October 14, 2011

30 Songs #12 - Sweet Oblivion: Enhanced by Extended Epic Endings

Honey White onstage at the Wildcat, Santa Barbara 4/26/04

Honey White's "Sweet Oblivion" is a simple idea masquerading as an epic song. It was one of several transformative pieces for us back in 2003/2004, when we finally and truly gelled as a band. We also took everything that Honey White had been and blew it up, sonically, to elephantine proportions. Part of this was Brian stepping up to play lead on his trusty Stratocaster; the lyric for "Sweet Oblivion" has, over time, become so completely overwhelmed by Brian's guitar sound that the words are almost superfluous. You'd think this would annoy me, especially if you knew how long it took to finish—about 2 years, on and off—but it doesn't. Brian's guitar on "Sweet Oblivion" is one of my favorite sounds, like, ever. It amplifies, and then overwhelms, all my personal melodrama in that lyric. Listen (and get comfy, cause this bastard is almost eight minutes long):

Epic, yeah? Perfect cross of the Police and Pink Floyd, right? Sure, it's just a mutated, saturated twelve-bar for the actual "song" part—but when the rest of us get out of Brian's way and he lets it rip, all arguments are invalid. Still don't believe me? This is what the song would have been like if we hadn't listened to Brian and Jon the engineer, and split up the song and jam:

That's what I've always called the "single edit" of "Oblivion." The version that was savaged by Garageband.com reviewers. The version that, in a perfect world, we'd send to radio (and which radio would probably have rejected anyway). The version we played when the song was first complete—at our downtown Santa Barbara debut on the Wildcat Lounge stage in April 2003:

mp3: "Sweet Oblivion" (Live 4/30/03)

The short version of "Oblivion" went over poorly in between the higher-energy tunes of early Honey White—but we knew it could work. We'd done epic instrumental pieces before, both good ("My Second Shipwreck," one of Bryn's solo songs) and not-so-good ("Distorchestra," which became the much better "Blacking Out"), but for whatever reason "Oblivion" didn't work that way yet. And then, in a December 2003 rehearsal (when Bryn was back from Europe, Brian back from Tokyo, and Bill back from Futureman), Brian played this:

mp3: "Sweet Oblivion" (Rehearsal, 12/4/03)

Honey White had been steadily jamming more and more during rehearsal—we eventually did it quite a lot back then—and Brian just seemed to spontaneously blurt out this crazy epic instrumental "Oblivion." That was the missing piece that made the song a monster—a laid-back, casual monster, but still a monster. The tune itself originally began around late 2002 as a Brian/Bryn/Keir jam at Table Salt, but by the time we scored a second Wildcat gig in April 2004, the rehearsal jam sounded more like this:

That's another rehearsal jam (from 4/18/04), and one of my most favorite Honey White recordings ever; it's a great example of how good our interplay was at that point. We could take a simple twelve-bar jam and make it an epic within four minutes. After we'd made a proper studio recording (that first version above), the jamming got disciplined, but no less awesome. Here's a live take from 2006:

So…have you noticed how I get so hung up on the sound that I forget all about the lyric? Here it is:

"Sweet Oblivion"

A few weeks into summer and I've yet to see the sun
illuminating anything the way I want it done
It's not for lack of trying and not for lack of fun,

but I got tangled up beneath the losers and the lost,
whipping into frenzy just to get the point across
and desperate to win it all, no matter what the cost

If only you could see me now, if only you could see me now

I knew what I was doing—I knew it all along
I knew when not to worry all about the right or wrong
of ending up anonymous and dying to belong

If only you could see me now, if only you could see me now

Don't know if it'll ever be enough for anyone
to believe me when I promise that I've only just begun
to keep myself from sinking into sweet oblivion

If only you could see me now, if only you could see me now

It's not bad, but it's not poetry, and definitely a vehicle for Bryn's vocals. I was going for something easy and vowel-rich, so Bryn could sing big huge notes over the rest of the song. I wanted the lyric to be good if someone actually listened to it, so it needed work. I pulled this one out of the ether in early 2003, as I was just beginning another long (18 months!) stretch of irresponsible unemployment—the kind that people usually indulge in when they need to "find themselves." The only thing I found was that this guitar part Brian wrote sounded a lot like a ship rocking and drifting endlessly in a doldrum-gripped sea, especially when it flew above Bill's steady, semi-syncopated drums.

It seemed like a wide-screen, end-of-empire, Cecil B. DeMille thing. It also suggested an easy metaphor of holding pattern/denial/endings (how appropriate that Brian's eventual instrumental coda is like a closing-credit soundtrack, right?), so that's what I went for: frustrated aimlessness. It's a relatively soul-sucking experience for someone like me, who'd been spoiled by circumstances up to that point. That's how I felt, though—at the time, no one wanted to give me a job, and nobody "important" wanted to book my band. I think I was unconsciously doing what I'd later consciously do: write a lyric about growing out of/leaving Isla Vista. Emily and I figured that once the freshmen class consisted of kids who were in 6th grade when I was a freshman at UCSB, it was time to leave. By then, she'd finished grad school, Brian and Bryn had moved away, and UCSB/Isla Vista/Santa Barbara seemed like a dead end (though Bill and Marika would be stuck there until this very day).

Anyway, like "Mercy Rule," I had to get that crap out of my system too, and hopefully I don't resemble that guy much anymore—at least superficially. But like I said, the lyrics are almost incidental at this point. They were certainly second-fiddle when we recorded "Oblivion" in San Francisco, and I even got to be the neurotic, bitchy Roger Waters to Bryn and Brian's David Gilmour when we briefly considered splitting the song again. The aforementioned wise and powerful Jonathan Mayer played an anti-Solomon in this case, convincing us that the song should stay in one piece—and he was right, of course.

Oh, almost forgot—here's a version of "Oblivion" from the second Wildcat show in 2004, before we went into the studio:

Ultimately, "Sweet Oblivion" proved to be the kinder, gentler "leaving Isla Vista" song. Next week's entry is the ugly one—but only lyrically. Once again Brian and the band would save me from my own melodrama. Stay tuned.

Song stats:
Music by Brian Wolff and Honey White (2002).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, February 2003.
Appears on the following albums:
Epic Noise Now! by Honey White
Saturated Songs by Honey White
How Far is the Fall by Honey White
Deluge and Drought by Honey White


  1. John the anti-Solomon! What an awesome comparison.

    Nice write up. And I think you're overly harsh on the lyrics - they may not be your best, but the fact that they *don't* sound out of place in such an epic-sounding song says something in their favor, I think.

  2. I don't mean to sound harsh—I do like them, but I consider them in the second tier of my stuff (there are several tiers below it). Hmmm—that seems like a good way to wrap up this series: after I do all the write-ups, rank the lyrics 1-30.

    I also forgot to mention that Brian's rhythm part and my bassline together make a great aural equivalent of a swaying ship. Your guitar phrases in the "song" part are great little pieces of color, like sunlight through clouds.

  3. I've always liked that boat comparison. But then, I like most boat comparisons.


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