Archive for the 'Music Monday' Category

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


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.]


Music Monday: Shelter from the Storm

October 17, 2016

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. That’s weird.

Prizes are weird. It’s important to remember that they don’t mean all that much and projecting too much meaning on them is a recipe for pointless misery of various sorts. One point of prizes is to encourage and support work that needs it. I like Dylan a lot, but it seems like he’s recognised enough for most purposes.

And Zoe was definitely robbed!

“Shelter from the Storm” was one of the first Dylan songs I encountered, but the Hard Rain version:

In spite of the obvious flaws in this performance, it is sublime. These lines (and their performance) hit me hard every time:

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

I took silversmithing to make those bracelets!

This version hit me so strongly that it was a long time before I could even listen to the Blood on the Tracks version. Now I like it just fine. I find the contrast between the contemplative and the raucously desperate to be delightful. They seem more like two movements of one song than alternative versions.

Music Monday: Another Suitcase in Another Hall

October 10, 2016

Andrew Lloyd Webber has two musicals of which I am very fond: Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.

Part of this is early conditioning. I remember seeing Herod’s song from the film version of JCS on television:

(My mom had the concept album which I promptly stole.)

I saw a very strong performance of Evita at the Bucks County Playhouse when, in high school, I was there for a contest. There was a lot going on for me in those trips, but the performance was quite splendid and was probably one of the first professional theatrical performance I’d ever seen. (It really makes a difference!) Evita also struck me because 1) it was about a woman! in politics! and 2) it was about South America?! and 3) it seemed politically and personally complex. It was all pretty new to my young self. It was also, musically speaking, rather stylistically diverse. Oo! I remember being impressed that it was mostly sung with little book. That was new for me too.

A key song is Another Suitcase in Another Hall (in this video coupled with “Hello and Goodbye”):

In many ways, it’s an odd little bit: The character is nameless and has no other appearances. She exists in the musical in part to draw out the unsympathetic side of the Perons, but also to show the path Eva didn’t take (but easily could have). It’s very poignant.

The lyrics are some of Tim Rice’s best. One striking bit is how the verse is all negative. Consider the opening:

I don’t expect my love affairs to last for long
Never fool myself that my dreams will come true
Being used to trouble I anticipate it
But all the same I hate it, wouldn’t you?

Everything is broken. Whatever is positive (love affairs, dreams) is broken and even the coping strategy fails. And the last verse almost reaches a kind of bleak optimism before crashing down:

Call in three months time and I’ll be fine, I know
Well maybe not that fine, but I’ll survive anyhow
I won’t recall the names and places of each sad occasion
But that’s no consolation here and now.

It also won’t be consolation then when this pattern recurs! As it will!

I don’t think the song succeeds in its assigned task. Partly, it’s too pretty (and Barbara Dixon’s rendition is perfect…PERFECT I TELL YOU!!!). Partly, it’s swamped by incident and song throughout the rest of the show.

Of course, the movie version gives the song to Evita/Madonna:


I certainly understand Madonna wanting the song, but I prefer it as the weird little thing that it was.

Update: I’m in the midst of first period slog (two all day classes one of which is still new and in serious flux; one I teach all by myself, the other I have Uli saving me), which means sleep deprivation Sleep deprivation means song hacks. This time it’s a song hack about not sleeping!

I don’t expect my efficiency to last for long
Never fool myself that my dreams will come true
Being used to slogging I anticipate it
But all the same I hate it – wouldn’t you?

So what happens now?
Another all-nighter in another Fall
So what happens now?
Bang your head against another wall
When am I going to sleep?
You’ll get by, you always have before
When am I going to sleep?

Time and time again I’ve said that I’ll prepare
That I’m immune to gloom, that I’ll focus and be through
But every time it matters all my words desert me
So anyone can distract me – and they do

So what happens now?
Another all-nighter in another Fall
So what happens now?
Bang your head against another wall
When am I going to sleep?
You’ll get by, you always have before
When am I going to sleep?

Call in three days time and I’ll be fine I know
Well maybe not that fine, but I’ll survive anyhow
I won’t recall the names and papers of this sad occasion
But that’s no consolation – here and now

So what happens now?
Another all-nighter in another Fall
So what happens now?
Bang your head against another wall
When am I going to sleep?
You’ll get by, you always have before
When am I going to sleep?
Don’t ask anymore

Music Monday: Blackbird

October 3, 2016

This is really about Zoe’s next album.

The song selection is mostly finished and the window for adding anything is nearly closed. Anything with serious arrangement needs (i.e., multiple studio musicians) is probably right out. It’s possible to get a Zoe + an instrument song in…but mostly only technically possible. There’s theoretically enough time left, but each day makes it much less likely.

I’m lobbying for a song or two (still!). But my efforts were swamped by Zoe’s radio promoter who was looking for a cover or trad that would ease the way for some radio play. Vincent Black Lightening worked really well on Bonfiles:

And something like that was what was requested.

Zoe does a very nice banjo accompanied cover of Blackbird. You know Blackbird, right? RIGHT?!

Normally when she performs it, there’s a story woven in about taking the last train to Manchester (from Liverpool). It’s a wonderful story that inflects the song in a complete different direction. Alas, the unstoried version is what makes sense for radio purposes, so that’s what’ll go on the album. However! She also recorded the storied version, so I hope it will make its way out there.

There are lots of covers out there! By far the most striking I’ve heard is Bobby McFerrin’s:

Brad Mehldau’s instrumental version is worth a listen to:

Music Monday: Zoe Mulford’s Small Brown Birds heading into endgame

September 26, 2016

Yay! Zoe had a couple of studio days last week and made a fair bit of progress on getting some more new album songs into the can. Most of the recording for these songs is done, so we’re in the editing stage. There are still some songs to come which will need recording.

(She had a lengthy period where not much was happening because of some vocal issues. Lots of nasal spray of various sorts later, things seem much better!)

You can hear a preview of one of the tracks:

I’m pretty sure that this is mostly done. It certainly hasn’t been mastered, but any further engineering tweaks will be minor.

You can compare this to an earlier production for a Holiday Sampler: