Monday, January 26, 2009

2000-12 - Lost Songs of The Franklin Mint

In case you missed it, Guns n' Roses just released a new album. Sort of. It's not the Guns n' Roses most people remember -- every member of the classic lineup is gone except lead singer Axl Rose -- and it's no Appetite for Destruction (or even Use Your Illusions II). Still, it's a superlative work: it took over 15 years to record, quite possibly the most time ever devoted to one album. And it wasn't 14 years on the beach and 1 year of sweat, either. Axl has really been working on it steadily since 1994.

So, when you consider it in that context, my former band The Franklin Mint is actually rather efficient. We just released our latest (and first and presumably only) album, and it only took about 8 years. We weren't exactly working on it the whole time -- I probably have about 3 hours invested in it myself -- but it's a monument all the same.

Like the new Guns n' Roses album (inexplicably titled Chinese Democracy, by the way), the new, self-titled Franklin Mint album had been the subject of rumors for years. The first press whispers about the Gn'R album were around 1996, while a 2002 Portland Phoenix article hinted that The Mint would have their album out soon. (OK, so what if three former band members worked for that paper at the time, and one of them wrote the article. It's still good press.)

However, while Guns managed to hold on to one original member, the Franklin Mint is no more. The band was breaking up (amicably) around the time of the recording in 2000. I had actually quit a few months earlier because all that rock and roll was cutting into my hiking time. But we had saved a bit of money from live shows and figured we'd use it to capture the magic before it slipped into history.

Here's a sample of the proceedings, a lilting tune called "Scorpio" (I'm playing the high guitar part that enters around 17 seconds in):

(If you're reading this post via e-mail, check it out on the web to hear the clip.)

I actually only play on about half of the album. Since I'd already left the group, I was back more as a guest performer, contributing guitar bits here and there. The final disc also includes a couple live songs from a show we played on May 13, 2000, when I was still a regular in the band, so I play more on those. (In keeping with the Guns n' Roses analogy, maybe that makes me the Mint version of Buckethead, the enigmatic shredder who played with Axl from 2000 to 2004 and contributed some parts on Chinese Democracy.)

We recorded most of the album live on stage at The Skinny, a porn-theater-turned-rock-club-turned-vacant-building-turned-different-rock-club. It wasn't a live show with an audience and all, just us on stage in an empty club one afternoon with a bunch of microphones. After we recorded the basic backing tracks, there were some later overdubs, then guitarist/singer Josh put the tapes in his closet and we forgot all about it.

Until last week, when a nondescript envelope from Josh appeared in my mailbox with a finished recording. The final tracklist:
  1. Temp. Sort of the first single from the album, since Josh uploaded it to iLike a while back.
  2. Whoah! I don't play on this one, as they wrote it after I'd left the band. Nice song, though.
  3. Founder's Day. I added a mutated "Layla"-like piano bit on the end of this one, but the piano was so far out of tune, it didn't really work. Just kept a few seconds of it in the fade-out.
  4. Go West. Possibly my favorite Mint song. It has modulations and tempo changes. Very fancy.
  5. Darkest Hour/Spur. A medley of two tunes, one about Eric Clapton and another about Paterson, New Jersey. Some of my favorite Mint guitar noodles. (I have a live clip of "Spur" in a previous post, if you're interested.)
  6. Pat's Song. Another song I don't know, from the latter days after I'd already quit the band.
  7. Scorpio. I played a high, shimmering guitar bit on this one. I was trying to rip off Johnny Marr of The Smiths.
  8. Sedan Delivery (live). The Franklin Mint played this Neil Young cover at every live show they ever did.
  9. I Could Tell You (live). The only song on the album where I sing. Features amiable lines like, "If I could make just one suggestion, don't ask so many questions," which is at least nicer than the part where Josh sings about putting a body in the trunk of his car.
  10. Tropic of Cancer (live). Josh always described this song as having a "porn movie" beat. Fitting, I guess, since we recorded it at a club that was once a porn theater.
I don't record much these days, so it was neat to hear me playing something "new" on CD. Who knows, maybe it will inspire me to record again. I think in another 8 years, I might have something ready. About on pace for someone who only updates his blog once a month.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

1990-05-10 - My first (and last) publicly performed classical composition

A couple times in this blog, I've noted that listening to gig recordings from years ago is like looking at photos in your high school yearbook. In this post, I take that analogy a whole lot further.

If that guy in back with the guitar had a goatee, he'd look a bit like me

When I was a senior in high school, Ms. Meyers, the school music teacher, cornered me and asked if I'd be willing to take band class. Other than a brief and not so fondly remembered stint playing trumpet in 5th grade, I had no school band experience and wasn't looking to change that. Ms. Meyers persisted, however, because she'd heard that I played guitar, and she really wanted someone to play guitar in the pep band at football games.

