December 25, 2011

30 Songs #22 - FM Blues: People Can Be Weird About Their First Band

The Clap at the Aliso Ice Palace, December 1996: Kevin, Keir, Adam, and Bryn. After almost 15 years, we re-formed in 2010 as Radblaster.

Way back in the last century (circa May/June 1996), my first band was called The Clap. We became the Mojo Wire a bit later. I bought my first bass guitar a few months earlier, and my brother and two of his friends asked me to be their bass player when I got home from UCSB (I was a freshman and they were all still in high school). We played dumb, dirty blues songs, recorded in an amateurish way, with simple goals: to crack each other up and make lots of noise. We also played some killer surf instrumentals (both covers and originals), also mostly twelve-bars—and so our sound developed a weirdly unique, raggedly retro sound. It wasn't anything to get excited about, but we did exactly that—and had a lot of fun, which is really what it's all about, of course.

Most of our initial originals were either Adam's or Bryn's songs—"12:15 Blues," "Your Mama's a Ho," "Long Black Leather Boots," stuff like that—and though I wrote a few riffs and otherwise helped out where I could, I didn't write lyrics at first. Well, I did…but I never considered them "finished" enough to present to the band. My original attempts at writing lyrics were basically juvenilia, which is kind of weird, because at 19 I was the oldest of us, and had already been away at school for a year—I should have purged all the silly teenage emotional silliness years before that, right? I don't think I kept any of it, which is just as well, because if I recall correctly it was pretty awful.

Since direct, honest lyrics didn't come so easily, I went at it sideways—with goofy parodies and tired clichés—and just didn't worry about making "serious art." I wasn't ever gonna be as spontaneously funny as Bryn and Adam, but my stuff seemed to work pretty well, considering what we were playing: retro-fifties and sixties music that wouldn't get us too many fans in the age of grunge, G-funk, punky metal, noodly jam bands, and a silly ska revival. So the first several sets of lyrics I ever wrote weren't exactly noteworthy, but of that original batch, we ended up using two—which happen to be this week's (and next week's) "30 Songs" posts. I don't have a lot to say about these, but that's kinda handy since they fall on holiday weekends and I'll either be too busy or too lazy to get verbose. Anyway, the first one is called "FM Blues," and it goes like this:

Chock-full of cheesy, vaguely-bluesy clichés—including my Enchantment-Under-The-Sea-Dance bassline and what our roommate Ryan Hart dubbed "the Wrigley Field baseball organ." It is what it is, I guess—a late-1997 recording for the first Mojo Wire demo album. By that point the song (like all the others on that album) was about a year old. "FM Blues" showed up near the end of our wave of tunes, and that was soon enough to get it recorded at our third-ever rehearsal in September 1996, at Kevin's house. Adam recorded it, using a Radio Shack microphone. We used these itty bitty 15-watt amps, and positioned our one microphone in between them and the drum kit. Bryn's keyboard was loud enough to come in relatively clear, but we were lucky to get any vocal signal at all:

mp3: "FM Blues" (rehearsal demo, 9/96)

Ah, glorious mono. Clearly, we had not yet discovered (and would not, for a few years actually) the "stereo panning" concept. We tried to update that demo (along with several others) about 8 months later, using Bryn's keyboard and its pre-programmed drum machine:

mp3: "FM Blues" (drum machine demo, 9/97)

Still in mono, still half-assedly goofy (and less funny than it's supposed to be)—especially when you figure in the lyrics:

"FM Blues"

Well, my life's become a bore

They don't play my song on the radio no more
Yeah my life's become a chore
They don't play my song on the radio no more
I thought times were tough, but now I know for sure

Don't play it on no station, don't see it on MTV
Please mister D.J., have mercy on me

I said what you're doing is a crime
if you don't spin my record one more time
I can't play it on the jukebox
cause you know I ain't got a dime

Well my baby, she done left me

and my best friend he just died
but the day that my good music stopped
was the day I broke down and cried
You just gotta help me, help me get back all my pride 

Please man, just play my song again
cause you ain't got nothin' to lose
Please man, just play my song again
cause you ain't got nothin' to lose
If it's the last thing that you do my friend
you gotta cure me of my FM blues

Harmless, silly stuff, sure—which is basically what "the blues" had become in America by 1996. Now that I think about it, I can pick it apart a little. Take that bit where the narrator is so self-obsessed with getting airplay that he counts a failure to do that as even sadder than getting dumped or even the death of a friend. It's Rob Gordon from High Fidelity to the nth degree: more concerned with his relationship with music than with actual life and real people, and…nah, I'm just kidding—that interpretation is full of shit. I'm just larding the post a little—because it's Christmas, and nothing says Christmas like lard, right?

Well, lard and gratuitous YouTube links—which is what you get now, courtesy of the stuff we were listening to at the time we first starting making music: the foul year of 1996. Speaking only for me personally, I admit I was totally out of touch with anything "cool" at the time, which was probably why I hated the radio enough to write the dumbed-dumbed-dumbed-dumbed down version of "Radio Radio" or "Radio Song."

But whatever—it was goofy blues that was fun to play (which we did, actually, at several of our alleged "gigs" back then: weddings, holiday parties, sparsely-attended backyard keggers, etc.). Have some videos, everyone. Merry Christmas:

BB King:



Stray Cats:


Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Clap (1996)/Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (1997).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, September 1996.
Appears on the following albums:
Battery Acid Blues by the Mojo Wire

December 18, 2011

30 Songs #21 - Heart on a Platter: Life Ain't Worth Living Unless it's Got That Pop

"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"—Rob Gordon in
High Fidelity. Heart cake by Lilly Vanilli.

The classic contradiction at the heart of 95-99% of all pop songs is that they make horrible emotions sound beautiful. Heartbreak, loss, revenge, guilt, anger—all those lizard-brain synaptic spasms of feeling are easier to swallow with a spoonful of sugar, just like Julie Andrews said. This week's "30 Songs" entry is called "Heart on a Platter" and it was my attempt to write a typical poison pop song. It worked well, for the most part—it was relatively easy to write and record, and it's been king-hell fun to play in my first two bands—and it survived for a long enough time to get even better. Here's what "Heart on a Platter" sounded like when the Mojo Wire first released it in 2001:

…and here's how Honey White played it live in 2003:

The lyrics aren't my best, but they're not bad either—and I managed to get them in a key I could actually sing well. Thematically, they're similar the other stuff I was writing in 2000-2001; even the basic four-line, augmented-limerick verse structure shares the same basic meter with songs like "Water Into Wine." The words are:

"Heart on a Platter"

These days ain't easy on the happy couple
and no one wants the case to go to trial
so do yourself a favor honey, and get out while you can
Hell, it's your only chance to walk away in style

and lay out in that guilty conscience sunshine
thrown clear of all responsibility
while showering in nutrasweet nostalgia every day
might work for you, i know it doesn't work for me

so give me your heart on a platter and maybe I'll let you win
but if you think it really matters than you better think again

Erasing twenty years can't be that easy
it's more than holy water can excuse
But if emptying the mind of past and future is divine well then
the two of us have quite a lot to lose

and if you think it doesn't matter than you better think again
I won't let go until the revelation's sinking in

give me your heart on a platter and maybe I'll let you win
but if you think it really matters than you better think again

Going a little over the top with the whole "poison pop" thing, but apparently I couldn't help myself. Cheap fixations on man-child daddy-issues will do that, I guess.

I'd sidestepped the "Isla Vista Be So Crazy" theme a little, and gave in to another loose and immature abandonment rant. This one has relatively weak links to the ongoing religious ambivalence theme in that it contains sporadic details from the falseness of born-again style baptism, but I think it gets a little closer to the main source of all this mess, which is my busted relationship with my father. The "happy couple" could fit with a conventional romantic interpretation, but it fit better as a good-ol' prodigal boy bitch-fest. It could refer to any interpersonal exchange, and was supposed to try and get a handle on the fact that I don't get along with people who dump me because my dad left, or some weepy self-pitying crap like that.

