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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Songwriter's Navel: Week 25, In Which I Crack Myself Up

Two recordings.
Megaphone vocals. (Because I hear there's a man who'll pay you fifty dollars to sing into a can.)
Live performance vocals.
(Because some people prefer less silliness to more silliness.)

I'm not going to lie to you, Marge: I had fun writing this.

A few weeks ago, we had a discussion of "fun" in class. The Kernel, who may have been exaggerating for comedic effect, or may have been giving us a glimpse into the lives of quiet desperation that musicians lead, declared that there was too much pressure to have fun, that he couldn't remember the last time he'd had "fun," and that both songwriting and performing were hard work, rather than fun.

Although this treads on my desire for OTSFM to fulfill my workplace pr0n needs, I get the point*: Songwriting is scary, often frustrating, difficult, and sometimes satisfying, but "fun" isn't a word that usually springs to mind. I mean, it's "fun" for me in the same way that having my intellectual ass kicked for 4 years as a U of C undergrad was fun, but it's not . . . amusement park fun.

Except writing this song was TOTALLY fun. Pretty minimal requirements this week: Use a diminished chord and the song should include someone's name. Early in the week, I joked that the front runners for the subject of the song were "Lothian" and "James Victor, King of Croatia." A robust and hilarious comment thread ensued.

I then spent Thursday and Friday with the King himself.

I defy you to look at that face and not write a song about it.** In addition to the powerful cuteness field pulling me in that direction, I suddenly thought it would be really funny to write a talking blues from the point of view of a baby, particularly one whose face is so expressive, he constantly looks as though he's deeply frustrated by his inability to share his deep thoughts with the world.

From there, it was just a matter of setting down a rhythm and filling in details from my visit. I listened to a little bit of Woodie Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt to get a feel for how to do a talking blues. To be honest, though, it was pretty easy to get going.

The first verse was just about how waking up in the morning looks to a baby. On Friday, Jamie was inclined to sleep in a bit, but was woken up by the dogs of the household having a fight over food. My brother had come into the guest room probably 20 minutes before and waved me back into the bed as I started to get up, saying "I don't have the baby!" After the dog fight, he came in again to change him and said, sadly, "Now I have the baby." My brother is big and bald. I'm certain he loves having this pointed out in song form.

[C] Woke up of a morning, but it wasn’t the heat
[G] Dogs snappin’ and a-snarlin’ over something to eat
[F] With my big, bald daddy leanin’ over my crib
[G] Told him good mornin’ with my toothless . . . grin

The second verse is a bit of filler (other than a diaper change definitely being the first order of business each morning—Jamie is an Olympic peer, a detail I'm sure he'll be delighted to have memorialized in blog format), but I needed to go into the chorus in such a way that it reads like the message the baby is trying to communicate.

Wasn’t but a minute, I was clean and dry
And my giggle put a twinkle in my mama’s eye
She kissed me and she asked, “How’s mama’s little man?”
Took a deep breath and answered, . . . the only way a baby can

Up until the chorus, the chords are some what irrelevant, and C does as well as any key. It figures, then, that trying to hammer out the melody and chord progression in the chorus was a real pain in the ass.

I got the [C] blues, I got the [G] blues
I got the [F] baby blues, ‘cause [F#dim] I can’t sing the [G] blues
I got the [C] blues, I got the [Gdim] baby blues
I call ‘em [F] Jamie’s not-talking blues [C]

In particularly the melody over the second line was giving me fits, possibly because that's not really an F#dim in the second position, but a D7 with an F# in the bass. (I swear at some point, I tried it as a D7, but it didn't seem like it worked. Fortunately, my Check-Plus grade for the assignment was not jeopardized, because I had a back-up diminished chord, and the Gdim was the genuine article. (On a side note, Jamie likes when I play guitar and talk music theory to him. I kept playing diminished chords and singing, "There's a baby on the train tracks!" and he would giggle.)

Continuing in the "things that are only amusing to me" vein, I thought it was funny to turn his time spent on his play mat into a kind of business meeting. There is a big elephant dangling from the mat, which sometimes sits on his head, and let's face it, "pachyderm" might be an outdated taxonomic category, but it's a great word for lyrics. Moose, with its oooooo sound, ditto. And Monster needed to be included, not just because it was a gift from me. I'm sorry to malign monster's work ethic, but the rhythm of the words dictated that he be mentioned third, and "late" rhymes with "eight."

