August 07, 2011

30 Songs #2 - Mercy Rule: Chugging Candy-Coated Castor Oil

Wasting time on the people's dime, 2002.

One of the dirty little secrets of songwriting is that eventually, people run out of ideas and have to come up with creative ways of repeating themselves. This isn't unique to songwriting—all creative fields suffer from it, and I do this as a rule in web design every day—but it isn't necessarily a bad or uninspired thing. Case in point, for this second "30 Songs" piece, is "Mercy Rule" by Honey White:

"Mercy Rule" is sort of a thematic sequel to "Fatal Flaws," since they're both superficially about work-related problems, both have bluesy riffs in A, and both survived as instrumental jams for a long time before getting lyrics. I once described "Mercy Rule" as one my favorite Honey White songs, and I stand by that statement. We played it at almost every show since its debut in fall 2002, and I think it showcases HW at what we do best—playing off each other in an active way, as opposed to just running through the arrangement the same way every time. This is one of the songs where I belatedly learned to do that, and it's a lesson I've never forgotten.

Like "Fatal Flaws," this tune began its life in the last century, emerging sometime in summer/fall 1998 when the Mojo Wire was still active and assembling songs for our third demo album. The first incarnation of "Mercy Rule" was actually a surf instrumental, recorded to 4-track but now sadly lost. Some may say it bore a striking resemblance to certain video game theme songs (as played below by video-game-music-cover-band The Advantage):

…that also bore striking resemblances to old '60s hits by the Spencer Davis Group…

…but I'm told that was merely a coincidence at worst and a tribute at best. It never went anywhere, even after the Mojos took a second stab at it in 2001:

mp3: "Mercy Rule" (instrumental version, 11/01), a Bryn/Keir/Joe power trio jam.

However, there were at least five songs, in various stages of completion, that didn't make the final Mojo Wire album but later got some serious play by Honey White. The tune that eventually became "Mercy Rule" was one of those. It progressed from that jittery rock take linked above into a more reggae-like piece—mostly thanks to Bill's penchant for skillful syncopation—and was filling the instrumental-soundcheck-jam role at HW gigs by summer 2002.

Lyrically, this song is probably the whiniest result of my journey into the world of the 40-hours-a-week working crowd. When I finished school in December 1999, I had an English B.A. and not much else. Since most of my friends were still in school, I stuck around Isla Vista to play music and make some money—the former with the Mojo Wire (and then Honey White) and the latter at UCSB's bookstore and then HR office. Life as a university bureaucrat quickly became a slog of dull, tedious work—by the time I landed the HR job I was bored nearly every day—and the weekly exorcisms of Honey White rehearsals at the Table Salt studio were a welcome antidote.

"Mercy Rule" lyrics:

Too lazy if I work, too nervous if I steal
Too heavy if I hurt, too harmless if I heal
Too smart to waste the effort, too stupid to appeal
To anyone to superficially unreal

So please have mercy on me, I don't know what I want to be

Too many hours later, too much is still the same
Too close to losing everything and too scared to play the game
Too good to get the credit for taking all the blame
and too thirsty for the glory to feel any shame

So please have mercy on me, I don't know what I want to be

Too noisy on location, too quiet on the set
To notice if I might deserve exactly what I get
Too casual in theory to really break a sweat
Too busy at the moment to care about that yet

The choice ain't ever up to me, it's not the life I want to lead
So please have mercy on me, I don't know what I want to be

I think my main point of view here was just trying to get across that stereotypically stifling feeling I had from wasting 8 hours of every beautiful day inside an office cube. The other thing about this lyric is that I was glad it got finished, cause I'd rather not be that narrator with that attitude anymore. I had to get it out of my system just so I wouldn't think along those lines, cause it's just so lazy, selfish, and weak-minded. Candy-coated castor oil, as it were.

I stole the first line from the title of a book I'd been reading on the ins and outs of being a professional freelance writer. Apparently, it's now also the title of a BR549 song:

Anyway, after I slapped some words on it, "Mercy Rule" slotted into the 5th or 6th position in the live set, serving as a cool-down jam after four or five jumpy fast songs. During the 2003 shows, we played it a bit tighter—a semi-syncopated shuffle with little reggae left:

By 2004 it had moved all the way up to the opening or second slot, a high-energy blast compared to the slower and more epic proggy songs of that period. Here's a take from the Wildcat Lounge in April 2004:

By the time we finally got a studio recording of it in 2004/5, we had the song down cold. Engineer Jonathan Mayer had some fun ideas we tacked on for the album version (above), like a goofy baseball-stadium organ, an underwater percussion break, and Brian dueling himself in stereo for the guitar solos. Like some other songs of ours, "Mercy Rule" could have ended after the final chorus (and we do have an edit of that), but we chose to include the final few minutes of instrumental jamming so Bryn could take his solo too. My Morning Jacket took a similar approach to "Off the Record" from their "Z" album:

Post-recording, "Mercy Rule" kept its place in the 2005/6 live shows as one of the highlights, especially as the penultimate song of our short-but-intense Derby Club set in November 2005. We did rehearse it when Honey White reconvened in 2010 after a three-year hiatus, so I expect it will be around for a good while longer.

Song Stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (11/01)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (9/02).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, © August 2002.
Appears on the following Honey White albums:
Live and Unprofessional
Epic Noise Now!
Saturated Songs
How Far is the Fall
Some Reassembly Required

That's all, folks. Tune in next weekend for another round.

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