Friday, November 18, 2011

Three Chords and the Truth (Turn Redux)

Listen to the record version:

Harlan Howard, a famous songwriter, is said to have described country music as "Three chords and the truth."

I came across this quote in a biography of Hank Williams Sr., which I was reading the first weekend in August of 2006, when I wrote Turn, the third song on Look Alive.

And that very quote is written clearly in my writing journal next to the scribbling that became Turn, which was part of a three day writing binge that also produced a revised and finalized Skeletonskinandsky, and the quiet song Fight.

In case you're scoring at home (what a terrible pun), the chords for Turn are F, c minor, and Bb major.

And that's it.

Just three chords.

I find it interesting because Howard's quote is so simple that it's easy to miss what it actually means.

I also find it interesting that this is almost exactly the point at which my songwriting underwent a transformation from vague to direct.  From trying to write around the truth, to embracing the truth head on, as plainly as possible.

On Turn (and several others), I may have swung a little bit too far to the direct and simple but... I needed to.  These songs are so true, sometimes it hurts to listen to them.

I was trying not to turn my back on love, desperately.  Futilely, as I would later find out.

Anyway, the recording of this tune (typical for the Look Alive sessions) was like opening a new toy on Christmas morning.  I wish I had a demo of the original version, on which I was consciously imitating (gulp) Coldplay.  And boy, was it every bit as boring as a Coldplay tune.  Just straight eighth notes and three chords.  For three minutes.  Gag.

But, as happened repeatedly during these sessions, it changed radically once Jay and Darren got their hands on it... and we very consciously embraced a Motown production aesthetic.

Some percussion, a slightly out-of-tune piano (remedied during the mix by adding a flange effect, to our great delight)... some simple guitar parts and finally some fun layered counterpoint vocals.

And Turn had gone from Harlan Howard and Hank Sr. to Coldplay to Berry Gordy.

An unlikely transformation.

But when you're trying to get to the truth, you do what you have to do...



Whispers in the dark
The night is calling out
To all the lonesome hearts

Flickering in starts
The big star's burning low
And soon it will be gone

When love is overcome
When love is on the ropes
Don't turn your back on love

I won't turn my back on love

Under purple skies
Chicago's crying out
It echoes through the streets

And settles in the dust
Along the silent lake
Beneath the silver moon

I won't turn my back on love


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

How a Lyrical Crutch is Born (Travesty in Blue redux)

Read the Look Alive album recap.

Listen to the Travesty demo:

Listen to the record version:

Well then.

On to revisiting the second tune on Look Alive, Travesty in Blue.

I'm lucky enough to still have the living room demo of this tune, recorded in July of 2006, which I've posted above.  What a trip to listen to...  similar to the song Look Alive, the transformation of this tune from sparse solo acoustic to full-on produced band was very very important to me as a writer and Paper Arrows as a project.

Here was a song I had around since... 2005 according to my writing journal and suddenly it went from this quiet contemplative thing to a bouncy pop tune and... if my memory is correct it's one of the first songs of mine I heard with a piano part taking the lead as a rhythm instrument/texture.  The construction of this one was pretty indicative of the album process as a whole... I came in and heard a fully-realized rhythm section behind the song for the first time and my heart just welled up with happiness and wonder... I remember recording the acoustic guitar in a take or two, an electric part... the vocals very very quickly including backgrounds... and then watching Jay record a cool slide part.  Darren had added the distorted Fender Rhodes in the attic and the piano at Gravity and I remember sitting in the control room at Gravity watching Manny mix the whole thing, adding the cool vocal echo effects...

I wrote a pretty good overall chronology of the Look Alive project here at the time (also linked above)... another crazy thing to read given my memories of what I was going through at the time and where my life and Paper Arrows have gone since.  A lot of the wonder at how great our sessions were is there and quite touching, as is some of personal bitterness I guess at the subject matter...

The subject matter.  What a weird song lyrically.  I found the first time I wrote the phrase "travesty in blue": December 12, 2001.  As in five years before we recorded the song and (gulp) nearly ten years ago.  I remember very clearly walking from the apartment on Magnolia to Dominick's one weekday morning, horribly wrecked from whatever we had been doing the night before, wearing jeans, a blue t-shirt, and a blue flannel shirt and thinking I looked like a travesty in blue... and it just stuck in my head.  Of course I subsequently realized I was probably unconsciously spoofing Rhapsody in Blue.

Anyway, I didn't even start to write the Paper Arrows version of Travesty in Blue until 2004 and finally finished it in 2005.  Looking back at my writing then, I can see this turning point to the material that would become the Look Alive album and Travesty is right at the middle of it.  I was grabbing onto images that evoked something moving, some sort of emotion, but I wasn't quite strong or confident or aware enough to connect them to concrete things...

