Friday, August 3, 2012

Succumb to the Lure

The surface of things is deceiving. Seeming can hide beauty, pain or consuming power.

On the surface of it, The Lure of Dangerous Women is a trifling thing: seventy-odd simple pages filled with black symbols and white pages that we see every day. On the surface of it, this is the kind of thing that I barrel through in less than an hour. On the surface of it, this is simply another collection of short genre fiction of which there is an embarrassing surfeit. But this book is alive, a breathing, writhing thing that grips you with ever turn of the page, that entices you along like a pied piper. It is not a pleasant ride; it is terrifying and erotic, icy and scalding, messy and precise, all at once.

It took me three days to finish this book. I had to put it down every other story, surfacing to breathe. I had to walk away and let its characters talk to me some more, let the shadowy cling of their adventures become brittle so that I might brush it off and begin my next journey anew, without the weight of the their sexy, horrifying pull.

All of the women in these stories are dangerous in different ways. These are not Ripleys and Amazons; they are not all sirens and femme fatales. Rather, they are fully-realized characters, at once sympathetic and wholly themselves. There is as much pain as power, and many of them are so strong as to push past simple binaries of dominance and submission (sexual, political or otherwise) to offer themselves as sacrifice, or even just a part of themselves, for the good of others. There is no bowing involved, but an entirely self-possessed decision. These are the kinds of heroines we need more of.

A very thorough review might walk you step by step through each of the seven offerings, but I'd like to focus on a few highlights. "Trill" is a study in disturbing subtly, taking a familiar trope and turning upon itself. A dark version of the pied piper is only the starting point; it dips and weaves its song into dark and daring places that set the tone of this collection. "Seed" and "One Woman Town" are terrific examples of worlds that are at once alien and accessible, offering a fantastic reality with its own lexicon, its own culture and sets of ideas, but one that also immediately draws us in with both wonder and lust tinged with the fear of Germain's razor-sharp observation.

For it is Germain's style, flexible, expressive and keen, that ties all of these disparate tales together. Make no doubt, these are imaginative stories of terror that are equally very sexy; but they are also stylish bits of prose, a style that engages and engrosses, that pulls you in with a siren's song that can drown you.

Shanna Germain's latest collection, published by Wayzgoose Press, is heartily recommended reading for those seeking something extraordinary. Bring your red wine for the libido, your teddy bear for your fear and your shotgun for protection. And even still, you will succumb to The Lure of Dangerous Women.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

stone-patient & river-flow

new ink, old lines that sprawl and wind
tributaries of runes calligraphed by half-understood
so doubly-felt pulses of more than blood

the electricity you draw aches and arcs
in waves to make Tesla proud with that smile
at once hubris and hidden

i want to reach through the plasma frames
past the simple dyads and kiss you
in the hot shadows of your bed

it's a fair piece and long time coming
but i am stone-patient wrapped around
a river's serpentine swing

never stopping, ever crooked
breaching my banks, a mad torrent forward
toward the sea of you

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Cold Freezin' Night: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

Things have just about wrapped up around the studio. The last chord has been strummed, the last MIDI part tinkered with, the last microphone tucked away. People in bland khaki uniforms are sweeping the floors and carrying out the trash in the reserved, honorable silence of their profession. I've crafted a neat little lyrics booklet to include in the album download and given the mixes those final tweaks.

But I have one more story to tell you, about a weird, weird song and the Gift of Music.

A cold freezin' night
I wish I was a boy
A cold freezin' night
Oh, baby

Why do you always get away with things?
It's not fair
I need to think, think of something
So you can stay alive
I can kill you with a rifle, with a shotgun, if I care
Probably by cut all your your toes off
Make my way up from there

A cold freezin' night
I wish I was a boy
A cold freezin' night
Oh, baby

Boys do tougher than girls
And I wish I was a boy
I'm gonna rip all your hair off
And everybody's gonna think
He is an asshole
He is that asshole
I'm gonna all rip your hair off
An' then you're gonna be

A cold freezin' night
I wish I was a boy
A cold freezin' night
Oh, baby, sing with me

A cold freezing night
I believe I can soar
A cold freezing night
I believe

I usually like to include a someone else's song on an album. There's so much great songwriting out there, and I always enjoy a good cover. And what makes a good cover is the same thing that makes a good movie adaptation: bringing something new to the table, engaging the original work in a way that sheds light on it a different angle. To wit, here's The Books' original composition:

Yup, totally different, but there are some key common touchstones. To explain, I feel I have to rewind all the way to this past December/January to the Gift of Music, which is a wonderful tradition over at Song Fight!. Each winter holiday season, any one who likes signs up by offering three different songs that they'd like to see covered. The potential cover songs are distributed more or less randomly and each participant picks one song to cover (or more, if they really want). Et voilà: a new album's worth of music with some of the most interesting twists on both your favorite songs and tunes you've never heard of.

I will admit, my list was... challenging. I finally settled on The Books' deliriously post-modern mash-up because the words tickle my feminist bones. But this is where my ideals about a good cover song come into play. I feel that core of the song, the melody, should be respected as well as the lyrics, but the rest can be - should be - changed.

So what do you do with a song that has no melody?

You make one up, of course! The Books are big about sampling and recombination, so I felt it was justified to plunder their "lyrics" and reconstitute a song that was more my style. Thus was born the melodic center of what you hear today, and that was pretty much it for my submission to G.o.M. I like the minimal percussion, the 180 take of giving the whole composition a melody, and I like the vocal harmonies of the chorus.

