A Quick One

Hello non-followers!

This week I thought I’d just quickly outline something I thought of to help me out of a rut in my own songwriting.  It’s one of those things that will trick you into writing something cool.  I’m avoiding the word “exercise” here, because an exercise always seemed to be something that you did to develop certain songwriting “muscles,” but were never actually things that you ended up using in a  “real” song.

So here’s the gist of the exercise:

Step One: LEARN a song by one of your songwriting heroes. Seriously. I don’t think you can call yourself a “huge fan” if you don’t learn any songs by the people you admire. Ideally, you should do this by ear…I know…kind of being a hard ass about it…it’s for your own good kid. Better to learn by listening over and over again, than to learn by looking it up on some lyrics and chords website (that may or may not have the correct information).

Step Two: Write out the lyrics of your hero’s song.

Step Three: Notice what’s going on there. What’s the rhyme scheme? What are the stress patterns?

Step four: On a separate piece of paper, write out ONLY the rhyme scheme with the rhyming words in their appropriate places, like this:

verse
…………….go
…………….mexico
…………….knew
…………….do

chorus
…………….sends me
…………….mends me
…………….defends me
TAG LINE

Now, obvoiusly, form the chorus rhymes, we are able to tell exactly which song this is coming from…so I would use the verse rhymes as a jumping off point. In other words, let’s use the rhymes of the first verse to create a new story unique to our own perspective that uses these rhymes from this classic song to get our head into a new creative space…

Like this:

you never told me why you had to go
you just bought a plane ticket for mexico
it was something you were running from, that much i knew
but when you got on the plane i didn’t know what to do

….right…so the story is changed and probably now the rest of the rhymes from the other verses might not make so much sense now, but from this little “rutbuster,” we now have the basis of a story…which is WAY more than we had before. I would probably also at least use the rhyme scheme of the chorus, since it contrasts well with that of the verse.  Obviously, it would need to be rewritten about 50 more times…but the lesson is still the same: sometimes when you set up some rules for yourself, like,  “I am  going to use the rhyme scheme from the verses of  ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ to springboard me into a song,” you force yourself into thinking in ways you probably wouldn’t ordinarily.

Try it.

This week:

Mixing with my new studio monitors:

Still in touch with my old roommate who is now an audio engineer.

Still looking for a job….that pays more than $8.45 an hour (seriously?)

Early Willie Nelson
Kevin Kadish
The Music Row Show
Early Jimmy Buffet

The Intersection of Art and Commerce

I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular topic lately.

At first glance, it would seem that it has to do with the ability for art to be sold, but it goes way beyond that. Can true artists expect to make a living in the DIY age? Can musicians, and songwriters in particular, be expected to be able to survive after the music business as we knew it has ceased to be?

One of the first things that has to be grappled with is the idea of quality…now, don’t go all Robert M. Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) on me and wind up in the laughing academy for thinking about this…but pondering the question “What does Quality mean?” is extremely useful and will teach you volumes about what kind of artist you are, and about what kinds of art you want to make. Obviously, you have to keep yourself from disappearing down the rabbit hole forever, because the questions you start asking are have ambiguous answers that only lead you to more and more questions (that also have no real answer)…and so on.

So here we go: what is Quality? Is there QUALITY inherent certain pieces of art that cause them to be universally accepted as such?  That’s the trap Mr. Pirsig fell into, I think, because he assumed there was SOMETHING that all great art has that is so OBVIOUS to anyone that experiences it they automatically can tell the Quality art from the Shitty art. I can already tell that you’re way ahead of Mr. Pirsig, because, obviously, that kind of inherent “goodness” doesn’t exist…even art that is in high popular esteem is hated by SOMEONE. The inverse, of course, is also true…art that is popularly hated is loved by SOMEBODY.

Basically, Quality comes from what YOU (as the receiver) bring to it.  You bring your tastes, your experience, you relate the art that is before you in the present to art that has lived up to your definition in the past. The relativity of Quality.

Never has this been more apparent than in the current popular music scene. It becomes really strange when the entire focus of a particular style of art becomes DRIVEN by commerce. In the music industry, only those songs that record companies thought they could SELL would be recorded and marketed. When there is huge money to be made, there tends to be a watering-down of what I would call “True Art.” Naturally, I probably have to define what I mean by that….from the above definition of “Quality,”
you can tell that I have my work cut out for me…but here goes anyway:

Something is “True Art” (to me) if: it is something that is consistent with my own internal quality compass independent of its commercial viability.

When a definition is worded in this way, it is changeable. Your definition probably changes as your  experience or education or mood changes. Finally, the point of my post: there are songs that sell millions of copies that I would claim are not congruent with my personal definition. And here’s the rub: in the town in which I’ve chosen to live,  there is a certain credibility lent to songs that have been recorded and had some success whether they have met the “True Art” definition or not. It’s as if some of these songs are somehow imbued with QUALITY having made it through the publishing, pitching, holding, recording, releasing, and charting phases of the hit-making processI don’t think so. If a song does not fit within the bounds of my “Quality” defintion, it deserves to be treated as a waste of time.

That is why I tend to drift towards artists that are internally consistent. Artists that are TRYING to make ART. Artists that are walking in their own definition of quality. Artists like Lyle Lovett,  James McMurtry, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, John Prine, Willis Alan Ramsey, Jason Isbell, Joe Pug…and lots more…

I guess the lesson is be internally consistent. Know what YOU mean by quality. Don’t think a song is a quality song just because it has been cut…or even because it has had chart success….and make sure that when you are writing, you are trying to write things that fit within the bound of your definition of quality…write songs because you have to, not because you think there’s going to be a huge payoff waiting for you someday if you find the magic song success formula…

Just write and keep advancing your quality until you are proud of what you’re doing (or at least don’t hate it so much…).

