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

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