But I wasn't really satisfied. The song didn't go anywhere, and it just kind of... well, stopped. To create more energy and variation, I thought about a solo or a bridge. Yet, this past Sunday, sitting in front of my mixing board, I had an epiphany: this is a sampling song! Forgetting about any guitar noodling or a key change, I headed to my favorite audio junkyard, SampleSwap and sifted through the wonderful disjecta there, bringing home the rattling tin cans, PVC pipes and whirly, wispy bits of noise you hear. The new mix is much improved, with a clearer nod to its sampled, post-modern roots. It's also the perfect final track with its disregard of the fourth wall and distinct sonic approach, leaning against the back wall of the party, cooly sipping its Pabst Blue Ribbon, nodding at its brooding half-sister Soul Clap and thinking "it was a pleasure to burn."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Broken Doll: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

I'm a compassionate, generous person by nature, ironically to the point of selfishness: I collect broken dolls in order to fix them. Some times, though, it turns out that the collector is the one that needs mending.

By Joelk75 :

Crafting a story about a voyage can be a journey unto itself. I published the lyrics to this last Fall. The entire song has since undergone some substantial changes.

the stage was small; the billing, too
it was still the show to end all shows
you take your coffee black but a little sweet
these things stick with me even still
like morning traffic through a dirty pane
waking you from fevered dreams
like letting go while i kicked and screamed
(like letting go with a kiss)

i am letting too much slip away
seems there's nothing left to hang on
just a voice on a distant plain
echoes of things pretending
you are my mirror; i am thine
it's still not - no not the same
there's a hole where you used to shine
(spots on the sun feel no shame)

how do you do it? i 
wanna know
this broken doll that you take home
how do you do it? i wanna know
this broken soul you make whole

in that forest of steel and stone
we fought our dragons and we lost
we played at love to bind our wounds
never noticing the cost
lamb or lion it's all the same
i am your shadow ever hence
this lullaby a searing flame
(i am too long hunting this)

how do you do it? i wanna know
this broken doll that you take home
how do you do it? i wanna know
this broken soul you make whole

One of the first things I noticed when I came back to "Broken Doll" is that the melody is rather samey and the verses are long. To keep things interesting and create more dynamics, I decided to double-time the melody in the second half of the verse, making a kind of pre-chorus. I then reduced the choruses from three to two. I even though about making that part a bridge but it's the core of the song, lyrically; so I decided it would work better as a refrain.

I rearranged the verse order for a better narrative: opening with an identifiable setting that establishes the spatial and thematic relations of the characters. I seem to have a tendency to write the ending or the middle of a story first. Even here, the second verse is a kind of flash-forward, the present-tense narrator's point of view on the past events he's ruminating. There are also some modifications to pronouns (well, several). The original story was the intersection of two love triangles but that wasn't really coming through in the verses and it works better to focus on the single, strong relationship.

Like many of my unprompted creations, the recording of "Broken Doll" was a rather organic process, taking the better part of a week. My original plan was for something very minimal: a pair of hard-panned guitar parts, a piano and some very light percussion (like an egg shaker), and maybe - maybe - some electric guitar holding down the low end. Alas, I don't have an egg shaker, and the samples I have are too busy for the low-key vibe of this song. Fine, skip the shaker bit. Oh, maybe a cello would be good instead of a bass guitar. Hrm, no. Organ? Yes. (I am far too enamored of this wonderful little VSTi...). And that chorus, it just has to build. Best thing for that: drums! over-driven guitars! bass! The end product doesn't match my original intentions at all, but I'm still very happy with where it goes.

I always knew that this song would be part of it was a pleasure to burn because its lyrics matched the theme so well. Sonically, she's become something of an outlier: the end product of my development over the past few months. A closer sibling would be my last Song Fight! submission: "Wish You Would," with its E Street-style backing parts and 70's rock vibe.

But outliers are good: proof that I'm stretching my musical muscles, exploring new places and learning new things.

This weekend was unexpectedly productive: studio work is done, I've pretty much settled on the track-order and the lyrics booklet is 90%! Come back on Wednesday for the final production diary entry, and the story behind my take on a song by The Books.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Puzzle Pieces: Nightmare Fuel no. 0

"We never go in there," said Hatter. "That is not the tea cupboard and holds neither ravens nor writing-desks nor anything that may seem so similar one unto the other. " There was something peculiar - well, more peculiar than the other other odd things: his voice crescendoed and became increasingly staccato while his eyes raised towards the ceiling though his neck did not crane. "No, in fact, that room holds things that are quite opposite!" Louder and faster: "Things that are dry to touchy, black to horizon ribbons, breath to - " Silence. A quick dip of the Adam's Apple. His eyes, once nearly rolled back under their lids, now darted to the shadow beyond the doorway, shadows that writhed in feline ways, a Cheshire grin threatening to emerge. "No, my dear, " Hatter said in a voice so calm it reminded me of my father's baritone at his most sanely stoic, "we never go there."

by John Tenniel; from Wikimedia Commons
"And it never comes here." Hatter gestured toward his tea cup: cobalt blue with golden sigils that matched a pot scattered amongst the multitude. Before me as well was a cup: delicate white with blue designs that could must have been Chinese or ancient Sumerian - or was that cuneiform? Surely it had a matching teapot somewhere... Yes, there: that glimmer of white and blue far down the table, many years away it seems, as light counts time. Its lid rattled gently as Dormouse poked her nose out, then slipped back inside.

"It won't do to stare," interrupted Hatter, and I started, for I had indeed been staring. Then my eyes were drawn to the blue symbols on my cup. The figures seemed on the cusp of movement, of dancing some ancient rite.

"No, it won't do," Hatter repeated. "The dancers are puzzle pieces, you see."

I did not see.

"They complete the...." another glance toward the shadows, "... the Other." He swallowed and then his face flickered with mad indifference. "It's tea, hot tea, that always does the trick." He gave me a grin that could cut barbed wire and then poured me out with wicked aplomb. "One lump or two?"


Just a little warm up prompted / inspired by Bliss Morgan's Nightmare Fuel project.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

All Swear About Murder: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

First off, a quick announcement: I've made all of the tracks for it was a pleasure to burn available for free download! I hadn't done this before for a few reasons. First, the album's not done yet and, as twentieth-century as it is, I still prefer albums to individual tracks as a method of distribution and consumption. Second, Bandcamp limits my bandwidth to 200 downloads a month.

