What I got

Lovin’. Lovin’ is what I got. Also I got a bunch of quasicompleted semirecorded tracks. More than I can shake a stick at; then again, I’ve never been one of those wide-arc stick shakers. I’ll leave that sort of thing to the medicine men.

At the moment, the Glyph drive to my immediate left contains nine new songs recorded with Michael Flannery at a studio in rural Pennsylvania, a couple of sessions’ worth of material cut at Water Music in Hoboken with Brett Whitmoyer on drums, Justin Braun on bass, and Jay Braun in the producer’s chair, and about ten other demos of songs that I’m not sure would benefit from a band treatment. The law of indiepop suggests that some of this stuff is no good at all, though as I’ve written elsewhere, I couldn’t tell you right now what’s worth developing further and what isn’t. But unless I’ve completely lost my touch, some of it is also bound to be pretty good, too.

Exactly how half-baked are these pies we are half-baking? Golden brown and flakey with steam piping out a heart-shaped hole in the crust, or still a little wet on the bottom? To be honest, they’re not quite ready for the oven yet: I am still adding some ingredients. I spent the weekend overdubbing synthesizer — Mike was kind enough to set my Korg and the Moog up in his studio on 29th Street and leave me be to go wild. (He hasn’t heard the results yet; when he does, I wonder if he’ll still be so nice.) At home, I’ve been adding synth to the Water Music tracks, in a process that oscillates between methodical and crazed, while watching opening day baseball. Jay has yet to apply his Stratocaster to anything, and we’ll probably want to add horns to a couple of these songs. I haven’t done any of the backing vocals yet, so stand ready to be called, singer. I’m also not sure I’m done with my own lead vocals — some of what I did still makes me cringe, but I’m assured that there are ways to digitally decrockify my performances. Chances are I’ll be back in the vocal booth before long in a desperate, flailing attempt to improve the palatability of some of these numbers, so wish me well, pal.

But the basics are all there. The drums on the songs I’m doing with Mike Flannery were done by a guy named Eric Tait at a studio called The Farm. It’s Eric’s own place: a big barn converted into a recording studio. I’d only met Eric once — he was behind the kit at the second Mr. Flannery & His Feelings show — but he learned my goofy songs very quickly, and we motored through a bunch of them with very little trouble. Mike did most of the bass himself, and I, god help us all, contributed some acoustic and electric guitar, too. Brett and Justin played as beautifully, and empathetically, as they always do, and I tried my best to keep up with their inventiveness on the Water Music grand piano. My one regret so far is that I haven’t roped Matt Houser or Sarah Brockett into playing at any of these sessions, but they’re pretty busy with Overlord and other projects, and there’s still lots of time.

None of this is very interesting yet, and won’t be until I’m ready to release some of this music. But I’m leaving it here as a signpost to myself, and maybe to my collaborators, on the long and wide Llano Estacado of record-making. I’ve got some radical but vague ideas about how I want to begin making these songs public, but I’m trying as hard as I can not to get ahead of myself. If the crucial task of the moment is to get a synthesizer sound that suits the tenor of a song, I don’t want to start daydreaming about bigger plans. Recording original music is one of the most humbling things that a poor clod like me can do, but even at its worst, it’s also a lot of fun. Very little puts me in a better mood, so if I seem giddy at the moment, I apologize for that. It’ll all become clear soon enough.

MS2000 is the tool

Some people like fancy sportscars and slick telephony devices. I like my synthesizer. And while I have had many synths over the years — including a brand spanking new Moog Sub 37 that you’ll be hearing from — there’s only one I could possibly call my true love. That’s the Korg MS2000 that I got seventeen years ago when I first outfitted myself to be a real performing musician, and the instrument that has been with me ever since. I have modified and switched up the sounds so many times and for so many different projects over the years that the stored patches are an archaeological history of my development as a synth player. All the sounds I made for “Scatter My Ashes” and “The Night Bus” and Let The Night Fall are still right there in the patch suite, plus others a listener might recognize from Consultants and Palomar recordings or My Teenage Stride shows or the lost Kapow! album or a bunch of less permanent projects, too. It’s fair to say that my MS2000¹ is now more Tris McCall than Tris McCall is. I don’t know where the machinery ends and the rest of my artistry begins, and yes, I do think I have a song about that.

The MS2000 was the most affordable analog modeling synthesizer on the market around the turn of the millennium. It was meant to emulate (sort of) the MS20, an instrument I’d fiddled around with in college but didn’t make that much of an impression on me. I opted for the MS2000 because of the price — a cool thousand bucks cheaper than the Waldorf Q, which was then state-of-the-art — and because of its physical resemblance to the Korg Mono/Poly, a really good analog synth I owned briefly in the early ’90s. I bought a beat-up Mono/Poly that was on its last transistors from Rogue Music on 30th Street, and though I didn’t know anything about synthesis at the time, I knew how to crank dials and press buttons and marvel at the changes in the sound. As it turned out, the MS2000 was much more like the Mono/Poly than it was like the MS20 — not only did it offer partial polyphony, but its internal signal chain was similar to what I knew, or thought I knew. The MS2000 didn’t get the greatest reviews upon its release, but I have since had the opportunity to play around with the competition, and I think I lucked/cheaped into the best decision of my musical life. I notice I almost never see those more expensive analog modeling synthesizers² onstage anymore; the only band I ever saw with a Waldorf Q was My Favorite. Indiepop bands do still use the MS2000 or the MicroKorg, which is just the MS2000 in a smaller body. Sarah Martin of Belle & Sebastian played a MS2000 at Radio City last summer. I felt validated.

I’m aware of the problems. For instance, the synthesist is limited to four notes at a time (this was true for the Mono/Poly, too.) There are other synths that allow you to make grand polychords, though, and the MS2000 isn’t really about that anyway. The built-in memory is awful; you’re required to erase a patch if you want to design and save a new one, which has led to a great deal of frustration and a few disasters. It is somewhat cheaply built, too — the knobs are plastic and puny and have a habit of coming off and rolling around the stage. It’s hard to do one of those great Moog-style filter sweeps when you’ve only got a few millimeters of diameter on the dial to work with. That said, I come from the Keith Emerson tough-love school of synth-handlers, and in sixteen years of rough play, I’ve only sent the MS2000 to the shop a couple of times. This unit is sturdier than it looks. Korg might be Moog’s pale step-sister, but the company doesn’t make junk. The clock on the arpeggiator won’t sync reliably to or through MIDI, which would give me fits if I ever wanted to create jacktastic electronic dance music. Fortunately, nobody expects the screwy music I make to be played in time anyway. I have never ever used MIDI onstage and probably never will.