That's one of the things that makes Look Alive so interesting to me: there's this dichotomy between the five songs written before Jay and I decided to record an album (December Static, Look Alive, Travesty in Blue, Why I Had to Fall, Skeletonskinandsky) and the five songs written after (Turn, Again and Again, Come Home, Fight, When You Left).  The early five have this impressionistic bent to them that I described above, and the latter five are just brutally direct.

Or couse the two sets of tunes also straddle another event: being left by my ex-wife.  I can't imagine that has anything to do with the difference.

But the interesting thing is that for all Travesty in Blue works alongside the more direct songs about loss, I didn't really write it with anything particular in mind.  Was it some subconscious unhappiness?  Probably.  But the first lines are actually about moving my sister to an apartment near Montrose and Damen.  We were loading her stuff up some stairs, and there was this weird picture on the wall that looked like me.  Or, like an elven caricature of me.  Actually, I think there were two people in the picture and other looked like my sister, which made it doubly weird.

And I remember at the exact time I noticed the picture, there was this light on the wall right next to it cast from a window that looked like a cross.  And it was just really striking.  One of those weird moments in life where you're moved or take notice but don't know exactly why...

And in the second verse, we get to "travesty in blue" and it's not really a concrete idea it's just... this picture of a feeling I had on and off for years that I was losing.  Losing something.  I thought it was myself and my dreams, but it turned out to be something different.  Or something more.  Or maybe even less.

So the word "blue" has become this crutch for me lyrically and still is.  There were Burn Rome Burn songs with "blue,"(there was even a BRB song CALLED The Blue).  It's made an appearance on every Paper Arrows album and even on the new song we recorded just two weeks ago as well as in a couple other tunes that are candidates for the next session.

So maybe it's time to put a prohibition on it.

Maybe the blue has run its course...

Or maybe it still serves me a purpose and helps me see my life and creativity as a line rather than a series of unrelated struggles.

Maybe it's the connection to that me of 2001, who seems so far away from who and what I am today.

Maybe I can benefit from trying to figure out exactly what the blue is, where it goes, and why it keeps coming back to me.

I like that.



The picture where we moved you looked like me
And somehow the light arranged itself in a "t"
They always take at the start what matters the most
They always shoot first and ask questions once you're a ghost

It's raining glass on the lake tonight
As clouds divide the nightmare sky
And lightening strikes the Tower's heights
It echoes...

I saw him hanging on Western Avenue
His eyes were born in a travesty of blue
And the empty car lots gave way to something else
And the pavement cracks grew up as winter fell

It's raining glass on the lake tonight
As clouds divide the nightmare sky
And lightening strikes the Tower's heights
It echoes...

It's raining stars on the lake tonight
As clouds divide the nightmare sky
And lightening strikes the Tower's spikes
It echoes...


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Still Looking Alive

Read the 2006 post on Look Alive.

Listen to the demo:

Listen to the record version:

Prepare yourselves (plural, generous):

I'm about to blog about my own blog.

It's gonna get ALL META UP IN HERE.

Okay, got that out of my system.

I don't even know what's meta anymore.  Is that meta? Ironic? Or is it just egotistical as shit.


Anyway, I digress.  Or regress.  Or undress.

I've enjoyed writing about the Paper Arrows tunes on In the Morning a ton and feel like it helped me flesh out the content of our new website.  So I've decided to go back and write a bit about our first record, Look Alive.

This presents several challenges.

The material was written in '05/'06, recorded in '06/'07, and released in '08.  It spans a very difficult period for me:  losing a marriage and breaking up with a band that was to that point the best creative thing of which I'd been a part.  Half the album was written before it all went down, and the other half was written very purposefully about loss while it was going down...

The funny thing is, at our Paper Arrows session at I.V. Labs on Saturday, this was the album we talked about the most... recording in an attic in the winter, no idea what we were doing, what it would become... in a lot of ways, Look Alive the album and specifically Look Alive the song has informed Paper Arrows through its entire run: we established a creative trust very early on and really have managed to keep egos almost completely out of it.  We rarely record with any sort of "rules."  We work very quickly and mostly fearlessly.  All these things, which were on exhibit prominently at Saturday's session, were there from the very beginning.

So when I started thinking about revisiting this material for blog purposes, I went back and read my post from 2006 (almost exactly 5 years ago) on Look Alive and was surprised to find it captured everything perfectly.  And I listened to the home demo and the recording and... I was really really touched by it.  I could see the connection from the very first thing we did as a group to the most recent.

Clarity is a rare thing in life, but sometimes, some very few times, the way truly is clear.

And it does really all come down to you.