25 years ago today, R.E.M. released Losing My Religion, which signaled the exact midpoint between early R.E.M. and later R.E.M. After this megahit, things would never be the same for them, or for music in general. A #1 worldwide hit with mandolin? Really? No one could call it calculated. If anything, this track was a bit of a throwback to Fables-era R.E.M. and a far cry from the brash rock of the preceding three albums. The decade-long run of college rock (aka alternative, or indie) had now well and truly bubbled up to the mainstream surface. It’s no mistake that mere months later, Nevermind would top the charts as well, heralding a sea change in what kinds of music were popular. Here’s the very first live performance of the song.
I’m a big music geek. Surprise, surprise. I love listening to the albums I’ve collected, whether they are vinyl, CDs, cassettes, or digital-only. Usually, in addition to just listening to whatever thing I’m into at the moment, I also go through my collection to ensure I listen to it regularly. This also gives me a chance to re-evaluate what I have. Sometimes I purge stuff, realizing I just don’t love it enough to own it anymore. But more often than that, I am reminded of just how amazing each album is.
Anyway, last April my friend Nicole challenged me to listen to all of the albums I own, in alphabetical order by album title. At first, I refused. But then I decided to go ahead and do it because it would offer yet another way to enjoy my collection. And listening to albums by title is very different–it juxtaposes all kinds of music, and the transitions are great. I have a pretty eclectic collection, so it can flow from classic jazz to alternative rock to chamber pop to hard rock to spoken word, etc.
For myself, I made a few rules to keep it enjoyable: no compilations, no live albums, no classical or orchestral score music. Basically, I kept it studio albums in the pop/rock/jazz vein. This way, I reckoned, it really is about “the album” as an artistic statement.
I’m about halfway through my collection at this time. I think I may actually make it all the way through. If you have albums–again, whatever medium they’re on–I really recommend doing this project. Too often, people don’t listen to albums anymore. Everything is on shuffle all the time, and that can lessen the impact of an artist’s statement, and you may not have the deeper relationship with a piece that you would have if you listened to the whole thing.
And no matter how often you listened to it in your youth, Dark Side of the Moon is going to be a great listen.
The most important lesson I’ve learned in my life so far is to be open to new things. Too often we close doors ourselves, narrowing our own choices, convincing ourselves that we are “not into” something or that we’re “not that type of person / artist / musician.” But this limits our experiences, and keeps us from learning and investigating–in my opinion, one of the main objectives of life.
But what’s odd about this is that, though I first learned this lesson long ago, I continue to learn it all the time. I find new ways in which I’ve limited myself, and these often have been in front of me all along. For example, as a guitar player, I’ve long thought of myself as a “songwriter guitarist” and have always limited myself in terms of being a true “guitar player”–whether this means someone who solos, or can play other people’s songs, etc. This has been relatively easy for me to do for years, as I was not concentrating on guitar playing. I was more often playing bass in collaborative, real-time settings, and only playing guitar around the house, most often as a way of composing.
But then, a few things happened. One is that Mystics Anonymous began performing live occasionally, and so I dusted off my guitars and began playing songs on guitar again, often re-learning things I wrote years ago or things I only played guitar on a few times as I recorded them. Some of them I even wondered if I could play guitar and sing at the same time–something I rarely did while recording.
The second thing that happened is I found myself more often playing with friends in an improvisational way. Sometimes I would play bass, or keyboards, or drums, or other things, but when I played guitar in this type of setting, I found myself really stretching out and playing in ways I rarely or never played before. It was fun. And liberating. And I learned a lot about the instrument as I did this. And it reawakened my interest in just “playing” guitar–not just using it as a composing tool, but just being in the moment and reveling in the instrument itself and what it can do.
The third thing is that, in the past 18 months or so, I began learning other people’s songs again. Something that, other than in my teens, I really didn’t do that often. Historically, I found learning other people’s songs to be largely boring (I’m not talking about other bands I’m in, I love that type of learning other people’s songs–I’m talking about listening to albums from major artists and figuring out how to play their songs). This came about through playing live, and often playing tribute nights. Suddenly, I was learning and understanding (or re-learning) how songs were constructed by Lou Reed, Brian Eno, David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker), XTC, Harry Nilsson, Robyn Hitchcock, Michael Nesmith, and The Band. This opened me up, not only as a player, but as a songwriter myself.
I’ve spoken with other artists and musicians about this, many of them far more accomplished than myself, and it seems a pretty common experience. There’s always more to learn. There’s always another way to be more open. And it teaches us so much.