So if you don’t care about getting the arpeggiator perfect, or jacktastic industrial dance music, or RAM, or making nine hundred keys sound at once, I encourage you to give this instrument a shot. Or just respect. Because if you’re the sort of synth player who just wants to treat your instrument like a guitar — quarter-inch cable into willing amplifier and maybe even a stompbox or two — there’s very little like it. The trip from the initial signal through the filters to a radical outcome is the quickest I’ve ever experienced in nearly two decades of playing analog modeling synthesizers. My MS2000 affords me the kind of expressive latitude that would, on comparable instruments, require me to page through screens of parameters to achieve. In order to get the same immediacy, you’d probably need to get a real analog device, and those come with their own distinctive suite of drawbacks, including an irritating propensity to drift out of tune. It could be that I’m just used to the MS2000, and I’d have the same identification with a different analog modeling synthesizer if I’d gotten it around the same time. Somehow I doubt it, though. Everything about the MS2000 interface is intuitive, and everything about it calls you to, ahem, express yourself with your organ. I don’t even really mind erasing old saved patches when I make a new one: it forces me to economize, and treat each experiment as a meaningful one, and shed old ideas that have gotten stale.

I’m using the Sub 37 on my new recordings, and boy, has it ever been a thrill. I don’t feel worthy of it³. One of its ten million cool features: MIDI actually records the data of every knob-turn. I expect to spend the rest of my life unlocking the secrets of this amazing new instrument. But at least in the short run, the synthesizer you’re most likely to encounter on my new recordings will be the MS2000. After sixteen years, I know just how to get what I want from it; if there’s a sound in my head, I can usually realize it in an hour or so of fiddling with the oscillators. When Mr. Flannery’s Try Your Hardest comes out (any day now), and when The Well Tempered Overlord comes out (any day now), the instrument you’ll hear me play on those albums is the MS2000. I could play it on your record, too. All you’ve got to do is ask.

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¹Since I’m a cutesy character, all of my instruments have proper names. The MS2000 is named after Miwako Fujitani, a Japanese actress. I’m calling the Moog Yolanda Watts, which is a cross between Yolanda Adams (the gospel singer), Rolonda Watts (the anchorwoman), the color yellow, and wattage. I give this stuff serious thought.

²My guess is that synth players don’t like to bring really expensive pieces of equipment out on the road with them, so they keep those upmarket analog modeling synthesizers safe in home studios, sample the sounds or use MIDI or whatever. Which is understandable. I’m just glad I was never precious about the MS2000, because it’s nice to have a blue friend with you when you’re far from home. Possibly unwise, but always fun.

³Then again, now that Keith is gone, we’ve all got to pick up the slack. I promise to reach beyond my grasp if you will, ok?

More

So I wrote some more songs. I didn’t stop with the bunch I came up with in 2015; I’ve continued on in 2016. More cities, more narrators, more observations about America. For instance, we went to spring training in Arizona and caught the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium, and a few days later I woke up with a chorus. Then I came up with another Valley of the Sun song, and Phoenix reminded me a bit of Las Vegas, so I got song number three out of the trip. Last week I fitted an old tag line to a new poem about Columbus, Ohio. It goes on: on Easter morning, I stumbled into a hook about a chocolate rabbit that inflated rapidly, as these things sometimes do, to the size of a song. A terrible song, probably; apologies to the bunny.

And that is the problem, to be frank: I don’t know which of these ideas are worth pursuing and which are just bad leads. Some of my songwriting inspirations — Tennant and Lowe, for instance, or Van the Man — were able to release song after song and maintain a high level of quality. I’m… pretty sure that’s not me. In retrospect, it’s easy to see which of my compositions were mediocre (too many) and which were good enough to make public. Unfortunately for me, it’s always a long ride to Retrospect. When I’m coming up with a new one — these Arizona songs, for instance — I always imagine that they’re the best, most exciting songs ever written, and that I’m going to perform them and the crowd at the rock club will go wild. This is as true for the stinkers as it is for the ones that actually deserve to go into the repertoire, so by now, I should rule myself out as a decent arbiter of the quality of my own work.

Noel Gallagher (there’s that guy again) once said something to this effect: if you come up with a song at night, sleep on it, and if you don’t remember how it goes in the morning, by this sign you’ll know that it wasn’t so hot. This is sensible advice, even if it does feel overly solicitous of the radio gods. Yet there’s a big part of me that rejects it outright. Many of the best songs on any album aren’t immediately recognizable as such. They don’t come up with a smile and shake your hand; they tap your shoulder and wait, coyly, to be noticed. One of my favorites of the new bunch is a song that I wrote when I was sick, and for a week afterward, I was pretty sure it was a throwaway piece of junk. If I hadn’t demoed it, I would have forgotten it. But I did, coughing and sneezing and cursing my need to always have a new one to send to my friends, and about a month later I realized that it was indispensable to the project. In fact, a line from that song is now prominently displayed on this page. That song is now so deeply embedded in my consciousness that it’s hard to imagine my musical life before I wrote it. If I’d followed Noel Gallagher’s guidance, it would have been vaporware.

An old bandmate who doubled as an astute critic of Tris McCall once told me that the longer I work on something, the more trouble I get into. It was this bandmate’s position that I did my best work when I was excited and confused and unsure about what I wanted to say, and once I figured it out, I’d start writing to serve the concept rather than the other way around. I’d get where I was going and then settle into a formula, and instead of discovery, I’d become a musical journalist, stamping out new tunes based on theoretical arguments I’d already settled with myself. This critique fit very well into this bandmate’s worldview. To be honest, it also fits well into mine. I took it to heart, and in the past, I’ve tried to be careful about it, and to switch things up and confuse myself once I feel like I’m getting complacent. But if this were true, these additional American Almanac songs would be crummy, or tired, or deadly formulaic, and I don’t believe they are. Maybe it’s the size of the subject that’s helping, or maybe America just makes me feel unsettled. Either way, I’m going to keep them coming until I run out of cities or my collaborators cry uncle. If I look back with total embarrassment on some of this stuff in five years, that won’t be a new experience for me. It’s unlikely that I’m now reaching the stage where every musical idea I come up with is worth following, but who knows?, maybe I’ve turned a corner. A fellow can hope. Maybe I’ve attained a baseline level of quality control, and they’re all pretty good now. Except for the one about the bunny. That one sucks.

The cleanup hitter

Me ‘n’ Steven differ on many subjects, including cycling, otters, and the proper condimento to heap on top of a plate of linguine. Yet there is one thing on which we always agree, and that thing is: power ballads. We love them. Many are the mediocre albums we’ve sifted through just to locate the big, cheesy fist-pumper to play and replay. I thought I knew everything I could possibly know about the tight relationship between Steven and ballads.

So I was recently surprised to learn — straight from the horse’s mouth, or text messenger — that Steven doesn’t think that a power ballad should be placed fourth on a standard pop-rock album. He believes that a band jeopardizes its forward momentum by downshifting early in a set. This not-uncommon sequencing phenomenon reminds him of the miserable days when the ’83 Mets batted the lead-footed George Foster cleanup. Foster had plenty of power, but no speed. Everything got clogged on the basepaths, innings died, and Frank Cashen spent late nights crying on the phone.

