39-40 -30-

Several times during the past year, I’ve referred to or linked to my friend Rex’s 39-40 blog – a project in which Rex recorded and posted a new song every day for an entire year from his 39th birthday through his 40th. Well, today is Rex’s 40th birthday…and he’s posted a full 365 songs (with one more coming soon). As anyone who’s ever recorded anything at all will acknowledge, this is an astonishing achievement…and even though, of course, not every song worked, given the circumstances a very high proportion of them did – a credit to Rex’s ingenuity, talent, and creativity.

By the end the blog became pretty much a family website, with three generations of Broomes contributing: Rex’s father’s band, Thunderhill, was frequently represented, and Rex’s daughters made several contributions (particularly Eden, whose musical growth over the year is rather astonishing: the girl has talent, and I hope she continues to find a venue for it after the completion of this project). In fact the blog ranged more widely than that, with the full-album Foxbase Alpha cover set consisting largely of covers performed by friends of Rex (including myself).

After all that (and after Rex posted two of my own contributions to his project, and covered one of my songs), it seems only fair to pay him back a little. Two of Rex’s songs in particular have always really impressed me (both are available on his band Skates & Rays’ album You Are My Home): “Fort Ashby” is a very personal song, and thus not terribly well-suited for the cover treatment…but “Doubtful Sound” strikes me as a wonderful song also, and its sentiment and situation (however personal they might be for Rex) are pretty much universal at some levels.

So it is that I decided to cover this track and present it to Rex on his 40th birthday, as my tribute cover to his cover tribute website. I came up with the idea several months ago actually (the arrangement is in obvious homage to a mutual favorite artist of Rex’s and mine, John Cale – and in fact, I had its main concept clearly enough in mind that I asked a violist friend of mine if she’d consider playing the viola part…didn’t get it done on time, so it’s fake (and distorted) viola you hear…), but it took me until this month to actually begin recording. For me, the recording was a sort of land-speed record (less than three weeks from start to finish), and that Rex was able to complete a track every damned day astonishes me.

I could yammer on about the recording process (and will, in the comments, if anyone gives a rat’s), but instead, I’ll stop: here’s the track: my cover of Rex Broome’s “Doubtful Sound.” (edit: Out of context, the more “Cale” elements of this track don’t work as well…so I re-edited it a bit.)

Monkey Typing Pool “Doubtful Sound” [original version: see above for new edit] (2011)

Skates & Rays “Doubtful Sound” (You Are My Home, 2009)

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5 Comments

Filed under celebration, indulgence, noise

5 responses to “39-40 -30-

  1. Bradley asked, so here are some comments on the recording process (as I warned might happen…).

    I wanted a “performance” feel on this, as opposed to something that felt more “studio,” so while a lot of the arrangement’s ideas were preconceived in general terms, when it came time to record, the first thing I did was play through the whole thing (more or less – doubling back on some parts) using my Yamaha keyboard as MIDI input device. I then listened to that recording, and from it developed some more specific ideas concerning the way the part would go in each section of the song (every verse, every chorus, has a slightly different arrangement – I think there may be one part that’s repeated, but that’s about it). I then did what I usually do: set an 8-bar phrase with 1 bar on either side as a recording region, and did 5-10 takes of that part. Did that for each 8-bar (or whatever) phrase of the song, then went through and found the best takes, or best parts of each take, and comped a whole piano part out of it. Often, the first take for each section was pretty sketchy, but as I played it over, the specific part I wanted came into focus – so I rarely used the first take. The exception is the instrumental break in the middle – more on that later.

    After putting together a complete piano part, I played that back and used the same technique to record the vocal parts: first a full-song runthrough, then multiple takes on each phrase. The runthrough actually had a couple of good performances; unfortunately, my mic technique is inconsistent enough that the sonic character was noticeably different from that take to the later multitake runs on particular sections…so I used very little of it. The other problem was that I began trying definitely to imitate John Cale’s voice: when I’d sort of practiced doing that before recording, I thought I’d be able to do that reasonably well…but in practice, I couldn’t really pull off the performance. The “Cale” voice was too mannered to do what I wanted to do with the lyrics (not that the real Cale voice is – just my attempt to imitate it). So I just sang more or less in my own voice, but keeping in mind how I thought Cale might sing these lines. I think the song’s fairly well-suited to his style in the first place, so that helped. The idea of doing this song in one of Cale’s styles was actually the starting point for the whole project, in fact.