So what have I done? I’ve begun playing guitar again more and more, actually buying some new pedals and getting interested in the instrument again. I’m still not a great guitar player, but I’m having a blast and learning and growing. I have a feeling it will show on my next album. Until then, excuse me while I go and crank up my amp…
Hey all, just a quick note note to let you all know that a few fellow Mystics will be playing solo sets of their own material this week, and it’s a free, one-hour show worth checking out. Andrew Goulet and Daniel Hales are each playing solo 30-minute sets this Wednesday night at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. I played one of these solo sets at the library back in September, and it was a blast. A very intimate space, great for stripped-down renditions of songs and storytelling. I hope you make it. I’ll be there. And hey, the show starts at 7 pm, is FREE, and will be done by 8 pm. If you’re up for still more great music, Surfer Blood is playing right down the street at the Iron Horse starting at 8:30. I’ll be there, too.
Here’s a link to the Forbes Library page where you can read more about the show: http://www.forbeslibrary.org/events/events.shtml
And here’s a link to the Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/246411148865391/
XTC famously went out with the one-two punch of its Apple Venus Volume 1 and Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), the first of which came out in 1999, seven years after their previous album due to a self-imposed strike protesting the band’s treatment at the hands of its label. In short, us XTC fans were rabid and deprived, and this was a wealth of new material. And all in all, this was a good thing.
Of note, however, is that the Apple Venus project was initially conceived as a double album. At some point during the process, the band decided to split it into two separate, discrete albums. One would be the “acoustic with strings” album (what eventually was called Apple Venus Volume 1) and one would be the “electric guitar” album (Wasp Star). Dave Gregory disagreed with this approach, and conflict over the decision eventually led to his departure from the band before the release of either volume.
When Apple Venus Volume 1 was released, it was a revelation. I love it, and I think most reviews were overwhelmingly positive, calling it ambitious and delightfully poppy in that great Beatles and Beach Boys way of experimentation, unusual instrumentation and composition, and great use of the recording studio as an instrument. Also, how could you not love the soul-searching songs of a post-divorce Partridge such as “Your Dictionary?”
But when the second volume, Wasp Star, was released, it was met with much more neutral to negative reviews, and indeed my initial reaction was muted in comparison to the first volume. In the intervening years, I’ve come to realize that Wasp Star is actually filled with great songs, and perhaps XTC did the material a disservice by splitting it into its own album.
So what if the band had followed its original plan and released a double album with these 23 songs, rather than the two discrete albums? What would such an album sound like? Well, in typical muso fashion, I set out to devise the fictional tracklist of the XTC album that never was, which I call “Apple Venus.” In this alternate universe, XTC’s last album is not the slightly underwhelming but underrated Wasp Star, but a big, ambitious, eclectic double album in the vein of the White Album.
Here’s my fictional tracklist. If you own both albums, you can create this playlist or burn these versions of the album. If you’re a super geeky audio editing freak like me, trim some of the silence at the end of “The Last Balloon” for a wonderful segue into “The Wheel and the Maypole.” I think it works quite well, and I hope you do too! Enjoy!
01. River of Orchids
02. I’d Like That
03. I’m the Man Who Murdered Love
04. Easter Theatre
05. Wounded Horse
06. My Brown Guitar
07. Harvest Festival
08. We’re All Light
09. Knights in Shining Karma
10. You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful
11. In Another Life
12. Your Dictionary
02. I Can’t Own Her
03. Standing in for Joe
04. Fruit Nut
05. Stupidly Happy
06. Church of Women
07. Frivolous Tonight
08. Green Man
09. Boarded Up
10. The Last Balloon
11. The Wheel and the Maypole
So many great shows to check out, so little time! Here are four off the top of my head that you should be considering, if you’re not already. I’m sure there’s more, but here are the ones I’m thinking of at the moment…
First, the amazing Lady Lamb the Beekeeper plays a show at the intimate venue, The Parlor Room, in Northampton, MA. Her 2013 album Ripely Pine is one of my top picks for the year, and her live shows are not to be missed. The fact that she’s playing such a great, small room is nothing short of amazing, and probably not to be repeated. This happens this coming Tuesday, December 3. Learn more and buy tickets here: http://www.ticketfly.com/event/395219-lady-lamb-beekeeper-northampton/
Second, at the same great venue, you can see Mark Mulcahy this coming Friday, December 6. He’s playing two shows, an early one at 7 pm and a late one at 9 pm. His 2013 album, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, is another of my top picks for the year. Two amazing friends and fellow area musicians will be backing Mulcahy–fellow Mystic Ken Maiuri and Henning Ohlenbusch. Another not-to-be-missed show! Learn more and buy tickets here: http://www.ticketfly.com/event/395309-mark-mulcahy-northampton/
Third, you can see five amazing bands–Sitting Next to Brian, Original Cowards, Banditas, The Fawns, and Boy Toy at The Elevens on Saturday December 7. Fellow Mystic Brian Marchese plays in both Sitting Next to Brian (his baby) and The Fawns. You can learn more here: https://www.facebook.com/events/532829280129194/
Fourth, at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA, on Friday December 13, there will be a double-bill well worth your time. My friends Colorway, who released their most excellent self-titled debut this year (another of my top picks!) opening for the equally amazing Z3, a powerhouse organ trio that plays the music of Frank Zappa! And on this date, they will be joined by veteran Zappa player Ed Mann!