At the time though (circa 1996), it really felt like he erased twenty years when he fought to sell the house I grew up in for what I felt were selfish and dumb reasons. The case going to trial was literally the almost-court battle to get revenue from my parents' house. The rest of the second verse refers to my perception of his weird attempts at making a stable new family based on a cliché, and how silly it looked to the rest of us. It was dumb and immature, but so was I, and now it's recorded forever as a document of how incoherently petty I can be. When we performed the song, I didn't think about any of that stuff—it was just fun to sing—but that doesn't mean I'll be calling my dad anytime soon. I can perpetuate my own melodrama as long as I want, thanks very much. I can be the figurative version of this guy:

See? See? It could always be worse. I could be hacked to death by the Last of the Mohicans. So enough of my ancient melodrama—let's get to the tune. Musically, "Heart on a Platter" began as a sort of cross between two pop-rock songs of very different stripes: Sting's 1991 single "All This Time" (from which it took the verse chord progression and played it at half-speed):

…and Cracker's 1996 mid-tempo country-rocker "The Golden Age" (from which it mimicked the twangy, low-lead-guitar-sound-for-the-chorus-riff):

You can sort of hear both those elements in the May 2000 demo that Bryn and I recoded:

mp3 1: "Heart on a Platter" (first demo, 5/00)

That chorus guitar riff was based on a melody I'd thought up myself, with temporary nonsense lyrics to help me remember it until I could get it on tape (I have a horrible memory for musical ideas, which is why I record everything). That nonsense chorus was actually pretty cool—"give us your gold and your women and maybe we'll let you live" instead of "give me your heart on a platter and maybe I'll let you in"—it could have prompted a whole other set of goofy pirate lyrics. In an alternate universe, I'm sure it did—and the Mojo Wire probably became a one-hit novelty band touring the world in Jack Sparrow costumes. Surely.

Anyway, Bryn, Joe and I recorded "Heart on a Platter" much like "Water into Wine" and "One Last Hallelujah"—three songs I circulated as a rough CD demo in October 2000—as a power trio using both our 4-track Tascam cassette machine and digital recording software. The backing track of drums, double-tracked guitar, and bass was recorded to cassette, and then we did overdubs via the n-track shareware program—a technique born out of my ignorance of "real" recording methods more than any specific plan. Like all the other Mojo material, though, its haphazard genesis makes it sound really unique and interesting. Within a year, we'd refined it to the version that appeared on the final Mojo Wire album, and it appeared at all five Mojo Wire shows in 2001. The best version ("best" being a relative term, of course) was probably this one, from a backyard kegger on 4/7/01 (with the full band; that's Adam on rhythm guitar and backing vocals):

mp3 2: "Heart on a Platter" (live, 4/7/01)

"Heart on a Platter" made probably the most successful transition of any Mojo Wire song covered by Honey White. The latter band mastered it quickly, and it usually appeared in live sets as either the opening or second song (it was a great one-two punch with "Unprofessional") of almost every show during 2002-2003. A major-key pop tune already, it became even poppier for Honey White; the version at the top of this post is the best take, but this one (from our 2002 Del Playa show) is probably the fastest:

mp3 3: "Heart on a Platter" (live, 11/16/02)

We played it so fast that nearly sixty seconds was shaved from its original Mojo running time of three and a half minutes. Before you could even adjust to its arrival, the song had finished. My lead vocals were passably good, but the best part of the song became Bryn’s jubilant, soaring solo. I used to call it his "Jimmy Eat World impression" because it was almost artificially happy, which was (and still is) my superficial assumption about Jimmy Eat World based on that one hit song of theirs called "The Middle":

Bit of a forced upper, yeah? I'm not really a fan of that earnest/emo pop-rock thing—the "motivational," greeting-card lyrics are awful—but whatever, and and anyway, naked people! Back to "Heart on a Platter"—it, like the other Mojo Wire covers, was dropped from Honey White live sets around early 2004—but we were still rehearsing it every once in a while. One of my favorite practice takes is this one, from 4/25/04:

mp3 4: "Heart on a Platter" (rehearsal, 4/25/04)

Billy never liked the recordings from the Seville St., Isla Vista room much, because his drum kit was getting regularly thrashed during rehearsals with Futureman (his other band at the time) and whatever third band shared the space with us. The drums do sound a little clunky, but as with everything else I've recorded, a good performance tends to outshine whatever contemporaneous technical difficulties we may have experienced. That certainly goes double for the mp3 below—from Honey White's re-convening in December 2010—where we lurched our way through "Heart on a Platter" and I sang it while experiencing a blinding headache. Not too bad, considering:

mp3 5: "Heart on a Platter" (rehearsal, 12/27/10)

So there you have it—the history of my poison pop song. Not Poison, the shitty hair-metal band, and not "Poison," the awful Bel Biv DeVoe song (hang on, why is the music I hate the most always from 1988-1990?)—but never mind my snobby sonic prejudices, because they were certainly deadly enough, to my own crippled conscience at least. For the next few entries, I think it's time to go back even further in order to figure out what ailed me, and purge it—back to the time "Heart on a Platter" is actually set: the Foul Year of 1996, when I was stumbling through my first attempts at lyric-writing via some good, bad, and ugly twelve-bar blues parodies. You've been warned.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (2000)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (2002).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, March 2000.
Appears on the following albums:
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Low Fidelity Favorites by the Mojo Wire
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Epic Noise Now! by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

December 10, 2011

Recent Road Trip Radio, Pt. 1

I get caught up in all kinds of goofy graphic design dead-ends. Might as well go public with 'em. This project is something I thought of based on last week's post about my favorite albums of 2011.

I don't think I've ever experienced a piece of music fit so perfectly with a location. I imagine this album would fit with umpteen million roads around the country, but this is what it makes me think of: west Ventura County highways in late summer.

Back in April I decided to avoid the 101 when driving down to my brother's in Orange County. This album was the perfect soundtrack for the stretch of PCH from Oxnard to Santa Monica, through Malibu.

Em and I listened to Neko do her thing while we took a long detour back from a Santa Barbara day trip. The 150 goes from Carpinteria through Ojai to Santa Paula.

Radiohead's latest was a great soundtrack to my midnight drive back from a birthday party in Ojai this fall. Not a lot of lights on that road until it gets to West Ventura.

Spoon on the Mesa in S.B. I was at SBCC for a client meeting and "Finer Feelings" came on the iPod. Very vivid memory of a very transitory event.

Maybe it's a cheap shot to hitch this one onto the south Orange County toll road, but it fits in more ways than one. Especially driving at night up and down the deserted San Joaquin hills when you're the only car on the road.

December 09, 2011

30 Songs #20 - You're On Your Own: Starring the Militant Dictator of Zullitown, USA

Joe Zulli and his legendary leonine second in command.

Okay, children—this one's special for a lot of reasons, so I'm not gonna screw around with any fancy "30 Songs" introductions. "You're On Your Own" is, somewhat inexplicably, the only Mojo Wire song with music written by the fiendishly clever guitarist known as Joseph Sante Zulli of Zullitown, USA. I can't rightly remember why this is so—but it may have something to do with the fact that, circa 2000-2002, I was (among other things) an egomaniacal asshole and unbelievably poor band manager. I still am those things, of course, but hindsight has illuminated many pearls of wisdom for me in the decade since we recorded this song, and—wait, did I say "recorded?" That's not quite true. Oh sure, we started a demo recording of "On Your Own," but the best take we got—and the one that appears on the grab-bag Mojo Wire album of the same name—was actually a curb-stomping live version from 2/16/01:

That's the Mojo Wire as a power trio, with Bryn on drums, me on bass and (what can loosely be described as) vocals, and Mr. Zulli on lead axe. That show eventually went into the record books as "Keir's drunkest, jerkiest Mojo Wire show ever," but at the time, we were all still coherent enough to bash our way through this creepy, grungy thing. "You're On Your Own" is indeed unique—not only as the only Joe/Keir collaboration ever recorded, but also as (lyrically) one of the only things I've written that's not tied to any particular personal experience of mine. It was almost a purely theoretical exercise to write, at least near the end—because it was also the first of many Keir-lyrics to take way, way, longer to complete than it should have. I can't recall exactly why it took so long, but I do remember the process…sort of. I think it happened like this:

We recorded the original "On Your Own" demo at the same June '99 jam session that produced first passes at "Water Into Wine" and "The Peak of My Career," among others. I wrote a first draft of lyrics under the title of "Save Yourself" (mp3 #1 below), probably because I was arrogant and thought I could rewrite John Lennon's "Serve Yourself"—along the lines of "Water Into Wine" and its cheap religious ambivalence. That lyric didn't work out so well, but I loved Joe's tune—it was really dark and weird, and I felt challenged to write something "meaningful" over it. I felt that way not just because I was an earnest 24-year-old man-child and that's what we do, but also because I didn't want Joe to sneer at my lyrics—because he did that so eloquently about pretty much everything. You haven't seen withering contempt until you try to get this man to play "Wonderful Tonight."

