Saturday, August 30, 2008

Back, Pats On The

In a recent competition I entered, I spent a little more to get some written feedback on the two entries.    While these are finished songs and I don't expect to go back to them, I like to see how a professional ear receives them.   

I got the following comments on the lyrics:

"Vigil":    Your lyrics have a somewhat cloudy meaning but drew me in like a vortex.  I sense you mourning the emotional loss of your lover who is so consumed by hr own grievous loss that she has deteriorated into a lifeless shell of a person....This is a tragic and emotionally gripping song.

"El Dorado":  Your lyrics are magnificently visual.   You intertwine visions of "the golden one" and the rituals surrounding his rise as king with visions of pawning for money....Your lyrics are amazingly creative but hard to understand.   The title is awesome!...

It's hard submitting songs for competitions which have "thoughtful" lyrics -- denser images that take a little unravelling.   The kinds of songs that reward a few listens.   Still, strong imagery in both cases.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Captain's Daughter

A new song, or at least a new song clip, has been posted on my website.   It is a clip of "The Captain's Daughter," a very naughty sea shanty.

As I've noted before, I respond well to specific assignments and challenges, and count as one of my talents the ability to write in different voices.   So when a Renaissance Faire act(e) asked if I would create a speciality lyric for them, I was eager to give it a try.

"The Interpreters" are two women -- one of them Italian, the other one blonde -- who interpret the more incomprehensible speeches of the other.   It is a tavern act, and is very, very, *VERY* heavy on the sexual innuendo.   Renn Faires are as much about the sex and ale as they are about the costumes and crafts.   So throwing all my politically correct thoughts out the window, I wrote a traditional-sounding sea shanty about a captain's daughter that takes her responsibilities to keep the crew happy *very* seriously.    I even included a terribly archaic reference to the orient and a chinese ship, that led to a modern pun I hadn't heard before.

The ladies are currently performing the song at the Maryland Renaissance Faire, until October.  The CD is available there, and will eventually be sold on CDBaby.   

Friday, August 22, 2008

Do You Miss New York?

Sometimes people ask me “What’s your favorite song?” but it’s an impossible question. There are songs with staggering good lyrics -- some polished jewels, some elaborate palaces of words. Some are great for their cleverness, some for their lack of it There are songs I admire. Songs I love. Songs I try to emulate.

Since this is a songwriting blog, every so often I’ll talk about one of these songs and why I think it’s great. Or at least why I love it without it’s achieving greatness.

But when people do ask me for a favorite and make me answer, my fallback song is “Do You Miss New York?” by Dave Frishberg. Frishberg is a personal lyric-writing hero, able to make fabulous rhymes consistently without ever sounding forced. It’s an ease that, as a writer, I know is the product of a lot of sweat.

Frishberg is a jazz pianist and at first played other folks’ tunes, and eventually penned his own. He’s a generous collaborator, writing a melody here, contributing a lyric there, but his song have a very personal stamp on them. He’s the Woody Allen of jazz pianists, and I don’t mean that as any sort of insult.

“Do You Miss New York?” is a series of questions, comparing the hustle of life in NYC with a more peaceful life now. The questions are needling (“If you had to face it now, do you still think you could hack it?”) and funny (“Did you trade the whole parade for a pair of parking places?”) and wistful (“Does it feel like home or just another nice place to visit?”)

The lyrics float on a light, lilting jazz setting, that lulls you into a false sense of security. It’s comfortable, melodic and you nod along with it, smiling, agreeing with him that “this laid-back lifestyle” lacks “a certain satisfaction.” It has an odd structure – it has an intro (very retro), and instead of verses and bridge and chorus/refrain, it has an “A” melody and “B” melody. The song goes ABAB-ending straight through, and repeats that structure completely without repeating any lyrics. There are clever rhymes, unusual rhymes, internal rhymes, but they never overwhelm the song. They fall into place (seemingly) effortlessly.

And that’s when he gets you. The questions get more pointed. More honest – “Do you view your new terrain with a touch of condescension?” – and unhappy – “Do you dream your dreams out here, or is that passé?”

For this is not a song about leaving a place. It’s a song about having been young, and being young no longer. It’s not a song for anyone under 30. Everyone gets to a place where they remember being young but have trouble conjuring the feeling again –the recklessness, “the anger, the action,” the “tension” It all seems so far away. And you can’t go back, really, ever, try as you might (and doesn’t everyone try, despite the folly? Try to fix the mistakes? Or at least get a mulligan?) New York” in this song is not a place, it’s that time in your life when you had energy and opportunity and time and were too stupid to realize it. And now it’s too late.

