Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hard to Tell

In the previous entry, I mentioned having written several songs with Ken, my old music partner and friend, most of them bad. This one was the best of the lot, and I happen to have a live version of it in my collection. It's not as awful as some of our songs were, but it's pretty silly.

(Actually, as I listen to it now I think "Your kisses were divine/but not as good as mine" is a pretty good line.)

Trivial note: I believe this performance was recorded in the park across the street from Our Lady of Peace church, as mentioned in "South Street."

Hard to Tell (1986)

The Song Remains the Same

This is a photo of a much younger (and skinnier) version of myself, circa 1988, performing at a Christmas party with my old schoolmate and musical partner, Ken Cadmus. I reminisced a bit about Ken at the beginning of this blog, which you can read about here. I joined his 50s-style band in the tenth grade, and by the time I was attending art school we had begun seriously writing songs. Most of them were awful and forgettable, but there is one I have kept with me all these years. It's called "Into the Night", and it has been a part of my life longer than some of my friends. Ken wrote the simple one-note riff that intros the song, as well as the progression for the chorus, and I wrote the rest, including the lyrics.

In 1995 I met my next major musical partner, Rob Flowers, with whom I wrote and recorded several very awful songs (the awful part being my doing, not Rob's) and we revived "Into the Night", which became a 'ska' number after the band had played it that way for a joke. It works, but I have always lamented the lack of a straight-ahead rock version, the way Ken and I had envisioned it in 1986. It has been dusted off and put back into play, this time by Dave and myself, and we are currently exploring a new and more basic approach to the song.

It's possible I have held onto this song out of nostalgia or sentiment, but I doubt it because as I wrote above I have an entire catalog of horrible songs that will never again see the light of day. I think what "Into the Night" has going for it is an interesting if basic progression, an emotionally charged transition in the chorus, and the room to build and diminish dynamics to dramatic effect. It also expresses lyrically the difficulty I sometimes have being understood in my intentions and my message, especially in crucial, emotional moments. I truly have no idea how good a song it is, but it's been a part of my life for so long that I couldn't imagine leaving it out of any performance catalog of mine.

Here are three versions: a 2007 solo acoustic home demo, which roughly reflects the 'classic' version we used to do in the old days; the Thirty Thieves 'ska' version, and the most recent band version, which is a  rehearsal version recorded in June.

Into the Night Solo
Into the Night 'ska'
Into the Night recent rough

Monday, August 22, 2011

Morgan Henry is My Hero

The first fully-completed song (in demo form) for this project was "One More Day to Rain", which had potential but suffered from a lyric cadence that was, as Dave pointed out, too fast and left the song with little room to breathe (details at the link, if you're curious).  So I re-worked it into this version, which to be honest I had completely forgotten about until I started preparing this post. Version 2 is clearly an attempt to address the existing problems, but it goes off the tracks by altering one of the better hooks of the original. It's no wonder I forgot about it.

My next attempt at the song was more recent, and I took a far simpler and more direct approach this time, cutting out some lyrics and thereby reducing the number of pell-mell syllables tumbling out of my mouth while leaving the melodic aspects intact. It worked pretty well, and smoothed out the song quite nicely. I e-mailed the rough demo track to the guys in the band to learn for that week's rehearsal, and this is where Morgan Henry became my hero.

Morgan had by now switched from bass to guitar, and at practice he asked me quite respectfully -- even shyly -- if it was okay by me that he had written some guitar parts for the song. This is a bit like a gifted auto mechanic asking if it was okay that he replaced the engine in my '99 Saturn with that of a Porsche, so of course I replied that it was more than okay by me, and I couldn't wait to hear what he did.

What he did was transform the song from a bangety (yes, 'bangety') acoustic folky-like song into a solid power pop single, suffusing the song with a sense of joy and augmenting the hook with a lick so tasty you could sell it to Ben and Jerry's.  The demo is pretty rough, but you can hear it well enough to see what I'm talking about. I am so hyped up to get into the studio and work this song, not to mention present it to a live audience somewhere down the road. Morgan will probably smile and shrug at all this fuss, but he gave me a gift that means the world to me. Thanks, buddy.

One More Day to Rain (Morgan Henry version)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Find Us In Good Company

So at one point I was gabbling away at my wife, describing the great things we were gonna do with "South Street" -- it's gonna be a rock song, not a ballad, it's gonna have a tough, kicking drumbeat, electric guitars, fiddle, piano, organ, etc., etc.

"I think you should leave it the way it is," my wife replied, which gave me pause.

It gave me pause because, despite a lack of a formal musical background, my wife has (among many other things) an uncanny and deadly accurate ear for what makes a good song. But of course, she couldn't be right this time, because after all, I was hearing hard drums and pianos and electric guitars and choo-choo trains for all I knew, and an artist should trust his or her instincts above everything else, right?

So we set to work in Dave's basement studio, rehearsing the song again and again. We set down guitar and drum and vocal tracks, looking for the sound I was hearing in my head, basing much of the arrangement on what we had done at Jammin' Java. It was good work; patient and competent and talented work, but in the end it wasn't very much fun. Well, you know, we were just getting going. The song would no doubt come together in the final mix, wherein everything we were looking for would fall into place, and there would be the song.

But then I went back to the demo I recorded with Dave, and I listened and re-listened, and I figured out that what I loved about this version was Dave's masterful guitar work. I realized the lead part was the song's heart -- it was the dramatic transition between the bittersweet memories of the first verses and the wistful musings of the finale. Dave had played an electric version of the lead, live and in rehearsal, which was splendid and up to Dave's usual level of excellence -- but it wasn't the lead in that demo. And I realized my wife was dead-on correct, as always, that the original demo should be the basis for the final recorded version of the song. I presented this to Dave, unsure what he would think, but after listening to it again he agreed, enthusiastically.