See, I'm not sure that Joe actually wanted to be in the Mojo Wire at first. I always had the impression he was doing us a favor—like "Okay, fine, I know you guys need some heavy rock, and I can bring that—but I will extract a high price for the privilege. Muahahahaha." Something like that. No, seriously–Joe did beef up the Mojo sound in a major way when he agreed to join the band for our 1999 shows. The combination of his Alice-In-Chains-inspired riffage and Bryn's instinctively blunt time-keeping forced us to get louder and heavier, and left little room for nuance or bullshit. In the case of "You're On Your Own," I thought that would really help me focus on writing something awesome. Like I said before, if someone does you the honor of letting you contribute to their art, you don't want to fuck it up—so yeah, I felt a little pressure. Enough to whip the lyric a little more into shape. Bryn and I did made a demo of the new version (mp3 #2 below), but it lacked the heaviness without Joe's guitar.

mp3 1: "You're On Your Own" ("Save Yourself" version, 10/99)
mp3 2: "You're On Your Own" (Echo-demo version, 12/99)

The final lyrics (i.e. the set in that live take above) didn't seem to mean anything significant, but I figured that if I sang them as creepy as possible then that delivery would put the song over the top. I was right and wrong—Joe's guitar is still the star—but now that I look at them, the "On Your Own" lyrics do seem to be a more introverted take on the same psychotically spiritual personality running through the rest of my work from that period ("Water Into Wine," "Heart on a Platter," "One Last Hallelujah," "Peak of My Career," and "Fatal Flaws"). It's a bent little nursery rhyme:

"You're On Your Own"

Cause even though you think you're on your own
a brighter light this star has never shown
even though your orbit circles far away from me
our gravity assures we'll meet again eventually
I know it isn't pretty but it's true
and there isn't anything that we can do

As I am yours so you are mine
and you will understand in time

Cause even though you think you're on your own
well I just can't leave well enough alone
I'd leave a good impression if it wasn't such a chore
but there's no difference between right and right now anymore
I know it's going back the way we came
but I think I'll take my chances just the same

As I am yours so you are mine
and you will understand in time

Cause even though you think you're on your own
your past is permanently set in stone
well preserved and on display for all the world to see
so they won't soon forget you if you don't remember me
I taught you everything you ever knew
and no one else will know you like I do

As I am yours so you are mine
and you will understand in time

It's got envy, revenge, compulsion, projection, obsession—the works—and even now I'm still not sure I did the music justice, but screw it—the song rocked when we played it live at Mojo Wire HQ. Where was that, you ask? Well, during summer 2000, when Joe and Bryn joined our friends Adam, Brian, Sean, and Owen at (as Sean dubbed it) "the House of the Lord," a squalid Sabado Tarde Isla Vista apartment, it became the informal Mojo Wire HQ—a nice place for me to visit and record our messy songs before fleeing back to my own apartment. We played at least three shows there in 2001 (the final year of Mojo operations), and all the songs we wrote at the time got their baptism-by-couch-fire performances in dramatically shambolic fashion.

The Mojo Wire as a power trio, 1/26/01.

Oh—almost forgot about the incomplete "studio" version of "You're On Your Own." Joe plays acoustic for a change, and I tried to cover up my vocal ineptitude via echo and reverb. Don't ask me where Adam was—I didn't have his dulcet tones to save me all the time—but sadly I don't think he ever appeared on this song in any form. Anyway, here's the mp3:

mp3 3: "You're On Your Own" (unfinished acoustic version, 9/00)

Aside from the five shows we played in 2001, this song has never again appeared in a live set, which is appropriate since it would be silly to play it without Joe. There are many reasons why the Mojo Wire fell apart when it did—though most may have something to do with my above-mentioned character flaws—but it happened, and we have not collaborated with him since, which probably says more about us than it does him. Not to get all melodramatic about it, though—because I do actually have written proof that Joe Zulli, evil computer-programming genius, came to accept his lead-lefty-axe role in the Mojo Wire—and it's a Joe-penned Mojo Wire biography circa 2001. Behold:

THE MOJO WIRE... the greatest band in... dare I say... the UNIVERSE?!?

The following biography is all true, of course. So shut up.

The Mojo Wire hail from Isla Vista, California, where they rule over their vast Mojo empire. How did the Mojos rise to greatness, you ask? Well, it all started a long time ago. Let's go back to when they first met with a little background info: Adam was a student of animal husbandry down in Tucson, Arizona. The brothers Bryn and Keir lived in Wisconsin where they were the succssful founders and presidents of CP Corporation, a research company that worked on discovering new and exciting uses for cattle urine. Joe was the militant dictator of Pakistan. They were a happy bunch in their respective lives.

The group first met each other on an ice fishing trip in Canada. Things clicked instantly and a friendship quickly blossomed. Someone said, "Why don't we get together and start up a band. Like, that would be cool!" The others agreed, gasping, "Whoa, we could get chicks then!" "I'll play the sousaphone!" yelled Adam. "Damn, I wanted to play the sousaphone" mumbled Keir. "I'll play the sitar!" declared Bryn. "I'll make farting sounds with my armpits" said Joe. "I'll blow into a big bottle of moonshine then," said Keir. "Perfect," proclaimed Bryn, "that's everything." It was agreed. They would move to Santa Barbara, the world's mecca for really, really bad music. There was only one thing left to figure out- a name…
I'm still trying to play that damn sousaphone, dude. A big bottle of moonshine just isn't the same. Maybe one day you'll understand and stop mocking my pain.

Anyway, that about does it for this round of "Keir's Blatant Nostalgia-Tripping via Old Amateur Recordings." Tune in next week for the return of 1) Joe's guitar, 2) Keir's daddy issues, 3) Bryn's Jimmy Eat World impression, and 4) Honey White's greatest pop performance. Okay, maybe 4) is a bit of a stretch, but whatever. You'll see.

Song stats:
Music by Joe Zulli and the Mojo Wire, May 1999
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, December 1999.
Appears on the following albums:
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Low Fidelity Favorites by the Mojo Wire

December 05, 2011

Eleven for 'Eleven (Plus One)

Quickie little post with a drop in the flood of year-end "best-of" lists that will soon be deluging all of us. I don't do "best-of" lists anymore—they're silly and divisive—so I'll just list my favorite albums that were released this year. Most of these may not end up on every "Best of 2011" list but they're my favorites. The covers are shown above in the order below:

1. Slave Ambient by the War on Drugs
My favorite of this year—I love the whole album. "Brothers" is glorious, along with almost all the others. If I have to pick a favorite song, it's "Come to the City"—it reminds me of a July drive up Highway 126 from Ventura to Fillmore and back again.

2. Tomboy by Panda Bear
Love this one all the way through, too. Good for, say, a drive down Pacific Coast Highway from Oxnard to Santa Monica, through Malibu. "Tomboy," "Alsatian Darn," and "Afterburner" are the best of a great record. Epic easy listening as it were.

3. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey
I'll buy anything she releases, but it helps that this one is as resolutely weird as any of her other albums. It also helps that "On Battleship Hill" is one of her best songs ever.

4. Build A Rocket Boys by Elbow
It would be hard for Guy Garvey and co. to top last year's Seldom Seen Kid, and this doesn't—but that doesn't mean it's not great in its own right. It's Garvey's show this time; he's a great singer and lyricist. "Lippy Kids" and "The Night Will Always Win" are my standout tracks.

5. The Whole Love by Wilco
Wilco's first truly independent release starts weird ("Art of Almost") and ends mellow ("Jane Smiley's Boyfriend"), but is absolutely consistent throughout—for better or worse. If you like them already, you'll like this. If not, well…you obviously hate puppies and kittens.

6. Weather by Meshell Ndegeocello
Excellent follow-up to 2009's differently excellent Devil's Halo; once again Ndegeocello pares down her band to a small combo, but plays her grooves a bit slower than the last album—with only one eruption of bass riffage on "Dirty World."

7. The Palace Guards by David Lowery
Lowery goes solo from Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven with a little help from his friends. Clever and poignant tunes, especially "I Sold the Arabs the Moon," easily among the best of Lowery's great canon.

8. Nine Types of Light by TV on the Radio
The centerpiece of this album for me is "Will Do," and while the whole disc may not be as awesome or fun as their previous two albums, it's still better than most of what anyone else releases these days.

9. House of Balloons by the Weeknd
The first of two mixtape/free download albums in 2011 by this Canadian, who (fairly or not) seems to be the skeeziest, creepiest R&B auteur since Tricky slithered out of Bristol. This album tops Thursday for its sheer shock value from the get-go: "High For This" is pretty intense, and the album only spirals deeper from there.

10. Stone Rollin' by Raphael Saadiq
"Heart Attack" is easily one of my favorite tunes this year, in all its Motown-tinted glory. Saadiq does that, and Stax/Volt impressions too, in that great way that people do when they truly love the music and bleed it from every pore. Second-best bit is an achingly beautiful song called, hilariously, "Go to Hell."

