Thing a Week 45: Mr. Fancy Pants I tried to write something…

August 13th, 2011



Thing a Week 45: Mr. Fancy Pants

I tried to write something else, believe me. But this stupid line about Mr. Fancy Pants having the fanciest pants just wouldn’t get out of my head, so I was forced to follow it through to whatever this is. I’ll warn you, it’s a short one. A nice little amuse bouche (but for your ears). Even so I kind of like it – some kind of strange morality lesson about beating Mr. Fancy Pants at his own game. Or something. Anyways!

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS:

I remember a moment from this week when I was riding my bike around Prospect Park with the first line of this song stuck in my head, and wishing it would leave so I could get to work on WRITING SOMETHING. I would often ride when I needed to clear my head and find a new idea. I found that if I put my body into some kind of autopilot mode - riding, walking, driving - it would sometimes occupy just enough of my brain’s bandwidth to shut off the censors, and then something would bubble up. It didn’t always work, and in this case I ended up right where I started, with the same dumb non-idea I was trying to escape.

As it turns out, this song was a good one, though you never could have guessed. All I had was a bouncy feel, a not-really-rhyming line about pants, and an otherwise empty idea bin. I decided to try writing without a subject, just following the words where they led. In this case they led back to pants. It’s not about anything really, though it certainly pretends to be. I like how it leaves you at the end, with a hollow victory over who knows what, not really knowing how you’re supposed to feel or who the villain was.

I love the chords in the bridge. They’re something I found more with my fingers than with my brain. It’s almost like this song was generated by the non-thinking parts of me, by the systems level utilities - sitting down and typing gibberish until something gets traction. Strangely, it was the first time I tried this technique during Thing a Week, and I wish I had surrendered to it earlier. I relied on it quite a bit for this new album, and it often led to much more honest and personal expression than I could have gotten to otherwise. It’s very hard to write about nothing for very long, and the real stuff sneaks out of you when you’re not looking.

I was certainly thinking of They Might Be Giants once I got to the recording process - accordion plus electric guitar, keep it short and sweet, make it fun. I wanted it to sound like a marching band falling down some stairs. Of course the real magic in this song wasn’t released until I began performing it live on the Zendrum, at which point I was finally able to get to how it really sounded in my head when I first found it, which is to say “insane and kind of about pants.”

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.

 

Thing a Week 44: Big Bad World One Enough with the bigfoots and…

August 4th, 2011



Thing a Week 44: Big Bad World One

Enough with the bigfoots and zombies, this one is pretty straightforward subject matter. The headline is “Sadsack Can’t Find Love,” which is just about as classic as it gets. I have spent more time than I would like to admit hanging out by the food table at parties, because it makes me look like I’m busy with something instead of just afraid to talk to anybody.

I like the way the title phrase sounds out of context – it seems like maybe it might mean something, but you can’t really say what. And I’m incredibly relieved to have broken out of the endless series of sad songs in the key of D that I appear to have been working on. It feels nice to do something a little different. This one’s in A, D and G! Crazy!

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Right on. I love this song. Many classic JoCo tricks in there, but somehow it all adds up to something that sounds pretty fresh to me. Put down a nice crispy bed of doubled acoustic guitars and your pop song will sleep comfortably, that’s for sure. Our old friend the m7b5 chord is there (surprise!) in the kicker line of the chorus (“me zero”), but it’s not in the same role it usually is when I deploy it - I don’t have the patience right now to figure out what it’s doing there exactly, it’s probably best understood a substitution for something else. Doesn’t matter, it’s delicious!

(Requisite comment about the mix/arrangement: not enough dynamic range. Oh well.)

There’s a lot about this song I don’t quite get harmonically. It starts with this AM7 suspension thing (stolen from Code Monkey chorus, later redecorated for Pull the String) that’s weirdly ambiguous - it’s actually kind of an E chord played over A. By the end of the first line of the verse we’ve sort of shifted to D as the tonal center. And then in the prechorus we just bust into a section in G like it’s nothing. And then of course that great moment at the end of the bridge where the harmonies hold over the change from a Cadd6 to that AM7 thing. I just love all that wandering. There’s probably some nice music theory that can “explain” all this jumping around any number of ways (I mean, probably?), but what I like about it’s weird, but it’s still nice and pop-friendly. It’s rare that I sit down to strum on a guitar and come up with something that feels new.

The prechorus was a little atom that floated around in my ideas folder for a long time before this song got written, and it just kind of got sucked up into this song. Aside from that fact, I remember almost nothing about writing this one. I just remember how I felt in those weeks. I was out on the edge. Every song was a struggle that started with complete despair. I made decisions quickly and didn’t look back. I had no idea if what I was doing was good or not.

