Archive for the 'Music' Category

Music Monday: Joan Baez Covers Zoe Mulford

December 11, 2017

It is, of course, awesome news that Joan Baez will be covering “The President Sang Amazing” on her next album and “Fare thee well” final tour. She’s been performing it in concert already to great response. We haven’t heard the studio version yet, but there’s a video of her performing it at Carnegie Hall for a “Pathways to Paris” concert. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Have Joan Baez cover your song.)

It’s interesting! The phrasing is really different, compare Zoe singing it at the Small Brown Birds release concert:

And she has guitar as accompaniment! If you’re in the US you can hear Zoe’s studio arrangement with piano:

(You can buy the song or album, too, of  course!)

You’ll never hear my favorite version, because that piano line didn’t work out and won’t be released (it was a bit more atonal in the coda).

In the studio, Zoe really struggled with the piano line. She’s a reasonable pianist, but she doesn’t play very often (I really need to find a place for her piano to live set up. She rarely, if ever, performs with the piano. She does use it for composing, but real accompaniment is not something she does. Plus, this was not a composed or rigid accompaniment but something closer to improvised…almost necessarily so since she couldn’t replicate a take! At one point, she brought in a session musician to give it a go, but the stuff he came up with didn’t satisfy. So, she plugged at it until she got the current take (with the right time, without unfixable flubs, etc.)

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Music Monday: A Diagnosis

November 27, 2017

Trying to crawl up from the muck!

I’ve not been feeling well, though I did have some progress with a clear diagnosis for my long term eye trouble (corenal map dot signature dystrophy). But I still have a bunch of stuff to sort through with no or vague diagnoses (or unclear treatment).

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend continues brilliant and you should be watching it (WHY ARE WE ON A HIATUS!!!! EEEEVIL!!!)

Spoilers! Go watch it!

Rebecca is offered the promise of a new diagnosis and this offers so much hope she breaks into delighted song:

The first several times watching this I had tears the whole time. I know that feeling. (I know the flip side when the diagnosis defines you and not in a way one finds comfortable.) When one’s body or mind is off in some way; if it causes you difficulty and you don’t understand it; that situation causes it’s own extra level of distress. A diagnosis, even without clear treatment path, offers some relief. And that “some” can feel enormous.

Until the next thing…

Hoping for Grace

October 3, 2017

Awful things happened this week. Awful things happen every week and most we (for various values of “we”) don’t know about.

But I go back to Obama’s elegy for those killed in Charleston:

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.

For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. (Applause.) Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed — the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. (Applause.) If we can tap that grace, everything can change. (Applause.)

Amazing grace. Amazing grace.

Of course, Zoe’s song keeps it in my mind:

Obama said,

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — (applause) — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

This is a pretty general notice of grace in religious traditions. I don’t believe in God, so grace cannot be a favor of any god or divinity. But I do use a variant of the concept, though a bit more related to “graceful”. Grace is a way of being and acting that has a rightness that’s only partly aesthetic. When we act with grace we bring together the beautiful and the sublime such that it feels like a gift…effortless and beyond effort.

Grace is something we can give each other, but it’s not built brick by brick (though it might emerge from small efforts).

I keep looking for it in all things.

Music Monday: Do Wah Diddy

September 11, 2017

I don’t know why I was thinking about a possibly mythical version of this song with a video from the 1980s set on a bright colorful urban street, but I was. Now it’s bugging me. Not because it was a good video or anything, but because I can’t get the memory.

Do Wah Diddy has two notable film appearances, first in Stripes as a subversion of the marching cadence:

which is where  I believe I heard if for the first time. The best use is in L.A. Story (which is also probably Steve Martin’s best film). There’s a tuba duet version performed over the telephone and the title itself plays a key role. Just watch the whole thing.

Trying to find “Do Wah Diddy” videos from the 80s leads you to the funky world of 80s Euro disco girl groups including the Dolly Dots (The Netherlands):

and A La Carte (Germany):

I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine which of these is more 80s.

There are a plethora of covers, but I didn’t find anything particularly distinctive.

Music Monday: The President Sang Amazing Grace

January 16, 2017

Small Brown Birds is done! Hurrah! The endgame was a ton of work over the winter break which, shall we say, interfered with some celebrations and visiting. But it’s well worth it! The Kickstarter rewards are going out and (I hope) should all be done by the end of the month.

To everyone who backed the campaign, a profound thank you. Both the cash and the support were incredibly helpful.

We didn’t finish the album as projected and one reason for that is that a new song came to Zoe in the fall and it really had to be on the album. It’s called “The President Sang Amazing Grace” and here’s a video of Zoe singing it at her CD release concert:

(Lyrics available on the YouTube page. There was a lot of YouTube/Google suffering.)

The concert was amazing with a wonderful space. Zoe’s voice was very strong. Attendances was somewhat depressed by the snow. For the first time in my life, I am mad at snow.