But I realized that it was silly and egotistical to make the songs streaming-only. It should be up to you, the listener, how you want to encounter this music. Also, it's a "limit" of two hundred downloads. If I somehow magically break that barrier, it will be a happy problem indeed.

So, enjoy! Grab the tracks as you please, play them where you want on the device you want. Just, please respect the Creative Commons Attribute-Share-Alike license I'm using. Most importantly, thanks for listening!

On with the show: new track, new stories!

Some times, mistakes are fortuituous. Some times, you just happen to know the right people at the right moment. And some times, it's the wrong moment. "All Swear About Murder" fell out of a Google+ conversation I had last Fall with Denise Hudson (whose work you should totally check out, by the way). Well, the title fell off the back of that truck. The story is pure Appalachian Noir.

you were standing in a shadow of blue
a chord in one hand my heart to undo
you were a cipher, a mistress code
a wind-talker in melody clothed
& we sang all night
& whispered the day
you were standing but i heard you croon
a siren sang your secret tune

it was a tryst it was a whirlwind
but all good things must find their end
your études your ivory keys
my six-string down on its knees
i play the blues
you play for you
it was a tryst it was too facile
i was all swear about blue gun steel

i was all swear about your demise
shed not a tear for all your lies
they put me in chains and on the stand
i told the tale 'bout your demands
'bout what you took from me
my ransomed heart
i was all swear about your timely end
but never said a word about our bed

I don't often write murder ballads. But when I do, they don't have a chorus and I use slide guitar.

I made a demo of this song for FAWM. As you can hear, this girl has undergone several changes. When I started writing, I knew that I wanted to craft a song with no chorus. The original draft has a bridge, but it was always a problematic thing.

I took the chance to perform "All Swear" for a local Atlanta songwriters' group and I realized during the discussion session that 1) the bridge was not working and 2) it still needed a refrain of some kind. And hey, the purely musical refrain for "Susan" is awesome, so why not do that again?

Yes, I'm totally borrowing from myself. Or doing a retread of an idea I explored once. Shoot me. If it works, do it twice more. That's the basis of a song, isn't it?

I also changed the order of the verses after the group discussion because I realized that I was starting the story at the end, and that moving verse two to the first slot would make the story more accessible, since it establishes the setting. That first line is the one real thing in this entire song; I really did meet someone for the first time in a shadow of blue. Also, the last line "about our bed" is the zinger twist, so it's good to hold that back.

Recording of the fully-produced track was a rather organic thing. Since I wasn't under time constraints to submit this to a contest, I was able to fiddle with sounds and tones. So there are at least three different guitar tones there (I love that warbly guitar tone, which harkens to the black-and-white wild west sections of Kill Bill Volume 2 for me). And my favorite organ. And a piano. And acoustic guitars because that's where the whole thing started, right?  (Actually, recording the acoustic was a pain in the rear; I'm finger-strumming again and it was so quiet that I had to work mic positions and the gain and blah, blah blah. Eventually, I double tracked most of it just for volume.)

To make a long story short (too late!) The recording process resulted in a series of happy accidents that gave me the cool intro and that dramatic drop-off at the end of the second break.

There's probably some unfulfilled potential with the tempo change that leads into the third verse; could be a moment for a bridge or another kind of break. As it is, this track is somewhat weak on its own, but it's going to make a killer lead-in for "Where You Can Go."

Besides, some times you just have step back, brush the gunshot residue off of your sleeve and go "good enough."

Saturday, June 9, 2012


my love is a flower pressed between her sorrow and the pages
she pens to keep unbound until the morrow for sun must rise
stars must sigh charcoal twilight giving way to azure

my soul is a whisper passed along lips of secret lovers
strangers of the witching hour whose sheets fold origami passion
salty lips uncover discover recover hands that must caress
eyes that must rest upon a warm skin that should not be seen
let alone touched tasted consumed

my dream is a traitor lost along the road to Judea
long miles i have let slip between us while tracing small steps
the angel's tread of souls more blindly wise than me
for hearts must believe must feel that they pump and push and pull
our tongues entwined pressing between them this unbearable cry
the petals of a blossom tucked away in the oubliette of her Alexandria

Friday, June 8, 2012

always someone's monster: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

I've actually written about this song before, since she was crafted for SpinTunes 4.1. The challenge was two-fold, as always: right about a childhood nightmare and make liberal use of rubato. For this song, I totally nailed the first challenge and totally tanked the second but still advanced to the next round.

'Cuz it's a good song, even if it is in many ways the antithesis to the feel-good pop of Panacea.

my mother was adamant
that woman was made of steel
so one night she stole away
said she couldn't feel

my father wasn't there
his jaw slack, his eyes a-glaze
he awoke hard one day
left the porch, the house ablaze

and i tell you all of this
so you can understand

my mother always said
there are no monsters under your bed
in the closet they abide
keep them there

i am working my way on through
my family tree of twisted branches
climb on down to the tangled roots
find out where my shadow dances

i am looking for the answer
to the question you asked me
if you are always someone's monster
are you ever really free

and i tell you all of this
so you will take my hand

my mother always said
there are no monsters under your bed
in the closet they abide
keep them there

Let's be honest, there's no rubato here, at least strictly speaking. I change tempo a lot, but there's little variation within any given phrase. I just don't have the vocal control to pull of something like this:

Nonetheless, there's lots that I love about this tune, and that's why she's coming onto the album. First, I like the imagery I conjure with these words. Its both quotidian and dark, evoking those shadows we like to ignore on the clean, manicured streets of suburbia. Second, the constant tempo shifts let me (force me to?) make several sections, with lots of dynamics. Like To The Devil (and probably several other tracks, since I love dynamics), this song loves to pause and then rush forward. Third, it defies conventional songwriting structure in a productive way: Verse - Verse - Pre-chorus - Chorus - Verse - Verse - Pre-chorus - Chorus - Coda. (Yeah, that's right. When's the last time you heard a song with a coda?) Like a dream, this composition wanders into unexpected places, pivots and turns at unusual moments, explodes and then drifts away.

