The Birds of St. Marks

Jackson Browne, one of my favorite songwriters, has a new album coming out in October.  This is the first song released from the record, The Birds of St. Marks.  I’m glad that it sounds like he is in top form.  HIs last studio album, Time the Conqueror, was one of the best albums of 2008.  There are few songwriters that can match intelligence and emotion in equal measure as he has done throughout his career.  

Comparing Songwriting to Drawing

I like to think of a song as a pencil drawing.  It is the most important part of the drawing, because it defines what it is you are looking at. But with good musicianship and the production, the colors and the frame, it can be made to resemble many different things.  You could draw a picture of a cowboy, but then you could color it in with strange colors and make it a psychedelic cowboy.  Or you could color it is with traditional instruments, make it rustic and dust worn, and it could be a traditional country western song.  You could put it up with no frame or you could put a frame up around it that makes it look as if it should hang in some expensive gallery.  That’s what musicianship and production do, they take that thing that is either great or not on it’s own, and make it presentable to more people.  A great song, like John Lennon’s Imagine, would be great in any form, whether just as a sketch or as the final product, produced by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, you take something like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and although there is some song craft going on there, most of the true magic is in the production and the musicianship.  They are taking a simple drawing and making it into a piece of art through attention to detail.  Meanwhile I just looked at the Billboard Top 20.  Most of that stuff is like someone pissing on a canvas, putting it in an expensive frame, and then telling you it is is a portrait of Jesus.

Vesuvius at Myself

Trying to clip the creek to the bank with a clothes pin
Waterlogged system, rusty spring, faulty planning
Logic squeezed out like mustard at a corndog
Hypertension is not wisdom, chewing the leather straps
Trying to hold the sun still with a bobby pin
Burned fingers. excellent conductor of heat
Private fantasies are not public policy
Christian charity is a doily over my death boner
Busy work is not the Great Wall of China
Vanity bamboo hut out back behind the big house
Pretend is salve for whitey-boy guilt
Furiously slapping at the moon with a cane pole
Trying to prop up the heavens with a fresh flat pencil
Some folks are allergic to rubber
I am trying to stitch this one to all the rest of them
But the seams will split, collide and cleave
Neopolitan ice cream is never truly integrated until it’s too late
Trying to stop the bleeding with scotch tape
Platelets spoil adhesion, fire up the cauterizing iron
It’s a branding of necessity not scarification
Bliss was a pimple that I tried to pop
It erupted up and out on my countenance
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius, ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Vesuvius at myself, Vesuvius at myself

I thought I would start out the Fourth of July by posting the lyrics to the great American songwriter Vic Chesnutt.   He is criminally overlooked.  One look at this or many of his lyrics and you can see why.  He was not one to wince from hard truths.  This is one of my favorite songs by him or anyone.  There are so many great lines in this song: Busy work is not the Great Wall of China.  Almost every line is a vivid image and thought in and of itself.  If not for the fact that his voice was an acquired taste, and possibly also the fact he was in a wheelchair,  he would be on the songwriters Mount Olympus with Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, or any of the greats.  As far as I am concerned he is. 

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Review

I felt that the following review did not do the album justice so I posted a follow up here:

http://www.windupwire.com/2014/06/20/lana-del-rey-ultraviolence-revisited/

I really like the new Lana Del Rey album, Ultraviolence, in spite of Dan Auerbach’s lazy production.  I know there is a lot of internet noise claiming Lana Del Ray is a fraud, but I actually think she is one of the few originals in pop music right now.  She has a dreamily haunted voice, is great at crafting darkly beautiful melodies, and is great at taking different kinds of American iconography in her lyrics and forging something new with them.  I must admit that I am a sucker for David Lynch and Del Ray’s blending of American pop culture and dark dreams sound like they would be the perfect soundtrack to a Lynch movie. I am predisposed to like the kind of music she makes.

Del Rey had a pretty consistent vision across her albums and singles.  You are not going to mistake her for a different artist.  If you liked what she did before you are going to like what she is doing now, while the opposite is also true.  One of the reasons I believe her first album was a success was that she took several retro elements, infused them with some modern production and lyrical references, and ended up with her own small patch of uncharted territory.