…And I think you will be rewarded…somehow…

…and even more obviously, I’ve only answered one(?) question from the beginning of this post….much more to talk about…like the state of the music business and the problems and benefits of the DIY revolution…and how that all relates to the problem of “Quality.”

oh! and it seems like I’m avoiding the intersting and seemingly Buddhist cosmological dichotomies that beg the questions, “but Seth, aren’t the people writing these lame songs that end up selling zillions of records operating from their own definition of “Quality,” and therefore, by your definition, they would be internally consistent and therefore, true art?”

well…no…think about quality as not being measured by dollars….please…

O_o    

This week:

Finished recording a song of mine that I’ve recorded like 3 times in the past…but this time I think I got it!
Silmarillion…still…
Lee Clayton
The Band
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Jerry Jeff Walker
B.W. Stevenson
Rodney Crowell
ubuntu  11.04 natty narwhal

…About Talent

OK. I’m sure you’ve heard it: “You are so talented. I would never be able to do that.”

If someone says that to me, I am always humble and thank them for saying such an apparently nice thing, but I never get to reveal what I truly think of “talent.”

Allow me to do that here…talent is BS.  I do not have ANY “inherent” talent to write songs or to play guitar or to sing. I do, however, have a high frustration tolerance when it comes to those things…and that’s actually how I would define “talent” –the capacity to work through the frustrations associated with learning how to do something….that’s all.  The person that pays the complement definitely has the ABILITY to be as good as ANYONE on the guitar, as good as ANYONE at singing, as good as ANYONE at writing songs….

Obviously, I am a HUGE believer in human potential.  EVERYONE has the ability to do ANYTHING. I think it’s a matter of what you focus on and what your frustration tolerance is.  Think about it: a lot of people like the IDEA of playing the guitar, but few have the patience to do the work to become great.  Most people try guitar for a while, even learn a few songs, but as soon as they encounter something that tests their ability to WORK THROUGH DIFFICULTY, they bail. Sometimes they move to a different instrument, sometimes they abandon music altogether. Sometimes they find something that turns them on so much, they are able to work through the unique obstacles associated with that new interest: software engineering, finance, guitar building.

I had that happen with calculus. I met with something that was difficult and my patience was at an end…and I had no capacity to push through the discomfort of the difficulty. So I bailed. I had had enough. I chose to seek other ways to test my patience.

Maybe “talent” is just personal taste.  Can  you develop “talent” that you currently have no capacity for? I think you can.

Let’s say I think it would be useful and gratifying to learn calculus so that I can better my life and the life of my family. I can use the mental picture of what being good at calculus is to me to fuel my study and give me the strength to push past all the difficult roadblocks I will encounter on my path to calculus greatness. As long as I can keep my goal in mind, I can train myself to take on and work through more and more frustration.

In your songwriting, what are you aiming for? I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to be able to write. I am always measuring myself against my heroes. Constantly working my way up the Olympus that is the Guy Clark/Townes Van Zandt/Steve Earle/James McMurtry/Lyle Lovett standard. That’s the other thing: I know it’s pretty much impossible to reach anything approaching the accomplishments of my heroes…but the pleasure is not to be found in the achieving, but in the TRYING.

This week:

The Silmarillion
Recorded a cover of a John Hartford tune
Remixed two of my tunes
Received Jason Blume’s Critique on Jodi’s song that we recorded last week.
I didn’t go to the songwriter’s night this week.
Got some good ideas for future songs, wrote them down in my hook book
Hoyt Axton
Owsley
Buck Owens
The Band
Early Bob Dylan

The Chorus Petal

What is your preferred mehod for writing a chorus? For that matter, what is your preferred method for writing songs in general? Do you write whenever the muse strikes you, or are you more disciplined about it?

There are probably as many ways to write songs as there are writers. There really is no “right” way, there is only “your” way. But by studying the working methods of others and copying some of their methodologies, you might be able to work yourself out of a rut.
This week, I’m going to tallk about how I write and what my process usually drifts towards. Maybe you’ll find something useful, maybe you’ll think that everything I do would be like putting vise grips on your creativity. If you think what I’m doing sucks, by all means post a comment and share with all three of us your process so that we all might learn from it.
First of all, let me encourage you to keep a book of titles. Whenever you think to yourself “I think that would make a good song title,” write it down in the book. Some people in Nashville like to call this book their “Hook Book.” If not an actual physical one, keep a document specifically for titles in googledocs, or if you are a person that believes that google is swaying more toward the evil side than the good these days, you can use Zoho Writer , or some similar online office application should be just as good. You could even set up an OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Word Document, PDF, textfile and  or other such page in a perpetually synced  folder with Dropbox, so it would always be accessible from any machine you set up Dropbox on. Again, I prefer to leave the thing in online storage because I just want this document to be accessible from any computer, anywhere.
I think my current list of titles has something like 30-40 in it. When I decide to write a song based on one of the titles in this document, and actually finish it, I use the strikethrough option and cross it off.
I work from the title backwards through the song. So, I take the title, and from the title, I usually have a feeling about whether the song will be a verse/refrain or verse/chorus type of a song. If it’s a verse/refrain kind of a song, I start thinking about the story I want to tell and try to figure out what kind of a rhyme scheme would set that off the best.
If it’s a verse/chorus song, I start to write the chorus. 
…And this is the part that is hard to teach someone, because it’s all about taste. 


