Anatomy Of A Song #5: Taking Care Of Business

And now, in time-honored fashion, "I Could Try" is placed on the back burner for two or three days as I am compelled to engage in musical commerce for peanuts. Soulfinger, and this weekend a couple of day-sessions for a Jack Douglas (Aerosmith/Lennon) project that I mentioned a couple of months ago as a maybe-goer.

Looks like I'm to do vocals as well. Maybe I'll get discovered.

I fucking hope not. See, that'll delay work on "I Could Try" yet more. Songs as ambitious and crafty and loving as "I Could Try" would have absolutely nothing to do with anything like this.

No, my priorities are quite balanced, thank you. Trust me.


Anatomy Of A Song #4: Complicated Game

After six hours of tracking, bouncing, cataloging, editing and processing various drum and percussion tracks I'm stopping to back up onto cd before I get too deep into the forest and can't find my way back. With digital there's no reason to not always be able to re-access a snapshot of the recording at any point of its development. So we work without fear.

And when we work without fear, as long as we can manage the time, we can let a song go this way and then that. One need only be a strong maker of decisions which is a great way to describe a decent songwriter.

I have a monster of a percussion bed for this song. It's so finely detailed that it'll never get boring. And absolutely nothing is electronically sequenced so it's got a nice organic Ocean Way groove. I've got cabasa and congas and handclaps and timpani and four different loops and sleighbells and tambourine I've got backwards and forwards cymbal crashes and little snare drum touches that generate a nice shuffle here and there.

The percussion bed is so a part of the song that I can and will wipe the Rhodes and vocal guides and begin my final tracks from scratch. I'll do another guide vocal while I'm printing the final Rhodes track. If any of this guide vocal is inspired I'll consider it final and punch in whatever can be improved.

I will not double or triple or anythingle this final vocal. This goes up front big and dry and has to just be real and good. I'm not saying I won't have backgrounds of up to 16 voices but this lead will be single front and center. I have a fantastic Equitek E-200 condenser mic that I will run through a tube pre and straight in. Compression will come later. One of the advantages of being a singer is mic technique- if you have it on stage you'll have it in the studio. You map out your mic zones- from a foot out to 4 inches out. It's gotta be a dry space or you'll sound like you're moving around.

Bass will come after the Rhodes and vocal. I'll spend four hours just running through it over and over, much of the time with just the vocal and the percussion bed up. This way I can lock in to the melody and get a lot of nice sympathetic motion in the bass. When I start to develop my ideas I'll start tracking, punching, slowly moving through the song until it's all there. Then, having this reference of the final line I'll recut the whole bass track from the top in 2 or 3 or however many takes.

Guitar will start to come in depending on what is needed. This song will have a little bit of doubled acoustic rhythm here and there and a few leslied lines on clean electric. There might be some slide on a countermelody or two. I may tune the electric to a major sixth or something and slide into the verses once or twice.

Then there'll be a couple of orchestra bell parts, two different organ sounds and piano.

And now my backup is done so it's time to finish this bed and move onto the electric piano/guide vocal.

Anatomy Of A Song #3: Come Together

I'm listening to the skeleton of "I Could Try". Guide vocal, guide Rhodes, drum loops segueing rudely in and out of one another, bongos, timpani, sleighbells. Whistling impersonations of french horn and trumpet. I blew 11 bucks for a pair of little be-wrist strapped sleighbell jobbies that sound tits. Since I have a pair, I can fire them up through stereo condenser mics and place them widely in stereo. All other percussion elements are mono and will be panned to specific points and placed forward or backward with reverbs.

Next up is the bells, some massed handclaps, some tambourine, some shaker. The song is going to have an outro of the two verse chords that will give me my first chance to cut loose on the Rhodes since my drunken stinking-up of the end of "Maybe Next Time". The outro is cool because the much ballyhooed key switch of the final chorus needs to somehow be sexily returned to A major. Actually, it really doesn't but we're doing it. The Headmaster Demands It.

Bringing an unusual modulation back home is eight times harder than getting it there in the first place, man. Listen to Joe Jackson's beyond-superlative return to home key after the keyboard solo in "Breaking Us In Two". What an amazing feat. An amazing feat. I'm not going to analyze th' whole thing but he plays this great shell game with suspended triads that sort of fool you into thinking the transition is smooth, and then magically it is.

