July 10, 2003
Yet More Song Talk
This blog began life as an unapologetic warblog, but, like so many things, it has had a will of its own and has refused to remain focused. (I've tried to improve that faulty attention span of mine, to no avail.) You may have noticed that it has lately become something of a songblog. That's because, with the new album and all, I've been thinking a lot about songs. Sorry if it's boring. (That's a standing apology, by the way: use as required.)
A couple of days ago, I mentioned the figurative obstacle course that stands between the album of the mind and its eventual approximation as an actual album that can be listened to, played at slumber parties, bought, stolen, autographed, trashed, vilified, sold back to the record store, etc.
The first big, big trap, the bank of razor-sharp rotating knives at the mouth of the tunnel, is the list of songs itself. We currently have 15 "band songs." (By that I mean, songs that we're practicing playing as a band in some form, as opposed to acoustic/drumless or synthetically-generated tunes. Band members contribute to such productions, of course, but the arrangements are not conceived to be recorded by a traditional rock and roll ensemble.) One of the "band songs" is "Big Strange, Beautiful Hammer," on which the jury is out: it may end up as a "band song" or it may not. There are currently two other songs from "eight little songs" on the "band song" list: "The Boyfriend Box" and "London."
I want to have a few non-"band songs" on the record. "Jill" is pretty much definite at this point. I would like to have at least a couple of others. We can only afford to record 14 songs. (Plus, I don't particularly like long albums, though we've made some-- that's one reason I don't like them probably.)
That means that we'll have to cut at least four "band songs" from the list. But I love them all. I hate eating my own children, I really do. Two of them have pretty much proven themselves to be runts, and I don't feel too bad about piercing their little feet with a sharp iron rod and leaving them in the wilderness to be devoured by wild animals (or alternately, to return one day to deliver unto me a well-deserved, tragic vengeance.) In the interest of ensuring the survival of the others, they must be sacrificed. I realize that. But how am I supposed to decide which others to destroy in the prime of life?
Another consideration: the songs without full-on drums will be way, way less expensive to record. So the more "non-band" songs there are, the more resources can be devoted to the "band songs." Maybe we should adjust the ratio, replace another "band song" with an acoustic tune, and have just a little more money available to make "London" sound really special. (How many songs would we have to cut in order to be able to afford Channon's bagpipe 'n' string section idea? It's a frightening question that conjures the theoretical notion of an album containing a negative number of songs and makes my brain hurt.) So another perfectly good, blameless song will be sentenced to have its quirky, adorable head summarily severed from its elegant little neck? What I'm saying is, it's tricky.
Dave Bug of Geek Life had the interesting suggestion (in this post's comments) that Cyber-Busking this stuff be augmented by posting lyrics alone for a change instead of recorded demos. "It would be fun," he said, "to see how audience members who knew the words but not the tune would attempt to sing along." That would be indeed be fun. And as I mentioned in response:
Making up your own tune to someone else's lyrics is a great, fun exercise, and can even be illuminating. (It works better when the lyrics are good-- and in this context "good" means that they scan and lend themselves to melding with a melody.)
I used to do this myself as a stretching experiment, before I learned to read/guess at music notation well enough to spoil it: get a sheet music book of songs you've never heard, play the chords and imagine a tune and rhythmic phrasing that would "fit." A few songs that ended up on MTX albums started life that way, in fact.
I think I read an interview with Stephen Merritt where he claimed that many of his songs were written using a variation of this method: lyrics written to music being played in pubs or clubs, then set to his own music when he gets home. Something like that.
Anyway I threw out a few titles in a perhaps pathetic attempt to spark some kind of "voting" situation, but only Dave Bug (bless him) took me up on it. The will of the voter must be heeded, of course and accordingly, I'm posting the lyrics to "She Runs Out when the Money Does."
This is one of the 15 songs. It's not one of the "runts," but it's new enough that it remains an open question whether it's worth pursuing at this late stage and with so many other options.