I relented, and it went well at first. I found playing football games quite fun--a bit surprising, since I don't care much for football otherwise. After the season ended, though, things changed. We switched to concert repertoire: no more guitar parts. I spent the winter playing miscellaneous percussion--bass drum, crash cymbals, timpani--and I didn't like it one bit.

Desperate to escape the percussion section, I asked Ms. Meyers if I could write something instead. She said sure, and I spent the next couple months of class time composing a short, pseudo-classical, four-movement work with the shockingly stupid title of "Big Babushkas." (Keep in mind that I was 17. Tacky double entendres meant more to me in those days.)

I scored out one movement, a brisk march, for the whole school band, and we performed it in our Spring concert. I even conducted, using a cheap baton I bought in East Berlin shortly after they opened the Berlin Wall. Looking back now, the writing seems a bit, er, simple, but I think the performance sure sounded good for a little high school band:

If I could change just one thing, I would have notated it in 4/4 time instead of 2/4. It may seem like a minor point, since it would have sounded the same, but it would have looked better. I didn't (and still don't) know much about conducting, but when you only have two beats to count, the conducting pattern is basically a lot of up and down. Presumably, you're supposed to put a bit of style and grace into that, but I mostly focused on the up and down part. Judging from the videotape, I flapped about like a twitchy, flightless, acid-washed-jeans-and-skinny-tie-wearing albatross.

You don't need the whole video. Those two pictures really sum it up.

A final highlight from the video occurs after song is over, when Ms. Meyers tells the audience how I composed and printed my score. We used the latest technology, she explains: a brand new Macintosh Plus computer (the first time I used a computer mouse) and some big, cutting-edge, high-tech gadget called a LaserJet printer. Wow, those were the days.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

2008-10-30 - Lost Songs of George Harrison

Pop quiz: Which member of The Beatles had the highest-selling solo album? Who was the first to have a solo #1 album? Who was the last to have a #1 album? First to have a #1 single? Last to have a #1 single?

If you guessed Lennon or McCartney, you probably didn't read the title of this blog post. All of these feats were accomplished by the the so-called "quiet" Beatle, George Harrison, the focus of my second Beatles-themed "Lost Songs" performance.

For background listening, here's a sample recording from the show. The audio quality isn't great (had some microphone problems), but the performance is OK. The song is called "Run So Far," and it's from Harrison's final album, which was released posthumously in 2002:

It isn't hard to find obscure, forgotten, and/or lesser-known songs in the Harrison canon. Other than a couple well-known songs -- like that first Beatle solo #1 ("My Sweet Lord") and the last ("Got My Mind Set on You") -- his music is far less familiar than that of Lennon and McCartney.

Given the abundant options, here's how I narrowed it down:
  • I needed songs spread across his whole career, from the Beatle days right up to his last album.
  • For a change, I decided to arrange the set chronologically. The idea was to make it more of a cohesive narrative, showing how Harrison evolved as a writer and how his influences changed, and the songs needed to reflect that.
  • In hopes of carrying less gear, I opted to do the whole show on piano -- rather than 50/50 guitar/piano, like I often do -- so I had to pick things that would fit that instrument. (An ironic challenge: of all The Beatles, Harrison played piano the least...)
Here's the set list I ended up with:
  1. I Want To Tell You (1966). Though he had written a couple of nondescript songs before, Harrison really started to shine on The Beatles album Revolver. He actually had three songs on the album, whereas he had never had more than one before.
  2. The Inner Light (1968). I think this is the best of the Indian raga-influenced songs Harrison was into at the time. The other Beatles liked it so much that it made the B-side of "Lady Madonna," the first time a Harrison original was on a Beatles single. The lyrics are borrowed from the Tao Te Ching.
  3. Old Brown Shoe (1969). Harrison once described this as the only song he ever wrote on the piano. It was the second Harrison song to appear on a single, this time as the B-side of "The Ballad of John and Yoko."
  4. I Me Mine (1970). This Let It Be track was the last song that song that The Beatles recorded together before breaking up. Well, three Beatles -- John wasn't there.
  5. All Things Must Pass (1970). The title track to Harrison's first solo album (the best-selling and first #1 by a solo Beatle) was originally written for and rehearsed by The Beatles. It didn't make the cut for the Let It Be album, reputedly because Lennon found it boring. My piano arrangement made it sound almost like a gospel tune. Since its title refers to the Buddha's final words, let's call it Buddhist gospel music.
  6. The Light that Has Lighted the World (1973). In every set, it seems there's one song that I almost didn't do. Part of me wanted to cut this plodding, Hare Krishna-fueled ballad, but it's so representative of Harrison's work at the time, I just had to keep it. The melody is uncharacteristically monotonous, and I theorize that it was meant to sound like a religious chant.
  7. This Guitar Can't Keep from Crying (1975). One way that Harrison stayed connected with his Beatle past was to write sequels to Beatles songs. He followed this song with "Here Comes the Moon" a few years later.
  8. Not Guilty (1979). Another way Harrison held onto the Beatle years (or possibly just mined them when he was low on ideas) was to finish off unreleased Beatles songs. This one was originally recorded for the White Album in 1968, but even after the group recorded over 100 takes, none were deemed worthy of release. Harrison recycled another White Album reject, a song called "Circles," on a 1982 album.
  9. Blood from a Clone (1981). Not one of Harrison's better songs, but it has the best back story. He delivered an album to his record company, and they rejected it as "not commercial enough." They ordered him to replace a few songs with better ones, and he responded by writing this scathing assessment of the music business (and his record company by implication) -- and the record company accepted it as one of the replacement songs.
  10. I Don't Want to Do It (1985). After years of disheartening relations with record companies, critics, and fans, Harrison went into a period of semi-retirement. He only released a few songs in the mid-80's, and all were on movie soundtracks. This simple, nostalgic tune was from the movie Porky's II (which, if you haven't seen it, was nowhere near as good as Porky's I).
  11. When We Was Fab (1987). As the title implies, this was an ode to the Beatle years, complete with Ringo on drums. The song references Beatles sounds, especially bits of "I Am the Walrus," and ends with a psychedelic sitar bit. It was on the first Beatle-related album I ever owned, Cloud Nine, which was also the last #1 album by a solo Beatle. (And will likely remain so, unless Paul or Ringo do something unexpected...)
  12. Run So Far (2002). Too bad Harrison's final album Brainwashed didn't get more attention. It was pretty good. I like several songs, but this is the only one I thought I could play well enough. Though the lyrics fit Harrison's later years -- he sings, "There's no escape, can only run so far" as he's dying of cancer -- he actually wrote it years earlier, and his buddy Eric Clapton recorded it on an album in 1989.
The third and final installment of my Beatles series, Lost Songs of Paul McCartney, is scheduled for Dec. 4th. And it will probably happen, but for the record, I'm itching to get this series over and play some more jazz instead.