I remember in a songwriting class in college, the professor (I believe it was Jimmy Kachulis) asked the class why they thought the chorus is called the “chorus” when generally only one person is singing it. I liked his answer: he thought that is was like classical Greek drama.  In ancient Greek drama, the chorus is a group of “homogeneous, non-individualized performers, who comment with a collective voice on the dramatic action.”  (wikipedia) In other words, the chorus serves to comment on what is going in the play, and often, the chorus provides us with insights about the character’s mental state that we wouldn’t have through the character’s words.  Sometimes, and I think this is the key:  the chorus serves to give voice to the audience…asking questions the audience should be asking themselves…so here was Jimmy’s point: the chorus is called the “chorus” in popular song  because that’s the part where the voice of the audience is heard–where the singer is accompanied by the voice of the audience,  functioning like the classical Greek chorus.


That’s your job when you write a chorus: to make the audience sing along with it so they will REMEMBER it. How do you do that? There are several ways: 


Writing the chorus is about contrast–in all ways. The harmonic rhythm of the chorus should be different, the harmonic structure should be different, the range should be different. The chorus should be more intense. Generally, the way you make the melody more intense is to put it in a higher register.  Think about that as you’re crafting your chorus. Make it catchy, make it memorable. Make it so people can’t help but sing along with it. 


Don’t be afraid to try EVERYTHING. Do not be inflexible in your conception of what your chorus should be…that way there be dragons.  Try it all. Rewrite the thing so that the hook appears in the first line. Write another version where the hook only appears in the second line. Write a third version where it appears in both the first and last line. Write a fourth version where the hook is repeated over and over again.  Then, let your taste be your guide and go with the one you think is the best…but  only after you have explored all the possibilities.  


Also, keep this in mind- the chorus should be the distillation of what the song is supposed to mean. The chorus should contain the “world view” of the song, and all of your verses (and your bridge, if it comes to that) need to point to the chorus, needs to reinforce it, sometimes casting it in a new light in different verses. Make sure all your verses work well thematically with your chorus. 


Keep a hook book, in some form or other…write some choruses, paying close attention to the above….rewrite your chorus a lot. Make it kick ass.


This week:
Finished recording “Felt Like Flying.”
Reading the Silmarillion.
Working on a sound alike recording of a Guy Clark song.
Working on recording one of Jodi’s songs so she can get it critiqued tomorrow.
Went to writer’s night Saturday….did ok….forgot some words, forgot some chords…but did relatively well. 
Haven’t sold my kidneys yet…but I think I’m about to 😉
Guy Clark
Lyle Lovett
Townes Van Zandt
Tolkien Professor

The Rhyme of Reason

Since the last few posts have been about influences and listening, this week we’re going to get back into the nut’s and bolts of writing, and I’m going to show you how I use internet tools to help with finding rhymes. You may not even need to purchase a rhyming dictionary!

First, let me say that there are rhymes that are over used and you need to avoid them at all costs. You know the ones: love/above/dove, heart/apart/start, girl/world, fire/desire/higher, together/forever…you know the ones. Sometimes I like to play a game while listening to songs on the radio: if I’ve never heard the song, I try to predict the rhymes. Try it. I bet that most times you probably can. This can highlight just how many rhyme cliches there are.  Try to avoid them if you can help it.

Second, I am a believer in near rhymes and imperfect rhymes.  For one thing, as you will see, if you train yourself to all kinds of rhymes, perfect, imperfect and near, the palette of colors you have paint your world is dramatically increased.  You wouldn’t want to try to paint something photo-realistic with only three crayons worth of rhymes, would you?

Third, I know it’s tempting to use what I would call a “visual rhymes” these are when you have two word that look as if they are going to rhyme, but, in fact, have TOTALLY different vowel sounds. Examples: comb/womb, one/gone, main/again.  Don’t do it. This is music. The sound is what matters.

Here’s the website I use instead of using a rhyming dictionary:

Rhymezone

As, you can see, there is a search bar,  and to the right of the search bar is a drop down menu with several options:
So, not only is this site useful for finding rhymes, but it also lets you search synonyms, antonyms, and Shakespeare! 
So I’ll explain how I use this site with an example:
I’ll use a song that I has been relegated to the junk pile for something like 10 years, so let’s see if I can resurrect the first verse using better rhymes:
Here it is in its current (lame) state:
the leaves are changing color now                                              
the sky is turning grey                                                                    
school buses on the roadway now
and less light today
i woke up to an empty bed
walked through an empty house 
how will it feel when the snow starts
if it’s this cold here now?
OK. We have our work cut out for us.  We see that this song is about the Fall…Autumn. It’s ok, but the images are kind of generic, and the rhymes are….uninspired.  This opening line kinda sucks, too, as far as opening lines go…maybe it should be changed. Also, the first line and the third line both end with “now.” I’d rather that they rhyme. I would rather the rhyme scheme be this:
a
b
a
b
c
d
c
d
New opening line: the leaves are flaming red and gold.  To rhymezone, Batman! First, we look for “gold” rhymes:
So, as you can see, the people at rhymezone have done you a huge favor by making the most common words Blue Bold, the next most common words regular blue, and the uncommon words dimmed.  You can probably tell that I won’t use voled  or noled in this song. Actually, if you get tired of seeing words that are no longer used in modern conversational American English, there is a box at the bottom of the page that you can check so that rare words will no longer appear in your search results.  
From this list, I’m going to eliminate “cold,” because I’m going to use that word in the last line of this verse. It’s sort of the “payoff” word in this verse, and I’d rather not tip my hand, if I can help it at all.  
I make make a rhyme list, usually in a google document, so it will always be retrievable, even if all my hard drives bite it at once:
fold 
hold
old
sold
told
controlled
There some ok things there, but let’s use the drop down menu to find some near rhymes, to see if there is anything that might be a little more descrptive:
As is normally the case when using technology, sometimes they can’t really give you what you want. So you have to treat it like a physical rhyming dictionary. Since the word “gold” ends in “old,”  it ends with a voiced alveolar plosive. The closest sound to the voiced alveolar plosive, of course, is the UNvoiced alveolar plosive. All that we’re saying here, is that the “d” sound is made by making a sound with the vocal cords, while at the same time, putting your tongue to the alveolar plate inside the mouth. Then, you use the air inside your mouth to puff your tongue off the alveolar plate. The unvoiced version merely eliminates the sound from the vocal cords. Try it. When you stop voicing while you put your tongue to the plate, what sound do you make?
Right. A ‘t” sound is made. What that means is that we can also use words that end in an “olt” sound. Let’s see what we get:
Now our rhyme list looks like this:
fold                bolt
hold               colt
old                 jolt
sold               volt
told                revolt
controlled     