11. The King of Limbs by Radiohead
The insta-release reception unfortunately overshadowed this one just as much as 2007's In Rainbows, but that was a better album by far. "Lotus Flower," "Bloom," and "Codex" from this one are as good as anything in their catalogue, though. Good night-driving music, like they do.

Honorable mention: El Camino by the Black Keys. It was just out today, of course—but it's the fuckin' Black Keys, right? I'm pretty sure it'll be something I like.

Also deserving a nod is Collapse into Now by R.E.M., not because it's their best or anything, but it's better than the last two, and since they've since disbanded and it's the last original R.E.M. album ever, I thought it was a nice way to take a final bow.

Good year for music overall outside of these picks, too. Not as good as 20 years ago...1991 was a great year for rock & roll, wasn't it?

December 02, 2011

30 Songs #19 - How Far Away: Cassandra Plath and the Bubble Man of Revenge

The Trojan War did not end well for Cassandra the prophet.

I've been waiting for weeks to write an LSD-fried cuckoopants title like that—and the best part is, in this case, that it's all true. Well, it's true for the length of this week's "30 Songs" entry: "How Far Away," a staple of Mojo Wire and Honey White recordings and live sets, and one of the most fun songs to play in my entire canon. It's a wild mix of surf, rock, literary pretension, and classic video games, as only an arrogant and jilted twenty-something man-child can do it. "How Far Away" has been released in multiple incarnations, but my favorite is this Honey White live performance from September 2002:

And yes, that's me shout-singing it; I took over vocals from Adam around 2001 and had my way with them ever since, but that mean I had to simplify the bass line a bit, to root notes only. The song had come a long way in four short years (1998-2002), which was significant because it was the first lyric I put some real effort into writing. Prior to this song (May '98), I hadn't accomplished much lyrically: three semi-parody white blooze rants in 1996-7 for the first Mojo Wire demo album, and four nebulous, impressionistic emo-fests for the second Mojo Wire disc.

What happened between "Wound Down" in Feburary '98 and "How Far Away" three months later? Nothing much—just a surprise nuclear breakup-bomb detonating over my head—so I did what any self-absorbed, over-educated sensitive dude would do: I devoured some vicious literature from all over the Western canon (Milton to Kafka to Rushdie), rocked out to the omnipotent sounds of mid-'60s and mid-'70s Bob Dylan, and poured all my whiny I-got-dumped angst into three verses and a chorus that almost worked. I say "almost" because I also immediately fell in love with another girl (and wrote some tunes for her later) and forgot about composing any music to a post-breakup lyric that reminded me of something I'd rather forget:

"How Far Away"

Cassandra I may never I may never live it down
but if you twist the knife again I'm gonna scream so loud
You weren't too surprised when everything got outta hand
surveying the consequences of your master plan

How far away are you today? How far away are you today?

Cassandra you don't owe me anything except your youth
The curtain's coming down so I think you better tell the truth
Cassandra you're not evil but I was the last to know
cause when you say infinity it's real time writ slow

How far away are you today? How far away are you today?

Cassandra I'm not Ted Hughes girl, you fried your head alone
so don't expect your prophecy to hit so close to home
Cassandra you've been out to sea from moonshine til sun-up
if you don't like it that you lost me, why'd you give me up?

How far away are you today? How far away are you today?

Not exactly the perfect weapon, but it worked in a pinch. That's actually a slightly tweaked version for the 2001 re-recording, but the sentiment was the same: unadulterated, immature, and inarticulate revenge. Calling my ex-girlfriend "Cassandra" was a cheap and toothless insult that nevertheless seemed fitting, so I ran with it. It wasn't cathartic, though—more like a festering cut—and I found it dangerously easy to progress from false prophecies to something nastier. Slashing with the Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes allusion was callous and ignorant, but like I said in the lyric, I was the last one to find out about any of this. I've always hated being the victim of inside jokes, so since everyone else knew I was getting dumped except me, I thought it was more than fair to fight fire with napalm. I mean, what the fuck else can you do when someone dumps you and then gets bent when you find someone else?

You know how these things get extrapolated into soap operas; apparently there was some cartoon version of me running around Isla Vista like a superficial, controlled-substance-ingesting gigolo. Instead of trying to meet that guy and see what he'd write, I tried to make the lyric feel like Blood on the Tracks, but ended up barely approximating the lesser Another Side. Lots of poison flowed under many bridges, but it didn't translate perfectly into this lyric. Obviously I hadn't got into Elvis Costello yet. It's a total hyperbolic stretch from what actually happened, but it's okay to be a little cartoonish in a pop lyric, right? Naturally, it had no effect on the girl whatsoever, but the band dug it.

The song happened almost in spite of itself; in spring and summer 1998, Bryn, Adam and I regrouped after the fiasco that was Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor and started over from scratch—writing new songs separately (them in Baja and OC, me in I.V.) and then learning each others' tunes when we reconnected. I wasn't much of a composer back then—I managed to cough up music for "Shivering Sand," but not much else—so I did what I always did in dire circumstances: delve back into my own sordid personal history, looking for abandoned psychic flotsam to bleed the last ounce of meaning from. For "How Far Away," that meant appropriating something from way back: video game music. The four-part MIDI masterpieces that accompanied the 8-bit Nintendo games of the late '80s and early '90s were catchy as hell—I remember recording and compiling cassettes of those songs just as often as making any other mix tape—and for better or worse, one of my favorites was the "Bubble Man" them from Mega Man 2 (yeah, because who doesn't love Mega Man?). It went like this:

It's…uh…eerily similar, no? If I could have started a band like the Advantage back then, I'd be...well, I'd be in a cover band. Still I made the tune mine by laundering it through two bands and endless performances. The music was happy and loud, so that was the only thing audiences heard anyway. "How Far Away" first appeared on record as the original Mojo Wire acoustic surf-noir version from 1999:

The Mojo Wire on stage at Sigma Phi Epsilon, Isla Vista 4/23/99.

Adam sings on that version, dutifully delivering my garbled mania into the microphone. The recording itself quickly proved to be a little too mellow and laconic, though—when we began playing it live, first as a trio and then with Joe on second guitar, it became something different and better. In 2000-2001, as part of a three-pronged recording project that eventually resulted in the final Mojo Wire album, we upgraded "How Far Away" with Adam and Joe’s beefier, double-gain guitar attack, plus some more refined lyrics and what could loosely be termed "vocals" from me:

That version of "How Far Away" became the uptempo closer for the last series of Mojo shows in 2001, but when Honey White got ahold of it in 2002, that band streamlined the tune into a leaner, more economical meld of the two Mojo versions. The song accelerated into a three-minute speed trip under Billy’s propulsive drumming, and cruised along well anywhere it was placed into Honey White’s live sets. Later, it even developed into a fleet-footed preamble to Bryn’s stomping, epic “My Second Shipwreck” instrumental, which led into the homestretch of many a Honey White gig. You know what? I can't help myself—let's hear it again:

Honey White on the balcony of 6701 Sabado Tarde, Isla Vista 5/24/02.

Honey White played "How Far Away" at almost every show in 2002-2003, but after that it gave way to the longer, spacier numbers from How Far is the Fall, and we gradually dropped most of the old Mojo tunes from their sets. I can't remember if we rehearsed it or not during 2004-2007 (if so, it wasn't recorded), but when Honey White reconvened in 2010 for our first rehearsals in 3 years, we tore through a handful of the old tunes. Near the end of that stretch, we just sort of stumbled our way into doing "How Far Away," and for some reason I had a hideously massive headache. I sang the whole thing, though, and it turned out "pretty frickin' fun," as Bryn said:

mp3: "How Far Away" (rehearsal, 12/27/10)

"How Far Away" set the pattern for much of my later songwriting style: three quasi-limerick, four-line verses of 14-syllables each, sing-shouty vocals (if I was on the mic), a hook-less chorus and a root-note-driven bassline. Thankfully, I always had the help of four other talented jokers to get me through it (and it was only three minutes at a time anyway). Like some other Mojo tunes from that era—"Hallelujah," "Fatal Flaws," "Shivering Sand"—I will play it at the drop of a hat. I love charging through those tunes and kicking everyone's ass whether they liked it or not. Cheap revenge may be best served cold, but it sure as hell goes down easier and sweeter when you turn up the heat.

