Split the Difference

November 16, 2008 at 12:20 am (Uncategorized)

280175864_5daa972730_oThis is the first (actually maybe second) attempt at doing a VH1-Storytellers for each of the songs were about to release on our next EP, “Shoveling Smoke”. This one’s about “Split the Difference”…

Like a lot of songs, I just heard this phrase and liked it. It’s a cliche I guess; though it seems more popular now than I never noticed before. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it. The Gilroys, a band I was in in the late 90s, were recording an album at Creep Records in Downingtown, PA. Arik Victor, who was engineering the session for us, used it while getting our feedback on some track level or EQ setting or something. It represented the balance between something too loud or too soft–a compromise. Recording is often just a series of compromises when you have a lot of people offering opinions; though I remember the phrase becoming somewhat of a joke when one of us was out in the room recording a track–if Arik thought it sounded good one way, you might give in a little and suggest changing it just a bit, and then Arik would kind of pretend to twist the knob and so you wouldn’t hear any difference, but you didn’t want to keep being a jerk about it and you were paying by the hour anyway so you would just go ahead with it as is. So it was a punchline to any situation you weren’t likely to resolve; it had as much meaning as “agree to disagree”.

So I tried to find phrases for the song Split the Difference that suggested compromises. As I’ve written about in previous posts, for me, a lot of pop music is about hopeful acceptance and in some ways this became my first politically minded song–in the light of our war in Iraq. It’s vaguely political at best, but it came together as Bush and his minions were trying to discredit Democrats by claiming that they all wanted to “cut and run”. Maybe my political angle would get across more stongly had I chosen to go with that phrase instead. (Sometimes, when I sing it live I do little vocal “cut and run” mantra at the end of the song.) Perhaps it is naive to think that you can just cut and run your way out of some awful, tragic mess your country has gotten you into; but that’s the kind of tone I wanted the song to have–that sticking to your guns (a phrase maybe I should have also considered for the song) seems like a really stupid idea when men and women’s lives are at stake. Out of a problem with no solution, maybe it’s a good idea to stop looking for one–or at least stop being so in love with your own opinions. Anyway, so then I collected those other phrases about compromise, ¬†reconciliation, and acceptance and strung them together.

Musically, I like having the “chorus” of the song just be this very simple, singable melodic line. Writing words for the chorus in this song would be against the whole idea. Having two guitarists playing intersecting lines seems more appropriate. Musically, my only idea was to have it sound like some 80s Molly Ringwald movie. I wrote the line as if it were a synth line–in fact, I wanted the whole thing to sound like it had been conceived on a sequencer. (And I guess the first demos in GarageBand do just that.) I was thinking along the lines of The Cure or New Order, where there’s this really recognizable melodic, instrumental hook. Parts would come in and out, like they were being turned on and off by a computer. It probably had something to do with listening to a bunch of M83, who do hypnotic repetition with big pay off as well as anyone. I don’t think the song sounds anything like them, but that repeating little ostinato that the piano and cello play was my attempt at creating some sort of organic, electronic music.

The song’s final verse also features something I keep doing in songs–perhaps to a point where I shouldn’t do it anymore. I just extend the number of repetitions of the verse structure to build more momentum and anticipation. Lately, it’s been an odd number of times–instead of the usual 4 or 8. I think it happens because I have more words I want to say and I want to get them out. Speaking of which, as that last verse shows, the political nature of the song, and in my opinion the nature of almost any pop song, becomes more about relationships. It’s almost impossible to sing about “us” and “you” and “I” and not think of the woman that’s standing next to you or the one over by the bar or the one you met over some summer. The song could be about anything, but those universal pronouns are just so familiar and attractive; they’re the words that make us connect with songs in the first place. So in that way, every metaphor gets extended back to you and me and us. And it’s useful to think of your country like the woman you love. You should treat her like you want to be treated. You should shower her with affection and an occasional backrub and never come home with another country’s lipstick on your collar. And you should learn to split the difference, bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygone when it comes to international affairs because most accidents occur within a mile of your home and home is where your heart is and other cliches.



  1. Brian Baughan said,

    I missed your last show, but I still think I’ve got the record for attending the most Gilroys/Builders/MPW shows. Right? I hope so. I want that distinction.

    By the by, is “Can’t Find No Purchase” gonna make the EP? I love that song. As I recall, it’s also got a good back story. It would work on this here web thingy.

  2. songsmith said,

    You have that distinction by far, friend. “Purchase” is on the EP, a 2:45 coda at the end of it all. It’s coming your way. Song and story. Hope to see you soon. Your attendance at shows gets you a free copy in the mail or in person.

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