Now, if you’d ever asked me where the power ballad ought to go on a pop-rock album, without hesitation I would have said fourth, and I would have been deadly resolute about that. Yet it occurs to me that I have no clear idea why that is. When I have no clear idea, I get nervous, and when I get nervous, the bad vibes I produce are harmful to my house plant (a jade). Certainly I have listened to a buttload of albums, but Steven, in his capacity as the major domo of Piano’s Blooze Bar & Grill, has experienced a buttload of his own. Could he be right? Was I jumping the gun on the big ballad? A few days after writing an essay about, among other things, the new possibilities of record sequencing in our zany digital era, here was an example of a music listener to whom the order of songs matters deeply. I, alas, cannot and do not write power ballads; I write disempowerment chants, protest songs, uptempo synthesizer freakouts. But if I did (and perhaps you do), I’d want to know how to sequence it in order to achieve maximum vainglory. Where should the power ballad go? Where, historically, has it gone?

Well… Aerosmith stuck “Dream On” third on their debut album. KISS buried “Beth” on the second side of Destroyer, and Poison put “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” in the same position. “November Rain” was somewhere in the bowels of Use Your Illusion I, while “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and “Stairway To Heaven” were both in that magic number four slot. So was the less-epic “Sister Christian,” and “The Search Is Over,” and “Love Bites” and Bryan Adams’ classic “Heaven”; all of those were cleanup hitters. Heart was a little bolder about frontloading the balladry: both “What About Love” and “Alone” were placed second on their sets. “Always,” the gooiest power ballad in Bon Jovi’s boardwalk-caramel repertoire, slotted in at number four on Cross Road; “Wanted Dead Or Alive” closed side one of Slippery When Wet in the fifth spot. “Faithfully” did the same honors in the same position on Frontiers, but Journey fans had to wait for the very end of Escape to hear “Open Arms.” “Home Sweet Home”? That was another number five, right before you flipped the cassette (or didn’t) on Theatre Of Pain.

But wait a second: while some of these are awesome records, I can’t say I care for many of the albums that they’re from. I learned most of these songs straight from MTV. Even if it was a hair metal convention to put the power ballad fourth or fifth, I couldn’t possibly have acquired my ideas about pop-rock sequencing from Survivor. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Survivor album in my life. I must have gotten my funny ideas somewhere else. Maybe I just take the essentialist position that after twelve minutes of rock crunch and howling abandon, the stage is set for a slow-burning, heartrending, grotesque showstopper, and maybe Mutt Lange arrived at the same conclusion years earlier than I did.

More likely, I learned power ballad sequencing from the pop-rock albums I do listen to. Our favorite artists don’t usually talk about power ballads, since they don’t want to be associated with the worst excesses of the 1980s. But they certainly make them. Their power ballads may be more lyrically and harmonically sophisticated than “When I See You Smile” (or maybe not), but they’re stamped out from a similar template. Game Theory and the Loud Family, for instance, wrote many songs that were essentially power ballads — usually one per album, but sometimes more. Scott Miller used those ballads just as Steven Tyler might have: they came after a series of songs that attempted to make an impression on the listener by flashing hooks and choruses at a breakneck pace, signifying ‘tude, insouciance, musical ideas to burn. “Amelia, Have You Lost” took the cleanup spot on 2 Steps From the Middle Ages; “If And When It Falls Apart” closed the first side of Real Nighttime (fifth position, if you don’t count the eight second opening track), “Blackness Blackness” marked the end of the front half of Attractive Nuisance, and Days For Days had a medium-wattage ballad fourth and then a total slow-building powerhouse — “Sister Sleep,” the band’s version of “Stairway To Heaven”¹ — at the tail end of the set. My two favorites, though — “Some Grand Vision Of Motives And Irony” from Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things and Lolita Nation‘s sublime “Nothing New” — were strategically placed at the climax points of narrative/emotional arcs on long albums.

Paramore arrived at the mutually assured destruction stage of band development quicker than many, but I hope we can all agree that at their non-litigious best, these kids made first-rate pop-rock. They, too, tend to slot the power ballad deeper in the album than the lite metal bands generally did. “When It Rains,” the first ballad on Riot! , comes fifth, but “We Are Broken,” the real showstopper, is saved for the back half of the album. Brand New Eyes features five tracks of sturm und drang in various flavors before Hayley Williams hits you with “The Only Exception”²; “Misguided Ghosts,” a gentler number, sets up the proggy, sludgy conclusion. I count “Last Hope”, which is probably what they used to call a midtempo ballad, among the lighter-wavers, but the real tender track on Paramore, “Hate To See Your Heart Break,” is saved for the home stretch. The turn away from the power ballad, which is a Warped Tour circuit staple, was probably part of the band’s strategy to shed the emo tag once and for all. I’m not sure they did that. Once they’re through suing each other, that’s something they should work out.

I know nobody is trying to hear this, and I completely understand why. But before they turned the songwriting over to Deep Blue, Maroon 5 was an exemplary pop-rock band (yes, band!) with exemplary showstoppers. “Never Going To Leave This Bed” and “Won’t Go Home Without You,” which are similar songs, held down the fifth position on Hands All Over and It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. “She Will Be Loved,” the sopping-wet power ballad that made them a Thing, hit cleanup on Songs About Jane. Adam Levine kinda abandoned the power ballad once he capitulated utterly to contemporary Top 40 logic, rather than try to bend it to his will, which was the group’s initial strategy. Not coincidentally, the same thing has happened with the modern master of crowd-pleasing traditionalist songwriting: Taylor Swift. In days of yore, a fan could set his watch by her sequencing — a big, yearning mid-tempo number would come third, followed by a coy genre piece, followed by the devastated, torchy, confessional ballad designed to bring down the house for the star and opprobrium on the rake who’d wronged her (“Dear John,” “White Horse,” “All Too Well”). On 1989, there aren’t any ballads until the second side, and the one we got was mostly an attempt to nose a fender into Lana Del Rey’s lane. Power ballads and electropop are incompatible: process the analog signals to hell and back if you must, if you don’t have a real drummer and a real guitarist, you end up with a pile of digital mush.³

Which is probably why they dig them in Nashville. Pop-country outfits love power ballads. Some music-mill artists — including some very good ones — attempt to freight every album with multiple power ballads, which does get grueling even for Mayor McCheese over here. Male country singers have taken to frontloading their ballads: Blake Shelton ran “Lonely Tonight” third on Bringing Back The Sunshine; Brad Paisley put “Perfect Storm” in the same position on Moonshine In The TrunkMiranda Lambert, my favorite practitioner, is a little more judicious about it: since she’s got her tough-guy reputation to maintain, she tends to lead with barnburners. “Love Letters,” the first ballad (and fifth track) from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is more of a Western saloon song than an arena rocker, for instance, and “More Like Her,” the real showstopper, doesn’t arrive until two songs later. “Dead Flowers” does bat third on Revolution, but the most traditional power ballad in the Lambert repertoire — “Over You,” from Four The Record — waits in the grass until number nine. “Smokin’ And Drinkin’,” the cleanup hitter on Platinum, is a ballad of sorts, but it’s more mid-period Mac than musclebound masher, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, I didn’t get into Miranda Lambert, or any other mainstream country album, until 2010. By that point, I’d already been making records with various pop-rock outfits for a million years. I must have gotten my ideas about sequencing from somewhere else — likely something I was spinning when I made my first serious decisions about the order of a songs on an album. Back in 1995, I helped sequence the first Favorite Color album, and as it was my first time stringing together real studio tracks, I wanted to get the order right. The biggest proximate influence on that Favorite Color album was Blur, which was just about the only group in the world that everybody involved in the group could agree was good. The Great Escape, Blur’s ’95 album, does indeed contain a power ballad, even if Damon Albarn would never, ever call it that: “The Universal,” my favorite song of theirs by a wide margin, and the seventh track on the set. Not coincidentally, we ran “Mergers & Acquisitions,” the closest thing the Favorite Color had to a power ballad, seventh on our album.ª