The studio version has a piano accompaniment which is truly lovely.

I’ll have more about the song next week and then dive into the rest of the album. Small Brown Birds will be available in the usual places soon (i.e., you will be able to get the physical disc from CD Baby and download from iTunes and Amazon). You can get a physical disc direct from Zoe if you’re in the US. See her website for details.

Music Monday: Welcome In Another Year

January 3, 2017

Happy (this calendar/culture) new year!

Zoe has a surprising (to me) number of holiday tunes. It’s surprising because we don’t do the holiday thing very systematically or thoroughly. But we do visit people during the winter holiday season and we try, at least, to celebrate Noruz, the Iranian New Year (in March). And we vaguely pay attention to the Chinese New Year. Etc!

(The one time I was in Iran, I was dropped trying to jump over a bonfire at the ancestral farm. I burned my pinky and really wanted to go to a “real hospital”. I suspect that that emphasis was due to earlier encounters with the scary squat toilets.)

Thus begat “Welcome In Another Year” which is my all time favourite New Year’s song. It’s also just a wonderful banjo tune.

The chorus (plus an advocacy campaign by me) led to the title of the album:

Build up the bonfires
now the season’s turned
welcome in another year
and let the old one burn!

I really want 2016 to burn.

While looking for a video of the song, I found a surprising (to me) number of pretty interesting covers, including this really wacky one by the Mighty Kelltones:

They did a lot more dorking with the melody esp. in the chorus than the other covers. It’s lower, faster, and has different emphasis. In spite of the up tempo, it feels more low key, probably because the vocal doesn’t soar like Zoe’s and the instrumentals are more textural and rhythmic. (It reminds me a bit of Eva Cassidy’s “Wayfaring Stranger”.)

The next (by Blanche Rowen and Mike Gulston) is a more straightfoward cover:

Instead of banjo, we get some pretty cool guitar. It shares with the Mighty Kelltones’ version that Eva Cassidy feel to me. I think it’s the moodiness of the guitar compared with the brightness of Zoe’s banjo. (Their a cappela chorus has some interestingly warbly intonation.)

Our Morals is a Liverpool band who did a performance at the Lymm Festival in 2013:

This is worth contrasting with the Rowen/Gulston version. We have a guitar with male/female vocal combo (thought here the male voice does the verses). Our Morals is much more upbeat and I think a closer approximation of Zoe’s version. It’s clear that they are having a good time!

Lynn and Will Rowan have a piano (and penny whistle) arrangement that’s pretty lush:

Weirdly, this seems even closer to Zoe’s in spite of the greater difference in the individual instruments. Maybe it’s the vocals? I’m not sure!

There’s another cover (by Four Shillings Short) but I couldn’t find a video with decent sound quality. And rumours have it that Nowell Sing We Clear have an arrangement for four voices that rocks. When Zoe is on the same bill as the Bailey Sisters, they tend to do a very nice version together.

Finally, here’s a live Zoeversion with a version of her intro:

The moral of all this is 1) don’t drop your kid in a fire and 2) if you do, hope that 35 years later a good song comes out of it.

Music Monday: Small Brown Birds Endgame

December 19, 2016

ALMOST THERE!!!

Small Brown Birds inches toward completion. All the tracks are “engineering/mix complete” and are in the process of being mastered, which is the last step before going to manufacturing. Zoe is also busy finishing up the album art.

The path to an album is more complicated than one might expect. Consider the many stages:

  1. Writing the song!
    Zoe usually describes this as a process of discovery. Songs “find her” or she “finds them”. A lot happens while walking. But we can describe the essence of song writing as the creation of a melody and associated lyrics, if any.
  2. Arranging the song.
    (Bits of this happen at stages 1, 3, and 4. It’s not typically a discrete stage.) This is the process of deciding how the song is to be performed. Deciding what instrument(s) will be played, what singers, harmony, where to pitch it and in what key all are part of arranging, the tempo, etc.
  3. Recording the arrangement.
    While this list makes all this seem like a highly linearly staged process (first you write the song, then you arrange it, then you record that arrangement like a performance), it doesn’t have to work that way and often doesn’t. You might have the tune and a basic version with just voice and guitar that you record. With that in hand, you might start thinking about what other lines and instruments would be interesting. Or you might experiment with another instrumental line against the basic track. Or you bring in a session musician to add some texture. Mostly, you try to build up a mass of material representing a number of possible final arrangements.
  4. Mixing the recording.
    This is where you finalize the arrangement and the recording thereof. It might be as simple as slapping through recorded tracks together and adjusting the balance and positioning. Or it might be as complex as pulling individual notes from separate attempts to make one you really like.
  5. (Repeat 1-4 for all the other songs.)
  6. Mastering the songs.
    Mastering is a sort of mixing/engineering, but instead of being for the purpose of getting the arrangement it aims at a holistic texturing of the song (and of the songs relative to the whole album). This is closer to the sort of thing you do with your own stereo when you adjust the volume or play with EQ. Probably the most important (and often controversial) modification applied during  mastering is applying compression. Essentially, compression is a reduction in the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a recording (i.e., the dynamic range). Radio (and other typically ambient playing) is a big driver and is why you generally don’t have to fiddle with the volume knob very much. Without compression, if you set your overall volume high, you run the risk of distortion (and other unpleasantness) on the really loud bits. If you set it low, then you run the risk of not hearing the soft bit.
    Of course, volume dynamics is part of what makes music interesting! It’s a critical tool in the composer and performer toolkit. Appropriate compression tries to preserve the…dynamic flow? dynamic structure?…of the performance while restricting the dynamic range. But this is tricky, eh? There’s a tendency to just make things louder (to get the “excitement”) just like there’s a tendency to push things faster.
  7. Making the discs/uploading the songs!
  8. PROFIT!!!!

