorded before we patched things up, and I was still a little pissed. Some of the “writing about drinking” theme carries over from the last album as well.
In general, it feels like there’s a good balance between the personal and the obscure. And then there are some lines that are pretty random, but I’ve always enjoyed them.
A few highlights:
“There is a cardboard rhinoceros walking ‘cross the street, wearing your favourite dress.”
(from Chin Foam)
“I stabbed you in the heart with a ballpoint pen. Your aorta came apart because you didn’t say ‘when’.”
(from Needles to Say).
“You’ve got soup for brains. It’s the kind of soup poor college students eat.”
(from Burglar for Hides)
“If I’m unwanted, then you’re a hearse, dragging my carcass around the town.”
(from Mascara Tears)
The last thirty seconds or so of Burglar for Hides are a series of melodic accidents that combine to form one of my favourite moments on the album. Another favourite moment is in Mascara Tears. There’s a bit in the middle of the song where my microphone captures a car driving by outside, and it somehow sounds like a distant synthesizer moan. It happens right as I’m singing, “You’re just words on a page.” That was a nice unexpected touch.
The One I Left to Drown is one I keep coming back to over the years. It’s a dark ambient ballad that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the songs. There’s something interesting going on there. It almost sounds like it was unwittingly pointing the way forward to some of the dreamier moments on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES.
The missing “s” in Needles to Say is intentional, and not a typo. Just so you know.
So yeah. It’s not an album I’d give to most people these days, even if they wanted to dig pretty deep into my discography, unless they went out of their way to request it. I feel like GROWING SIDEWAYS covers much of the same ground in a more compelling way, with stronger songs. But I don’t think this is a bad album by any means. At least now I finally know how I feel about it and why.
It is the end of using that specific synth as the be-all and end-all. After all, when you’ve got a good handle on something, it’s about time to hurtle yourself off the cliff into some new adventure, isn’t it?
I’ve always thought so.
Good Enough Is Not Good Enough
Two Cherries in an Ashtray
Eleven Letters Will Spell the End of You
Needles to Say
Vengeance for the Disaffected
In a Dream I Told You This
The Diamond Is in the Dog’s Mouth
The Dog Is in the Diamond’s Mouth
Frigid Fuzzy Blanket
Kiss the Bullets
Burglar for Hides
The One I Left to Drown