Blur wasn’t the only Britpop band we were paying attention to, though, and they weren’t my act of choice. In the hyped-up battle of the U.K. then occurring, my sympathies were with Oasis, since their big goony-bird sound suited my big goony-bird personality. Oasis also had an album out in 1995: What’s The Story (Morning Glory). Might there have been a huge, fish ‘n’ chip greasy, beer-swinging power ballad on that set? Let’s check the tracklist and see….

…well, yes. Yes there was. “Don’t Look Back In Anger” contains pretty much everything I want from a power ballad. It’s played at top volume, its lyrics contain a long skein of fist-pumping slogans, the band wrings every ounce of drama out of each step in the chord progression, there’s a woman’s name in the chorus, there’s a prominent major-to-minor change in the chorus, there’s a guitar solo that transcends cliche through pure conviction and nothing but, the drummer hits the skins like he’s trying to break them, and the singer takes it to the outer limit of his modest vocal ability (Liam Gallagher, you’ll remember, was on the bench for this one, and Noel sang lead himself.) Sure enough, Oasis batted that one cleanup, and clean up it totally did. Heavy metal album pacing aside, I believe that the entire reason I expect the power ballad to be sequenced fourth because of my fond memories of the “Don’t Look Back In Anger” experience. Noel Gallagher was such a committed formalist that it’s likely he put his power ballad fourth because John Lennon or Marc Bolan did.  He slotted “Stand By Me,” another power ballad, fourth on Be Here Now; “Stop Crying Your Heart Out,” a “Don’t Look Back” redux, ran #4 on Heathen Chemistry. Worth noting: the British rock star most respectful of classic rock precedent (if never any of his peers or bandmates) firmly believed that the showstopper went in the number four position, which suggests, if anything does, that there’s something to the notion that it’s the proper home for a power ballad.

I’ve mentioned forty-seven songs in this post. Even if you’d like to quibble about the power they pack, they’re certainly all ballads, and they sure are dramatic ones. The average tracklist position of those ballads is 4.936. Just about every song I chose to list came off the top of my head, so confirmation bias inclined me toward cleanup-hitters. Steven, I conclude, may well have a point — but it’s probably not a fine a point as the one on the needle of his favorite deejay’s turntable. Most sabermetricians now argue that it doesn’t really matter that much where players bat in the lineup — as consequential as the decision to hit Speedy Johnny ahead of Slugger Pete feels, it’s worth, at the very most, a handful of runs over the course of a single season. I wonder if something similar could be said about album sequences. Everything I believe I know about music tells me otherwise, and probably you feel the same way too, but if My Aim Is True or More Adventurous had been presented to you with tracks shuffled, how much quality would they have lost for you? Imagine the most suboptimal running order you can, and then ask yourself: after a couple of plays, would this begin to feel natural to me? After a time or two through a set, the first couple of tracks are no longer a handshake to the uninitiated: they’re just part of series of songs that’s best apprehended as a body of work. Many great albums do tell a linear story, but with a few notable exceptions, I’ve come to believe that line could be radically redrawn without losing the conceptual essence of the whole. That’s not to say I’d ever want to; like Noel Gallagher, I cherish classic rock conventions and take no small satisfaction when they’re reinforced. If brilliant sequencing makes 1% of difference in the quality of an album, I still believe it’s worth sweating that 1%, because everything about an album is worth considering carefully. But whether you want to run your power ballad fourth, or fifth, or last, or as a hidden track available at Wal-Mart only, chances are, you’re in good company.°

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¹”Stairway” and “Sister Sleep” aren’t exactly built like lite the metal power ballads are — they’re much longer and more intricate, for one thing. You might insist that songs that begin slowly and snap midway to an uptempo section require a different category. I don’t; I think they’re power ballads, or at the very least, kissing cousins of power ballads. The power ballad in sequence is, at heart, an attempt to extend the intensity of a pop-rock album by means other than speed and effrontery, and an attempt to intervene in the monotony of the single-tempo album. That’s why they’re so wonderfully bombastic. They pour the thermoactive liquid compound into a wider and clearer vessel.

²Likewise, I’ve heard it said (by cretins) that a true power ballad can’t be in 6/8. To me, the hallmarks of a power ballad are a pleasantly hamfisted approach by the drummer and rhythm guitarist, an overwrought performance by the frontperson that demonstrates technical and emotional range, and maybe a screaming solo. That can happen in any old time signature.

³Just now, in the car, Hilary explained the appeal of the power ballad like this: “You need real drums, hitting hard, to get your heart pumping, and the blood coursing through your veins to remind you you’re alive.” We were listening to “Change,” the last number on Fearless. Blood was coursing.

ªCome to think of it, I badly wanted “Mergers & Acquisitions” to sound like “Hand In My Pocket,” which was the quasi-ballad in the magic number four spot on Jagged Little Pill. The rest of the band plus the producers much preferred Blur to Alanis Morissette, so I probably talked up “The Universal” in the control room as a reference point. It was a long time ago and I didn’t know what I was doing.

°Just for the hell of it, and because I’m shooting the breeze and having fun here, I thought I’d look at the sequencing decisions of some of my favorite pop-rock albums of the last couple of years. “Aluminum Crown,” the cleanup hitter from Aureate Gloom, starts out slow and dramatic and then speeds up. But Kevin Barnes throws so many variations into his songs that it’s probably more accurate to treat him like a prog-rocker with a penchant for formal experimentation than the power pop champ he could be if he ever wanted to be. After a frantic start, Ezra Furman takes down the tempo on track number four of Perpetual Motion People, and then gets slower yet for number five, but waits until seven for the statement ballad. Natalia Lafourcade’s Hasta La Raiz is another pop-rock album that gets slower and more serious as it goes along. “No Mas Llorar,” an American- style power ballad, closes the set, right after “Estoy Lista,” a long-and-winding-road power ballad. She probably didn’t need both of them, but she’s such a great singer and songwriter that I don’t mind a bit; really, people, I can’t recommend Natalia Lafourcade highly enough. Kevin Parker of Tame Impala is another classicist who likes to put the first slow song fourth — but the real power ballad on Currents, “Cause I’m A Man,” doesn’t come until the album’s second side. Short Movie also downshifts after a couple of electric guitar numbers — “Walk Alone,” track number four, is an acoustic ballad, but for my money, it’s more intense than all the ’80s hair metal showstoppers put together. Laura Stevenson made the unusual decision to kick off Cocksure with the power ballad “Out With A Whimper.” She probably thought it was too good to be buried, and if she did, she was right. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness doesn’t really have a ballad on it — it takes off easy, cruises at a steady altitude without much chop, and lands smoothly without circling the airport. Okkervil River got mid-tempo-ish on “Down Down The Deep River,” slowed down to a psychedelic stroll two tracks later with “Lido Pier Suicide Car,” but saved the power ballad “All The Time Every Day” for the penultimate track on Poll winner The Silver Gymnasium. Finally, Carl Newman actually has a designated cleanup hitter in the New Pornographers: Dan Bejar, who has contributed song number four to the last three albums. On the three albums before that, he handled song number five. Get enough hits, and the manager will move you up in the order.