I still find that there’s a mastering stage a bit weird, esp. as it is typically done by specialised engineers after all the recording and mixing is done (at least, in my experience).

Music Monday: My Neighbors are in Love

December 5, 2016

As 2016 draws to a close (FINALLY!!!!), both Zoe and I have a huge backlog with horrible (or missed!) deadlines to sort through. Small Brown Birds is nearly done (and overdue…ish). Zoe is in the studio (again) today to try to sort out some last issues. Most of these are pure engineering, that is, dealing with the mixing.

For those of you who’ve never recorded, it’s more like making a movie than you’d expect. The performers generally come in and do their bit a billion times against various scratch (or real) tracks (sometimes just a click track!!). One startling thing for me is how even really excellent musicians who can handle the roughest of performance situations with aplomb just fall apart in the studio. Studio performing is really different. Conversely, good studio musicians are amazing. They will come in and knock it out in no time flat. Over the past five albums I’ve grown increasingly convinced that professional studio musicians are the way to go. Even people who record a lot of their own stuff often and well have trouble with being a session musician.

(The classic Doonesbury sequence about the recording of Ginny’s song is spot on. You want a Jay “Wah Wah” Graydon there going “You mean, like, something in an F?”)

Anyway! Lots of good stuff going on even if I did spend my Saturday and part of Sunday tracking down wind chimes. The songs are sounding really good and getting better. Alas, some things do end up on the cutting room floor for a variety of reasons (e.g., you just can’t get the recording you want). It seems like “My Neighbors Are In Love” will have to wait for a future album. But I will taunt you with it anyway!

Music Monday: That’s a Pretty Good Love

November 28, 2016

Zoe has a song called “Pretty Good Love Song” that was one of the very first songs she wrote as a singer-songwriter. It may or may not make the next album (I hope so!). I’ll explain more about it if and when we get a release, but for some reason I went a-searching for songs about pretty good love and came up with this wonderful track by Big Maybelle:

It’s a call and response song which is fun, but there an overarching lyrical structure. It starts with superlatives describing the (by contrast) understated “pretty good love”:

Baby my love is deep (How deep?)
Deep as the bottom of the ocean (How pure?)
Pure as the new born baby (How bright?)
Outshine’s the sun above
That’s a pretty good love.

But then it transitions to a more personal and direct appeal:

Baby, please come on home (Why?)
Wanna put my arms around you (Oh Yeah?)
Squeeze you till you’re ol’ black cold cream (That’s black)
That’s the way I feel about you
That’s a pretty good love.

I’m not sure what the heck “black cold cream” is doing there. It’s not clear to me whether we’re talking about the moisturiser or…well…what, exactly!

In any case, a rousing tune, beautifully and powerfully sung…what’s not to love?

Music Monday: Various Bells

November 14, 2016

I like bells and songs about bells. I just heard the New Pornographers’ Testament To Youth In Verse:

The final refrain expresses something about how I feel these days:

The bells ring
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…

The repeating “no”s are…less broken than the ones that might come more naturally.

Probably my favourite is Mike Doughty’s I hear the bells which is musical and lyric glory from start to finish:

Mike does a lot of cool things with piano as a rhythm instruments, which is particularly showcased here.

The chorus is sublime:

I can hear the bells are ringing joyful and triumphant and

It’s just the one line, repeated, but I do hear those bells.

One fun think is the mixture of the elevated and the quotidian. Consider the second verse:

I hear the bells; they are like emeralds, and
Glints in the night; commas and ampersands.
Your moony face; so inaccessible.
Your inner mind; so inexpressible.

“emeralds, and” rhymed with “ampersands”!!!! That’s just amazing to me. The last verse begins with a very me bit of word play:

You snooze, you lose.
Well I have snozed and lost.

The incorrect regularity of “snozed” is something I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid.

[I had a bunch more, but am weak, and deleted it.]