Come back next week to see another, even creepier version of that idea. Creepy? Well, maybe clinical—as "clinical" as the best brain-pounding garage rock can be. That's not much of a clue, but Bryn guessed it too quickly last week.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire, May 1998; Keir DuBois and Honey White, March 2002.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, May 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Seaside Hamlet Skids by the Mojo Wire
You're On Your Own by the Mojo Wire
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

November 29, 2011

Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down

Okay, here's Track 11 of 12 in my goofy series from the big shebang and money-pit, U2's re-released Achtung Baby album. It's a great song, with a gut-slashing blister of a chorus (see the post title above). It's good advice:

I guess we can make this a real post with a quickie bullet-review of U2's "Achtung Baby" super-deluxe 20th anniversary edition:

• The reissued Achtung Baby album is not remastered, but that's ok. It's a bit louder, so that's an improvement. Same goes for a companion polish-job on the follow-up, 1993's Zooropa.

• The B-sides disc contains everything expected (i.e. all the previously released stuff) except for the version of "Until the End of the World" that appears on the soundtrack for Wim Wenders' film of the same name.

• On that same disc, there are old songs with new lyrics and vocals from Bono. It's a slightly odd trend that has happened on other U2 reissues recently—Joshua Tree, War, and Unforgettable Fire all have at least one "newly completed" song. The Achtung Baby reissue has three: "Blow Your House Down," "Heaven and Hell," and "Oh Berlin." I know the first two from the "Salomé" bootleg; they're edited down and aren't bad, but "Berlin" isn't that impressive.

• Also on that disc are contemporary outtakes: "Down All the Days" is a weird vocal take over the music that became "Numb." "Near the Island" is a deathly dull easy-listening Eno-ist instrumental. "Everybody Loves a Winner" sounds like a Rattle and Hum leftover. So, overall an interesting release (the b-side disc), and better than the one reportedly released on the double-disc-only reissue, which is larded with remixes.

• Speaking of remixes, there are not one, but two additional discs full of remixes. Some people might be interested in those, but I'm not one of them. They're pretty much useless to me, just like 2/3 of the "Best of 1990-2000" bonus disc (itself polluted with lame remixes). So much for that.

• Which brings me to the most interesting of the audio releases: the "kindergarten" early versions of the main Achtung Baby tracks. These are suitably shambolic, rough mixes of songs that U2 fans know in their better, finished form. They're fascinating from an archaeological standpoint—despite a purported 2011 overdub on "Tryin to Thrown Your Arms Around the World"—but I don't see myself listening to these over and over again, you know?

• DVDs: There are 4 video discs with this release: a rerelease of "Zoo TV Live from Sydney," a different-than-aired-on-TV version of the new "From the Sky Down" documentary, a disc containing (mostly) re-released music videos from the same period (all the singles from Achtung Baby and Zooropa, plus some extras), and a whole other disc of contemporary videos (TV specials from the US, UK, and the like). Given that the new documentary is getting its own release next month, this is pretty skimpy too.

• The remainder of the package is a big fat book with lots of laudatory essays, plus 12 art prints—which all look really cool, but the bottom line is that it's not really worth the money unless you're a hopeless geek like me. It's arguably an example of yet another U2 cash-in on (mostly) already-released stuff that big fans already own.

But lemme tellya, it was super-fun to get this on my birthday, two days after its release.

November 27, 2011

30 Songs #18 - Sunset Down: Egyptian Rivers and Other Psychoses

Yes, it's a stupid pun. No, I don't care.

Denial is a powerful emotion, and I'd guess that it fuels about 80-90% of pop song lyrics out there. So many lyrics seem to be about denying reality in favor of something better, or something (mis)remembered, or something idealized, or any number of unrealistic expectations or assumptions. People have this marvelous ability to totally disbelieve something that's often right in front of their face. Sometimes that's psychologically helpful, like the ability to shrug off 50,000 deaths-by-tsunami (if our brains actually were affected by each of those deaths, we'd shut down emotionally), but usually it's more to do with petty personal failings or other pathetic states of being. This week's "30 Songs" entry, the Mojo Wire ballad "Sunset Down," has some of the former but is mostly the latter. Listen:

"Sunset Down" was written as a mollifying little injection of denial that helped me through a bad breakup near the end of my junior year at UCSB (April '98), but it ultimately failed for attacking the symptoms (getting dumped by a girl) instead of going after the big reason for my melodramatic angst (inability to deal with rejection because of my parents' divorce). Sounds like fun, huh? Don't worry, that's about as psychoanalytical as this post will get—but I have to touch on the serious stuff and get it out of the way early, because the earnest hypersensitivity that pervades most of my earlier lyrics is a huge crutch. It's impossible to explain without looking like some trembling skid-mark of weakness, but at the time it's the only way to get through the afflictions of youth's incomplete neurophysiology, right? Yikes, and it's only taken me about two paragraphs to start sounding like Sting. Maybe we should get through this quickly and get to some more interesting stuff next week.

So, the music: basically, Adam came up with a mellow, acoustic guitar piece that we all agreed would be the perfect sound to wrap up the third Mojo Wire album—a semi-acoustic collection of ragged surf-noir demos called Seaside Hamlet Skids. The album in general was about escapism, both individually and collectively—which is really easy to perceive now, but not so much while we were making it. It's perfectly sequenced, with the overall feeling of harmless denial fermenting into something more and more poisonous by the final song. "Sunset Down" pulls off a cute little coup by cloaking that ugliness in easy-listening clichés: major-key acoustic guitar, ethereal keyboards, semi-whispered vocals, and no percussion. The only clue that something's not quite right is the lyric's irregular structure—or even lack of structure. Here it is:

"Sunet Down"

The heat is high but I know my way
and nothing so wrong will happen today
I have been kicked out of nations
I have died on reservations

losing every lead learning how to bleed
spinning like a toy isolate destroy

You have no idea what you did to me
and lately you’re so sure it’s good to be without security
although all things end baby all things end
I just don't know when I begin again
so honey take a bow, I hope you're happy now
that almost everyone can see that day is done

Cause I’ve been kicked out of nations
I have died on reservations
spinning like a toy isolate destroy
your security is no good to me
you have no idea what you did to me

I’ve got to turn around and face the sunset down
I’ve got to turn around and face the sunset down
cause the heat is high but I know my way
and nothing so wrong will happen today

That structural irregularity works in the song's favor, and more than just as a novelty. Even so, most of the lines hang on clumsy rhymes like "nations/reservations," and the themes were lame and cheesy (things strung together like sunsets and endings). The only line I still really like is "the heat is high but I know my way and nothing so wrong will happen today," because it's completely delusional; you only ever say something that confident when you've been through a hell of a wringer and you feel like crap. Another good couplet is "losing every lead/learning how to bleed" (inserted in a Costello-ripoff rewrite a year later). Both are things that you lie to yourself about for the sheer sake of functioning after a tragedy. I had no such tragedy worse than being dumped, so I was just being a big baby, but at least I knew the line was bogus and knew it had to be delivered with a healthy smirk.

Actually, that irregularity is something I'm struggling to repeat—or at least reinvent—in lyrics I'm trying to finish right now, since I'm finding myself falling back into the same old twelve-bar, 14-to-16-syllable-per-line formula that "Sunset Down" so creatively side-steps. It has repeated lines in there, which sort of balances out the lack of a chorus, and the same "heat is high but I know my way" couplet book-ends the song. That's a nice touch that I'm slightly surprised I'd thought of at the time. You know how people often dismiss things they've done as a younger person, in that "was I really that smart back then" way? I feel like that when looking over these lyrics today. For something that I don't consider—figuratively at least—among my best work, it's a structural/process lesson worth revisiting, for sure.

This song doesn't have much of a legacy; it was never played live, so it's sort of frozen in time—which, while interesting on some level, doesn't speak well for its longevity. As mentioned above, though, I did tweak the lyric slightly—near the tail end of the "let's remake the Mojo classics" period of 2000-2001—and recorded that in early 2002 with only my echo-bass as accompaniment, which sounds like this:

mp3: "Sunset Down" (remake, 8/02)

That take was good, but a dead end. Interesting, but not enough of a reinvention to make the recording work on its own, outside of a supporting album's sequence—let alone in concert. Come to think of it, though, if "Sunset Down" has no live show history, that means that if we do revive it, we can totally rebuild it from the ground up—like Honey White did for "Lightning Rod" or "One Last Hallelujah." Maybe "Sunset Down" would work as a stuttering surf rocker with an irregular time signature, like 5/4 or 9/8 or something. Hmmm…

Okay, well, now that I've self-flagellated for three weeks over hobbling some of Adam's best tunes with subpar, vaguely impressionistic lyrics, let's move on, shall we? I thought about neutralizing this trend with the best one I wrote for a song of his, "Stranded"—but that will fit better grouped with other lyrics. I also thought—since early winter 2011 marks not only the fifteenth anniversary of the first Mojo Wire gigs, but also the tenth anniversary of that band's breakup—about going even further back into Mojo Wire history for our earliest lyrics. However, it's probably not a good idea to jump from one series of relatively lightweight stuff to another, differently juvenile set of lyrics—goofy blues-parodying things that were mostly vehicles for Adam's gritty vocals.