Joe is sort of permeating these proceedings isn't he? Th' Viscount inquired after his Night And Day II a couple of days ago and it put me on a Joe Jackson Jag. Also pulled out his book A Cure For Gravity and am rereading it. It's not Bernstein's The Joy Of Music which informs a shit load of what I do but he has a lot of great stories and doesn't hold himself back from the reader.

I think this deep kinship/once-removed mentorship I have with Bernstein is something I share with a lot of pop artists on the radio these days. I also understand that Stockhausen and pre-Baroque music modalism is enjoying a new vogue amongst the American Idols.

Fucking bunch of pimples. Get me a fucking CANNON.

Anyway, back to th' order of the day.

My brilliant return to the home key will be brilliantly deployed in the outro by just going there. It'll smoke. The progression of Fminor 7 to Eb minor 11 will simply slip into C#minor7/E to B minor 11. And over it th' Rhodes solo will instantly slip into the new key and that's what'll make it cool. As we fade.

Oh- I also need a snare session to track in ruffs and ghost notes to Stax-Voltisize the loops up a little.

Today's Listening for "I Could Try":

-"Breaking Us In Two" Joe Jackson
-"The Warmth Of The Sun" The Beach Boys
-"Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" Berrrt Bacharach
-"Doubleback Alley" The Rutles
-"Goodness Gracious Me (Th' Ecology)" Marvin Gaye
-"You Were The One" King Radio
-"Maybe Next Time" Bobby Lightfoot
-"Thin Line Between Love And Hate"- Th' Persuaders
-That new Mary J. Blige single has a great Philly Soul chorus.

palette-cleansers of the evening:

The Saint Matthew Passion Bach
String Quartet in F Major (The "American" Quartet)- Dvorak
It's Alive The Ramones


Anatomy Of A Song #2: Take A Chance With Me

Yeah, I was at this thing until 3:15 last night. Several things become apparent: the final modulation is not going to be the old whole-step standby- it'll be a major third. Why? Because it's where the melody wants to go. I keep hitting the modulation section and intuitively singing the melody up a major third. So be it. The fakeout stutter thing should work quite nicely, even if it'll involve some engineering shellgamery which I generally try to avoid.

I'm still thinking about the drum track. I'd love to use real drums but it's just impractical. What I need to do is get Dave Barrett in here one day and just have him play many grooves and fills at many tempos. Otherwise it's serious household disruption and hours of mic placement and compression settings and eq for little gain. Also, whenever Dave and I work together it's the same thing, whether it's a four hour session or a ten hour session- we spend all the time getting a beautiful tone and then hit the track in one or two takes in the last ten minutes.

So I'm using the kitchen sink. Almost literally. Bells, timpani, congas, loops, machinery, editing, all that. I want to see what will happen if I let a bit of 2006 in there. All the lush stuff that I'm thinking of might be best offset with some cruddy, mono distressed drum stuff like a low budget hip hop song. Sometimes the only reason my stuff is retro is because I put stuff through one filter too few. Fuck, I like instruments and ensembles, you know?

An absolutely amazing countermelody for the chorus has presented itself. I mean amazing. It's a long, arching phrase that hits the downbeats where the melody bounces off the offbeats. It's one of those magical lines that reminds me of the perfection and sophistication of "Warmth Of The Sun". Lyrically it underpins the hook phrase, "...well I could try..." with a four-bar cascade of "...try...try...try...try...try...try...try..." etc.

The ultimate test will be to deploy it gracefully. Maybe it will only happen on the last modulated chorus! Do I have the discipline and the craftiness? Can I think of baseball scores for that long before, well, you know?

In the meantime, I have to splice and chop and time match and get Wrex'n'FX drums to sit with the Wrecking Crew offset timpanis and sleighbells and all th' usual.

Oh, I was introduced to bass player Tony Franklin from Bad Company and The Firm and Jimmy Page today and I had no idea who he was. What an utter a-hole I am. I mean, I was curteous and all that like I am with anyone, but really now. What a walking BJ I am sometimes. He was with th' SWR rep, traveling around doing Fender/SWR clinics. Nice guy. I guess I sort of like the bass line from "Feel Like Making Love", you know? I've played that crap. He bends the major thirds up from minors and it's pretty nice.

Ah, what the fuck. I mean, I'm Bobby fucking Lightfoot and I overlook the occasional ignorance of the public as far as recognizing my achievements.


