August 28, 2011

30 Songs #5 - Pisces Lullabye: How to Use and Misuse Your Empathetic Impulses

Em on the Del Playa swing, summer 1999.

Some song lyrics never really get finished. They evolve over time, mostly in live performance as public works-in-progress. I can't think of a singer/songwriter/musician who hasn't eventually changed something in a lyric (though there's undoubtedly many), and I think that's because the song has to stay alive and relevant if it's going to get played by the same person five, ten, twenty, or fifty years later. I've tinkered with tweaking individual lines or refining sections of lyrics, or even scrapping a whole lyric—title and all—in favor of something completely different. Today's song, "Pisces Lullabye," has two versions: one for the Mojo Wire in 1999, and one for Honey White in 2002.

In last week's "30 Songs" entry I copped to subjecting Emily to my songwriting compulsion not once, but twice within the same six months. The first time was for "The Shivering Sand," the second for "Pisces Lullabye" (yes, that's a deliberate misspelling. If it's good enough for R.E.M. it's good enough for me). "Pisces" has always been a pretty nebulous, open-ended thing, but the original lyric was extremely incoherent. The song itself was a late and final addition to the Mojo Wire's third demo album, ultimately released in April 1999. Here's the original recording:

That's me on rhythm guitar, and Bryn's slide part keeps it from becoming too morbidly melodramatic. The song's generally okay, as long as you don't try to figure it out—but I think that has more to do with the music than any great lyrical insights from me. The original lyric hasn't stood up very well at all—it's just too vague. I was trying to peek into/out of my girlfriend's head and see things the way I thought she might, four months after her father's death in October 1998. As with so many things, I was younger and dumber and trying to be empathetic, but it didn't take very long for that "empathy" to seem like arrogance (or stupidity)—because really, it's a preposterously presumptuous act to assume what someone is feeling in a situation like that, and then try to make art from it. And yet I did it and even sang on the goddamn thing—in my first, worst, and only recorded Elliott Smith impression (Em and I were big into Elliott back then). Here's how he's really supposed to sound:

Thanks to Emily I'd also gradually gotten over my irrational hatred of '80s-era arena Brit-rock bands like Depeche Mode, the Smiths, and the Cure—and "Pisces" borrows heavily from the Cure's "Apart" from Wish:

The title also plays on the idea that a Pisces (her) and a Scorpio (me) are astrologically speaking a perfect match. We only found out about that six months later, but it fit, and a line from a contemporary Pavement song hit it on the head so I filched them both:

I think the Mojo Wire only played the initial version of "Pisces" live twice, on 2/16/01 and 4/12/01, because it didn't lend itself to the final, pile-driving Mojo lineup of Adam/Joe/Keir/Bryn. The song went into hibernation until I could figure out something to do about it—which finally happened in August 2002 when Bryn suggested (and Bill seconded) having Honey White take a crack at it. The rewritten "Pisces" kept the same title and subject/theme, but that was about it; the words, arrangement, and melody all got a systematic overhaul for Honey White:

"Pisces Lullabye" (2002 version)

It's only one o'clock in the morning
but it's already been a hell of a night
and she can turn off all intuition
as soon as you can turn out the light

Her aching heart's in no mood to argue
and you're not the one to put up a fight
and no amount of violent desire
is ever gonna make it all right

But you can never really give it a rest,
sleep it all off, or hope for the best

When you're only staring up at the ceiling
and you gotta think of something to say
You slip on the surrounding emotion
You're trying not to get in the way

She doesn't need another reminder
and you don't want to keep her awake
You can't imagine any tomorrow
You feel like it's a world away

But you can never really give it a rest,
sleep it all off, or hope for the best

The subject matter was still slightly problematic, but this was a more complete composition. "Pisces" gained a slinkier slide riff from Bryn, a new rhythm part from Brian, softer intro percussion from Bill, and a dissonant ending on an unresolved F-sharp chord. It was a considerable improvement from a songwriting perspective (the thing finally had a chorus! Amazing!), but musically, despite Honey White's great ability for subtlety, I think the tune didn't quite get the same languid, lullaby-like treatment as the original. HW was very much in a "less is more" stage during 2002, and I think, ultimately, that adversely affected "Pisces Lullabye." Here's a live take from April 2003:

"Pisces" was a live staple for Honey White in 2002/03, but the context—keg parties, my limited vocal range—forced it to be louder and rock-ier every time. By the time we tossed off a demo take of it during the initial 2004 How Far is the Fall album session in San Francisco, the song wasn't anything like a lullaby or ballad anymore:

Yikes, that vocal sure sounds like a first take. I think I better stop there before I degrade things any further. At least for now, anyway—next week I'll have another example of a Mojo Wire tune that benefitted enormously from a serious rewrite (and serious studio time) for Honey White. Stay tuned.

Song stats:
Music by Keir DuBois and the Mojo Wire (1999)/Keir DuBois and Honey White (2002).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, February 1999.
Appears on the following albums:
Seaside Hamlet Skids by the Mojo Wire
Live and Unprofessional by Honey White
Epic Noise Now! by Honey White
Some Reassembly Required by Honey White

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