See? We have added more colors to our palette.  One more thing to do. There is another sound that is related to the voiced alveolar plosive: the voiced alveolar nasal.  The “n” sound. So, naturally, you’d be hard pressed to find a word in English that ends in “oln,” so I have made the executive decision that “own” is good enough (it’s my song!) .  So here’s what we get when we search for rhymes for “own”:
So here’s the list now:
fold                bolt          cone         thrown       fibrous dysplasia of bone
hold               colt          flown         throne      
old                 jolt           drone        zone
sold               volt          groan        unknown
told                revolt       moan        postpone
controlled     blown      stone         alone

Now we have LOTS of things to play with. Resisting the temptation to use “fibrous dysplasia of bone,” let’s try some out:

The leaves are flaming red and gold
the sky is turning grey 
your summer dreams have been postponed
there’s less light today
……nope….try again….
the leaves are flaming red and gold
the sky is turning grey
the flip flop shoes have all been sold
there’s less light today
yikes….nope…….
the leaves are flaming red and gold
the sky is turning grey
i’m standin at  the door alone
there’s less light today 
not terrible, but I think the last line would have to change to make it work. Maybe I could flip them:
the leaves are flaming red and gold
there’s less light today
i’m standing at the door alone
the sky is turning grey
I  like the grey better at the end of that section. It feels better in the “power” position. 
At any rate, That’s sort of the process. Then I would do the same thing to get a decent word for the second line to rhyme with grey.  That being said…this song belongs in the junk pile as it is. It really still needs a huge overhaul, beginning with a decent opening line again and then going back through the rhyming process…but all is not lost! Even if it goes on the junk pile, I still got to exercise my rhyming and opening line muscles. So I learned a little more about what kind of rhymes I think I can get away with. All experience is valuable. And truthfully, the more difficult it is, the more you are learning. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that just because you FINISHED the difficult song idea you had, that makes it GOOD.  Keep your wits about you. 
My week:
A bit of object writing.
No poetry. 🙁
Wrote a song and mostly recorded it. All that’s left is to tweak the bass and drums…and re-record the vocals…
Jason Isbell
Townes Van Zandt
Mickey Newbury
Got back into contact with one of my  old college roommates…a freelance recording engineer. Maybe he can help me to not have sucky recordings!
NO JOB YET….I’m gonna have to start giving blood and selling organs, I think. 
”Til next week….try the rhymezone thing, see if you like it. 

…An Example of an Album From 1972

Once again, this post is going to focus on something all songwriters need to do in order to advance their view of what is possible… intensive listening. I have chosen for this week an album I keep returning to year after year, fascinated by the sound and the feeling of it. It seems like all the elements of greatness are present: great songs, great musicians, great arrangements, and great performances. Let’s dig into this record and see if we can learn anything about how we can make something like it. Get ready, it’s gonna be a long one…

Now, it must be said that I have a certain respect for the music that came out in the early 1970’s and for music that came out in  1972 specifically. I plan on writing something soon about the interesting conditions that enabled the music industry to produce so many amazing records in 1972.  But there is something that strikes me about most of the artists in 1972: most of them aren’t pretty. Seriously. It seems like many of the artists releasing records in 1972 were musicians first and something to look at second. Seems like the opposite of the way the music industry works today.

When you look at this cover:

…you can tell this isn’t the Partridge Family or the Osmonds. That’s right. It’s Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s Sloppy Seconds.  From the cover, you can tell they are hairy guys that have tastes leaning toward bell-bottoms jeans, denim shirts and leather. Not pretty boys by any stretch of the imagination.

My first memory of this album was my dad playing it in the room of our house that was reserved for my his stereo, album collection, book collection, and leather work.  My mom called it “The Pit.”  I remember walking in and he was just standing there, singing along and looking at the sleeve of this record (remember when you could DO that?). I walked in and asked him what he was listening to, and he gave me the sleeve to look at. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine….

Dr. Hook fans generally regard the first three albums, Dr. Hook and the Medicine ShowSloppy Seconds, and Belly Up! as their best work, and I agree.  I think Sloppy Seconds is the best of the three, and I think it has a lot to do with the quality of the songwriting on this record. All songs on this album were written by Shel Silverstein.  I would argue that Hook is best when they are singing Shel’s songs, especially the serious ones.

The album starts off with  a nice Silverstein comedy song that has lots of nice vocal interplay between Dennis Locorriere and Ray Sawyer.  You can tell they’re having fun.

1. Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball

I like the rhyme structure. It’s an interesting arrangement, no drums in the song. Bass, Steel Guitar, Acoustic guitar, Piano, Vocals. Dennis doing a really cool raspy/froggy thing with his voice. Lots of nice chords in this one, too.