Anatomy Of A Song #1: Your Guitar And Your Pen

The basic melodic arc, the chords, the hook lyrics and some verse lyrics all arrive in the first 2 hour session. The song is called "I Could Try", a wry pun on the title of my 1998 song "I Could Cry". It's so kool LA circa 1966 that it's not even Brian Wilson-ey, it's downright Bacharach-like.

In the second session on th' second night the thing is fleshed out, and I write th' rest of the lyrics. It's a very innocent song and sits very neatly alongside "Maybe Next Time" and "Monday Wedding", but it's going to be much more harmonically sophisticated and more layered. Not layered like a Wrecking Crew thing, but sprinkled with little pointillist touches all over the place. Indulging in the Bacharach spirit of the thing, I write a little instrumental middle instead of a middle eight. It's a series of major seven chords moving I-IV, i.e. A major 7 to D major 7 to C to F to D to F# minor to Bdim/F to D/E. Absolutely crazy.

In the spirit of the thing this section will feature a trumpet or french horn melody line. It will happen twice and the second time the five-note theme will be answered by another lead instrument. Probably clean, fast- leslied guitar. That's What King Radio Would Do.

The lyric is a trifle, but that's exactly what's called for. This is your basic walkin' through the park sort of song. It's very bouncy in that timpani-and-banjo kind of Pet Sounds way and it's going to be pretty enough that the lyrics don't want to be all cosmic. To say as little as possible; to draw a mood and establish an emotional premise. The hook lyric has a nice 1-and-2-and-fast bounce to it and that's what has to be positioned at the top of the whole pyramid.

Now: the structure. The structure is fucking crucial. It's always crucial. I put more work into this than any other aspect of a song. It's easy to bang something out but the structure is always what makes a good song great. Listen to the structure of "Season Cycle" from Skylarking. Listen to the structure of "Go All The Way" by Th' Raspberries. "Waterloo Sunset". Joe Jackson's "A Slow Song". The Pretenders' "Kid". Sorry, but Neil Diamond is a master of structure. Nirvana had some fantastic structures. The structure is the difference between effective and devastating. The Beatles had some sorry-ass structures, compadre. Listen to "From Me To You"! Woah! But they are of course the biggest structure geniuses of all. I mean, if some of your best god damn records have people laughing and fucking up lyrics and voices cracking, you're going to have a duff structure here and there. Then you're going to come up with the brilliant structure of "Can't Buy Me Love" and "Help" and "The Word" (!) and god knows "Strawberry Fields". My song "I Could Cry" had a magnificent structure, like a cathedral.

This is the time when I step away from musical things and just think the song to myself. I'll do it for a couple of days. It's not like th' fucking Grammys are staring me down, you know? Ain't going to be anybody laughing on this recording. If I'm driving I'll turn the music off and think the thing out. Massage it. One of the things I do is to reharmonize things very subtly in a tune, as it gets into the last third. It's an almost subliminal way of lifting a tune that's starting to get geriatric. I can think of reharmonizations best when I'm away from instruments and if they stick I can usually implement them. This is where the piano is invaluable. I reduce chords to root-5th-added tone and let single notes move to imply a little something different under the melody while still moving in the same direction as the original chord sequence.

Far away from any piano or guitar it hits me: a whole-step modulation up for the last chorus and a little tension-creating game to get there. I'll do the first bar of the last chorus in the home key and make it stutter into a reiteration in the new key so the last chorus soars when it kicks in. At least that's the idea. That is fully Dionne Warwick right there.

On the third night I track a Rhodes/vocal/drumloop of the thing top-to-bottom. It sounds too much like my song "Maybe Next Time", but it's just the groove. Part of it is I'm using th' drum loop from "Maybe Next Time", chrissake.

This necesitates some big decision making and I spend a couple of hours in my loop library. I listen to some of my favorite places for ripping drum loops: James Brown, Michael Penn, anything where Jim Keltner is soloed up or Ringo is soloed up. Does he solo up on "Flying"? That would be a prime loop. No, there's that tremoloed guitar. A deep shame. Where does Ringo solo up? The break in "Birthday"- I think that's McCartney. The solo on Abbey Road. Useless. I make a note to myself to make a loop sometime of the break on "Back In The USSR"- "...back in the US...back in the US...back in the US...back in the US..." it ends up in like 10/4 time or something.

Charlie from th' Stones is great but he never solos up either.

So I'm left with three or four alternatives to ponder as I enter the recording process: real drums, which are almost always best but a royal hassle, a good loop or several, or typed-in drums or drum machines.

I'm leaning towards recording real drums and cutting them into loops.