I first want to state that I like her new album.  Any criticism thrown at it is minor and not actually aimed at her.  She still sings fantastically, although I do miss her lower register a bit, which is my favorite part of her range.  If you don’t think she can sing listen to the final track on her new album The Other Woman.  The melodies are still great.  She also still uses the language of pop culture, mixes it with a dark sexuality, and creates something her own.  Some people will claim that she is inauthentic, because she records under a false name, but the pop world is littered with people who built self created myths.  Bob Dylan is not his real name and he never road to New York City in a box car.  Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious are, surprise, not their real names either.  That is not to say that she is as talented as Bob Dylan or as ground breaking as the Sex Pistols, not by a long shot, but in the world of pop music she has created something uniquely hers.  That alone should be applauded.

However, I do have some minor quibbles with her new album.  These I mostly attribute to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys fame.  For someone that has a strong retro vibe in her work, I can’t imagine that there was very much thought put into the idea of recording her mostly live to old analog tape, dousing her in a shitload of reverb, and having her track with a live band.  I love the sound of analog tape and I also love when people track live to it.  Hell, my band did that on our new album.  But with someone that takes so many influences from the past this seems to make her work even more backward looking than it really is.  It just seems like such an obvious choice that to me it shows the mind of a producer with little imagination.

First he puts so much reverb on her voice that it pushes her voice to the background at times when it is her biggest asset.  Sometimes this ridiculous amount of reverb actually makes it hard to understand what she is singing about.  Also, I think with someone that draws so much influence form the past you have to be careful with how “retro” you make her record sound.  It becomes more of a genre exercise that it ought to be.  I also find the backing band to be lacking in any real personality.  They do serve the songs, but to the point that if she wasn’t singing on them there wouldn’t be much going on musically that was interesting.  Look, I love effects, I like hearing real musicians play, I like these songs and this singer, but I can’t help but feel the arrangements could be more memorable in and of themselves.

Listening to her two albums, and the song that she did with Bobby Womack, I believe Lana Del Rey is a great talent that will probably have a long career of making interesting records.  Hopefully next time she won’t choose a hack like Dan Auerbach to produce it.

Opening Lines Matter

I really like when lyrics start with some kind of strong visceral image that brings you into the world of the song.  Even the best song writers don’t always write front to back strong lyrics in a song.  There may be a bland line or verse that moves the song along rather than being exceptional in its own right.  Sometimes lines and couplets can be taken out of context and be exceptional and sometimes they are just functionary within the song.  Songwriters, unlike poets, are also stuck trying to form words to a melody, so occasionally they may need to take a dive on a line to serve a melodic hook. I thought I would post a very small portion of some of my favorite opening lines or verses in song.

 

Brandenburg Gate by Lou Reed

I would cut my legs and tits off
When I dream of Boris Karloff and Kinski
In the dark of the moon

Makes me dream of Nosferatu
Trapped on the isle of Doctor Moreau

 

Now My Heart is Full by Morrissey

There’s gonna be some trouble
A whole house will need re-building
And everyone I love will recline
On an analyst’s couch quite soon
Your father cracks a joke and in the usual way
Empty’s the room

 

First We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within

 

Lisence to Kill by Bob Dylan

Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth
He can do with it as he pleases
And if things don’t change soon he will
Man has invented his doom
His first step was touching the moon

 

The Auld Triangle by Dominic Behan

A hungry feeling, came o’er me stealing

 

Black Boys on Mopeds by Sinead O’Connor

Margaret Thatcher on TV
Shocked by the deaths that she sees in Beijing
It seems strange that she should be offended
The same orders are given by her

 

Bill Lee by Warren Zevon

You’re supposed to sit on your ass
And nod at stupid things, man that’s hard to do
And if you don’t they’ll screw you
And if you do they’ll screw you too

 

East by Marah

This evening pigeons turn to bars of gold
In the sun’s last light
Across the river, Camden is a gilded kingdom
On the verge of night


The Naked Ride Home
by Jackson Browne

Just take off your clothes and I’ll drive you home I said
Knowing she could never pass on a dare
And knowing it sounded more desperate than reckless or bold
I just put it out there cold, too far gone to care

 

Satan Rejected My Soul by Morrissey

Satan rejected my soul
He knows my kind, he won’t be dragged down

Melody Lyrics

Well now I’m mostly sober
And I only argue in my mind with the Lord
He says I’m not worthy of heaven
I say I know, but I’m just bored
Of the absurdity of daily life
And of the nights I sleep alone
I don’t mean to take His name in vain
But I’m not sure that He’s home

 I’m not sure He’s home

Sometimes I feel the Spirit
But it’s never where He should be
The only time I feel He’s with us
Is when I hear a sweet melody

I’ve read every book I got my hands on
I’ve traveled anytime I could
I’ve turned to so called men of wisdom
I’ve went alone into the woods
I’ve defiled myself with drink and drugs
I’ve broken every vow I said
I’ve crossed mountains, I’ve crossed valleys
I’ve spent silent weeks in bed

Oh God, alone in bed!