2. If I’d Only Come and Gone

It’s tempting to judge this song only from its title, as apparently the reviewer on the All Music Guide did. (And since we’re on the subject of the allmusic review of Sloppy, they gave the record 4.5 stars, but the review is over the top negative…maybe they should strive for more consistency.) When taking  the title alone, it’s easy to paint the entire song in terms of the lowbrow side of the double-entendre.  The problem is that when faced with the rest of the lyrics to this song, the “low brow” interpretation becomes untenable.  The song is great because of the imagery Shel uses: “merely parked my dusty boots outside your door, tracked no footprints cross your polished hardwood floor.”  Also, this line: “If you’d only stopped to read the cold hard words I carved on other bedroom walls, and heard the morning coffee truths I told them all.” This is no one-dimensional song.  Plus there’s a really cool imperfect rhyme that I wish I had the balls to think of: he rhymes “Denver” with “remember.”

As if in answer to the questions we are tempted to ask about the presence or lack of  a drummer in the band, this track starts with some tom fills. Also nice strings on this track. And I’m no fan of strings.

3. Carrie Me, Carrie

This is one I keep returning to…I think it’s the best representation of what this album is.  Really nice dynamic contrast between the sections of this song, something that is becoming more and more rare in today’s music environment. Nice steel guitar and piano intro. Interesting drum panning:  the bass drum is centered, all other parts of the kit are panned hard right.  Seems like the only instrument panned hard left is the acoustic guitar. I like the way they treat the acoustic guitar. In the chorus, when the acoustic guitar player, who I assume is Dennis, really lays into it, there is a nice amount of tape saturation. Also nice tape compression and saturation on the piano during the out section. The bassline is GENIUS. The background vocals are really wet with reverb.  The outro section is amazing.  With Dennis “feeling it” while the harmonies chant. Love the last vocal chord…you can hear the tension of all the backgrounds trying to stay on pitch for the duration  of the note.  A little rough…and therein lies its greatness.

Rhyme scheme:

verse:
broadway (a)
doorway (a)
hands (b)
prayin’ (c)
old rag (d)
brown bag (d)
stand (b)
sayin’ (c)

chorus:
farther (x)
mile (a)
to (b)
you (b)
little (x)
little (x)
while (a)

4. The Things I Didin’t Say

Again, nice dynamic contrast between the sections in this one. Organ, electric piano (with some nice stereo tremolo), bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, steel guitar, drums.  Again, the bass is great.

5. Get My Rocks Off

Truthfully, when I put my iPod on shuffle and this song comes up, I skip it. I don’t find it that remarkable except for maybe the horn arrangement. Shel novelty song….you know what to expect…

6.  Last Mornin’

Here’s another one that is astounding.  Starts with the amazing bass line, with steel guitar color hovering over the top.
Another great arrangement. Sort of builds from smoldering embers to something really interesting at the end. The song is more in a verse/refrain type of form.  Verse two begins and the drums are really grooving in the pocket. The back ground vocals are introduced in the second half of the second verse, building towards the climax of the third verse.  Dennis keeps singing higher and higher until the band drops away except for the bass drum, and we are left with  a choir if voices floating us in the air holding the word “where,” before letting us drift down with “the dream went wrong.” The song closes with a bit more of the verse and the refrain, ending with a cool vamp where Dennis, Ray and their overdubs riff…

The coolest and most noteworthy lyrics come right at the climax (another testament to great arrangement and performance):

down below the subway’s screamin’
as I lie here halfway dreamin’
Lookin’ at the ceilin’
wonderin’ where
the dream went wrong

You can have “Penicillin Penny” and “A Boy Named Sue.” When Shel is writing serious, non-novelty lyrics, there is NO ONE better. Period.

7. I Can’t Touch The Sun

Again, a strange arrangement. Strings predominate. The acoustic guitar is featured in the first verse, but  takes an increasingly low-key role as the strings assert themselves during the course of the song. No drums again.

As far as rhyming and lyrics go, what stands out in my mind is the use of rhymes that aren’t the last syllable:

sun for you
done for you
one for you

sixteen again
green again
been again (and we’ll overlook, for now, the fact that “been” and “green” do not rhyme…)

Again, lots of soul in the vocals.

8. Queen of the Silver Dollar

A nice extended metaphor. The arrangement really shines on this one. Horns. Lots of horns.

9. Turn On The World

6/8 waltz.  Strings.  Ray sings the lead. Lots of reverb.  Another instance of Shel’s use of this kind of rhyme scheme:

fly (a)
why (a)
die (a)
…Turn on the world (refrain)

Dennis on the left side, injecting some soul and intensity.  Again, nice dynamics.

10. Stayin’ Song

The groove on this track is kick ass. Cowbell. The electric piano and organ acting like glue, holding the track together with some nice tastiness. Cool electric rhythm guitar.  Bass is holding it down and locking it in.  Harmonica fills. Cool horn arrangement. No acoustic guitar in this one.  Lot’s of ‘verb on  Dennis’s background vocals. Nice Dennis ad-libs in the outro: “I don’t think so!”

Verse Rhyme Scheme:

do (a)
while (b)
through (a)
style (b)

Chorus Rhyme Scheme:

I never sung no stayin’ song before (a)
I’ve done them blues and goodbye tunes a thousand times or more (a)
and it seems a little strange that I ain’t headin’ for the door (a)
but I never sung a stayin’ song, (b)
I never thought I’d stay this long, (b)
I never sung no stayin’ song before. (a)

Always using unique rhymes and schemes. This one I always turn up.  the groove, the horns, the stop at the begining. Great arranging and performing again.