Herewith, the lyrics:
She Runs Out when the Money Does
You must have loved her really bad
at least you gave it all you had
which wasn't much, but now let me guess:
now you've got even less
when your money ran out, so did she
we go way back, and believe me
I can't say I'm surprised
'cause she runs out when the money does
there's nothing there where the money was
she won't be coming back because
she runs out when the money does
It only took real true love
for you to be made a fool of
and isn't that what love is all about?
being hopelessly maxed out
so you curse and you pray
to try to bring back yesterday
you know, I feel the same way--
but yesterday is already spent
and she's wherever the money went
I hate to break it to you, kid
but she ran out when the money did.
Hey. Hey. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
She runs out when the money does.
She runs out when the money does
and she figured out where the money was
now everything is gone because
she runs out when the money does
© Dr. Frank, 2003, Itching Powder Music (BMI)
Posted by Dr. Frank at July 10, 2003 09:33 PM
Your blog isn't boring. We like YOU, Dr. Frank.
Worry not. Write what you will. :)
Michael's right. You are the lyrical genious and master of the chords. The songs already sound awesome and anything that you think that would make them better would only blow the rest of us out of the water!
--p.s. Have to give you extra props on "London", I can't stop listening to and singing that song!
If it were me, I wouldn't do any fewer than 12 "band" songs. "Big Strange Beautiful Hammer" is a title that doesn't really lend itself to being recorded sans drums, though I guess one might be tempted to go solo with it in an attempt at switcheroonery. But those things have a way of seeming a lot more clever for the first five minutes than they do for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. And of course "London" and "The Boyfriend Box" need to be done with the band. 12-2 seems sane. Don't get sucked into the "solo is cheaper" stuff. As much as money affects the creative process, you still have to work to record and produce the songs the way they need to be done as much as you're able to, even when it means, as it usually does, cutting the corners you can most creatively "afford" to cut for starters, and moving on to dropping your slightly less ambitious ideas as the clock keeps ticking. Re-inventing the wheel can get frustrating after - what is it, 17 years of recording? - but you don't have a choice so you might as well try. But you can't start stripping away entire musicians from the process due to a low budget. I mean, you can, but really, you just can't.
Ben , believe it or not, I hadn't considered the angle of the "Hammer" + no drums irony. (This is an irony that's sort of included in the song itself, embodied in the title.) The main consideration with that song is whether we can come up with a band arrangement that will be an improvement on the demo arrangement, which has qualities that I like quite a lot. I see it three possible ways: (a) a "cleaned-up" version of the demo; (b) an acoustic/folkie band treatment, vageuly along the lines of something the Pentangle might have done; (c) a more aggressive, electric guitar-driven version. I rule out (b) since it's quite simply beyond our competence as a band. (c) is proving to be pretty tough as well. The Rolling Stones recorded a "tough and nasty" version of "Play with Fire" called "Mess with Fire" but in the end opted for the the kinder gentler version (wisely, in my opinion.) I see this as the same sort of thing.
As for the others, deciding on how to arrange the songs isn't totally, or solely, determined by the budget, of course. I wanted to bring up the issue, which doesn't seem to be considered too often when people argue about what bands should or shouldn't be doing, and to illustrate it with examples from my stupid life.
Mostly, though, it's trying to figure out what is going to be best for the song. I like "Jill" as a single voice, minimal presentation because it's more intimate and arguably more suited to the scenario-- though it's possible to take another approach, as my pal Chuck Prophet did when he recorded it. i like that version, too, but there are times when you leave the honky-tonkin to those who know how. (Other times, of course, you recklessly charge into areas where you don't belong. Up to you, of course.)
Channon, the thing is, I would *love* to have a properly orchestrated string part in that song. I've always harbored a desire to use strings, as well as a smoldering, bitter resentment that my station in show business precludes it. Like everybody, I guess. "Naomi" was originally going to have strings, since there was this possibility of a good string quartet donating their time because of some connection or other. It fell through, so we had to go with the multi-tracked trumpet + synth that we ended up with. When I hear the song in my head, I always hear the string part, as though we had actually recorded it. This is so much the case that when I hear the actual recording I'm literally surprised when the second chorus begins and it's "missing." Where's the kaboom? There's supposed to be a big kaboom there...