The updated mix has a few new touches I'll mention for the archive. I've added some more oomph to the opening with an organ part (there are two different organs in this song). I redid the vocals in the chorus because originally they dipped too far into my growl-voice. I need bombast for that part but not anger. Nailing and mixing those six bars was probably the hardest part of the entire song-creation process. Finally, I removed the echoes in the second half of each verse, and I really like how sparse it leaves that section.

The remaining tunes on my list actually require full production (why didn't I do them first, when I had the time?) But I'm well into a murder ballad with no chorus (but lots of wicked slide guitar), and actually I have a cover of song from The Books that just needs some re-arranging, so maybe that will come along soon as well. Keep an ear out, we're in the home stretch!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

To The Devil: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

Professional obligations have eclipsed my musical predilections for the past week, so I have been remiss in posting the piecemeal progress I've made towards completing it was a pleasure to burn. Nonetheless, progress there has been, and below you may find the evidence thereof.

"To The Devil" is one of my unprompted compositions, which means she arrived without call from either a Song Fight! or SpinTunes challenge, nor even during FAWM.

i spoke to the devil but he had nothing to say
cuz i had beat him down, beat him all damn day
Beelzebub came a knockin', came up right to my door
tried to whisper sweet nothin's so i put him on the floor

i spoke to the devil
i spoke with my fist
i spoke to the devil
now he's on my list

course there is what Freddy said about the black abyss
can you win that staring game and make Satan miss?
if this is that hubris thing, then just let me be
if i can make my way there blind, his blood will set me free

i spoke to the devil
i spoke to the devil
you want no truck with me

though it winds like a serpent, i can walk the path
sow the seeds of destruction, pick the grapes of wrath
i spoke to the devil but was only talkin' aloud
i am my own hemlock i weave my own shroud

i spoke to the devil
bluffed the father of lies
i spoke to the devil, boy
you better let me pass on by

i spoke to the devil
i spoke to the devil and lived
you want no truck with me

This song actually comes from a pretty dark place, so I have trouble talking about it. Let's start with structure and my trademark references.

"To the Devil" is a pretty straight-up rock song. I knew this right from the get go, and so it's lathered in dynamics, bombast and a simple chord progression. In its initial iteration, the whole vocal delivery was rather monotone. I was trying to play it cool, underlying an assured delivery with lyrics soaked in doubt and not a little self-loathing. I wanted there to be a tension between the raucous triumph of the music and the dark introspection of the words: fragile aggression.

I'm very happy with the dynamics of this song, the way it ebbs and flows, but for the new take, I knew that it need more of that. So, I redid the percussion track entirely. (Hooray for EzDrummer!) and put more energy into the chorus. The call/response in that section was a last-minute editing decision; I'm on the fence and it may not survive (entirely) the last edit before I consider the album complete.

References to literature and philosophy abound. Overall, I was thinking of Charlie Daniel's "The Devil Went Down the Georgia" as well as anti-heroes that figure in so much of Johnny's Cash's work.

"Freddy" and his "black abyss" is a nod to one Nietzsche's more famous quotes:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. (Beyond Good and Evil.)
The second half of verse two is actually a very oblique reference to Oedipus at Colonus, the third and final part of Sophocles' Theban Plays, in which the now-blinded king ruminates upon his dire fate. It's a pessimistic work, even for a tragedy. And no mention of "hemlock" could miss evoking the fate of Socrates, who was condemned to death for basically being a skeptic and "corrupting the youth" of Athens with rational thought, of all things.

The "grapes of wrath," here has nothing to do with the Steinbeck novel, but rather his source: The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Which is, in turn, a reference to Revelations 14: 19-20. I'm just part of a long chain of borrowing.

Personally, I'll manage to say that writing this song was kind of cathartic. It's hyperbolic, of course: my life is pretty good, but I had settled into a kind of mid-winter glum and channeled my shadow into a song that might make Kurt Cobain go "Dude, you have issues."

More music has been made since I've fallen quiet. Come back soon (like, tomorrow) and I'll tell you about more dark shadows that I've summoned.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

Today's offering features special guest Shanna Germain. I discovered Shanna's This Body of Work on Google Plus, and instantly fell in amazed lust with her often sexually-charged and always in-charge short work. In mid-January, she posted "Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing," and I thought "I can totally use this for FAWM material!" It never happened during the month of February, but in early March I had a track ready. Problem was, it used my low, growling baritone, which didn't quite fit with the clearly feminine point of view. So, after long weeks of gentle nudging, I got the artist herself to give me a track.

The trouble is the ship left without me. Also I cut a hole
in the sunset-tinged sail. Not a hole; a heart shape.
I almost forget they’re the same. The scissors sank like
live weights, flashing their teeth at the mackerels.
Summer ends with a settle of silver and sand.

A woman alone is an alien thing. The dock rejects her heft.
Mouths open to the sky, golden birds pray for rains
and the wormtails of truths. Wishes can break your neck
if you don’t cant your face three degrees to the right.
of the mast. Look at me, quick. There’s nowhere else to go

but down. Last night the boatman had tomorrow for eyes.
There was no place left to slot my coins. Think of that face
like the ones drawn on rice—a curio to scare the children with.
My muse slunk off with a half-cocked heel and a man
half her age. If I believed in gods, I’d fuck them all.