Sometimes I feel the Spirit
But it’s never where He should be
The only time I feel He’s with us
Is when I hear a sweet melody

Look what we’ve done to this country
It’s just a giant shopping mall
God if you’re listening
I’m sure you must be appalled
I’m begging you to keep your promise
And come back to from where you’ve gone
Though they always lift my spirits
Sometimes I need more than just songs 

Sometimes I need more than songs

Sometimes I feel the Spirit
But it’s never where He should be
The only time I feel He’s with us
Is when I hear a sweet melody

These are lyrics to a song I demoed.  I still feel the second verse could use some work, but I’m getting there.

Some Thoughts On Writing and Recording

Blogging has been a little slow the last 48 hours.  As well as other things I’ve been focusing on songwriting.  There are songwriters that can write something almost every time they sit down and then there are guys like Leonard Cohen whose process is really slow.  I’m somewhere in the middle.  Once I find inspiration I will complete a series of things rather quickly.  However in between those bursts of inspiration I may lie dormant for a month or two, sometimes even longer. 

I’m always attempting to write, but if I’m not inspired much of what I write is garbage.  I would say that 80% of the things that I write I toss out.  Another 10% roughly falls through the cracks.  Only maybe 10% of the things I have written ever see the stage or the recording studio.  Even after that, except for our last record where I believe in every song, I feel like only a percentage of those things have reached some kind of definitive form.  Basically it is tons and tons of song writing to achieve those moments that I feel are perfect. 

Even if you write something great there are so many ways it can go wrong.  The arrangement can be subpar.  You could have a great arrangement and the performance is lacking.  You could even have a great song with a great performance and the mix just somehow sucks the life out of it.  As in life, so much is out of your control.  You not only need to write great material, but you need to have the right musicians, the right producer, and the right energy at the time of recording.   

The thing that was so beautiful about our new record, A Manual for Defeat, was that the process itself cut out a lot of the bullshit that can go wrong from point A to point B.  I love creating in the studio.  It drives some people nuts, but it’s actually total fun for me.  It’s also a way for things to go horribly wrong.  You might stumble upon something completely new, but when you don’t have a lot of money especially, you can just as easily over-think things and lose the initial passion of a piece.  So many musicians will tell you that they love their demos more than their actual records.  Until we did this new record my favorite No Show Ponies recordings that we ever did were Ben and I fucking about on Garage Band on my brother’s Mac.  The demos the two of us made sounded thin and cheap sounding, but there was a certain magic captured on those things that we never replicated anywhere else. 

With A Manual for Defeat we made the simplest record possible, which with a low budget worked out better than I could have imagined.  We just rehearsed a lot and then cut things basically live to tape with as little overdubbing as we could get away with.  The beauty of analog tape is that you instantly can tell on playback if you got something or not.  I’m not really a tape or digital guy as it really depends on the project and who is helming the technical side of things.   But for me the problem with digital is that you often don’t know what you have got until much later in the process.  If you don’t have a lot of money there is no time to start over if you realize something wasn’t quite where it needs to be.  Also just as a side note, dear God in heaven stay away from digital reverb. 

I’m always afraid of making something middle of the road, although there have definitely been times when my best intentions have gone astray.  I feel like you should either be trying to make Sgt. Pepper or The Misfit’s Static Age.  By that I mean you should either be as ambitious as possible or you should just try to capture something raw and real.  The universe will give you hints as to what route to take if you can get your ego out of the way.  Often limitations, if shepherded down the right alley, will force you to be creative.  It’s when you force things that aren’t meant to be that you get into trouble. 

I’m working on my 7th record right now, as well as having worked on a whole host of other things such as soundtracks, demos, singles, EP’s, etc.  I feel like only in the last two years have I got to a place where I sort of know what I’m doing, where I trust my instincts to be right more often than not.  Although as I’m fond of saying: Time makes monkeys of us all.