Hehe, your "where's the kaboom?" reminded me of a mix tape a friend made for me a couple years ago, which included the Queers' "I Can't Get Over You." I already knew that song from Don't Back Down, but every time the version rolls around on my mix tape, it's Joe singing lead and Lisa Marr singing only in the background: a juxtaposition of vocal roles, compared to the album version. Always throws me off. I still don't know where that Bizarro-world version comes from.
The difference, of course, is that I didn't make that song, whereas you made yours, and are probably a lot more surprised than I am when that part in "Naomi" fails to 'kaboom.'
Good times, good times.
Seconding Michael's comments;
Some of us "aspiring songwriters" enjoy reading the mind-workings of a tried and true songwriter.
some of my favorite mtx songs have been "non-band" songs...and i think yr solo album shows you know how to pick which ones they should be...
I agree with Brian. I Don't Need you Now is probably my favorite MTX song.
I love your posts about music. Hell, if you reprinted the phone book here, I would read it.
Does this mean you're changing formats? Because I've been visiting this site pretty much exclusively for the porn.
I can hear the off beat strumming and minor chords delightfully dancing all over the place already...maybe I'll have a go at putting some music together for this and sending you a recorded 4 track version. The possbilibities...regardless, I'm sure I'll like you're version much, much better!
Frank, doing an aggressive, (c) version of Hammer would probably be overkill. The lyrics are so strong and resonant it calls for a subtle, complementary musical touch. I'm not sure about "no drums", that sounds potentially interesting, but definitely "few drums", maybe a single brush-snare part if that's doable.
I'm wondering about your comment about not liking long albums. I wonder, is that a genre thing? Is rock and roll still measured primarily in album units? I don't buy a lot of rock/pop/punk records (my buying habits tend to veer towards re-issues of old big bands and movie soundtracks), but it seems to me that the changes in technology should change how we think about albums and songs. I mean, when we were kids, we bought these big frisbees of vinyl that invited us to play them the whole way through (at least one side anyway). Now, with iPods, mp3 players, and even garden variety CD players, listeners can skip, shuffle, and customize their songs in countless ways. (How many times have you heard someone say "track number six is my favorite!") To me, this makes the idea of an album as a unit less relevant.
Again, this may be the result of my ignorance or naivete, but that's how I feel. As a consumer, when I see a CD packed with 23 songs/70 minutes, I feel a lot less hesitant to buy it. Especailly if it's by MTX! I'd love a CD of yours filled with studio chatter, false starts, demo versions, or just lots and lots of songs. But hey, I respect your choices and I'll buy two copies of whatever you put out there.
She Runs Out When The Money Does.
Frank, this song is a bit perplexing in the same manner that "Bitter Homes and Gardens" was. The sound could have a country "sound", but in the end it turns out to be way too poetic and intelligent to be a "country" song. I haven't listened much to alt-country, so I can't compare it to that genre. Don't get me wrong, I love "Bitter Homes and Gardens", and it did have a country "sound" but it was way too complex and intelligent even though a few "country" words were used i.e. "a thousand pardons". In the end, I say "if you think the song will work and believe that it will sound cool, then go for it. I probably couldn't imagine the sound of Bitter Homes and Gardens, but it turned out sounding pretty damn good."
I don't get optimism from "Yesterday Rules". I get brooding, regret and longing. I'm thinking that maybe yesterday is a harsher mistress than tomrrow is--Yesteray Rules the thoughts and actions of both today and tomorrow, and there's no going back (regretfully).
"Sounds Great, Let's Move On" is clever, especially if you're moving away from the "Pop Punk" pigeonhole. Also, the phrase "Let's Move On" has a sort of "Don't Cry" quality about it--as if you're saying "let's move on, there's no use crying over spilled milk." One drawback--the title expresses a certain glibness or "throwaway" quality that you may not want to convey, given the fact that you've worked really hard on this album.
I suppose "nailing the clams" is out of the question.