11. Cover of the Rolling Stone

Country. Dennis starting off with the Froggy Hippie from New Jersey Shtick. When Ray starts singing, you can hear either a reverb return through the right channel, or Ray’s voice bleeding into Dennis’s mic…the thing is, it sounds like bleed from a previous take, because it’s not singing the exact same thing as the Ray’s final “keeper” vocal track. Ray and George sing the verses.  Weird edit in the first chorus….they cut off Dennis as he’s singing  “on the cover of the R-” then it cuts out, presumably so Ray is alone for the “Rolling Stone” line, and so we can listen to the banter…cool country electric guitar fills.  Clapping. Don’t normally like clap tracks, but this one is fairly subtle as far as clap tracks go, so it works ok.  Not quite as much ‘verb on the background vocals as on the other tracks on this record…most of the ‘verb is on the claps.

Again, Shel is the master of the internal rhyme- “getcha-Picture,” “richer-picture,”  also, the first lines of the verses almost all contain internal rhymes.

So that’s it. The whole record. It’s a good example of what SHOULD be done for a sophomore record. It’s the opposite of the sophomore curse. I’ve listened to this record over and over again, learned the songs backwards and forwards, and I am still mystified by it.  I wondered if I was still missing something, could I learn more about the process and circumstances that went into making this record? I needed to try to find someone who was in the room when all of this stuff went down, so I could ask ’em about how the elusive “feeling” was captured.

So I went hunting online.

I knew of Dennis Locorriere’s website (www.dennislocorriere.com), and I knew he had a message board through which  you could ask questions about the Dr. Hook days, and he would respond when enough questions had been asked to warrant a lengthy reply.  So, thinking I would have a wait ahead of me, I asked some questions about Sloppy Seconds, to see if I could learn any more about the process by which Shel’s songs were turned into, as far as I’m concerned, a pop masterpiece. I asked some questions and he replied the same night, much to my surprise. Here’s how that went down (Dennis’s responses are in blue):

Did you already know the 11 songs that would be on the record?

We weren’t writing alot of songs yet ourselves and were almost exclusively recording Shel Silverstein’s material.
As I recall, we went in to the studio with several of his songs in mind and the confidence that we’d have plenty of wonderful material to draw from as we went along.

Did you mostly record it live in the studio?

Basic tracks were recorded as ‘live’ in the studio, with overdubs and vocals added later.
We may have used a lead vocal or two from the tracking sessions.
A few of our musician friends at the time were invited to play on some of the tracks as well.

Did Ron do all the arrangements?

It being only our second album, nobody in the band had had very much studio experience at that point, so Haffkine’s main role was to harness and pull together our raw energy and talents and make sure we didn’t just hurry by any great ideas in our exuberance.
Shel’s ‘stories’ themselves pretty much guided the arrangements, with everyone present contributing ideas, including the CBS engineers.
A good idea was a good idea.
It was very much a team effort in those days.  
It was mostly feeling, exuberance and luck.

Really cool of him to reply to me for something as unimportant as this humble blog. Thanks Dennis. I really appreciate it. 


I think that last line sums up why I like this album so much: feeling exuberance and luck.  No, the recording is not perfect, there are missteps, for sure, but when taken as a whole, the imperfections tend to amplify the FEELING…they make you appreciate how much of a diamond in the rough this album is.  It still stands as a testament to the fact that in an era of manufactured corporate bands, there was still a band that was able to sell millions of records based on feeling and executed with exuberance. Songwriting, musicianship, and arrangement trumped looks and slick production. 


So what can we learn from all this?  And what do we do with it?


From analyzing this record, we see that Shel was good at this kind of a form:


A
A
A
refrain
B
B
B
refrain


So this week, I’m going to focus on writing some things in that form and others that Shel uses on this record.  


Also, I’m going to experiment things that I’m mixing. I’m going to try to pan the whole drum kit to the right except for the bass drum, just to see if that helps to capture the Sloppy vibe. I’m gonna use unfashionably large amounts of reverb on the background vocals. But mostly, I need to find a bass player that can lay it down with the awesome feel and tone that Jance Garfat could. 


I guess what I’m saying is, right now in the music industry, slick production and the aesthetics and overall look of the artist are the the things that matter, not whether you can write a decent song, or even sing on pitch most of the time. It’s like Jackson Browne’s line: “It’s who you look like, not who you are.”  Sloppy Seconds, by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, is an example of how good songs with good musicianship still matter, 40 years later…and how those things should matter again.



Poetry and the Song

Every now and then, I run across a book or artist by accident that totally changes things for me. This week, while perusing the songwriting section of my local library, I got an idea to look more generally at the writing section and the poetry section. One title, in particular caught my eye:  The Poetry Home Repair Manual, by Ted Kooser, who was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2004-2006. Intrigued, I checked it out and started reading as soon as I got home.

From the beginning, Mr. Kooser says things that are directly applicable to songwriting that are things that I haven’t considered before. For example, Mr. Kooser tells us in “About This Book” to write with the audience in mind from the moment you start your poem. I rarely do this. If I consider the audience at all, it is well after the song is written.  Also, a lot of writers end up writing for the community of writers rather than for LISTENERS. In other words, they write solely to show off the technical aspects of their writing chops, instead of considering that the EMOTIONAL THEME is ultimately where the weight of the song is.

In the first chapter of the book, Mr. Kooser immediately obliterates our ideas of becoming an amazingly rich and famous poet a la T.S. Eliot. Basically, he tells us that we will never be able to support ourselves by devoting ourselves to poetry full-time. In his opinion, poetry is a private discipline that one engages in while still making a living with a day job so the rent will be paid.