There were a couple of moments during the end of the writing process for this new album where I felt like that - and it felt good in that, “I’m running a triathalon, ow!” way - all tapped out and still somehow things coming out of me. Like getting food poisoning. I can’t possibly have anything left in there, can I? And then too I found the same strange room that I always forget about, the room where all the good songs are. Every time I find myself in that room I think “Well hmm, this is quite nice all these good songs lying around, why don’t I come here all the time?” It’s just that it takes an awful lot of effort and pain to get there.

The songs from this part of Thing a Week are my favorites, I think largely because of their mysterious origins. They came from outer space. They happened during the stretch when I was most able to forget about myself. Maybe I like them because they don’t feel like they’re mine.

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.

First Track from Artificial Heart

July 28th, 2011

We are inching closer to the point when you will all be able to actually HEAR this new record I’ve been talking about forever. In fact, here is a track for you to listen to right now. It’s called “Nemeses” and the lead vocal is sung by none other than JoCo Cruise Crazy favorite (he is also famous for other things) John Roderick.

I hope you like it, because it’s good, and so if you don’t like it then that means you have terrible taste.

Thing a Week 43: Under the Pines Not many people know this,…

July 28th, 2011



Thing a Week 43: Under the Pines

Not many people know this, but when Leonard Nimoy did the Bigfoot episode of “In Search Of…” he and the creature hooked up one night and had this crazy fling. These kinds of things never end well, but Bigfoot in particular is a bit of a cad anyway (being mostly wild animal). As you might imagine, Leonard Nimoy came out of the experience somewhat worse for wear.

I’m almost sure that I have stolen this melody from somewhere, or maybe parts of it from lots of places, it sounds very familiar to me. And the bassline – hello? Blue Bayou? At first this was just a “bigfoot broke my heart” song, but I wasn’t getting a lot of traction. It wasn’t until I realized that it was Leonard Nimoy talking that it came together for me. There are just a couple of subtle references to Spock in there, and bigfoot’s name is never mentioned, so if you’re haven’t read this explanation you are either confused, or blissfully unaware that it’s about Bigfoot and Leonard Nimoy. Godspeed.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Ah, a classic Thursday desperation song. Never in a million years would I have TRIED to write this song, rather I only would have ALLOWED it to happen in the absence of any other alternative.

Not that it’s so terrible. I actually think this one deserved a better place in JoCo history than it got. I like the melody, it’s simple but pretty solidly built. There are some nice moments in the lyrics, in particular I love the “bag of suet” joke, and I love the entirety of the third verse. In terms of solving the puzzle (describing a love affair between Bigfoot and Leonard Nimoy without mentioning either one) it succeeds very well. Here are the problems:

Arrangement - pfft. Not a lot there. It starts from style parody, which is always a dangerous game, especially when you veer away from the style and just start throwing stuff at the wall without caring if it sticks. The terrible chorus guitar in the choruses and those background vocals just don’t make sense to me, and they’re there only because I didn’t come up with anything else to fill the space. At the end of the day I really just copped a bassline.

Subtlety - almost nobody who hears this song figures out that it’s about Bigfoot and Leonard Nimoy. It’s too clever by half. I can’t imagine what you would think of this song if you didn’t know what it was about. It would just seem bizarre, unfunny, and not very interesting.

Goofballism - obviously I am trapped by this a lot. It’s rare to come across a song that is completely goofy and still emotionally stirring enough to matter to someone. Many would say that’s my wheelhouse, and in fact I just wrote myself a new bio in which I claimed that it was. I frequently try for that combination, and it feels wonderful when I hit it right, but the truth is I fail more often than not. When you write about goofy things, you’re giving all the other songs in the world a head start. I failed to back this one up with much of anything, and I think that’s why it fails to achieve liftoff.

To be clear, I am not anti-goofball. There’s nothing wrong with funny music, I don’t care what you say. I listened to Weird Al’s latest album Alpocalypse and was reminded that while there’s a ton of funny music out there, only a small fraction of it is done really well. Weird Al is the undisputed champion, and he elevates the genre like nobody else because he’s got a great musical brain and has honed the hell out of his craft.

It doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re doing, death metal or novelty songs, it has to be honest and it has to be great.

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.

New JoCo Cruise Crazy Performers Announced

July 19th, 2011

We’ve filled out the roster with a few more delightful additions:

Wil Wheaton, Marian Call, and Vi Hart.

I trust this will please you. More announcements about more performers IN THE FUTURE…