Once I was younger. Every word was a seaweed scrawl of bracken,
every line a breaking wave of wood. Who wants to be a bird
when I can be me? Song was never mine for pyre. My hair is spun
of golden scales. When the ship sinks, let’s say it was never my fault.
Let’s say I really wanted to go all the way.
I feel like I should tell you more about Shanna, but I also feel that I don't really have the right to pin her down like that. Besides, she's done a very good job of it herself:
First and foremost, she is a leximaven of the highest order, exploring her love of the written word through a multitude of formats and styles. Shanna (pronounced like ‘Shaun’ with a sigh of pleasure at the end) also claims the titles of (in no particular order):  girl geek, lust/slut, wanderlust-er, avid walker and biker, tree kisser, knife licker, steak-maker, book-nerd and Schrodinger’s Brat.
With a whole lot of writing years under her belt (or her collar, depending on the day), Shanna’s poems, essays, short stories, novellas, articles and more have found homes in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, books and websites.
I have long been a fan of spoken word pieces, that peculiar subgenre/step-chield of audio books and songs. But they can be tricky things; it's not a mere matter of recording a poetry recitation (which this offering led me to discover is no "mere" matter.) A spoken word piece is about ambiance, closer to Ani Difranco's ethereal jazz riffs or the wonderful weirdness of Coil.

For this composition, I went to my favorite sample junkyard: SampleSwap. Every last bit of percussion that you hear is from there; about three or four different pieces, with varying amounts of reverb and other effects. With the right groove underway, the rest of the composition feel easily into place. There's no chorus or any kind of refrain, but I knew that I wanted to somehow subtly translate the numbering of the stanzas in Shanna's poem. Thus, those pounding guitar breaks. (Over which, inevitably, I couldn't resist re-sampling some vocal parts; so, now there is a refrain.)

Musically, "Soul Clap" is all about dynamics, moving from that heart-beat thrum to a tinkling acoustic to the pounding distortion of the refrain guitars, and then back again. It's also about theme and variation, as each verse features the chord progression and mini-melody in a slightly different way. That wonderful whine throughout, by the way, is a MIDI-cello with a heap of effects on it.

I am very grateful for Shanna agreeing to do the vocals. I love to collaborate, especially with women who lend my work a much need variance in tone.

This week, real life and its real job rear their heads again, so I'm not sure what I'll be able to do in the studio. Have no fear, however, more to come!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Other Ways: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

During FAWM, I pull from anywhere and everywhere for inspiration: the message boards, other artists, my dreams, my library, even the headlines. And this past February marked the sudden and tragic death of a pop music icon.

So, "Other Ways" is a song about Whitney Houston, or my imagined version of her.

she had other ways

i once knew a woman
she would not tell me her name
she lived down in Atlanta, an' every night
she burned that town with shame
with the voice of an angel
but a soul as black as pitch
should could sing for her supper
but could not love herself rich

she had other ways

oh she had one them mansions
ponce de leon midtown way
an' all that she ever wanted
she had to fight for every day
she was proud of them bruises
she could take the abuse
her nose, her veins, her heart, her tears
all dried up from use

she had other ways

up on the TV there
are a million of her ghosts
the pundits all mourn her passing
the divas raise a toast
so we all held a party
to come 'round and crown her heir
long live the queen of sorrow
from her snow-white chair

she had other ways

I started this past FAWM with the idea that I could generate the most amount of songs by only recording demos. After all, it's not "Album Recording Month," it's "Album Writing Month." The thing is, years of Song Fighting have made it so that recording is part of my songwriting process. It's like a ritual: get the bare bones of a tune down with an acoustic guitar, then open up my recording software and start laying tracks: drum, bass, guitar, (other instruments as needed) vox, lead, backing vox, pretty much in that order most of the time. So, for "Other Ways," I gave up on the idea of just doing a demo. It felt much more comfortable anyway.

As always, there are a few touchstones for the sounds I was going for. Though I had never even seen here in the city, I knew that Whitney lived in my new hometown of Atlanta, and I wanted to stay with a southern-rock vibe, like "Sittin' in the Back Seat." Instead of Tom Petty, this time I drew from some Black Crows, especially with the organ tone and sparse but rocking guitars. The organ actually isn't my usual MDA ePiano, but rather DSK's B3x with a liberal dash of my favorite reverb.

There's a lot of very uncool things about Whitney Houston the real person: drug abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism. But there's also a lot of powerful and uplifting things about her as well. How strong do you have to be as a black woman in today's society to pull yourself up to the zenith of pop-culture stardom? I wanted to focus that mixed myth of a powerful woman with a shadow that she couldn't shake.

This chorus really stretches my vocals. I can't count the takes it took me to hit those right. (In fact, if you can keep a secret, those four choruses are actually only two takes. When you nail it, you can just copy paste, flip the backing vox any no one's the wiser.) Whoa unto me should I ever attempt this live.

I'm most proud of the dynamics of this song. It starts very strong, and the chorus is very simple, but not facile. And I feel that I've succeeded in maintaining the listener's interest throughout with varying levels of volume and a mixture of instruments. In fact, at the moment, this is the main contender for the first track of the album.

Plenty more brewing for next week. I have my final FAWM composition in the works, as well as another special guest coming on board. See you then!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sittin' in the Backseat: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

For this album, I have a few guests stopping in. The words for "Sittin' in the Backseat" were written by a talented lyricist at FAWM who goes by Shay. I hooked up with her work last year with "No Excuse, No Reason." That turned out so well that I knew I wanted to snatch up some of her work again.

Sittin' in the backseat, leanin' on the window
I can see your lips move but I can't hear you
Over the stereo

Puttin' all your anger down on the floorboard
You don't even realize, starin' into his eyes
You are a victim of your own accord
Upset like the weather ruffled up your feathers
It's a big ole fiery mess; can't feel my feet in this wreck,
An' it's ten seconds 'til we're severed

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
I can see your lips move but I can't hear you
Over the stereo

Tempers roared like dragon's breath, n' I came face to face with death
Couldn't run the other way; numb to the core, I just prayed
Held on so tight to my breath ...
He loves you, don't you know; promised he'd never let you go
I saw him pull you from this wreck an' I hoped for one more breath
To say I love you so ...