First meeting of the morning starts round about eight
With my pachyderm and moose, but my monster’s always late
I call things to order on the jungle mat
Monster reads the minutes in a minute . . . flat

Jamie is, generally, a happy little guy, but it's true that Tummy Time sends him into a rage—a highly illogical rage, given that he can flip from tummy to back and back to tummy more or less at will. Also, the threat about blowing this joint makes me laugh, both on its own merits and because it would involve tummy time, given that his mobility is limited to the army crawl at the moment. It's also funny, because when we speak in Jamie's voice, he sounds a lot like a Jim Henson's William Faulkner Baby.

New business, first item is the heinous crime
That mama and daddy call “tummy time”
Sure, I can roll over, but that ain’t the point
If they keep that up, I’m gonna blow this . . . joint

So we do nicknames in our family. Lots and lots of nicknames. Many of them terrible, inappropriate, and carried through life with no expiration date. (Example: One of my sisters had no hair until she was nearly 3. My uncles still call her "Moonie." Klassee with a k and two es, that's us.) Jamie has nicknames to suit his moods, most of which come out when he is pointedly NOT. TIRED. I'm pretty proud of having worked the most common into this verse. Herr Professor Big Eyes gave me some trouble until I realized that it had to be at the beginning of the line (despite its being a near rhyme for "tired"), and I hit on "real live wire" for a little bit of Talking Heads flavor.

Round about nine, James Victor rolls in
He’s the King of Croatia, he’s Anger Piggs
He’s Herr Professor Big Eyes, and a real live wire
With one thing to tell you all, he’s not . . . tired

And finally, I had to work in "baby ennui," which a concept I have long embraced. Let's face it, Dr. Spock, T. Berry Brazelton, and all those other LIARS tell you that babies always have a solvable problem when they're crying. SHENANIGANS. Sometimes babies feel suffocated by and bored with the sweet baby life: Baby Ennui.

No, he’s not tired, he don’t need to sleep
This is nothing but a case of baby ennui
That was an itch, he wasn’t rubbin’ his eyes
How many times can he tell you, he’s not . . .

I made an extremely rough recording of the song on my phone and sent it, along with the lyrics, to my brother and sister-in-law so that they got first listen. (It seemed only right.) Per good suggestions from E, my voice and guitar teacher, I'd like to work on how I play this, hopefully getting to the point where I can do a stumbling, irregular finger-picking pattern instead of the Carter-family strum which is boring (and I'm not very good at).

*No, not the kind of workplace porn that has coworkers having a doubly adulterous affair on your shared desk ('cause, been there. Neither fun nor porny): Workplace pr0n involves a workplace that one does not absolutely hate the thought of going to each and every day.
**That specific face happens to have resulted from me singing "Moo moo moo moo moo moo moose" (vocal exercise) and making his moose toy dance. He thought this was hilarious.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thugnificient: Attack the Block

Won some passes from Hollywood Chicago for an advance screening of Attack the Block at Landmark Century Centre tonight.

And OMG OMG OMG! I am sooo glad we did.

This was released in the UK back in May. It'll have a limited US release starting July 29. (And since that slashfilm link already goes there, let me just say that Super 8, which was fine, is not fit to sift through Attack the Block's poo. In fact, I said to the ZK as we came out of the theater, "And THAT's how you do Goonies in 2011.")

I can't think of a single thing I didn't love about this movie. (Oh, wait. There's the dog. Hrumph.) The cast is wonderful. The script has exactly the right balance of humor, horror, character development, and a nice story arc. The pacing is excellent, and the exposition is flawless. A car that's destroyed in the first scene is later revealed to belong to a supporting character; a British flag visible in every exterior shot of the block . . . well, that would be telling.

The "block" in question is estate housing in South London (roughly equivalent to housing projects in the US). Moses is the leader of a group from the block that's just on the verge of graduating to gang. In fact, the movie opens with them mugging a young nurse (Sam, who is later revealed to also live in the block).

Baby's first mugging (later revealed to have been carefully planned by the group to minimize their chances of pissing themselves) is interrupted by a ball of fire from the sky, destroying the aforementioned car. When they go to investigate, Moses is attacked by something mysterious. He puffs himself up and vows to hunt it down. They do (in grisly, foley-tastic fashion) and drag their trophy back to the block, where they decide to hide it in Ron's weed room ("It's a room. And it's full of weed. And it's Ron's.") until they decide how best to make a profit from it.

