One of my favorite orchestral pieces is Sensemaya by Silvestra Revueltas. It’s an incredibly visceral piece that was written in Mexico City, and is one of the first widely famous orchestral pieces by a Mexican composer. It was based on a poem that was about an Afro-Carribean ritual performed while killing a snake. The piece itself has a snake like sound as the tension is slowly ratcheted up, like a python slowly crushing its prey. It’s violent, disturbing, and beautiful all at the same time. Stripped of its origins it is the kind of piece that can take the imagination many places. Is it the sound of a tribe of cannibals, mysterious ancient ruins, a battle about to take place, or something far stranger?
I couldn’t help but post this picture of Morrissey and Jackson Browne together. To top it all off they were both attending a show by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Anyone that has read this blog for awhile knows that all three are favorites of mine. All three are also writers who have a mastery of poetry and politics. They have the ability to look out at the world and describe what is going on with unique insight. They are original voices, first-rate melody writers, and absolutely fearless.
Look at the Facts by Buffy Sainte-Marie:
For America by Jackson Browne (Yes, the production is dated, but what a song!):
Last, but not least, Mountjoy by Morrissey (Mountjoy is a notorious prison in Dublin):
Marky Ramone is set to release an autobiography called Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life As a Ramone. The above link is a section of the book that has posted at Rolling Stone Magazine. I learned how to play and write my own songs by listening to the Ramones when I was a kid, long before I could learn or figure out anyone else’s. I was probably around 12 or 13 at the time.
The book itself, if this excerpt is anything to go by, seems like it will be an entertaining read, to put it mildly. Here is a paragraph where the Ramones first meet Phil Spector, who happens to be sitting with Al Lewis, who plays Grandpa on The Munsters:
Grandpa Al was more than a left-winger. He was an eccentric and one with a delusion here and there. He told us he served on the legal defense team of the 1920s anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. There was no doubt Grandpa would have if he could have, but he was about eleven years old at the time—or an infant, depending upon which birth date you believed. He also informed us that in the sixties he met Charles Manson, who babysat his sons. “He was a gentleman!” Grandpa said. Hearing this, Dee Dee started talking about his own sons, who didn’t even exist, and about his fictional days fighting the Vietcong. Someone should have grabbed a tape recorder, because this was an album.
This afternoon I fell into the deep and dark sleep of the the hungover, only to awaken to a cold grey and white grave like early evening. It looked as much like a dream outside, and a far more nefarious one, than the dream I had just been having on my couch. Realizing that my dog had not been walked I put on my headphones and headed out the door. I put on the last two songs from Bash and Pop’s album Friday Night is Killing Me. Those songs would be Tiny Pieces and First Steps.
What an album! It is one of those albums that I discovered in a used CD store some years back that has never completely left the rotation. And yet it is an album so few people know about. I wonder how many people even own that album? It was Tommy Stinson’s first album after the breakup of The Replacements. It is full of loose disheveled rock n roll. The playing is simply fantastic, especially the guitar playing. It has so many cool little guitar parts delivered with a ton of feel. The production is organic and inviting. It really is one of those great lost rock n roll gems, like if the Faces had some record out there that had escaped release. It’s not music that will change the world, but it is a record that always manages to change my mood when I am listening to it. I imagine it does that for other people that have discovered its charms.
It’s funny how the things that can mean so much to us, like dreams, are things that so many other people will never ever know. How many great albums are out there that we will never hear? Even more, how many great songs were written that have been lost to the sands of time? Unlike many other types of art that must be rendered in physical form in the doing, usually songs that make it to record often leave behind many other ones that never will. Shadows and spirits of sound that a songwriter may deliver in their living room, that are swept aside as the times change. Ghost songs. Not the songs of the dead, but the songs of the deceased emotion.
Maybe that organization of sound was developed into something better. A lot of times it is just a numbers game. You only get the financing to make so many records. At the time you choose what you think are your best songs, although it can be very hard to judge your own work. You record them, in a process where so many things can be lost in translation. Then out of all of the recordings that are made only so many of them find an audience, often having nothing to do with the works validity. Even for the most popular of artists it can sometimes be a losing game.
Friday Night is Killing Me is one of those records that at least got made, but has been largely forgotten. It makes no difference, other than maybe in the financial bearing of its creators. They made something great. They took a chance and dreamed. Even if they are few and far between, there are still people out there like me whose souls are warmed by it on a grim afternoon, as if we had suddenly stumbled upon the hearth of a friendly fire after a great storm.
One day you’re stumblin’ around
The next you’re thinkin’ of the town
And the friends that you thought would always be
With old friends come those greetings
That your eyes won’t be meeting
Though your insides want to embrace
You hardly recognize the face
With Chicago round the corner
Baby takes her first step today
Bash and Pop First Steps
I’ve been busy playing shows and recording the last few days, so I haven’t been posting a lot. Today I had simply one of the most amazing musical experiences that I’ve ever had, and probably ever will. I got to record with Elizabeth Hawkins and Tina Hawkins, the late great Ted Hawkins’s widow and daughter. I’m not a religious person, but to quote Kurt Vonnegut, a secular humanist, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.” It was that kind of day.
