Immovable Objects & Irresistable Forces

January 27, 2009 at 11:37 pm (Uncategorized)

raisingarizona1I write almost entirely at the piano. Songs written for the piano are completely different than those written for the guitar. There’s a different mindset about rhythm and form and feel and notes. I think if you really studied the familiar pop songs we know were written for piano, you’d find a many similarities among them–ones that span across genre and hipness and importance. There are players of both instruments that are so good that they might be able to confound some of these familiarities — find new, innovative ways of approaching their instruments. But, for the most part, they don’t dabble much in pop music. Frankly, it’s best that they don’t. As I’ve written about before, too much musicianship can really get in the way of the song.

Brian McTear of Miner Street Studios where we mixed the new album, “Shoveling Smoke”, made an observation about piano songs that I knew instinctively, but had never really heard described before. His remark had to do with the”downward-only strokes” that the piano makes, as opposed to the guitar player who can create rhythmic phrasing on both upward and downward strokes, can mute the strings entirely, etc. — who has, in general, more dynamic and rhythmic range than someone like me who hammers away in one direction on the piano. If you think of Jerry Lee Lewis and the way he pounded away, you get the right mental image. And while piano players can achieve subtlety and variation in other ways, they are left to only “push” their instrument away. There’s rarely the sense that the piano is countering your moves. You strike it and it responds. At its best, this relationship between player and instrument is profound — in ways that guitars can’t quite emulate. Visually speaking, this is true too, of course. The piano as major piece of furniture, as an immovable object. Its stubbornness is something you’ve got to beat up a bit.

Learning pop music on the piano, you became accustomed to certain styles and procedures. The left hand plays octaves and the right fills out the chord and runs through the changes. You’re always trying to create the sound of the whole band from the bass on up. That formula for forming pop music this way is hard to break and there are a few things that I envy about songs written for guitar, in addition to flexibility and mobility. The proximity of the notes on the guitar, the fact that the available notes do not span over several octaves and 88 keys, creates an intimacy that doesn’t always come naturally on the piano. The temptation to spread out the notes can bring about wondeful space, but it can often bring about a lack of intimacy. The guitarist’s notes reverberate physically and sonically at close intervals; they sort of lay on top of another and are more aware of each other.

So for the last song on the new album, “Can’t Find No Purchase,” I think for the first time I tried to voice each note I played on the piano a bit closer to one another to try and get that guitar sound. In an effort to make something sound more guitar like, my hands stay fairly close to one another, the voicings of the chords more akin to some four-part choir peace. Subconsciously, I must have emphasized hammer-on like phrases to get that more intimate guitar sound– where passing and leading notes pass a bit closer to one another. I don’t know if it really sounds more “guitar-y”, but it feels more intimate when I play it.

The song was inspired by a line from the Coen Brother’s “Raising Arizona.” Nicholas Cage’s character, H.I McDonough, explains to an adoption board that he and his wife Edna (Holly Hunter) are not able to conceive children. Of course, the Coen Brothers’ characters have their own language — one that subdues any perceived ridiculousness with terrible sincerity — so H.I. puts it like this: “My wife’s womb is a rocky place where my seed can find no purchase.” And I was so struck by the use of the word “purchase” and the personal sadness of their situation that I arranged a song idea around it. Lyrics are here.

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Exit Stage Left

January 26, 2009 at 11:08 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

canadaWhoever does the branding for Canada has done a great job. They’ve got a great national anthem and a pretty flag. They have mounted police in bright red jackets. And we Americans love to romanticize the place. Vancouver as Valhalla or something. From draft dodgers to prescription pill-popping senior citizens, there’s something for everyone. And a lot of us Americans like to use it as a threat-destination: “if [such and such] happens, I’m moving to Canada”–like we can run in there and claim sanctuary or forgiveness.

The popular trend of these threats certainly comes from recent elections and I tried to capture the sentiment in the song “Coast is Clear“. It was written sometime after the 2004 re-election of George Bush when many of us were depressed, convinced that things couldn’t get much worse. But these threats in most cases are pretty empty ones. As much as we idealize the Canadian Rockies and their clean water and their humane, universal health care, most of us would never really imagine moving into Canada. Most of us that live on the east coast of the US don’t even want to give up Eastern Standard time for our own West Coast, let alone packing it all up for the Great White North; we like the fact that Canadians are watching our tv shows. But we are nowhere without a good threat. Our country was founded on them. All change requires threats.

The song I wrote was intended to sound like a drinking song. Something that would sound good to bearded men slamming their mugs together. And so it was meant as a farewell celebration, a fare-thee-well, if you will. It’s one of the more schizophrenic songs I’ve written. The verses are this barroom barrage of imperatives–a “have one for the road” kinda thing. Scott and Craig did a great job of recording those acoustic guitars; there’s a good drunk quality to them. The pre-chorus, a term I use a little too liberally these days, tries to bring on the sentimental aspect behind the escape — and its musicality abruptly changes to match. All leading to a chorus that promises that this excursion is only temporary until the “coast is clear.” It’s almost like I couldn’t quite keep up the masquerade of the threat of leaving and so I have to provide some sort of stipulation for return. And so, nowadays, when I sing the song, with the image of Bush in his helicopter, leaving the white house forever, I don’t quite feel the same way. 

Part of me would like to think the “coast is clear” now–but I’ll reserve judgment for awhile. 

Because of its split personality, I’ve never really felt comfortable performing the song. I can only imagine what it’s like to listen to. But I’m sure that it’s sincere and for that reason alone, I’ve found it to be successful. It captures exactly what I feel from time to time: great indignation followed by great resignation. And I make no apologies for that. It’s what happens after a couple of beers.

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