a.k.a. Pablo

As you probably know by now, Kanye West has a new project called The Life Of Pablo. Chances are good that you also know that the publication of The Life Of Pablo has been unorthodox. After months of delays, an initial version of Pablo was either leaked or released — it’s hard to tell — right around Valentine’s Day. After many people thought they’d gotten their hands on the new Kanye West album, he withdrew Pablo, remixed some of the songs, and added several cuts (he blamed the switcheroo on junior partner Chance The Rapper, who’d argued for the inclusion of a song that hadn’t been on the first release.) There was also a Madison Square Garden performance that may or may not have been an album release party, some high-profile Twitter battles with other musicians, and angry, early-P.E.-style notes from the artist asking white critics not to review music made by black musicians anymore. When West restricted the release of Pablo to the Tidal streaming service, thousands of fans chose to rip the album rather than buy a subscription. West has refused to report the official Tidal streams to Billboard, so we’ll never know how much money his decision cost him¹. The Daily Mail estimated that he left ten million dollars on the table. I think they’re full of it, since many fans would have swiped the album anyway, but the point remains: Pablo didn’t make the money it could have if Kanye West had released it conventionally.

To add to the confusion: even though The Life Of Pablo has been out for two months and many fans have already paid for it, it’s now clear that West isn’t finished with the album. He’s been tinkering with the tracks, and he reserves the right to continue working on Pablo until he’s satisfied with it. So are you willing to purchase a Tidal subscription to get a Kanye West album that may not be the same as the Kanye West album you’ll get the next time you check in? Or are you going to rip today’s Pablo, call that the album, and hope that tomorrow’s Pablo isn’t substantially improved?

This may sound like a mess to you, and if so, you’re not alone. In the public discussion of The Life Of Pablo, West has been pilloried for the disastrous quality of the album’s rollout. This is supposed to go to character — Kanye is a loose cannon, a screw-up, and a mixed signal-sender who does and says crazy things and gets out of line and hurts Ms. T. Swift’s feelings, and is therefore deserving of a public comeuppance. But wait a second: why the heck am I supposed to care about Kanye West’s finances anyway? What difference does it make to me if his marketing strategy is faulty or weird? I’m not his business manager², I’m just a music fan. As a collector and occasional completist, it annoys me that West won’t release The Life Of Pablo on CD; there’s a shelf in our living room with the rest of his records on it, and it would be nice to add another. As a fussbudget critic who writes essays for fun, I would like Kanye West to finish The Life Of Pablo so I can bloviate about it to friends and compare and contrast it with his prior projects. In other words, the pleasures he’s denying me here are kind of silly, stunted ones. And when I look at the publication of Pablo objectively, I begin to suspect that West, who never encounters an apple cart without trying to upset it or a henhouse without foxing around in it, might be on to something.

By releasing Pablo before it’s done, West isn’t just calling into question whether an album needs to be finished by its publication date. He’s questioning whether an album needs to be finished ever. A collection of songs called The Life Of Pablo now exists in the world, and it always will: once music is released, it can’t be unreleased. But given the flexibility of digital technology, there’s no real reason why an artist can’t keep fussing with — or maybe even radically reinterpreting — an album to his heart’s content. It’s possible that doing so will alienate or bewilder or frustrate more listeners than it attracts. But it’s equally plausible to me that fans of the artist will find the alterations fascinating and want to follow them all in the same obsessive way they might follow his tweets and posts³.

I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to predict that mutability is going to be a major and widely accepted characteristic of art in the 21st century. Nothing is going to stand still for long, and that’s because nothing has to. The hard-and-fast release date was a product of an era that fetishized the physical object: an album had to be released by a certain date because it was contained on a piece of plastic that needed to be manufactured at a plant and distributed to a retail outlet. This isn’t true anymore. I think we haven’t even begun the transformation in artistic forms that are likely to follow the de-coupling of works of art from artifacts. I’m going to guess at the implications — for the world, and for me — in a separate post.

 

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¹Maybe it’s the San Francisco Giants fan in me (or maybe it’s just the song “Barry Bonds”) but I’ve always strongly associated West with Barry Bonds. Their similarities are so plentiful that they kinda demand their own Critics Poll essay; for now, I’ll just say that West’s self-imposed disappearance from the Billboard charts feels very much like Bonds’s decision to withhold his image from baseball cards and videogames. They both believe that their talent entitles them to a different set of rules than the ones that everybody else follows. And if there weren’t a few people around who felt and acted that way, the world would be a duller place with fewer balls in McCovey Cove, and slower croissant service.

²I believe that’s Pusha T’s problem now. I love Pusha T, so maybe I ought to be mad at Kanye on his behalf.

³I can’t help but notice that aficionados love to go behind the scenes, too; if you make music, you’re probably acquainted with people who play around with the stems of Beatles recordings, and the like, in their home studios.

a.k.a. Pablo, continued

In the early days of the Internet, nobody knew exactly how to write on these digital walls, so by and large we scribbled graffiti up here — sometimes of monstrous dimensions — and hoped for the best. This was wonderful, in my opinion: early Internet was wild, and irresponsible, and full of overwriting and formal experimentation and seeing what might stick. What made the Internet a rewarding place to write was that if you happened to change your mind about what you wanted to say, you could just hop back online and amend your piece as often as you wanted. This was an marvelous, revelatory thing for those of us who were accustomed to the brutal finality of print, and its liberating power had much to do with the first efflorescence of ‘net literary creativity. The web promised no limitations. A post was something alive and permeable. Pieces of writing were never totally finished, because they never had to be. Print seemed barbaric by comparison.

That changed. Money poured in, and investors sought credibility by mimicking the conventions of offline publications. Websites started to look and feel like the established newspapers and magazines many of us hoped they’d obviate. The early ‘net writers, who weren’t too professional (bless them) about what they were doing, were replaced by actual journalists who led with their integrity. Once they published a post, it almost never changed. It was as if they were still writing in ink, and the screen was an endless scroll of paper, and once words were written, they were seared into the mainframe processors and couldn’t be budged.