When he gets to the end of the song, and asks, “Do you ever run into that guy who used to be you?” – I lose it, every time.

The song makes me laugh, smile, gasp in astonishment at the craftsmanship, and finally gets me right where I live, hard, even when I know what’s coming. It is a great, great, great song. It makes me want to try to write a song that great, and at the same time makes me want to give up songwriting in frustration that I’ll never write anything half this good.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Reynaldo The

I get to NYC so seldom that I tend to hit the same great places that are familiar to me, rather than do too much exploring. I was with a friend who was in town from Alabama, and had limited time to explore, so it was back to Rockwood Music Hall (where I had taken her on a previous visit) and over to The Living Room (where she hadn’t been yet).

We were in time for the 10pm act at Rockwood, and I said hi to Ken Rockwood (the proprietor and founder of “The Professor and Maryann,” an indie-rock duo), before the set. The act was a female singer/songwriter, piano-based, who sang pop-py songs about love and relationships. My friend pointed out that her playing and voice were very similar to Regina Spektor, though we agreed the songs weren’t anywhere near as interesting.

At The Living Room, the 10pm act was running over, two Iowa sisters and one guitar between them. Both with very big voices, sunny dispositions and incredibly long and thin arms (something in the air in Iowa). We stood in the back while they finished up, and then snagged a table for the (late) 11pm show.

I’m not sure exactly what the act was called – I think it was “Reynaldo The” fronted by Aldo Perez. Perez has a rock band called “Psycho the Clown,” a small group called “The Reynaldo The Trio” (it would be Reynaldo The Great, but apparently Reynaldo is not so great), and an avant-garde theatre enterprise called “Theater The.” There may be more incarnations, but we were apparently watching some permutation of "The Reynaldo The Ensemble."

We had no idea what to expect. There were six of them. A keyboardist who looked like a dressed-down Brad Pitt by way of Elton John mixed with mad scientist. An older fellow on the drums, in judges’ robes. A beefy KGB-agent type who was some sort of valet and general factotum, and played bongos and washboard. A tuba player dressed as a refugee from a Chekhov short story. A French maid who played the clarinet, bells and was the main backup singer. And Aldo Perez as Reynaldo, a shambling mound of wild energy and pompostity. He's described elsewhere on the web as the love child of Jim Carrey and John Waters.

I would describe the act, but it was indescribable. It was more of a modern clown show than anything else. An opening mime bit ended with Perez playing the nose flute maniacally. Odd musical pieces. The valet/factotum wound up being the company rapper. They sang “I’m My Own Grandpa” and “Oh What A Night,” all interspersed with “Reynaldo” being a general horses’ patootie while the rest of the band shot him glares. Clearly there was a backstory to the act that we weren’t seeing.

Special mention to Jenny Lee Mitchell, the French maid, who is operatically trained and could do just about anything with her voice. After several bits featuring her refined tones (which were out of keeping with Reynaldo’s musical wishes), she wound up being the best rapper in the bunch. A glance at her resume shows a lot of experience in physical comedy.

Apparently, Aldo Perez and company perform at the Living Room many Saturday nights and have several theatre and music ventures going. If you’re in the city, they’re worth a look. If you’re not, you can catch glimpses of them on YouTube.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Finalist in SOTY

Song of the Year has just posted its June 2008 contest results.

"Punch My Ticket" was named a Finalist for Rock. This means it wasn't the Winner, but was one of the top five entries. And since they don't list the writers or titles in alphabetical order, it looks like we came in third.

(They didn't list Ray Sharp as the co-writer, and I've e-mailed them to add his name. His name *was* on the entry, but they only listed the submitting writer)

I had one other song in the competition -- it's possible it's a runner-up but I won't know that until sometime next week.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Seven Syllables

I am working on a lyric with an artist right now, or at least the artist’s representative, and some rewrites were requested. Something wasn’t quite right with the last line of the first verse. It was all of six words, seven syllables (eight if you count the grace syllable at the beginning).

(I might as well say right now I’m not reproducing the actual verse, or lines, at least until I know whether or not this lyric will be committed, or will remain at liberty. If this lyric isn't picked up I will at least let you know what the replaced line was. But the process itself is interesting. ).

The line had to rhyme with “deep” and as you know there aren’t terribly many good rhymes for “deep” – at least not ones that you can use without them sticking out in unwanted ways. The few that work are used over and over and over again. I had it rhyming with the half-rhyme “heat” – it’s the kind of lyric that takes to half-rhymes, no worries there.