I want to sincerely thank everyone who contributed to the Dreaming for Hours Indiegogo campaign. Over 60 days, we raised $2,045, exceeding the goal of $2,000. Raising these funds ensured that the album was professionally and lovingly mixed at Sonelab with Mark Alan Miller, and that it will be produced in a beautiful package featuring the artwork of Herta, and complete with a booklet of lyrics and liner notes. Right now, we are in the middle of mastering the album and finalizing the artwork, and there are great plans afoot for a music video and an album release show.
I wanted to point out that over time, several great friends and performers came into the studio to lend their prodigious talents to the album, and so the album features not only myself, but:
Erik Amlee (Paradise Camp 23, Erik Amlee)
Pat Garland (Groove Shoes, Fiesta Brava)
Andrew Goulet (Salvation Alley String Band, True Value)
Daniel Hales (Daniel hales, and the frost heaves, The Ambiguities)
Dave Hamilton (Fling, Chafed, Go Figure, Hypnotic Clambake)
Ray Keane (Fiesta Brava)
Steve Koziol (Span of Sunshine, Something Else)
Ken Maiuri (Mark Mulcahy, Young at Heart Chorus, Heather Maloney, Pedro the Lion, School for the Dead, and others)
Brian Marchese (Mark Mulcahy, Haunt, School for the Dead, The Aloha Steamtrain, Sitting Next to Brian, The Fawns, and others)
Rick Murnane (Rick Murnane Band, Group DeVille)
Chris Rea (Fiesta Brava, The Westies, Eleventh Hour)
Brandee Simone (Salvation Alley String Band)
Matt Silberstein (Salvation Alley String Band, Swillmerchants)
Matt Snow (Fiesta Brava)
Some of you may remember this, but I had some difficulty during recording at the Gondwanaland studio. While tracking the above contributors, my studio software started to act glitchy, and finally in August stopped working altogether. I was just weeks away from having all of the recording done, and had already booked two dates for mixing at Sonelab in mid-September. Cue weeks of troubleshooting and anxiety, during which I was afraid I might lose some of what I recorded.
Long story short, those troubles were successfully resolved, and happily nothing was lost during that time! The only bummer was that I was one month behind my original estimated schedule. Recording resumed, and I mixed the album with Mark Alan Miller at Sonelab on 10/28 and 10/29. Now, as I said, we are in the middle of mastering, finalizing the artwork, planning the release show and video, etc.
Those of you who signed up for just the digital download will receive a code from me via email that will enable you to go online and download the album. Those of you who signed up for a physical CD will receive the physical CD and any other perks you specified via mail. I will send these out as soon as they arrive back from the plant. If you’re local and you’d rather wait to pick up your CD and perks at the future release show, just let me know and I’ll hold onto them until that time. The release show is being planned for January.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the Mystics Soundcloud page for rough mixes that I’ll be posting as we finish up the album. And thanks again to all of the Indiegogo contributors, whose support was invaluable and inspiring. I sincerely believe the album will have us all Dreaming for Hours!
At the risk of sounding gloomy, I have been rained upon lately, both literally and figuratively.
I performed as part of Lord Russ & Friends at this year’s Transperformance, in which we “transperformed” as The Cure. Our rehearsals were great fun, and I was very proud to be a part of this great annual tradition in my area. Finally, the sun set, the crowd had expanded to fill the park, and it was time for us to go on. We got out there, and… Luke’s amplifier didn’t work. A few crazy minutes of Dan and the crew running around, and then it was ready. I cued the producer we were ready, we were introduced, Brian counted us in, and Greg and I rang the opening chords of “Boys Don’t Cry.” Now, short sets like this go so quickly, you’re just getting warmed up as they end. So first songs in particular are a blur. Plus I was distracted by the mix on stage, where I could hear too much of myself and not enough of some of the others. But we comported ourselves well, and I mostly shrugged off the few rain drops I felt during the song. After all, rain was not in the forecast.