Gotta come up with some passable in-between examples, then. I think I can do that, for the next three entries, at least. Let's say that next week, I'll throw together something that melded sneering breakup lyrics, video game ripoff music, and blistering surf guitar into one of the most long-lived Mojo Wire songs ever. Oh, the suspense.

Finally, this post was brought to you by the Radiohead song "House of Cards," with its one-word chorus of (you guessed it) "Denial." You're welcome:

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, May 1998.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, June 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Seaside Hamlet Skids by the Mojo Wire

November 20, 2011

30 Songs #17 - Wound Down: How to Cripple a Perfectly Good Tune, Part 2

Adam vs. Keir, May '98: When Cheap Hair Dye Attacks!

This week's "30 Songs" column is a bit late—and a bit shorter than usual—because on Friday, I was truly fried, and in no fit state to write about it. Same with yesterday, actually—but now's as good a time as any for Round Two of "These Lyrics Need a Rewrite, Dude." Today's victim is "Wound Down," which like "Kid Icarus," is an otherwise great tune with lyrics that don't really live up to the song's potential. The music is a trippy little waltz written by Adam, not too far removed from Brian's future space-jams in Honey White. I love the guitar solo tone—it's the classic "old Faithful" sound of Adam's Hamer—its reverb takes up enough space for Bryn to switches from guitar to keyboard. Have a listen:

I'm only half-joking when I say "these lyrics need a rewrite"; in the last two "30 Songs" posts I've mentioned my odd inability to remember what I was thinking when writing song lyrics in late 1997 and early 1998. That's not saying "what was I thinking?" in a bad way—I'm sure that work probably passes as "impressionistic" in some circles—and it's not to say I don't like these songs, but I've done much better since then.

I blame it on the setting sometimes, but hanging subpar creativity on late-'90s Isla Vista is also too easy; I learned quickly enough how to channel that kind of wild-party-for-rich-kids craziness into some great work. It's not to make excuses for sloppy juvenilia either, though—this was from a time when, for lots of reasons, I was probably certifiable and behaving in weird, out-of-character ways. Maybe these nebulously vague lyrics were a way for the wimpier, earnestly sensitive Keir of 1996 to try and survive the allegedly substance-abusing, womanizing Keir of 1997…but I doubt that. Neither of those guys would have let this one slip out:

"Wound Down"

The sun is bright behind your head
Looks like a crown of neon light
The sun is bright behind your head
You know I swear it don't look quite right

I notice you there and I look into your eyes
Looks like a seasick mind running nowhere to hide
I notice you there and I look into your eyes
I see a rewound soul when they open wide

I can take a shock; I'm a lightning rod
The most electrifying is a bold of fraud
I can take a shock; I'm a lightning rod
but when you look away it's a bullet from God

I wonder what it's like without you coming around
You say you don't have time to think about that now
I wonder what it's like without you coming around
Suppose that it resembles world round wound down

Okay, well…there's one good line in there—the one that I took and blew up into a whole new song for another band four years later—but that's no excuse for drowning Adam's tune (and his vocals!) in mushy meaninglessness. It had great potential and I think that's what did me in—the intimidation of writing a concrete, powerful thing to ride herd over a powerfully evocative tune. It could also be that I didn't have the cerebral vocabulary to be a "lyricist" yet. Oh sure, I'd re-absorbed the omnipotent mid-'60s Bob Dylan in all his glory about a year before, but that mostly helped me spit out the goofy, semi-parody blues lyrics for the first Mojo Wire album. I hadn't delved into Elvis Costello's stuff yet either—so I didn't have a good model of what "good lyrics" were supposed to look like. Not that those two guys are the be-all, end-all approach—but I wasn't in a position to learn from, or apply, any lessons from their work.

I didn't know how to write lines for a song that wasn't a twelve-bar blues, and I guess I didn't know how to apply figurative meaning to a lyric; didn't know how to work with language creatively (or at least not like I was beginning to be trained to do analytically, in UCSB's English department). Once I realized that combining the two skills was the way to go, at least for me, lyric-writing got both easier and tougher—but I also got better at it. Sadly, that realization didn't arrive in time to save "Kid Icarus," "Wound Down," or "Sunset Down" (more on that last one next week), and I'm not sure why I felt pressure to finish something, anything in order to finish the album. Why finish the album, and why so soon after the first one? I tried to answer that a while ago in this essay about the album as a whole:

The more scattered things seemed to become, the more I [wanted] to get a handle on everything and organize it into some sort of presentable form. Adam and Bryn were agreeable—hey, why not release another album?—but that very impulse to complete things quickly and effectively doomed the whole collection.
Despite all that baggage—again, that Keir-imposed baggage that failed the tune itself—"Wound Down" does have a brief post-Rocket Fuel legacy; like "Kid Icarus," I also tried to rewrite it a year later, making a quiet demo of that unsuccessful attempt:

mp3: "Wound Down" (rewrite demo, 7/99)

Also like "Kid Icarus," "Wound Down" had a brief live history for a few Mojo Wire gigs in 1999; it closed the sets at our two Sigma Phi Epsilon shows that year, but didn't mesh well with the harder-rocking Adam/Joe/Keir/Bryn lineup. I added "Wound Down" to the Mojo Wire best-of compilation in 2003 as well—it was, after all, a great example of both the good and not-as-good-as-it-should-be aspects of the Rocket Fuel album. Unlike "Kid Icarus," the take of "Wound Down" is basically identical to its original version:

That's about all there is to it, for me, as far as "Wound Down" is concerned. It's certainly not a bad song, but it's a subpar lyric that needs a rewrite—not unlike several others I've done—so I'm finding it hard to be objective about it (or any of the others, actually). If I haven't rewritten it by now, though, I'm not sure I will—and that goes for the other subpar lyrics as well. Jonathan Mayer said something to me once about tinkering with, and polishing past work, while we were in the studio with Honey White. He said, basically, "why try to mess with stuff you've already done? It'll be different, and you know it will be different—so why not just focus on writing some new, better songs instead?"

Words to create by, for sure. I'll do one more round of this next week, but then I feel like it should be time for some really good ones again. Stay tuned.

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, February 1998.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, March 1998.
Appears on the following albums:
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor by the Mojo Wire

November 11, 2011

30 Songs #16 - Kid Icarus: How to Cripple a Perfectly Good Tune, Part 1

No, not that Kid Icarus…but his attitude is fitting.

Fair warning: the "30 Songs" series might be a dodgy, uneven proposition for the next several weeks. I've written about many of my very best lyrics recently, but now we're gonna go way back—to 1997 and some of my decidedly more mediocre stuff. It's a sad story, artistically and collaboratively, because what happened was that I unconsciously sabotaged some great Mojo Wire music with mostly meaningless, quasi-impressionistic lyrics. That's a harsh thing to say, but in the cold light of almost fifteen years' time, it's absolutely true. I explained a little of that in last week's entry for "The Lightning Rod," and it goes double for the next few songs in this series. The first one is called "Kid Icarus," and it goes like this:

That's a composite mix of the original take (which had muffly vocals) and a rewrite with overdubs (which ended up on the Mojo Wire best-of five years later). Fantastic tune. Great piece of music from Adam, but for years and years now, I've felt like I hobbled it with vague fluff for lyrics. Adam nevertheless sang like it meant something, and though I've always appreciated that, I've never been able to fix this one properly like I did for "Lightning Rod" or "Blacking Out" or even "Pisces Lullabye." I'm still not sure why it happened this way, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it was my first real attempt at a non-blues, non-funny/parody lyric. The music seemed pretty profound, so I had to write something serious—and Isla Vista in November 1997 was definitely not the time or place for me to be serious. I think I said it best in an essay I wrote about this song's parent album, our second demo disc Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor:

[By that] time the Mojo Wire had wholly absorbed itself in the nth-degree ethos of Isla Vista. The old twelve-bar tunes were now being accompanied by all sorts of bizarre effects pedals, multiple (and often backwards) tape loops, and extensive multitracking. In short, we'd discovered our navels, musically speaking, and we set about contemplating them as often as possible.