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
It's getting cold now, I'll see you somehow
Heaven's calling me to go

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
I don't see your lips move, no, I can't hear you
Over the stereo

A few things drew me to these lyrics. First, I like the story and its ambiguities. You get the sense of a love-triangle here, but how does the narrator feel about that? There's some distance in the chorus that stands in tension with the verses. Secondly, the imagery is great. Shay has a knack for taking up everyday images (like a car ride) and using them as ... well, vehicles for wonderful metaphors. "Upset like the weather ruffled up your feathers" is fantastic. And that leads me to the next thing that drew me to these lyrics: the abundance of internal rhymes. I love unconventional poetic play like that.

Creating what is effectively an accompaniment to someone else's ideas is always a challenge. I'm sure that Shay writes with a certain rhythm, if not melody, in mind, but she's adamant about giving her collaborator's a free hand. For this work, the particular challenge was that there isn't a clear chorus. It's all written in tercets with lots of internal rhymes. Indeed, for a long time I had little more than a tenuous chord progression. Over the course of nearly two weeks (that's nearly half of FAWM), I fished about for a "sound." Was this a folk song? The car motif didn't seem to fit that genre. A country tune? The metaphors were just too poetic for that vein.

With a mixture of counter-culture glee and dread I decided this would be a rock song, and that I'd have to ask Tom Petty over for some crooning and composition advice. It was at this point that I really found the chorus, which in retrospect is obvious: any tercet that opens with "Sittin' in the backseat." To provide some variation, I added a break/solo with a dramatic tempo change.

I finished principle recording for this during FAWM, but there are some sigfinicant changes that I've made since, especially with the vocals:

In my "Tom Petty" state of mind, I was looking for something low-key and rich on the vocal harmonies. As I put these down, I could tell there wasn't enough energy there but I couldn't find a good timbre that fit in the tempo. It felt like I was yelling or just forcing things, especially in the chorus. (You don't hear that in the demo; it didn't work, so it didn't make the mix.) This first recording was good enough for FAWM, but I knew I had to revisit things for the album. I suppose it was really just a matter of time away from the mixing board, and the decisions to put away the Petty-esque smoothness of my original intentions and pick up my signature growl.

Another significant change is the turnarounds: they're gone. I always wanted this song to have a lot of dynamics, but upon review, the turnarounds are just dead weight, especially that piano-only riff after the first chorus. It's very pretty, but it doesn't fit with the rising crescendo of the story, and the slow-down for the solo works better musically and narratively. I was kind of sad to see the first solo go, since it's hard for me to write good guitar solos, but sometimes you have to step aside and do what's right for the song.

I promised a song about Whitnet Houston this week and I'm ready to deliver. Come back soon!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Where You Can Go: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

Ever had an unhealthy obsession? One that you would follow the ends of the Earth just to stop off the edge? 'Fess up, we all have. "Where You Can Go" is the next track for my album-in-progress it was a pleasure to burn. She was written for a January Song Fight! Like any good, fiery obsession, I begged, borrowed and stole to make her what she is; this essay is my post-modern musical mea culpa.
 Picture by zetson:

oh i look for wisdom
in every word you say
but there is only madness
when you lead me astray
you don't really mean it
your intentions never cruel
but you are made of matches
i am made of fuel

wherever you can go
whatever you may need
whatever you may want
however high the fee

my good friend leo tolstoy
wrote of anna based on me
he said you gotta be perfect
he said you gotta be free
and chuck bent over backwards
that soused up albatross
well, he said much the same thing:
steal away from loss

wither thou would go
i will follow; i am blind
however hard the blow
these are the ties that grind

wither thou would go
i will cleave to thee
however hard the blow
however deep the sea

Songs usually have a specific flash-point for me. "Where You Can Go" was a combination of a cool bass line and my songwriting surroundings. For the guitar riff and overall feel of the song, my main inspiration was the Toadie's "Possum Kingdom."

Turns out that for the bass line I stumbled upon Midnight Oil's riff in "Beds are Burning."

Hey, if you're going to unintentionally rip something off, make it something good!

When not humming to myself on my scooter ride home, I do most of my songwriting in my library. For this tune, all I had to do was turn my head to the left:

Yes, that's Tolstoy's Anna Karenina wedged at the end of all that Tolkein. Anna and her unhappy marriage; Anna and her fatal obsession with sex, happiness and freedom. Since my mind works my association, I lept from there to the Book of Ruth and Ruth's devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth has one of my favorite lines from anything, "Wither thou goest, I will cleave to thee." I love that mixed implication of love and violence. Finally, no post-modern mash-up of mine would be complete without some reference to Charles Baudelaire's Albatross, that melancholic raison d'être for poets. This is more than just a pedantic assortment of borrowings: they come together to highlight the desperate longing that I want to express.

Since this song debuted at Song Fight! I was able to receive some constructive criticism. Originally, the verses were flipped: I opened with the "Leo Tolstoy" line. Many reviews noted "This is a rock song; why are you opening with classic literature?!" Well, the references stay, because they are the heart of the lyric for me and I enjoy the contrast of Pop and "High" culture. However, such a specific reference, especially right out of the gate, can be limiting. The second verse is equally strong, so I decided to lead with that for this new version.

This song always wanted a guitar solo to round out the composition and make it fit better in the rock genre I'm using. I have the hardest time composing solos, which are always more about tone and rhythm than melody. I probably spent more time writing that simple line than the lyrics. Lyrics are easy more me; interesting melodies - no matter the instrument - are hard.