And then it was time for the second song. Brian counted us in, and we began “Inbetween Days,” which was sounding really nice. And then the skies opened up, and the rain began to POUR down on us in unbelievable torrents! The crew began running on stage and covering equipment. We all looked at each other. We could see it in each other’s eyes: “We’re not going to stop unless someone tells us to.” So we kept playing in the rain, and the crowd began to go wild as both they and us began to get drenched. Other than the mild hiccup of being distracted by the rain and momentarily forgetting the lyrics, Russ embraced the moment and danced wildly around the stage as we vamped until we all came together and finished strongly…
And then Brian counted us right in to “Just Like Heaven.” We were fully committed now. We were soaked. Water was running down our instruments. The crowd was going wild, and at this point we were able to just perform and play, having already shrugged our shoulders and deciding to soldier on. Brian’s makeup and hair gel was running into his eyes, partially blinding him. Russ tore off his shirt and mounted the monitors at the front of the stage, much to the delight of the crowd. Greg slashed at his guitar and stomped into the puddle that was his pedal board. Luke and I were rooted to our spot, the water dripping off our faces and running down our fretboards. We finished, and just like that it was over. I ran to the rig to unplug my bass and get out of there before I could get electrocuted, but then I realized, “Take in the moment before you go.” So I stopped and looked out at the crowd. Drenched. Soaked. And all smiles.
So I was rained on. Literally. But it was not only OK, it was great.
And the figurative rain? Well, that one is occurring during the recording of the new album. During my July and August sessions for the album, an odd thing began to occur when loading Pro Tools: it just wouldn’t load correctly. But other times it worked fine, and for the most part, recording continued unabated. Unfortunately, this was not to last. Pro Tools finally stopped working altogether, and I have spent the last six weeks or so just troubleshooting, researching, and working to get my studio back up and running so that I can continue recording the album. Mixing dates have had to be cancelled for now. It’s been a low point. My emotional reaction has startled even me–it turns out, I can become deeply unhappy when my creative drive is thwarted.
Anyway, to make a long story short, after weeks of working through the problems, it looks like maybe–just maybe–and cross your fingers for me here, but I think I may be able to resume recording the album this week. And I’m hoping that I will be able to salvage all of the work I have done so far. But most of all, I’m trying to incorporate what I learned when I was literally rained upon a few weeks ago… I’m trying to believe that not only will this be OK, it will be great. Because whatever happens, I do know this: I will put out this album. It will happen. Even if it doesn’t happen according to plan.
Recording an album is a tricky business. As I was telling one of my good friends the other day, your average person doesn’t understand the amount of work that goes into the making of an album. It is a completely different beast than performing live. When you perform live, what’s most important are the broad strokes–the chord changes, the melody–as performed with some energy and, one hopes, a modicum of charisma. But when you’re committing that same song to “tape,” what’s going to give it legs are all the little sonic details you incorporate into the song. Many of these would be lost in a live setting, where you hear it once and move on. But these are *exactly* the sort of things that keep you listening to an album over the years.
Pat Garland was recording in the studio with me last night, and he said, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of cool stuff going on in there. You don’t usually hear that level of depth in a pop song.” I took that as a great compliment, though I would say I do hear that level of depth in a lot of the artists that inspire me, from The Beatles to XTC to Gomez to Beck, etc.
Another useful way of thinking about it, using the medium of photography for comparison, would be “audio bokeh.” Bokeh is the “aesthetic quality of the blur” in a photo, often seen in the background of the object being photographed. These blurry elements, some combination of light and color, add to the depth of the photo. And that is what I’m trying to achieve in the new album. Not only good songs, but well-recorded songs that will add depth and thus reward multiple listenings. I want to make an album that yes, you can listen to it blaring in your car on your way somewhere, and sing along to the melody and lyrics, but you can *also* listen with headphones late at night and enjoy the way those sonic details wash over you and change the song, the atmosphere, the space, vibrating and bouncing off each other, and hopefully firing some synapses and lighting up your brain in interesting ways…
If you haven’t already heard about Colorway, you should check them out. Colorway is the new band headed by F. Alex Johnson of Drunk Stuntmen, along with J.J. O’Connell and Dave Hayes. Talk about a power trio. They’ve been getting a lot of positive press, and rightfully so. Back in March, I witnessed their debut when we both played a Robyn Hitchcock tribute show at The Parlor Room in Northampton, MA. I couldn’t believe their take on a great Soft Boys tune (The Asking Tree), bringing some Zep to the table. It rocked.
The new album is great (self-titled… check it out!) and the CD release is tonight at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts. It will be a special night, and I hope to see you there.