At Ron's (beautifully, disgustingly played by Nick Frost in a deeply, deeply wrong leather jumpsuit), we meet High-Hatz, the local gang boss (or the Moses of Christmas Future, if you'd like to rock the Judeo-Christian-Dickensian canon). High-Hatz decides that it's time to accelerate Moses along his career path and hands off some product to him, specifying how much profit he expects. Moses is elated, terrified, and uncertain all at the same time, but doesn't neglect to swagger for his ecstatic followers.

Just then, though, they notice more and more great balls of fire streaking to earth. Although none of the "grown ups" believes them, they recognize the situation as a full-blown invasion. There's a lovely series of scenes of each member of the group turning back into the little boy he is as he gathers weapons and makes excuses to his family, pleads for 10 more minutes, or gets stuck taking the dog out. We pointedly do not see the inside of Moses's home until a very nicely done scene late in the movie. That scene is understated, but conveys a wealth of information about how Moses has gotten to the tipping point we see at the beginning of the movie.

I don't need to do a blow-by-blow plot synoosis, because I KNOW YOU ARE ALL GOING TO SEE THIS, but it just unfolds beautifully. Having seen what Moses is on the road to becoming in High-Hatz, we also see what he was or might have been in "Probs" and "Mayhem," the would-be gangstas with their cap pistols and supersoakers. And as the group gets into deeper and deeper shit along the way, we get to see how race, class, gender, circumstance, and yes, personal responsibility contribute to their highly localized apocalypse.

Ok, I know I ragged on Super 8 above, so that bears some comment. It's true, I lack some, but not all, critical J.J. Abrams receptors: Thought Cloverfield was a boring-ass piece of shit. You can see for yourself what I thought of Star Trek. On the other hand, I enjoyed many things about Lost, and I absolutely love Fringe (granted, I refer to it as the All-Denethor Comedy Power Hour). I liked Super 8 ok, or at least the first 2/3 of it. And I certainly was impressed that they'd assembled a cast of really solid young actors.

What. Ever. The cast of Attack the Block blows them away. John Boyega is just outstanding as Moses. Alex Esmail and Luke Treadaway are the pinnacle of comic relief as Little Stoner (Pest) and Big Stoner (Brewis). As Sam, the victim-turned-ally-turned-White-Street-Cred-With-The-Po-Po, Jodie Whittaker gets to be profane, bitchy, concerned, brave, selfish . . . . you know, a real human being. (Although it's worth noting that the movie probably passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, but only just, thanks to a conversation between Sam and a helpful neighbor just after she's mugged.) The female counterparts of Moses et al. also get to try their hand at saving themselves, saving the blokes, and leaving the blokes behind because their tired of the trouble they bring.

Love. Just lots of love for this movie. Might be the best horror movie I've seen since The Host.

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Songwriter's Navel: Week 24, In Which The Narrator May Be Cutting Veins Of Indeterminate Origin

Recording. This song is goofy, and the recording reflects that in playing with the vocals. Believe it or not I dialed back the drama.

A subideal week for songwriting.

The assignment itself sort of hamstrung me, because we were to explore our own "cheese line"—the highly individual point at which we roll our eyes, rather than being moved or wiping a tear away. This is not my strong suit to begin with, and worse, the Kernel suggested that a shortcut to the cheese line was writing about a pet. Given that (a) I had tears rolling down my face during the TRAILER of Marley and Me, (b) I wept through 9/10 of Children of Men because of a dog, and (c) I'm still wont to unexpectedly burst into tears after the recent loss of our foamy cat, this was dangerous, dangerous territory. I knew that there was no way I could write about a pet.

We were also out of town for the holiday weekend, so I was shorter on time than usual. Please ignore the fact that I have started writing the last several songs on Tuesday morning AND that I actually had a bit more time because I did not have a private lesson last week. Add in another stumbling block in the form of a false lead as soon as I started writing, and you have the recipe for a not-very-good song.

In addition to exploring the cheese line, we had to use root motion only in 4ths, 5ths, or steps (or half steps, as it turned out in class, but I had not interpreted the instructions in that way). I started writing from this requirement, which resulted in the false lead into a completely different type of song. I thought I'd saved that effort, which was something like 3 lines of what I was fairly sure was going to be a chorus, but I can't seem to find it. It was something along the lines of:

Darkness falls on strange, strange houses
Like (simile lost to the mists of time, but it had the word "beneath" in it and internal assonance)
Like the vein beneath the blade

Ouch, check out that last line. I'm not sure it's cheese, per se, but it's certainly melodrama. Naturally that shouldered its way into the song I actually wrote. Why? I like the way it sounds. I like the long as. I like going from the v to the bl. But it's a terrible line, and it rightly dogged me.