The unfettered experimentation was definitely a result of our bacchanalian surroundings, but the music we were listening to made much more of an impact, especially Radiohead's recently released OK Computer. That landmark album wasn't so much of a direct, immediate influence, but the explosion of sonic possibilities achieved on it definitely inspired us to find out exactly how much we could do with what we had at our disposal. Adam's cello swaying its way through "Kid Icarus" and Keir's echo-bass guitar powering "Under The Sun" led the way, and almost every song (except the instrumental title track) has some sort of treatment on the vocals, guitars, bass, or keyboard.

The problems came with the unrealized, clunky metaphors of the second side's songs, which seemed to want to pass themselves off as Major Statements of Profound Importance. Strong bits of music that could have (and, years later, eventually did) end up somewhere meaningful instead seemed to grasp at Significance without actually saying anything, and great tunes like "Kid Icarus", "Under The Sun", "Blackout Baby", and "Wound Down" became hobbled by their sub-par, self-absorbed, and sloppily incomplete lyrics.
For "Icarus," exploratory sounds and trippy effects seemed to demand impressionistic lyrics, in short. For better or worse, they are:

"Kid Icarus"

I was flying, I was so high
I saw her from up here, and it made me cry
I wonder what I'm missing, oh my my my

I gave away too much, all in spite of me
I gave away too much, I'm unraveling
Always unaware of how it's absurd
Lyrical and loving it and not hearing a word

I was flying, I was so high
I saw home from up here, and it made me cry
I wonder what they're missing, oh my my my

Going through the motions in one night is a curse
If only I had listened before I made it worse
Always move too fast and I never could say when
Breaking in and broken down I just might get fooled again

I was flying, I was so high
I fell from up here and nearly died

Down down down down down down
Falling out of favor, falling down from grace
Made the shape in pavement the features of my face

I am falling down from so high
and as I fall I know I won't survive
I wonder what I'm missing, oh my my my

The song had several titles, in thankfully decreasing levels of pretentiousness: "The Fall of Kid Icarus," "Icarus Falling," and finally a simple "Kid Icarus." Like I said with "Under the Sun," listening to this song now leaves me with no clue as to what its lyrics mean, so I'll just try and figure them out right now. I've always hated the Icarus myth, for the same reason I hate the Garden of Eden myth: the idea that wanting too much knowledge or too much truth is punishable and wrong. I've always detested secrets or inside jokes (even when I'm in on them), and I think that stems from the worst example of a destructive secret in my life: the shock of my parents' divorce when I was eleven. Once I got over that, my M.O. became "I work better with more information." The classical vice of hubris doesn't even figure into it—it's all about being prepared for potentially life-derailing surprises—but even years later I wasn't able to deal with rejections or breakups that were a fraction as painful. On top of that, I'm the eldest of my siblings, so that meant I had to do everything first, and I'm still not too keen about getting pushed into things when I'm not ready.

Now, that's way too much nebulous emotion to try and distill into three verses and a chorus, so enough about my bullshit adolescent hangups. The only good thing about this song is the music, so let's talk about that—even though "Kid Icarus" would not be the only time I didn't do justice to a great tune from Adam. His original drum-machine-powered demo went like this:

mp3: "Kid Icarus" (drum machine demo, 10/97)

It's a bit shaky, but with great potential to be really elegaic and soulful. Adam has an admirable knack for composing these elegant, profound-sounding ballads—"Wound Down" and "Sunset Down" are two others from that period—and I've only recently been able to write great lyrics for tunes like this ("Stranded" by Radblaster for example). I believe his classical training has much to do with this—I did back then, too, which was one of the reasons why we overdubbed his cello onto the backing track. It's a lovely touch.

Five months later—around the time the album was finished—Bryn, Brandon and I recorded an instrumental take in rehearsal:

mp3: "Kid Icarus" (instrumental rehearsal demo, 4/98)

Like "Under the Sun," I'd already started rewriting the lyrics for "Kid Icarus" before the song had time to really become itself. We played it several times live from 1998-2001, but it didn't survive well among the increasingly pile-driving rock mentality of the late-Mojo Adam/Joe/Keir/Bryn lineup. When I was digging around the Mojo archives, I found this incomplete rewrite attempt—with just me playing guitar and singing in a pathetic, faux-Elliott Smith whisper:

mp3: "Kid Icarus" (rewrite demo, 7/99)

At the time, I thought that a descending progression was kind of a cool thing to invert Adam's original music, but that didn't prove true until Bryn helped me bend the music into a whole other song—the instrumental "Steel Wool" for my first Low Tide side project disc:

That drum track is actually from an attempted remake of "Icarus" from our ill-fated "overhaul the Mojo Classics" period in 2000-2001. The echo-bass helped, but it was too late for the original song. "Kid Icarus" didn't have much of a life after the Mojo Wire, but we did try to revive it (with hilariously bad results) during 2003, in a one-off Honey White practice with Adam (Bryn/Brian/Keir minus Billy):

mp3: "Kid Icarus" (rehearsal demo, 8/15/03)

When you do a take like that, and even Adam (the resolute John Denver and Richard Marx fan) makes fun of how wimpy the lyric is, while he's singing it, well…it's toast. Within a year, Bryn would prove that he does lyrical impressionism very well, with Honey White tunes like "Let Go" and "Keep Moving," but I've never been able to pull it off.

And you know what? This woe-is-me shit is all a bit silly for a fall Friday. Maybe I should just knuckle down and rewrite the bastard for good. It's gotta get in line, behind "Water Into Wine," and another rewrite might not work for "Icarus," since the song's identity is fairly established by now, but it deserves a better fate than "the nearest thing I wrote to a Coldplay lyric," right? Well, it's not that bad. Just a little mushy…but even a little mush is too much sometimes, so I'll leave it at that. If you want more—if you dare—tune in next week for a second descent into mushy madness. I bet you can't wait.

Song stats:
Music by Adam Hill and the Mojo Wire, October 1997.
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, November 1997.
Appears on the following albums:
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor by the Mojo Wire
Dive E.P. (as "Steel Wool") by Low Tide

November 05, 2011

30 Songs #15 - The Lightning Rod: From Alpha to Omega with a Boss DD3

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "like a boss," doesn't it?

One of the most important artistic lessons I've learned is that, for creative people, there's a big difference between a "favorite" work and a "best" work. Favorites are sentimental, subjective, and transitory. Bests are obvious, objective, and permanent. Any creative person will tell you that there's a big difference between the two—that is, if they take the long view of creativity and/or their own art, and don't worry about being misinterpreted as an egomaniacal, self-obsessed wanker. I just turned 35 this week, so I think I'm a bit too old to worry about misperceptions, and since we're at the halfway point of this little "30 songs" series, I thought I'd do something big. I wasn't sure where this song would fit in the series, so I'm just sticking it here, for a bunch of reasons: I had a birthday on the Day of the Dead (a day dedicated to the past), I'm a Scorpio who gets intensively obsessed with everything, and I've spent too much time with a terminally-uncool, nostalgia-riddled U2 box set.

So, today's "30 Songs" entry is about "The Lightning Rod," my uber-epic signature song—an echo-bass-guitar magnum opus whose lyric ate up four years of my life whether I liked it or not. It's the pivot, the fulcrum of all my songs and lyrics—there's a "Before 'Lightning Rod'" period and an "After 'Lightning Rod'" period. There are songs and lyrics I've written that may or may not be direct creative reactions to this song and all its baggage. There are so many sonic incarnations of this slippery bastard that it almost has no true musical identity anymore—until I plug in the Boss DD3 (or 4, 5, or 6) and let 'er rip. In the grand creative scheme of "favorite" vs "best," "The Lightning Rod" is probably not my favorite, but I'd be crazy to say it wasn't my best. It was work, hard work. It was all those hoary clichés about "catharsis" and "finding yourself" and "healing art." It was also petty, vengeful, spiteful, childish, and denialist.

Yeah, how's that for an intro, huh? Hilariously overblown it may be, but only because the thing is almost too huge to really get a handle on. Have a listen:

That's "Lightning Rod" as it appeared in classic form, on Honey White's debut My Band Rocks E.P., in late 2002. The lyric was already a year old by then, and the music (which had already been through two incarnations) was about five years old. I'd developed a way to use effects pedals on a bass, but sparingly—until I swiped Bryn's echo pedal and created a massive, massive sound. I thought I was a real genius until I heard Pink Floyd's "One of These Days," but since I'm less of an asshole than Roger Waters, I think I have the edge:

Anyway, the coolest thing about that 2002 recording of "Lightning Rod" isn't even the echo-bass—it's Bill's drumming. To this day, I'm not sure what brought that performance out of him—the challenge of creating a great part mixed with annoyance at the robotic, unforgiving digital echo, I'd guess—but it's masterful, and entirely appropriate. The overblown melodramatic interplay of he and I as rhythm section is a perfect representation of the overblown melodrama in my lyrics, which Bryn sings well as always. The guitarists took a back seat here, using straight, clean tones—the bass and drums left little room for much else.