You might argue that this is the Internet grown-up; that the Wild West days couldn’t last because that’s not what people want. I look at it a little differently. I see the current state of the Internet as a predictable overreaction to the frightening openness of the first iteration of the web. The present conservatism and conformity of the ‘net strikes me as unsustainable — not because people are craving innovation, but because the sheer volume of possibilities will eventually overwhelm our reservations and force a course correction. The ugly truth is that we’re acting neurotic, and like all neuroses, ours can be cured if we confront it with courage. If a document can be amended, and changed, and pushed around and stretched, and reinterpreted, and multiplied, and blasted into rainbow-colored shards by users, why the hell wouldn’t we do all that, every time?  We’re clinging to vestigial forms because we’re comfortable with them, and for no other reason. The pendulum will swing back in the direction of mutability, and it’s going to have consequences for all forms of expression. Writing, and recording, and all the rest of it — sooner or later, it’s all going to get jailbroken.

I have always believed that the people who don’t see a future for the album are confusing the physical artifact, which is doomed, with the essence of the form, which is totally imaginary and therefore immune to technological shifts. Songs just sound too good in sequence and make too many statements when placed next to each other for the album to budge from its place as one of the basic units of consumption for music listeners. The aesthetic and popular success of records like To Pimp A Butterfly and the Donnie Trumpet project and Short Movie, just to name a few examples — all sets made by young musicians — proves to me that artists still believe very much in the album as an optimal carrier of  musical and lyrical ideas. That’s probably never going to change. Nevertheless, I believe we’re all still treating the album like something etched into the grooves of a piece of plastic, and therefore fixed forever like a snapshot. I sure could be wrong, but I think this is vestigial, and bound to change soon.

One thing that may disappear, quick, is the release date. As long as there are musicians willing to celebrate their accomplishments, the release party isn’t going anywhere, but it might soon announce the inauguration of a period of changes done in public, Pablo style, instead of a finishing point. A comma, in other words, rather than a period. If an album exists, primarily, on a computer server, there’s no good reason why it wouldn’t be open to reinterpretation by its authors. Suppose, for instance, an album was left intentionally open-ended — the artist makes it public with eight songs, and then continues adding tracks, updating a website regularly, like a webcomic might. That’s not so different from what Kanye just did with The Life Of Pablo — he introduced it with a bunch of tracks, some of which had already leaked, and then pulled it back and added a bunch more. He was ridiculed for this, and the way he did it made the project look sloppy and incomplete. But what if he’d said from the start that he reserved the right to release Pablo slowly, over time, and make alterations while his fans watched? Some of those fans might have lost interest, but I think others would’ve be intrigued by the experiment.

Our popular model of an artist who can’t leave well enough alone is George Lucas, who keeps screwing with Star Wars movies that were fixed in the public imagination decades ago. We don’t like what Lucas is doing with his own creation; his autoapostasy has engendered a whole industry of second-second-guessers who believe they know better what’s appropriate to the Star Wars universe. But regardless of my feelings about whether Han Shot First, I have come to believe that Lucas, too, is ahead of the curve here. And now I’m giving you nightmares about a senescent Roger Waters adding a Netanyahu beef track to an album as seamless as The Dark Side Of The Moon. But what about the thousands and thousands of albums that aren’t The Dark Side Of The Moon? It’s the very rare set that wouldn’t benefit from an after-the-fact editorial revision or tracklist shuffle. In days of yore, if Andy Partridge wanted to add “Dear God” to Skylarking (not that he necessarily should have), that required an additional pressing and shipping and all the associated record company expenditures and accompanying guilt trips. When it’s as easy as clicking a mouse, why the heck wouldn’t you click that mouse? Convention is the only thing staying the artist’s hand.

There is probably a point at which even the most resolute tinkerer would cease monkeying with a project, because he’d moved on to different themes and concerns, and the time had come for a new conceptual frame for his work. Part of the reason we don’t accept the Lucas revisions of Star Wars is because he feels like a totally different man now than the space hellion he was in 1977, and how could he not be?, that was forty damn years ago. But that’s a call for the critics to make. Artists can go ahead and kickstart the process by bending some rules. For instance, what’s to stop an established musician from announcing that everything she intends to post on her website in the year 2016 constitutes a single album? She’d introduce some songs to general circulation in January, and maybe she’d amend them in February, add a few in March, remix it all in April, upload videos in May, and etcetera? Or add or amend a song every week for fifty-two weeks? Come December, she could put a bow on it, call it a completed work, and begin afresh with a new album in 2017. I think her fans would find that very exciting. Wouldn’t you tune in for regular updates to Superpablo? I know I would.

Likewise, I think there’s a very good chance that album sequencing is going to open up, too. The single-sequence album is, once again, prisoner to physical realities that don’t really apply anymore: every song had a specific position on a reel of tape, and that position had to be determined by the artist and producer and the tracks couldn’t budge once they were dedicated. Many musicians put a tremendous amount of time and thought into the sequencing of their tracks, and that’s understandable — the order in which songs are presented to the listener is a non-negligible part of the experience of the album. But there’s nothing that says the musicians couldn’t present fans with two sequences, or twenty-two, or, for that matter, they could give them none at all and encourage them to choose their own adventure. Some progressive rock sets are so linear that the song order can’t really be fudged — I’m thinking of Scarlet’s Walk now, but there are a few others. But the vast majority of albums — even concept albums — are linked by theme and tone and don’t necessarily follow a straight narrative. King Of America is an extremely coherent album, but I bet Elvis Costello could shuffle that deck and deal all kinds of winning hands. A future release could have an artist-sanctioned, “official” sequence supplemented by alternate sequences, or different sequences meant to suit different moods. Albums could be designed to accommodate various sequencing: a set of twenty tracks could be broken down into two sequences with separate titles, and those might contain subsequences, like Russian nesting dolls. All this seems inevitable to me. Artists love the ambiguity of forking paths.

Most radically of all, I think the new digital conditions of musical production are bound to prompt a redrawing of the dividing line between the artist and her listener. I can imagine an album in the not-so-distant future released unfinished and incomplete, along with a set of instructions left for you to fill in the blanks. Wouldn’t you be compelled by that? Say Paul McCartney put out an album of stems and vocal tracks, and provided you with the tools and codes to do the rest. Remixers have been working like this for many, many years, but they’ve usually taken tracks that are already complete and they’ve turned them inside out. An officially authorized incomplete release — a coloring book — would make every listener into a potential remixer. Now that nearly everybody has an audio suite on their computer, it’s only a matter of time before an enterprising artist figures out how to release music directly to the software, and also how to allow fans to upload their versions to a central clearinghouse. Q: are the original stems the album, or is that collaborative website the album, or is the album something in between? A: Yes, and yes, and yes; it’s all the album. The album was and is bigger than anybody realized. We’ve only begun to probe its parameters.