So that's how we're going to work it. The guitar parts will form the basis for the final version of "South Street", with a new set of vocals and soon-to-be arranged and layered instrumental parts. Cello, piano, soft drums (rather than hard kicking ones), bass, and maybe even a choo-choo train. But those gorgeous lead and rhythm parts will remain as they are, as the heart and soul of the work. I think we have a good shot at making a great little piece of work out of this song.

As usual, my wife was right.

South Street Demo August 2010

Friday, August 19, 2011

We Few, We Happy Few ('South Street' Live)

On the left there is Dave McKittrick, Morgan Henry, and Dan Fitzgerald, the members of the band I performed with at the Jammin' Java birthday show. I have never clicked with a band as fast or as well as I did with these guys, who in addition to being superb musicians are highly terrific human beings.  A few months after the JJ gig, we were sitting in a small club together over beers and Thai food, and someone said "Hey, why aren't we a band?"  Which was a good question. So we have begun rehearsing together, with an eye on playing out. More on that as it develops.

Herewith is the live version of "South Street" that we played that day. We have since rehearsed it at band practice, trying to refine it and get to the heart of what the song should sound like and where it should go from here. What we discovered was something unexpected, and I'll share that tomorrow.

'South Street' Live, March 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ain't Much to Look At, So

(click to enlarge)

I almost forgot about this. I took a photography course last fall as part of my BFA program at the Academy of Art University, and one of our assignments was to design and create a CD booklet. So I of course picked Sergeant Pepper. Ha, no. You guessed it.

 This probably will not be the actual cover or booklet. But it was fun to do.

Since You Last Saw 'South Street'

As first chronicled here, "South Street" is a reminiscence of my growing up in a suburban Jersey town called New Providence, a place for which I have mixed emotions. I don't think it's the greatest song ever written, but it may well be the best song I've ever written, which may not be saying much but there it is. It does exactly what I wanted it to, which is that it captures my tough teenage years in an appropriately mournful and mordantly humorous manner without getting self-pitying or maudlin about it. It also apparently strikes a chord with others who have never been anywhere near New Providence, and that is very satisfying. My friend Roy Edroso paid me a huge compliment by telling me the song should resonate with anyone who's ever been young and isn't anymore. So if nothing else, I say: mission accomplished.

Another touching and completely unexpected reaction to the song came from my father, who after listening to it apologized to me profusely for not having paid better attention to my plight during those years. "I should have been there for you more," he told me, in a voice heavy with regret and remorse, and I was taken quite aback. I assured my dad that he had nothing to feel bad about, that he did all right by me in the end, and that I loved him dearly. But I was quite touched that the song had that kind of an impact on him, and as an artist you can't ask for anything better than moving someone's heart, especially that of your own father.

The journey from "South Street"'s 20 minute songwriting session to its first live performance and groundwork for a final studio recording is no great epic or anything, but it is I think an interesting example of the songwriting and recording process, at least in my experience. So I'll take us from there to here, beginning with the demo I recorded a year ago with Dave McKittrick. Starting tomorrow I'll post other versions chronicling the song's journey, and I hope you'll stick with me.

South Street Demo August 2010

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Clouded Wrath of the Crowd

SO as I was saying...

Things slowed down musically over the fall of 2010, again mostly for reasons of time, but I spent New Year's Eve at the great Dave McKittrick's house, wherein much jamming took place, and the guys I played with were superb, each and every one. We could easily have gone off to a gig that night and been deemed a pretty good band that maybe needed a little work.  As it was, the seeds were sown for the next event, namely a 50th birthday party at Jammin' Java in Vienna, Va., hosted by the birthday boy himself, Jim Mazur. Jim gathered together something like 40 musician friends to perform on a Saturday afternoon in March, which is how I found myself rehearsing a three-song set with a splendid group of talented fellows, the exquisite Morgan Henry (bass), Dan Fitzgerald (drums) and the aforementioned Dave McKittrick (guitar). We discovered from the outset that the four of us meshed together effortlessly, to the point where I found myself literally startled by how good we sounded. Somethin' was happenin', and I liked it, I liked it.

The Jammin' Java gig went off great, and the highlight for me was the live debut of "South Street", which I dedicated to "Everybody from New Providence".  I'll post the audio of that song in a future entry. For now, here's a video clip of our version of "Growin' Up" (which I think I over-sang a tad).  It felt great being onstage again after a decade's absence.

P.S.  Oh, and sorry about the bizarre off-sync. The videographer spliced the footage someone took with the audio from the soundboard, and the timing is hilariously whacked, which accounts for the weird Mill Vanilli effect.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Yes, well. So.

I can explain.

The ABANDONED AND HEARTBROKE CD project is still a go, and in fact much more of a go than it was at the time of my last blog post. So there's that. But at the time, several factors conspired to drag this blog to a screeching halt, the main one being time. And so it just fell by the wayside. I didn't feel really bad about it because pretty much everyone following this blog is also on my Facebook, so it's not like I disappeared off the face of the earth or something. But the idea of chronicling the making of a CD still appealed to me greatly, so I am going to pretty much pick up where I left off and hopefully not lose momentum this time. And also, hopefully, people will find it interesting enough to follow along.

A lot has happened since I last posted, musically speaking, all of it good, so I have decided to break it all into separate blog posts, in chronological order, as if there hadn't been any interruption at all. There is a lot of work ahead, and I am looking forward to it.