But the line needed to be redone. I thought of all the “eet” rhymes, and reconsidered all the “eep” rhymes. I moved on to “eed” and “eek” rhymes as well. There are tons of them, as any rhyming dictionary will tell you, but many would not work stylistically, or couldn’t sit at the end of a line, or wouldn’t fit the sentence as constructed.

I noodled around in the early evening, in the mid-evening, and the late evening. I didn’t want to let go of this problem and move on to fixing the other things. I needed to break the logjam. But I Could. Not. Find. The. Solution.

As I was moving on to sleep, I found a word I liked, something that extended the thought in the first three lines, and gave it some poetry. Just one word, with a certain resonance. And a half hour later I thought of a modifer for the word, an adjective, rhythmically pleasing, making it a “new” phrase, something I hadn’t heard before, something that sang. I jotted it down and went to sleep.

The next morning I turned it over and over in my head, and finally found the sentence construction that let me grab an “eek” rhyme that flowed without forcing. So the whole sentence became one with the first three lines.

Five words. Seven Syllables. And I don’t know how many freaking hours to come up with them.

Rewriting – what it’s all about.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dance Gypsy, Sing Gypsy

So the New Pornographers were in Philly last night and rocked the Electric Factory.  There's not a lot to say, specifically -- they were in fine form, took the stage and did a relentless set for close to an hour.  The balance wasn't great, and it was almost impossible to hear the lyrics, which is a pet peeve of mine.   But it was a hot show.

Unfortuately, the opening act was overlong, and did not inspire.  Andrew Bird does a sort of alt-gypsy music.  He plays the electric violin (strumming it like a uke, doing Laurie Anderson-like tricks, playing gypsy riffs) as well as the electric guitar.  He whistles both piercingly and impressively.   He plays strange, haunting songs, in bygone styles, turned modern.    He certainly had some fans in the house.  I can't say that I "get" his music, though.

My date for the evening was my wife, who was not up to staying for the bitter end.   I warned her in advance about Andrew Bird, so she was prepared to sit through his set for the NPs.   He went on for a good hour and ten minutes, and she thought all his work sounded the same.

He was enamored of the new trend of looping himself live and playing over the loop.  This can be a cool technique (my wife calls it "cheating"), but he overuses it, like someone with a new gadget.     He likes to stretch out vocal lines, to the point of indulgence.

I think worst of all was the double-headed victrola set piece, that sat in front of the NPs drum set.   It of course called to mind the "vintage" sound of his music (I told my wife that his songs sound like they should be coming out of a victrola).  But he has a switch on a pedal that made the two victrola heads rotate -- which he had happen several times during his set to diminishing returns, as if there were many returns to be had to begin with.  It started off lame and ended up silly.

There was another set-piece victrola, the mouth facing the audience, that didn't do anything other than sit atop a monstrous trapezoidal pedestal that cluttered the stage.   We applauded when the roadies cleared it.

A half-hour, or 45-minute set even, would have been quite enough.   When all the clutter --aural and physical -- was off the stage, the NPs had two extra people and a lot more room to move.   We had to leave during the closing number (and missed the encore) but at least we got to hear them sing "Sing Me Spanish Techno"

It's not often that I'm that disappointed in a performers' set or work.   If a performer is not quite all that, usually the set is mercifully short and I don't begrudge someone their chance.  But this time the perfomer was unengaging, indulgent and went on longer than the main act.  Pity.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On Assignment

I’ve always done my best writing when I had a specific assignment – usually one I’ve given myself.

“Write a Billy Joel lyric” (which became “Atlantic City”)

“Write a Paul Simon lyric” (“Somebody’s Son”)

“Write like The Mountain Goats” (“Hesitant Elegy”)

Too often I give myself time to write and….I stare and drink and stare some more. It’s tough enough to try to write when I schedule it rather than when the Muse is tugging my shoulder at an inopportune time. I can write anything I want, but what do I want?

I used to write to prove something to myself. Now that I have the confidence that I can, where do I go?

Recently I was in contact with an A&R rep for an established artist and she was looking for material that was poetic, and universal, but avoided all the stuff about rain, tears, soaring on wings. I knew what she didn’t want, but not what she wanted – relationship songs? Urban or ‘natural world’? Personal or songs about “everybody”?

Not much to go on, but I found I had something to focus on, and wrote three lyrics. One a lost love song using some western imagery; one an urban “bad relationship” song; and one just a meditation on a place, without any individual perspective. (None of these are available on my website currently, sorry). All very “poetic” – not conversational or straightforward.

I don’t know whether came closer to the mark or not, but words came more easily, and I felt over my slump.

Deadlines are good. Specifics are good. Assignments are good.