I can see an analog in the current state of the music industry today. In the current era, this leading edge of the decentralized music industry, there is a huge amount of music being produced, but a comparatively small amount actually being listened to.  Thus, the majority of music being produced and recorded HAS NO VALUE. Sure, there are people making millions of dollars in the music industry, but when compared to the total amount of music produced, it is a remarkably small percentage.  So, basically, do it because you love it, and because you love songs and love learning about yourself by holding your songs up to your internal standards.  It reminds me of an interview I saw somewhere with James McMurtry (see last week’s post for an introduction). The interviewer asks James what his advice for young songwriter’s would be. James’s answer? “Quit if you can.” I love that answer. Only write if it’s something you NEED to do.

In addition to the way  The Poetry Home Repair Manual spurred me to examine the state of the music industry, it also provoked me to use some poetry ideas to enhance my songwriting.  Here’s something I did this week: since I’ve been slack on my object writing regimen for two weeks, I started to think about poems that I enjoy writing and those kinds of poems that I write that I feel yield the best results. When I examined that, I  remembered having good luck writing haiku and tanka. And as I thought about that, I realized that the reason I had success with these forms is that they have a syllable constraint. The syllable constraint forces you to use words in ways that you wouldn’t ordinarily. So I decided to write a syllabic poem using a constraint of 7 syllables per line, with no line limit .  My purpose for these poems is to use them for raw materials, in much the same way as I would use Object Writings.

Here’s one from last week:

that’s why i do this

last night’s raindrops still sparkling
from the corner of the eave
safely inside, cup steaming
no wind in here, but the trees
whispering, leaves shaking with
the feather touch of the breeze.
much like you: still sleeping now,
comforter stacked around you
keeping out the willful world.
it’s still early yet, and you’ve
already missed the best part.

Not great, but there you go.  It’s about flexing different muscles. Getting used to playing with language in different ways.

Try it. You might like it. Surprise yourself.

This week:

I looked for a job.  Getting frustrated into looking at things I don’t think I would do for long, just so my income is at least present.  


I played Jodi’s songwriter night again. Forgot some words, forgot some chords. Played some guitar for somebody doing covers. Average.

Wrote some poems. Thought about what makes good poetry, and how that applies to songwriting.

Danny Malone.  

Learning From the Masters

This week, I’m going to take a break from hands on songwriting and focus on some abstracts.  I think in large part, the kind of songwriter I am becoming is due to the things I listen to.  I know. Not that revelatory. No  great mystery is being revealed here. Makes sense.  The Beatles were playing Chuck Berry in Hamburg, and were able to put that influence through the crucible of their experience and come up with something truly unique. For me, the writers I listen to become a kind of target to aim towards, something that I am looking to attain in my own writing. It can be something simple, like a particular way they use rhyme or meter to cast a certain emotional light on a song, or it can be something really difficult to explain or even describe, like tone or an over arching sense of place.
.
Probably if you are a huge fan of a particular artist, you should know their songs intimately, memorize not only the melodies, chords, and lyrics, but also the structure, arrangement and instrumentation choices they make.

So recently, I went through my music collection, and pulled out all the songs I wanted to learn, and I made a playlist for my MP3 player and just kept adding to it. So now there are 87 songs on that list….better get to work.

I started to notice that a lot of the people I admire are from Texas. A lot of the people I admire did their best work in the early to mid 1970’s (more on this in a later post). And finally, NONE of the people I admire are good looking. In any way,..weird, considering the state of the music industry today, but again, look for a later post examining the music and culture of the early and mid 1970’s.
So here are some of my favorites at the moment:
Here are my Four Horsemen:
Lyle Lovett – Anything
I think I ‘ll probably do profiles of each of these albums maybe once a month throughout the duration of this blog….but we’ll see.
If you’ve ever heard of Guy Clark, I suggest you make a Pandora station or a Grooveshark list and listen…especially that early stuff.  Guy does a thing that only the really skillful can do:  through his use of dialect and colloquialisms, he makes you FEEL the Texas in which his songs are set. My father used to play Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’ on road trips to visit my Grandmother in North Texas, and he used to rock me to sleep playing Old No. 1 in the dark with only the blue light of the old Pioneer Stereo receiver to illuminate the room. Check him out, a true master.
Lyle Lovett needs no introduction. I like the way he takes simple, traditional song structures and brings them forward, keeping them relevant in the 2010’s. No easy task. Again, Lyle has a great economy of expression. He uses few words, but conveys lots of subtle meaning. I first got into Lyle when my friend Justin at Berklee turned me on to him, and I have drunk deep from the Lovett well ever since.
I think my father bought “It Had To Happen” by James McMurtry.  I remember calling him and he was telling me how great he was, but he didn’t have much of a voice….James reminded him of Lee Clayton.  I went to Tower Records (remember Tower Records…remember records), and after I listened to “Peter Pan,”  I had to buy every other album he made. Like Guy Clark, James has a gift for placing you in a certain time and place with his use of dialect…you can feel Texas when you listen to him singing “12 O’Clock Whistle.”
I first heard Darrell Scott at a Guy Clark cd release party at Douglas Corner in about 1996. Darrell was playing in Guy’s band with Verlon Thompson, Kenny Malone and Guy’s son Travis on bass. When Guy needed a break, he would get people from the audience up to play a few, and band members play a few. Darrell played “The Man Who Could Have Played Bass For Sha na na,” among others.  And in me, a permanent Darrell Scott fan was born.  Unlike most of the other writers that are represented in my list of songs to learn, Darrell has had great success writing songs that current country stars have recorded. That’s one of the many things I admire about him: he is able to keep one foot firmly planted in the “singer-songwriter doing his own thing” camp and the other in the Nashville co-writing establishment.
If you have any desire to see what amazing songwriting can be, please buy some of these albums, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
What have I been doing this week?
Continuing to write the newest song.
Sort of slack on OW this week.
I’ve been reading a really old book about old times in Tennessee. Need to start keeping a google document just for cool turns of phrase I find in books I’m reading.