I had the chords for this chorus-y thing, and I kind of liked the melody and pace I'd set down. It took its time over "darkness" and "falls." I liked the repetition of "strange." But I Could. Not. find anything to finish out the chorus.

In desperation, I picked the guitar back up and started playing around with root motion. Suddenly I had an Em-Bm vamp and a verse just kind of spilled out.

You should’ve known better
You should’ve read the writing on the wall
You should’ve seen it coming from a
Mile away, now darkness falls

Lines 1 and 3 are a simple, split-measure Em-Bm vamp repeated twice. Line 2 is one split measure of Em Bm, then Am to Bm. Line 4 hangs out on Am for 2 full measures, then hits a split measure of G-D and back to the vamp. Initially, I'd had a full measure of D at the end of the verse. The Kernel advised going right back into the vamp. It's musically the right move (and that's what I recorded), but my brain and fingers have a hard time jumping back to that right away. I've since come to think of that D as the panic measure.

Content-wise, I feel like this kind of writing is such a cheat on the one hand, but on the other, I'm inclined not to be too hard on it. It's conceptually a blues form: Three different ways of saying the same thing, then some kind of "stinger" at the end. It shows up in all kinds of songs that I like, and Ba'al knows it's the stumped songwriter's friend. Also, in the case of this song, which shaped up immediately to be a revenge song, the repetition of the same idea feels conversationally real. It feels like an argument, like one of the all-time greatest scenes in cinema, right?

The last line of this verse gave me trouble. Initially, it was just "darkness falls" scavenged from the false start. It went through an awkward adolescent phase where it was "but you thought you had it all" (which ended up on the lyric sheet I printed out before racing out of the house to try to get to OTS early enough to vomit up a third verse), and I ended up singing "You were heading for a fall." More on why I ended up reverting to the original in a minute.

The second verse is more of the same technique and problems of the first:

What were you after back then?
What kind of fool did you take me for?
What kind games were you playing with
Me? I’m not playing any more

Many of these lines were harvested from a false start song from about a year and a half ago. Strangely, that song was intended to tell a funny story. Again, not really anything profound here. I kept swapping the "fool" line and the "games" line, trying to come up with an ending rhyme I didn't hate. I suppose what I ended up with is serviceable, but I kind of hate it.

By the end of the second verse, I was oh so tired of the vamping, so I needed a chorus, bridge, or ambiguous B section. Both the chords and words fought me pretty hard, and that shows.

[Am] I see the [D] lie beneath your [Em] smile (darkness falls) [Bm]
[Am] Like the | [Em] vein be- [D] neath | the [C] blade (darkness falls) [G]

I messed around with this six ways from Sunday. I left off the last measures of each line (the Bm and the G, respectively). I added them back in. I played them while singing "darkness falls." I played them with no lyric over them. I tried to rewrite the "vein" line so it didn't inappropriately imply that the narrator was suicidal. And finally, I was just sick of it, so I wrote the "darkness falls" in as echoes.

I left the house not knowing whether this was a bridge, a chorus, or something else, and hastily rewrote the end of the first verse so that I wasn't using "darkness falls" there. In class, the verdict was that I was trying to force "Darkness Falls" as the title, but that it came out of nowhere (because, let's face it, whatever this section is, it doesn't fit at all with the verses). Ending the first verse with it is a half-assed attempt to remedy that.

And oh the veins. The Kernel was on board with it, saying that he did not take it as the narrator being suicidal, but my classmates were not convinced. S commented that I satisfied the cheese requirement, because this was literally a "corte de las venas" (vein-cutting) song; L interpreted it as the narrator being so angry that she was going to kill herself—a sentiment that doesn't make any emotional sense to me, so I certainly didn't want to convey it. For now, it's just sitting there, making the song un-performable. I'm not sure it's a good enough song to spend time remedying the B section.

I hand wrote Verse 3 in the wings of the balcony at OTS. I think I squandered all my melodramatic simile power earlier in the day, because I kept coming out with incredibly literal lines like, "They will never find the body." What I ended up with is not exactly far advanced from that problematic literalism:

Nowhere you can hide now
Nowhere that's safe to rest your bones
No one will shed a single tear
For you. No one'll miss you when you're gone

I also had originally written "no place safe to rest your head," which too obviously wants "dead" for its rhyme. I suppose one solution to the B section is rewriting this verse to be less explicitly threatening to the person addressed, but the truth is, as little as I like this verse, I like it better than that B section.

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