    Anyway, the middle section was a little different in terms of recording. In that initial runthrough on piano, the build up from a more-or-less conventional chord up into wild tone-clusters took a lot longer – and then I just glissando’d all over the keyboard for a few seconds, then hammered two bars of 16th notes with the palms of each hand at the end. I realized in editing that that section was way too long…so I cut back the build to the clusters, making the density increase more rapidly by editing out bits – and then carefully placed the free glissando section in the confines of a couple measures, so that overall the rhythm isn’t really disrupted. Well, sort of: I introduced a gradual accelerando from 150 bpm to 160 bpm over this section.

    One nice thing about recording the piano this way: all elements of touch and expression remain, but I can still manipulate the elements if need be: some notes were too quiet or too loud, I got rid of wrong notes, tightened up the rhythm a bit (particularly on the low 16th-note clusters at the end of the instrumental section: I’m nowhere near that rhythmically steady!). So what you get is something that sounds like a real player playing (because it more or less was) but, uh, just playing a bit better and with more accuracy than the particular player actually could play.

    For the viola part, I initially thought of asking a professional viola-player friend of mine to record it. I asked her way back in November if she’d be willing; she was…but I didn’t get my act together until about four days before the deadline (Rex’s birthday), and so that didn’t happen. (At one point I’d also considered sneaking the viola part to Rex’s wife to pass on to their daughter who plays viola…that would have been appropriate, but again: didn’t happen.) The viola part was composed in the same way as the piano part: improvisation followed by nailing down each section through repetition.

    Again: except for the middle section, where the solo is straight process-oriented minimalism. It’s a scale, beginning each time on the next note up, and consisting each time of one more note: so, where “n” = number of notes of the scale and “#” = steps up from the initial root, you get 2, 0-3, 1-4, 2-5, etc. (D-E, D-E-F#, E-F#-G-A, F#-G-A-B-C, and so on). I played that part at slower speed and without the rising up thing…so the articulation is real, but the actual notes are all edited in place.

    The vocal thing at the end is my rather tame Cale-esque freakout…with a tip of the verbal hat both to Cale’s “Wilson Joliet” and to the name of Rex’s project (the last two words)… I think that’s about all I have to say about this one!

  2. Oops – forgot: no effects or anything added on the piano (preset has a bit of reverb), amp-simulation distortion added to the “viola,” and the vocals were compressed, EQ’d, and given a little bit of reverb. Panned the viola a little to one channel to widen the mix a bit, adjusted levels for different parts of the track, and…print.

  3. Rex

    Thank you. You really kept me honest during the whole project, too, and that was invaluable.

    Eden’s and Miranda’s musical adventures already have a life way beyond 39-40… by the end of it all, their participation in the blog was totally incidental to their general self-propelled shenanigans. And yes, it is astonishing to listen back to those early tracks from a year ago and hear the difference. At the end, their instrumental contributions were not particularly noticeable as “cute kid parts”… at all… listen to Eden’s guitar on “Broken” and Miranda’s bass on “Rain”. And the fact that Eden’s songwriting was the source of my cover what, three or four times, each better than the one before it? To say nothing of that jaw-dropping real-life string playing that forms the bed of “Like the Swallow”; I can’t get enough of that.

  4. Rex

    Oh, and it must be said that the Cale tribute was appropriate on many, many levels, as I did so much Cale-ish stuff on the blog. On many days I think that my cover of “Chinese Envoy” is my very proudest achievement during that whole year (and if you listen to that, you can hear *my* John Cale vocal imitation, and then extrapolate from there to discover how often I was imitating him when you didn’t notice it… it was a lot).

  5. Whoa – all the colors here changed. Weird. Anyway: Yeah, I noticed a couple of times, at random, that songs were running through my head (in the way that songs do) and that a couple of them happened to be Eden’s songs. That must be particularly awesome for you – of course around here we’re not subject to parental pride; we can only do as well as avuncular and a…anauntular (what the hell is the word?) pride re nieces and nephews…but that’s gotta be cool.

    Also: Paula and I were e-mailing back and forth about various musical things, and she mentioned this blog by the guy who founded CD Baby – this entry in particular. I haven’t read too much of it – but pretty interesting stuff…

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