This is one of the few songs I've written with a prechorus. Songwriting competitions have taught me to get to the good part of your tune and don't meander about with the unnecessary. But I've been stretching my composition muscles lately, and from the beginning I knew that I wanted something of anti-chorus, just a pure vocal melody. (Also, Nirvana's "Lithium" is awesome - and there's another thing I've stolen.)

I promised up-tempo songs last week, and Panacea certainly delivered. Technically, "Where You Can Go" is only 104 bpm, but it's much more intense, darker and rocking than the other songs I've finished so far. Plus, it was a good break from the tumultuous time that was recording "Panacea."

Plenty more to come! For the next offerings, I'm planning to head to Atlanta (I wrote a song about Whitney Houston, how weird is that?) and other things southern (Tom Petty stopped by with a guest lyricist).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Panacea: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

The story of "Panacea" comes from all over the place. But her recording process was a lesson in rhythm and just letting things flow.

From Wikimedia Commons
I wrote this song for FAWM this year (and for the curious, here's the demo). I have a hard time writing "happy" songs; I guess I take myself too seriously. But "Panacea" was one of those tunes that sneaks up on you and goes "Surprise! Take me home!" This is literally what happened; the first few lines and the melody came to me as I strapped on my helmet to ride home. I had to sing to myself the whole way so I didn't forget.

she sits all day in the sun
she's in love with everyone
she plays out in the rain
she's the cure for all of your pain

i see you

her smile can melt the clouds
her song can draw a crowd
catch a glance from her emerald eyes
watch her soar through azure skies

i see you

she's everyone's darling starling
when the sunset is drawing near
from her strawberry throne
she always goes home alone

i see you

Originally, I was drawing from the Indigo Girls, especially their early simple stuff like you can hear on 1200 Curfews. Hence the doubled vox and the bare acoustic guitar. But after cutting the quick demo during FAWM, things changed.

I was always happy with "Panacea," and it was easy to put her on the short list for the new album. While planning the full-fledged recording, I had an epiphany in the shower one morning: she's in 6/4 time. Not 3/4 time, not 6/8 and certainly not the much more popular 4/4. 6/4. It make percussion a conundrum. What does 6/4 sound like? Is there a back-beat? Is the downbeat on 1 and 3? Does it split 4 and 2 (or 2 and 4)? It doesn't help that EZDrummer doesn't have 6/4 samples.

Enter a new songwriting touchstone. I recently discovered Pearl and the Beard, and marveled at their lush vocal harmonies and unconventional instrumentation. For a long time I've planned to record a song in their style, and after one false start, I believe I managed it here. The key, actually, is the wonderful stomps and claps like in Douglas Douglass. (And so, it turns out, there is a back-beat!) It also turns out that if you tweak pre-programmed 6/8 beats, they work pretty well, especially at 160 bpm.

That's right: one hundred and sixty beats per minute. I think this is the fastest song I've ever recorded. It's also one of the most fun, and one whose recording took me to neat and unexpected places once I let it. After the weird time signature, the biggest obstacle was actually the acoustic guitar part. It's fast; too fast, it turns out, for me to strum with a pick. This is important, because recording a clean, clear finger-strummed part is hard. I fought and cried and swore, but in the end, that bloody rhythm won out. Finger strummed in full up-tempo glory. (There's all kinds of mic positioning and EQ to get that lovely tone, if you need to know.) In the midst of my guitar battle, weird and wonderful things happened. My organ tone showed up and wanted to play. A bouncy little bass line grooved its way into the chorus, but insisted on being demure for the verse. I fiddled an diddled with those turn-arounds, and the fake ending was a fluke that made me go "Ooh, nice! That stays."

In the end, the odd collection of disparate parts has come together in wonderful way. "Panacea" part folk ode, part hip-hop sampling and part Brookly hipster groove. Whatever she is, she makes me happy. I hope you enjoy!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Occupy My Heart: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

"Occupy My Heart" was written for a November 2011 Song Fight! She's evolved significantly since her inception and, for me, has become as a study in songwriting concision and making choices that serve the song and not an arbitrary set of goals.

Late October/early November last year was was a high-tide moment for the Occupy Movement. In typical Song Fight! snark, the Fightmasters gave us the chance to be topical, personal or both. The latest version is significantly different from my original.

there ain't no permits needed
no one's wearin' riot gear
i don't have a sign to wave
i just want you here
but i'll take your red tent cities
i'll take your 99
i'll take your white-hot anger
i just want your hand in mine

and it's funny cuz you're next to me
but we're a long time apart
come on over, the space is free
why don't you occupy my heart

the world is going down (in flames!)
and i spend my nights alone (drinkin' whislkey!)
there may be a body there
but you are long, long gone
come back for the revolution
come back and sing along
come back for the retribution
come back - i was wrong

and it's funny cuz you're next to me
but we're a long time apart
come on over, the space is free
why don't you occupy my heart

I was always satisfied with the concept behind this tune, which allowed me to both be topical and craft a personalized twist on the politics of the moment. The simple but fun guitar riff forms a great foundation, and I get the chance to break out my slide guitar obsession again. However, at the time, I was seeking to challenge myself as a songwriter and singer, so the Song Fight! submission had several elements that I've removed or rearranged. In the end, I decided they were present because I wanted something that seemed sophisticated and unconventional; they didn't serve the song best.

There are two major structural changes. The first draft had a bridge:
i've been drinkin' these long nights
drinkin' whiskey all alone
drinkin' down to the bottom of my soul
i don't know what's got you so riled
but i know it' was wrong of me to say
"wait a while"
But the melody isn't all that different from the verse, and it basically says the same thing as the second verse but with less poetry. I ditched the singing for a break-down section that let me do some minimalist guitar noodling. Also, while the basic guitar vamp is pretty nifty, the best part of this song is the chorus. So, why not lead with that, giving me a chance to highlight that slide riff? Besides, it starts the song on an upbeat note instead of a typical low-key intro section.