All of this is contingent on the continued migration of the album to the Internet. Which is something that’s not going to make everybody happy, I realize; independent artists lost a very valuable tool for self-promotion  when the CD became obsolete. Barring a technological meltdown that isn’t going to happen, those days aren’t coming back, so I figure it’s better to light a single computer screen than curse the darkness. I will save my feelings about Spotify and other streaming services for another post, but it’s safe to assume that if Taylor Swift and Joanna Newsom agree about something, I’m going to agree about it, too. But I don’t think that just because record companies are allowing a bunch of Swedes to royally screw their artists means that technological change and the decoupling of the album from its physical form spells doom for professional musicians. That’s how the cookie is crumbling at the moment, but there’s no reason we can’t turn it around if we’re willing to get creative, stand up for our rights, and maybe tell some of these parasites to take a hike. It would really grease the gears of change if artists embrace the creative commons license and release their music for free, but I am aware man cannot live on barre chords alone. I just hope we all realize that there’s no contradiction between experimentation and enterprise. Reality may or may not be silly putty, but the album definitely is — so let’s stretch it, and pull it, and press it into strange shapes, and roll it up and mash it down, and use it to copy the funnies.

More soon.

A few bits of community news

Patrick Hambrecht of Flaming Fire dropped me a line about an electronic music festival that’s happening this weekend over on West Side Avenue. Apparently Patrick and Michael Durek — who you might know as an ace theremin guy — have been doing these events for awhile now, and I guess I’ve been too busy playing videogames to notice. The name of the party is Zip Zap Vroom, and that handle alone should have caught my attention. Anyway, I’m going to be talking to Patrick about it today for a Jersey City Independent piece, and then I’ll be able to report a few more details. Show’s on Saturday and the spot is 746 West Side. Camilla Ha, whose performances tend to be completely nuts, is on the bill, as is Leon Dewan, who will likely be bringing some of his homebrew synthesizers.

I’ll know better when I speak to Patrick, but offhand this sounds like one of those old-school, weirdass multimedia events that I associate with the freewheeling era of Jersey City — which might not be surprising, since Flaming Fire was part of that Perhapstransparent scene that used to art-prank this town semi-regularly. Looks like he’s still at it, and I’m glad he is. Meanwhile, over here in the supervised downtown, there are a few spots booking music semi-regularly, including Porta Pizza, where tireless Tony Susco has been presenting bands, and the Citizen, which was once the Dopeness. About a week ago, I caught Brother Stephen from the Multi-Purpose Solution with a new outfit called Lip Action at Jersey City Studios, which is in that yellow building at 143 Columbus that has been an arts location from time immemorial¹. Add that to Lucky 7 and Monty Hall and that vape shop on Monmouth, and we may have something cooking even if White Eagle Hall never bothers to open.

Usually on St. Patrick’s Day I duck and cover, but I am aware that there’ll be music out there amongst all the beers and shamrocks, and I’d like to direct your attention to some of it. For instance, from the Nothing Ever Dies department, Experiment 34 is celebrating a CD release at the Court Tavern in Hub City on Thursday night. Experiment 34 is a relatively new band, but the Court is no new place — it’s hosted a trillion CD releases since I first became aware of it in the early ’90s, and probably a trillion more before that. The band’s nervy hard rock feels equally informed by the Doors, Led Zep, and the early Chili Peppers, which makes these guys the latest carriers of a tradition that has kept the Court buzzing through its many near-death experiences. Thursday night is likely to feel very much like 1996 and 2006 did, and also much like 2026 in Hub City, too. Mercy Brown would approve.

Finally, on the subject of Jersey clubs that are forever: I made my debut at the eternal Crossroads in Garwood on Sunday night. I say this not to toot my own horn (especially since I am still as rusty as an abandoned bike) but to remind you that the show was a fundraiser for Jay Lustig’s NJarts.net, which still needs your assistance and support. I helped Jim Testa out on a protest number about Chris Christie, played a solo version of “Sugar Nobody Wants,” and covered Lyle Lovett’s “Walk Through The Bottomlands”. The last one was the fun part of the evening for me, since I was able to rope Ronni Reich, who I will always think of as the classical music critic at the Ledger no matter what else she does, to sing the Emmylou Harris harmony on the chorus. Ronni was able to impart some dignity and class to my performance — plus she wore cowboy boots. Now that I discovered that she works on 23rd Street, I’m going to get her to help me out with the new recordings. She’s been drafted into the Tris McCall marines. Sorry, Ronni. And thank you.

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¹143 Columbus was the first place I ever saw live music in Jersey City — back in ’92, it was home to the Teaux Jam, who, despite their horrific name, were a really fantastic outfit. They lived together in a loft space that contained a sculpture by Brian Dewan, who always seemed to be around that building. See, it’s all connected. Later that space became the Waterbug Hotel, which was definitely an honest name to hang on it.

Almanac Page Two

“To write about one’s own country is the most problematic form of autobiography. The knowledge one accumulates of one’s homeland, like the knowledge of one’s self, is so varied and complex, so objective and subjective at every turn, that one interpretation soon gives way to another. In the end, for all the careful notes and no matter how much one has read and pondered, one is left with the problem of one’s unconscious motivations.”  — Robert D. Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness

When writing journalism, it’s usually best to be responsible. When writing songs, it’s always best to be irresponsible. Journalism ought to be clear and transparent; pop music should be translucent and messed up. Sometimes I’ve confused the two. I’ve gotten my chocolate in your peanut butter. Tell me if it’s yummy like a Reese’s or just a nasty mess.

An Empire Wilderness was one of the initial working titles I was considering for this suite of songs I’m putting together. I’m not gonna use it; that’s Robert Kaplan’s elegant phrase and he doesn’t need my filthy fingerprints on it. Since all I seem to want to write about lately is my own country, I want to take his words of warning seriously.

Are these songs problematic? I certainly hope they are. It has come to my attention that all good pop is problematic. As for my unconscious motivations, I’m going to leave them to the critics to riddle out. That means you, partner. I’ll be counting on you, OK?

Every one of these new songs is set in a different American city. First I imagined a setting, and then I made up a character who lived there, or who was just passing through, and I recorded his impressions, or his predicament, in the lyrics. Some of the songs mention the city in which it’s set, others just allude to landmarks, and a few don’t give away their geopositioning at all. My only guideline: once I’ve written a song about a city, I’m not allowed to make a return trip. I have to direct my attention to another part of the USA. The album as American travelogue is nothing new: Liz Phair’s Whip-Smart and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, just to give you two examples, follow similar logic. But I believe that my unconscious motivations are sufficiently peculiar to me, and my roll around the map is going to feel like a singular experience for anybody who jumps in a bucket seat beside me.

Twenty-nine songs covering twenty-nine different cities: that’s too much cot damned music for a conventional indiepop album. But in a big country dreams stay with you, and as I said yesterday, I’m determined to fill out the map by cutting and releasing as much of this stuff as I can. That presents me with a conundrum, which is not quite as nice as being presented with a corundum (ruby). I could allow a producer, or a confidante, to help me select the best twelve songs irrespective of their place on the map, or I could honor the concept by forcing through a road-trip that covers the territory I want to reach. I could get really silly and make a double LP. Or I could try something else.

I think I’m going to try something else.

