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


  1. Ha! I'd never seen the Jimmy Eat World video before. I like that it's basically a caricature of what high school / college parties are supposed to be like.

    Regarding the solo, I always have fun playing it, and it is interesting that it is the one and only guitar solo I have ever performed in a major key. My tastes, like yours, tend toward the minor and blues pentatonic instead.

    This song, by the way, along with "How Far Away" are what taught me the importance of echo: Nearly every guitar solo sounds more full and awesome with some echo on it. Try it out! You'll agree with me, I'm sure.

  2. If I played the guitar at all well, I'd try it. Works ok on the bass, as I think I've demonstrated.

    I stitched together a relatively happy sounding clip a few weeks ago, based on 20 seconds of Kevin drumming and about the same amount of Adam's guitar from the last Radblaster practice. I wrote two parts of the bass line (for two parts of the song) and it sounds pretty happy.

    I will therefore write lyrics about nuclear war or something like that to go with it.

  3. Nice. I recently wrote a guitar riff that kinda sounds like blues-based nuclear war. I'll write lyrics about rainbows and unicorns to go with it. Just kidding. Maybe.


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