Overall, the first draft is busier and (overly) energetic. The slide guitar has an overblown delay effect that chews up real-estate, and there's my favorite organ tone again, adding a nifty back-beat emphasis to the chorus. The vocals are hotter, more desperate and simply more fragile.

Still, those harmonies with the background vox are pretty cool. Those stayed, but for the remix, I went in with the mantra that less is more. I pulled back the desperation of the vocal performance for a more resigned feeling that played to my strengths rather than challenge them with few dividends. I removed the organ entirely; it worked, but not completely, and I have plenty of other tunes that feature it in more interesting ways. It's replaced with a MIDI harmonica bit that feels more appropriate to the country-blues genre I'm evoking.

What remains after the gutting and transformation of the original tune is something a lot less ambitious, but more direct and engaging. I was able to nail the conflicted melancholy of the protagonist more effectively, and I'm rather proud of the lead guitar parts since my proficiency with such things is rather limited.

With these first three entries, there's been a distinct laid-back country vibe. It's the running theme for it was a pleasure to burn, but I don't want to fall into that trap where each song on an album sounds too similar. Next week, I'll shake things up with a few up-tempo offerings from this year's FAWM.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gravity: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

These past two days, I've been visiting with an old friend: "Gravity." I wrote this song for swim for shore, an album I released in Fall, 2008.

There's so much that I like about "Gravity" that I wanted to revisit it, tighten up my vocal performance and give it a fuller production.

Here's the original recording:

And here's the version I just finished:

the world has come together
the world will fly apart
seeking dreams we chase the shadow
that lies within our heart
word for word I know the story
the tales in colors stark
down the path unknowing known
we stumble in the dark

and your gravity
how it pulls at me
does my gravity
pull you free

in orbit round we circle
this azure mass untamed
the heavens all a-singing
our passions all aflame
oh supplications muted
we strain to hear the tune
that single chord we have forgot
that rest we left too soon

and your gravity
how it pulls at me
does my gravity
pull you free

what have you forsaken?
my god e'er lost in pain
suffer long the quiet aching
and listen to the rain
blood will wash our misdirection
as it falls upon the ground
we are now all pulled together
by one divine sound

and your gravity
how it pulls at me
does my gravity
pull you free

Lyrically, I was inspired (and continue to be) by the work of Leonard Cohen, the way that he blends Judeo-Christian imagery with longing and Existentialism. I also have a long-standing fascination with physics and the way that our mathematical understanding about the universe can serve as a metaphor for how we relate to each other as flesh-and-blood human beings. The changes I made in the new version are pretty minor; I tweaked a few words, especially in the chorus for variety. But I was always happy with the core of this song.

The chord progression in the verse is somewhat symmetrical:

the [C#m] world has [E] come [B] together
the [C#m] world will [E] fly [A] apart
[C#m] seeking [E] dreams we [A] chase the shadow
that [C#m] lies with [E] in our [B] heart

This was tricky to record since I prefer cyclical patterns, like in the chorus (a simple F# - Emaj9 - B). The whole thing is capo'd on the fourth fret, so these fancy chords are actually pretty simple: Am - C - G (or F) for the verse and D - Cmaj9 - G for the chorus.

I'm a sucker for slide guitar and definitely wanted to keep that slinky lead, but decided for a new intro that is more dynamic and even a little mysterious. After losing my old slide in New York last year, I finally cracked and picked up a new one. It sounds so much better than the cigarette lighters I've used in the meantime.

In the original recording, I achieved that lovely distorted organ sound with a Shadow acoustic pickup, kind of like this one, and then ran the output through Florida Music Company's free TubeAmp VST plug-in. It was a neat trick, since I was able to record the same performance: one input from the pick up, another from a USB microphone. TubeAmp returns in the new recording, still processing the overdriven guitar in the chorus. But that's my trusty ESP Ltd electric guitar now, and it's doubly overdriven, since I record through a Line 6 Pod UX1 and use a great preset I've dubbed "Prince Corvette power chords."

Since 2008, I've accrued several tools beyond the Pod UX1. The most important are a pair of GLS Audio microphones, but the toy I'm really excited about is EZDrummer. I'm still learning the finer points of this program, but it has made creating engaging, dynamic percussion so much easier than before, when I was programming every last hit by hand with leafDrums. (You can hear a leafDrums composition on "Only You Behind," the subject of Entry the First of this production diary, and on the original recording of "Gravity" as well.) I've always struggled with fills and simple-but-interesting drum parts and now EZDrummer's vast library of samples gives me all sorts of great-sounding bits. Plus, tweaking the samples is a piece of cake; just crack open the MIDI editor in my DAW (I use REAPER) and add the touches I need or shave the bits I don't want.

The other newcomer is MDA's ePiano VSTi, which sounds nothing a piano, but produces a fabulous organ tone that I then ran through an string ensemble pad effect from DaSample's GlaceVerb. That's the wonderful glow in the background.

There must be something about the keys of E and B, because I've always felt very comfortable singing this melody, even as it stretches my limited, low range. Recording this, I tried a new method, placing the microphone higher than my nose-line, forcing me to sing upwards. It made achieving strong, clear notes a lot easier. I still have a funny stance with my right leg way out in front, like I'm getting ready to run or attack someone, but that's my "energy stance." It works.

Interestingly, the new version of "Gravity" is one of my most populated. Most of my songs have eight to ten individual tracks. "Gravity" has sixteen! Some of them are very small: a few bars for those organ crescendos or the third verse backing vocals. Still, there are many elements and it was a challenge to blend them all appropriately. I'm very satisfied with the end-product, which has a full texture but manages to highlight different parts as needed.

Looking at this entry, there was a lot of recording technique at play, more than I normally employ. Because "Gravity" was such a set part of my repertoire, I think that I was able to focus on that aspect of song-craft. Thanks for coming along! Follow, bookmark, what-have-you, there's plenty more to come!