Almanac Page One

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance that you already know most of what I’m about to write. But on this big Internet there is still a chance that a stranger will darken the digital doorway, and if that’s you, I’m happy to have you here. My name is Tris, and I am a word-writer who spends an unjustifiable amount of time making music. In my life, I have written hundreds and hundreds of songs, many of which are, to be frank, downright awful. Songs come to me while I’m riding my bike, while I’m eating breakfast, while I’m in the swimming pool, even when I’m dreaming — and since everything feels like a winner to me when it’s fresh, I’ll always take the time to bring those ideas to some kind of tentative completion. (Later — sometimes much later — I’ll realize that some of these songs weren’t worth finishing, but I never learn my lesson.) For years, songwriting was like a tap that I could turn on as I pleased, which is not at all the same as saying that the water was pure or drinkable. I wasn’t always proud of my musicianship, and I didn’t have any claim to quality control, but I sure did like that the pilot light of inspiration never gutted out.

Around the beginning of this decade, I took a word-writing job that absorbed all of my energy. During the time I did that job — more than four years! — I didn’t write a single song. I didn’t mention this to my friends; I tried not to mention it to myself. But on a semi-conscious level, this bugged me. Soon, I reasoned, that job would come to its natural end, and the water would start rushing through the pipe again. Maybe the spigot would be rusty and there’d be pellets of lead clanging around in the bucket at first, but the plumbing was still intact. I hoped. It also occurred to me that nothing is forever, and just because I had no problem writing when I was a kid didn’t necessarily mean that I could switch it back on now that I’m an ancient red dragon. I started to wonder whether the batch of songs I’d written in 2009 might be the last I’d ever come up with. If so, was that really the way I wanted this story to end?

As it turned out, I couldn’t get the tap to work. Not even a trickle. The part of my brain responsible for music composition seemed to have burned out. I still loved music as much as I ever had, and listened as much as I ever had — I just had no ideas of my own, and I wondered whether I had anything left I wanted to express. Nothing came to me in the shower, or when I was reading the newspaper (that always used to do the trick), or when I was asleep.  I attempted to console myself with the knowledge that I’d made four albums that were each, in its own way, pretty good, and that there were millions of people in this world who’d never heard them. Maybe instead of generating new material, I could turn my attention to my back catalog and move some digital copies. Then again, Hayden once sang “Write a song/all your old ones don’t mean a thing/If you don’t sing any new ones,” and I know exactly what he means. Besides, I’m not a marketer, I’m a mess-maker.

Then one day it changed. Like the flu, or a sleazy dude at a bar, it came on pretty quick. In Richmond I saw a guy leave a hardware store and stick a flag on a drape. On the same Carytown block, a couple of aggro kids with red, white and blue pins on their lapels hawked historic tours to gullible Yankees. Everything felt symbolic and ritualized. And I thought to myself “Saturday morning, shopkeeper yawning, hangs on the awning an American flag.” This is a very Randy Newman-ish stanza, and I heard it in Randy’s voice, and I put it to a Randy melody. Which I realized wouldn’t do at all. It’s one thing to be influenced by an artist you respect, and quite another to engage in mimicry. When I got back to Jersey, I turned the tune around, added a few more verses and a chorus, and called it a new number. The next day I wrote another. And then another.

I wrote 29 songs in 2015. Today I consider them the best I’ve ever done, but deep down I fear I’m dead wrong about that, and a year or two will give some perspective and throw some cold water on my delusions. So I decided not to give myself that year or two: while I’m enthusiastic about the material, I want to cut it all, while it’s fresh, and find a good way to put it out. Lucky I am that the people who are closest to me are entirely (and maybe unaccountably?) supportive of my renewed musical ambitions – they seem to want this happen as much as I do. They believe that I can pick up where I left off in 2009, and they want to help me get there.

I wish I shared their confidence. It occurs to me that many things may have happened over the years that might make it difficult for me to regain my footing as a performing musician. As a young person, I was usually able to draw and hold a crowd. I don’t know if I can do that anymore. My singing has always been an iffy proposition even when I was in practice, and vocal muscles do deteriorate over time. When I’m not playing with a band, my skills atrophy at an alarming rate. It’s depressing, not to mention time-consuming, to work every day just to get back to the level of functional competence that I believed I’d attained a few decades ago. There’s no guarantee that I can get in step with contemporary trends in recording, and writing, and presentation.

But what the hell, I was never in step with any of that stuff. If you liked my music, chances are you never did because it was au courant in any way, or because I had any relationship with the zeitgeist beyond total estrangement. Come to think of it, my awkwardness was probably part of the charm for the people who’d call themselves Tris McCall fans. As there was never any sex sell involved in my project, my advanced age and physical decrepitude shouldn’t be much of a hurdle to clear (at least for you.) As for the other stuff – playing and singing in tune and in rhythm – I’ve heard there have been further computerized advancements in this area since the turn of the decade. I intend to avail myself of all of them. You think I have shame? I have no shame.

So there you have it: I’m getting back into the music game. I expect this to be a long and agonizing process – a climb up a high and rocky hill – and I’m going to chronicle it here for the ill amusement of Whom It May Concern. If you came looking for the Critics Poll, well, that’s a February thing, and February is over. The calendar flips by quick; it’ll be poll time again before we know it. Until then, I hope you’ll join with me on my gurney, as Nordom the rogue modron from Planescape: Torment once said. The very worst that can happen is that I fall on my face and you get to indulge in some authorized schadenfreude. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. It might just be the early spring sun, but today I think this may just be, in spite of everything, a story with a happy ending.

i had to say this

Think of your favorite movie, or your favorite book, or your favorite painting, or pop song. Think of an argument that reached you through print, or a scene that moved you through the power of celluloid. It is a dead cinch that not so long ago, that scene, or that speech, or that argument or that lyric would have been considered way out of bounds. Somebody would have deemed it indecent and suppressed it in the name of the common good. The only reason you are humming that song, or watching that film, or hearing that voice, or reading that passage today is because an artist was brave enough to risk ostracism, and condemnation, and career-threatening obscurity, and, in some cases, jail time to say something that was dangerous to say. Things we now experience as pleasantly explosive had to be fought for. Things we view as tame had to be fought for, too. Every foot of ground had to be taken from the forces aligned against free expression, and it was artists and writers who had to do the hard fighting.

So the next time you are prompted to sign a declamatory petition or join an online shame campaign directed at an artist or a writer who said or did something you consider pernicious, I want you to remember this. Remember that we are only having this discussion in an open forum today because artists were willing to do and say the transgressive things necessary to broaden the field of human expression. Remember, too, that whatever is thrilling you today would have earned you an official censure, or worse, if you’d expressed enthusiasm for it at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Because those forces aligned against expression are never held in abeyance for very long. Give them an opening, an opportunity to shake a finger, and they will stifle, and muzzle, and ban, and shut down, and turn out the lights on anything they don’t like. And if you don’t think that they will get around — sooner than you can say PMRC — to things that you, personally, deem kosher, you’re fooling yourself, and you’re underestimating them.

tris@trismccall.net