Metaphors!

Hey no followers! Back again to show some ideas about making metaphors that mean something.

There are lots of metaphors that have been so over used so as to lose all meaning. You know what they are, there probably is no point in repeating them here.  Breaking hearts, love battlefields, our own emptiness…you know.  Probably if they have been a part of the literature for the last 400 years, they should be abandoned.

At any rate, there are some exercises that you can do to help you create metaphors that don’t totally suck and lull your listener into a coma.

Make some lists of nouns, and crash them together.  Use your taste to guide you.  Since I’m a completely lazy bastard, I would prefer to use technology to do this, so I can think about important things, like getting a job…so I’ve found ways to automate this process so I can choose to be stressed out  by other things.

Last week, I spoke about two websites that I use to generate random nouns to help with object writings. In making metaphors, I use them also. Lets explore, shall we?

The first webpage I talked about last week was the Paper Tiger Random Noun Generator .   It has a really basic interface, just a drop-down menu that lets you choose the number of nouns you want generated.  Last week, of course, we were just using one generated noun to help us with choosing a subject for Object Writing.  This week, let’s see if we can get some interesting word visuals to happen.  Let’s start with making the generator generate two random nouns for us, like so:

Ok. This time, I was pretty lucky I got to an interesting pair in only a few pressings of the generate button.

Earthquake
Vinyl

So right there we have some fodder for interesting images from the friction created by rubbing two dissimilar ideas together:  Maybe that Iron Maiden record you used to have was so great that when you put it on your turntable, it was a vinyl earthquake. Or perhaps the way she walks in those pleather pants is an earthquake of vinyl.  Not bad. Try it. See what you come up with.

Last week’s second webpage was a more inclusive Random Word  Generator. Which is great for this week’s example, because we can not only start slamming nouns together, but we can also slam adjectives and nouns together, verbs and nouns together, or adverbs and verbs together.  Check it out:

The page if you’ll recall is found here:  Watch Out For Snakes Random Phrase Generator

Here, we are able to create a phrase made of random words up to four words in length.  We are able to choose what part of speech we want to pull each random word from, and we are even able to choose how common we want those words to be.  Here’s an example:

In this example, I chose an average adjective for the first word, and a very common noun for the second word.  
My yield was:
coagulate
concrete
So: I  walked through the newly poured sidewalk on the way home, and by the time I had reached my front door, I had coagulated concrete all over my shoes. Not bad, but they go together a little too well, in my opinion….so I hit the New Phrase button again to get another pair. 
This time:
unresting 
justification
Ok. No matter how wrong your decisions are, you try to convince me they are right with your unresting justification. 
It’s kind of nice, but putting justification in a song may be a little much. 
Anyway. Those are the tools. Go play.
What I did this week:
Finished the song we’ve been working on, two different ways and made a decision about which way is better.  
Went to hang with one of my favorite people in the world, Commander Holyfield.
Found another song I started long ago, and started to work on it.
Played at an open-mic style songwriter’s night. Played 6 songs and remembered all the words and most of the chords! Also heard three new people that were really good. 
Oh yeah!  Got ideas for at least one podcast….just have to figure out how to make that happen. 
and looked for a job…some more….
Again, please go get Pat Pattison’s books, they are well worth it: Writing Better Lyrics
Talk to you soon. 
  

What I’m Working On This Week

Ok. This week, I’ve decided to introduce all of you (zero followers at the start of this entry O_o) to the way I’m getting back into songwriting, what I’ve been working on, and maybe some tools I use to try to get ideas flowing onto the paper.  

First things first:  I’ve been keeping up my regular Object Writing Schedule, and I have two links to share with you that have sort of taken the stress out of actually CHOOSING an object:  I started spending WAY too much time picking an object to write about, because I either didn’t think the first object I looked at was good enough, or because I kept choosing similar thing (chair, table, coffee cup, chair, teacup, coffee table…you get the idea).  So I went looking for tools I could use to have the computer think of objects for me. To the google oracle I went, and within  couple of minutes, I found two that I have bookmarked in order to use again:
This is the first one I tried, and I’m continuing to use it for the generation of the Object Writing subject. It has a simple interface, you just choose how many nouns you want the page to generate, and away you go! Now, obviously, since the general category of words generated is “noun,” not every word that is produced is going to be usable as an Object Writing subject. But, usually, within a few clicks,  I’m able to get something acceptable. For Example, from clicking right now: bath, quality, tray.  Only two of those words are usable.  Go! Ten minutes on bath!
This one I found a little later, looking for something for an exercise we’ll get to in a couple of weeks.  This one is nice, because it has a few extra features that will make it helpful later on.  Not only does it allow you to choose between words of any type of speech (noun, verb, adverb, adjective, interjection, etc.), but you are also able to choose how common you want the word to be. very nice.  Examples:  glow, plant, cream, contribution. Probably only two of those are usable as Object Writing subjects, since the point of Object Writing is to IMMERSE yourself in sensory language using the object as a springboard.  Ten minutes: cream…Go!
As far as my own songwriting is concerned, I’m finishing up a song…just need to get the last two lines of the bridge to not suck…but the form is there and I did some recording…I have decent acoustic guitars, bass, and one ok electric guitar. This week I will be recording another electric guitar and hopefully some vocals (if I can come up with those to lines before the week is out). 
I have also been sketching out an idea I have about Dumbo.  The thing is, As it stands, the chorus I have written in 12 lines long! …I wonder what the longest chorus in popular music is….any ideas, zero people who are reading my blog?
Next week, we’ll explore some web 2.0 ways to go through Pat Pattison’s exercises from Writing Better Lyrics.
Take care.

Smoke And Mirrors – Now Available!