And holy mother of Batman, those lyrics are a kick in the ass. It took about four years to get them right, including three major rewrites and lots of late nights. The last year by itself was really demanding—I didn't write anything else from December 2000 to December 2001 (when this was finally finished). The reason it took so long is that for better or worse, the lyrics had to be right for the music—and when you have a huge, epic, unforgiving echo-bass sound to work with, there are no half-measures. The music demands a Big Important Statement, or so I thought at the time, and this is what I finally ended up with:

"The Lightning Rod"

The day you threw me back out in the open
I fell apart a thousand times and then I hit the ground
so hard I knew that everything was broken
beyond all hope of healing clean and sober, safe and sound

but tonight the town's electric, and I'm a lightning rod
and I can shake it off without another second thought

I used to wanna be the main attraction
so bad that nothing less would ever do me any good
and up until you took evasive action
I never gave my heart away, not even if I could

but tonight the town's electric, and I'm a lightning rod
and I will give it up for anybody on the spot

and just let go.

Tomorrow ain't a threat to my behavior
and all that i can do is stick around to wait and see
if I can ever be somebody's savior
now that all the world knows you got the best of me

but tonight the town's electric, and I'm a lightning rod
and I can take a shock as well as any son of God

The "Lightning Rod" lyric is obsessed with trauma, and the transformative process from irrational freakout to calculated revenge. That's the fancy, English-major way of describing what basically amounts to my man-child daddy issues—but since I'm a fancy English major and it's my song…well, tough shit. But hey, it was difficult to find the right combination of lyrical point of view and attitude to go with such a huge, sweeping piece of music. How do you write a clear, emotionally direct lyric to such an epic monster? It's a tough contradiction, and thematically it's probably still the most pretentious thing I've done: meshing several narratives into a complete whole—and I know that sounds like something Sting would say, but oh well—which amounts to the ultimate whiny abandonment song. The narrative is I vs. You, like all the others, and it's mostly a conflation of 1) getting kicked out of my dad's house at Christmas when I was 19, 2) every breakup I've ever had to go through with girls that dumped me, and 3) (warning—this is where things get pretentious) a flimsy allusion to Satan's expulsion from heaven. Seriously.

It was gonna be my last lame biblical allusion; in spring 1998 I was taking a Milton class and we'd just started Paradise Lost, so that makes it a little more significant, right? The first verse just runs from there. "Tonight the town's electric" is something I actually said to Emily at the time. There were some evenings around 6pm in Isla Vista with that weird spark in the air, where you just knew it was going to destroy itself utterly that night and then become semi-reborn the next morning, like some retarded phoenix. I could feel all that potential energy and tension and anticipation building up to a ridiculous degree. "I used to want to be the main attraction" refers to me and that devil again, but for very different reasons. The devil wanted to be the bright star of heaven, the main attraction. I just wanted to be Elvis Costello (the frontman of the Attractions). The line in the second chorus about giving up my heart to anyone on the spot stems from a weird resigned desperation of someone in "fuck it" mode. I actually never made it there that night and I think this is why after all this and the third verse, the resolution, was so difficult to finish. It happened, though ("tomorrow ain't a threat to my behavior"), and it's the end of something, and not much more. Well, maybe not much more, but it's still some heavy shit—or at least it was at the time(s) I was stuck in it.

Musically, "The Lightning Rod" began life as a murky twelve-bar demo (mp3 #1 below) that I recorded to four-track cassette at my mom's house during Thanksgiving weekend of 1997. Adam, Bryn and I were just beginning to steer the Mojo Wire into the wild and weird sonic backwater of sound that would become Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor, our second demo album. I think that mp3 the earliest recording of me playing bass guitar with the DD3 echo-pedal over a drum machine track from Bryn's keyboard. I added a chorus part later, making it a bit more U2-ish, and we eventually did a real take for the album, with Brandon Klopp playing drums, and released it in April 1998 as "Under the Sun," which went like this:

That was recorded at the Bedrock, first in Brandon's apartment with the live band (and without vocals), and then with vocals, guitars, and echo-bass overdubs later. Brandon's drums sound drum-machine-ish because that's what they are (for his real kit, see mp3 #2 below of an instrumental Bryn-Keir-Brandon jam). We didn't have enough microphones to record a drum kit properly, and the small Tascam 4-track only had so many inputs, so Brandon played his practice kit live and through one skimpy cable attached to the recorder. This might be your first indication that myself, Bryn, and Adam didn't know what we were doing for many years when it came to recording. The lyrics for "Under The Sun" aren't very special to me either—they grasp and claw at Meaningful Significance and fail extravagantly. Listening to them now, I really don't understand what I was trying to do—but Adam gamely sang them like they meant something, so that's good. I hadn't really written many lyrics before and the blues ones from Battery Acid Blues were mostly parodies, and that's the real reason why the second side of Rocket Fuel, including this song, crashes and burns in my opinion. Still, the tune itself was nice and big and I thought it had plenty of potential to become an epic. I decided to rework the lyrics almost immediately after the album was released, but ended up playing with the music instead, which yielded this thing:

"Whatever Gets You Going" was the centerpiece of an E.P. by my ambient side project, Low Tide. It wasn't really a "release" at all, since there were only about three copies ever made, but Bryn and I decided to do something constructive while the Mojo Wire was on semi-hiatus in summer 1999. I'd already decided to rebuild "Under The Sun" (at least 2 sets of lyrics had come and gone already) and Bryn helped me with a backing drum track recorded at the Bedrock. I overdubbed a ton of echo/wah bass guitar over it, with a droning keyboard on top. Not really a song—it's more like an ambient jam—but Bryn and Brian insisted that it was worth something, and so it eventually became that—as part of another song, which turned out to be "The Lightning Rod." The opening echo-riff in D is a direct lift from "Whatever Gets You Going," and after a few false starts in rehearsal (mp3 #3 below), the song attained its classic epic echo-bass incarnation in fall 2002.

mp3 1: "Under The Sun" (Drum machine demo, 11/97)
mp3 2: "Under The Sun" (Instrumental Rehearsal, 4/98)
mp3 3: "The Lightning Rod" (Rehearsal, 5/02)

I don't think the Mojo Wire played "Under the Sun" live—maybe once, but I can't remember—but Bryn and I did toss in a version of "Whatever Gets You Going" during a Mojo show on 2/16/01. However, "The Lightning Rod" has an extensive live history with Honey White—we played it at almost every one of our approximately 25 shows—mostly as a fan-favorite, set-ending showstopper, like this version from 10/31/02…

…or this version from a few months later (note bassist dexterity and presence of mind to grab dropped drumstick at 4:35):

Eventually, however, the echo-bass version became prohibitively frustrating to play—for both Bill and myself—and we dropped it from early How Far is the Fall-era sets until Bryn played it once as a solo piece. That seemed to work really well, so we rebuilt the song from the ground up as a sort of ambient-rococo ballad, with Brian taking a turn on his suite of effects pedals. It fit well with the contemporary stuff we were making for How Far is the Fall, and that began a short procession of similar rebuildings of other songs, and only a few of them worked as well as our retrofit of "Lightning Rod." We've played it that way ever since, and it sounds like this:

One of my favorite takes, though, is an instrumental quiet-surf version with just Bill, Brian, and me:

mp3 4: "The Lightning Rod" (Quiet surf jam, 7/3/05)

So, there you have it—the big one. "The Lightning Rod" proved to be worth every drop of angst it squeezed from me, even though it's essentially a preposterous, multilayered rejection/revenge narrative. The closing lines exemplify the whole thing, really—amplifying the posturing denial of latter-day Mojo Wire songs into an almost delusional self-assurance in the face of doom. It's easily the centerpiece of the My Band Rocks E.P., and thankfully Honey White helped mold it into something worth 1) shouting about, 2) playing into the ground, and 3) rebuilding into something much different but arguably just as good.

And yeah, if you made it this far through a textbook example of TLDR, you deserve a medal. I won't do one like this next week; I think we'll go from this song, an example of my most disciplined lyric, to some of my least disciplined, more impressionistic stuff. You've been warned.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (1998)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (2002, 2005)
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, December 2001.
Appears on the following albums:
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor (as "Under the Sun") by the Mojo Wire
Dive E.P. (as "Whatever Gets You Going") by Low Tide
My Band Rocks E.P. by Honey White
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Saturated Songs by Honey White
Deluge and Drought by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

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