Right now there is a Ted Hawkins tribute record being put together. The Shinyribs band is the house band for anyone that doesn’t bring their own musicians in. Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell is one of the producers.
There is something indescribable when family sings together. Hearing a mother and daughter sing their husband/dad’s song was extraordinary. These two sang like angels. It had that kind of purity and heart that you hear on 1960’s girl group records. I felt, listening back to them, that I temporarily took a trip outside of space and time. This was timeless music, as it was pure emotion. Keith, Kev, and I tracked in one room live, with the two women singing live in the other room. Let me tell you, it was easy to play well while you were hearing those two songbirds in your headphones. (We recorded the song above. The video above is a brief live clip of Ted Hawkins. There is a recorded band version of this song that we based our arrangement on today. I should also mention that Elizabeth Hawkins sang with Ted Hawkins on his records and also helped to arrange some of the material.)
There is so much more I could say, but the proof will be in the recording when it is finally available. Often when you record something you have no idea how the final product will turn out. However, today was one of those days when you just felt lucky to be there.
P.S. If you haven’t heard Hawkins’s Watch Your Step album, it is a must buy. I’ve never heard anyone that didn’t like it. HIs other records are fantastic too, especially Happy Hour, but Watch Your Step is a front to back masterpiece.
The above article is about how bands are mixed on record. I think it is simple enough to follow that even someone that doesn’t understand recording could get something out of it.
I have mentioned that I am obsessed with AC/DC lately. One of the things that I love about their records is the simplicity. I especially love the sound of their guitars and the way that they are mixed. All of AC/DC’s records feature the brothers Malcolm and Angus Young. (Malcolm Young just retired, but he is on all of the band’s records except their soon to be released new record.) On AC/DC records there are very few recorded tracks that the band can’t play live. When you listen to their records you hear a band mixed like you were seeing them live. When you see AC/DC live Malcolm’s amps are on stage left and Angus Young’s amps are on stage right. When you listen to their music on a stereo or headphones you therefor hear Malcolm’s guitar on the left ear or speaker, and Angus’s guitar on the right. Angus later adds his solos and they are mixed mostly in the middle or only slightly off to one side.
When something is only on one side or the other, or more on one side than the other, this is called panning. When things were recorded in mono everything was equal in both speakers. Stereo allows you split what instrument is on what speaker or side of your headphones. This helps with clarity as everything is not fighting for the same space.
However, like with AC/DC, it can actually make a record more interesting as well. You can listen to one of their records and tell what each brother is playing and how their guitars compliment each other. I used AC/DC as an example not only because they are featured in the above article, nor because I am really enjoying them right now, but their mixes are really a simple and clear way to understand panning. Listen to one of their songs sometime on headphones, and notice how each headphone features a different guitar that is complimenting the other one. You will realize how well constructed the guitar parts.
If you have even the slightest interest in how a group of musicians can create something that is more than the sum of its parts, these kinds of records are a great place to start.
I was in the studio all day cutting a track for the upcoming tribute album to the late great Ted Hawkins. There is no place I would rather be then the studio. Today it was a crack commando unit backing up the singer of the Turnpike Troubadours, Evan Felker. We knew the song we were going to do, and the key, but aside from that the arrangement was born in the studio. It was pretty old school in that for basic tracks we just jammed until something sounded right, with Kevin Russell, who is producing, guiding our ship when we would get too far out. It also never hurts to have an engineer like Stuart Sullivan running the technical side of things. It was a good mix of thought and feeling today. Never allowing the conscious mind to get in the way, but just enough thought so that the song ebbed and flowed in just the right way.
I like to do my homework before recording. I like to know the chord changes so I’m not learning the song on the spot and wasting other people’s time. I like to have a couple ideas stockpiled in my back pocket in case things hit a rut. However, I am always happy to go another direction and land somewhere unexpected. A song is like a frame. There are certain boundaries that it dictates. However, in that frame there are a lot of different ways that you can color it. It is good to have a place to start from, but to not be afraid to throw everything out the window as new ideas present themselves.
When I am doing a session where I am just the bass player, I try to listen to the other musicians and be complimentary to what is going on. I try to find that balance between giving someone what they want and making sure what I do is unique and interesting in some way. I never want to take the focus off what is most important in the song, yet I don’t want to just deliver meat and potatoes, unless that is what is called for. Sometimes you will find that the stock thing is what works, but I usually feel that arrangements are helped when everyone is adding a little bit of their personality to them. The way that session players in places like Nashville play is just atrocious to me. They may be technically amazing, but there is no soul. I’d literally rather hear an electronic dance record by someone that knows how to make them than that shit.
So that’s what I did today, and what I’m thinking about. I’m about to dive back into Ken Burns’s Civil War series. Now for something completely different…