Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Song of the Week: "An Unsettling Preposition"

As promised, here I am introducing some material from Cheap Seats--it's my plan to talk about one song per week.  This is indeed a concept album about the human mind, and though there isn't a specific "story," there is something of a narrative progression to the track listing.  "An Unsettling Preposition" opens the album, and while I won't be proceeding chronologically with these weekly updates, this song is the perfect place to start.  Lyrics are listed below, followed by some thoughts about the song's place in the concept as well as some info about the words and music.  Please take my introspection with a grain of salt; it's there for anybody who wants explanation or is interested enough to learn more about the details imbued in this work, but also as a tool for myself in moving forward artistically for my next projects.

You’ve been on the understanding where the way is by the will
You say you use the fundamental features, not the flashy frills
It’s within reason’s pungent sound you sail without a doubt
Though you were once upon a time so short these tools you were without

But I recall

I’ve been in and out of context enough to lose the feeling
I by no means know the meaning of a life without this ceiling

It’s been a while!
But I recall

We’ve been under these assumptions since I thought they’d keep us dry
You say we both agree that I am you and we are I

You’re so sure!
But I recall

"An Unsettling Preposition" effectively sets the scene--amongst a lot of lyrics and poems that deal with duality, an anxious sense of questioning and explorations-posed-as-dialogues, this song opens the proceedings with a one-sided conversation directed at the complacent, passive, comfortable (perhaps willfully ignorant) self of routine--the "me" that most of us experience, most of the time.  The speaking voice comes from a corner of the mind with a nagging sense that certain day-to-day assumptions ("In conjunction with my brain, 'I' consciously choose to act, then my physical body acts;" "Logic is a clear map I use to determine and decide the course of my actions;" "My reasoning mind and my physical brain are one and the same, always acting in accord with my conscious free will;" and finally, "It's always been this way") are perhaps not quite representative of the entire picture.  I think we forget that there was a time (childhood) when our brains were soaking up sensory input like sponges--before we really had any congealed sense of selfhood or the ego to behave with confidence about it.  Once this system is firmly in place and running like a well-oiled machine fueled by memories of cause and effect, life is an easy enough plate to keep spinning--but have you ever wondered about how much sensory input (present and past) your brain is ignoring because it doesn't fit into the framework whereby you've been routinely living your life for the past decades?  The lyric also posits that the "me" that sits comfortably in routine and the "me" who questions and balks at such an anemic mind-life just might not be co-existing quite as peacefully as the automatic mind would prefer.

Lyrically, I had a lot of fun with this one as a sort of word game--the verses are built from prepositional figures of speech treated as if the locations in question were actually physical.  There's further punning happening with some homophones and imagery tied to the fact that I was looking out across the water from the Ballard Locks to the Olympics when writing the words.

Musically, the song serves as an apt introduction for the rest of the album, displaying a concise structure (a much-abbreviated traditional verse/chorus structure with a brief breakdown and an even briefer sort of post-second-chorus bridge).  It's a three-guitar arrangement, with one guitar (my ES-335 though a tiny 4-watt Hawaiian guitar amp that belongs to my friend Nick, complete with "mother of toilet seat" turquoise case) laying down rhythm riffs in the lower register and two other guitars functioning in tandem and a sort of "intuitive through-composition" (this ends up happening enough across the songs I'll go ahead and start calling it "ITC") in the upper register, where the Telecaster plays two-note chords, and the Firebird plays more of a liquid, distorted, single-note lead.  This approach has allowed me considerable freedom in terms of partwriting where I'll attempt to to create detail-rich parts with minimal repetition that can be followed individually by the listener but also fit together as parts of a more singular whole.  There's a sort of pleasing (to me) chaos in the fact that the parts can either fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, call and respond, blend harmonically, or be saying different things entirely at the same time, and it can all change from one bar to the next.  So far I've achieved this by sitting down and writing one guitar part, taking care to leave at least some space rhythmically, then composing the second by ear, using the first as a general map of inspiration.  Needless to say, it's an exacting, painstaking process and it's an enormous bitch to reproduce in the studio without extensive rehearsal (which I mostly didn't have time to invest in) but to the ear, the results are pretty unusual sounding with that sort of nearly-falling-apart groove that's been another big goal with the project.  The track really came alive when Russ tracked his drums, handling the odd-metered grooves and tempo shifts of the chorus section with aplomb.  Moving forward, I see challenges in developing the ITC aspect so I don't end up continually repeating myself (though by its fluid nature it may take a while for that to happen), as well as in general arranging--there are bass clarinet/alto sax parts, backing vocals and some piano in the final verse that are only marginally audible--this may be partially a mixing issue, but it's certainly in my mind to pay attention to how many elements can exist in an arrangement before they're obscured by the others. 

* Yes, the YouTube videos have ads.  Why?  It's expensive to make music independently...if my music is being played for free by YouTube users and there's a way for me to make a tiny pittance in return for my self-funded creative content, I'll take it. 

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