Friday, September 26, 2008

2008-09-25 - Lost Songs of John Lennon

Though I've been into The Beatles about as long as I've been performing live - wow, 20 years already? - I've never actually played a Beatles-themed show. In fact, I tend to avoid playing Beatles songs live at all. They're familiar to audiences in ways that other songs aren't, and I'm not really into playing what audiences are familiar with.

But one day not long ago, probably while writing a related blog post, I got thinking about those good old days in 2006 when I put together my Lost Songs series. The idea of that series was to perform songs that I like but most others wouldn't know, in hopes of sharing something new (well, old but new to them) and deflecting the silly notion that musicians should only cater to what audiences already know.

That series worked well, so why not try it with The Beatles? Granted, their songs are better known than most, but I figured I could pick enough rarities to make it interesting. As I started brainstorming a set list, I quickly realized one show wouldn't cut it, and the idea evolved into a three-show series: one each for Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. (Sorry, Ringo...)

The first installment, the Lost Songs of John Lennon, took place a few days ago before a crowd of 60-70 people, many of them rather Beatle-literate, as it turned out. I played a dozen songs, the first half on guitar and the second half on piano, with plenty of rambling trivia and backstory between songs.

Here's a sample from the recording, a version of an early solo Lennon song called "Hold On":

Here's the complete set list:
  1. Good Morning Good Morning. I figured I'd lure people in with a couple Beatle tunes before I hit the more rare stuff. First, one of the least known songs from one of their best known albums, Sgt. Pepper. The song was inspired by a Corn Flakes jingle, and Lennon later called it the worst song he ever wrote.
  2. Dig a Pony. Lennon also didn't speak highly of this 1969 song, which has lyrics so random it makes "I am the Walrus" seem almost lucid. I almost replaced this song with "Don't Let Me Down" at the last moment, but I thought too many people would know that one.
  3. Hold On. I really wanted to do something from his first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, but those songs are so personal, so idiosyncratically Lennon that it was hard to find one that worked. I picked the only one I thought I had a chance with, and it did go OK live.
  4. I'm Losing You. From his first solo album, I jumped to his last, Double Fantasy. Many of his most enduring solo songs are on there, so I tried to pick the least known.
  5. She Said She Said. Again, a Beatles song that some people probably knew. It was a guilty pleasure for me, a fun rocker that I really wanted to play, from my favorite Beatles album, Revolver.
  6. Gimme Some Truth. Originally written for and rehearsed with The Beatles, this political tirade wasn't released until Lennon's popular 1971 solo album Imagine. A great song in an election year, featuring the lyric, "I've had enough of reading things by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians."

  7. Hey Bulldog. I started the piano half of the show with this early 1968 tune, which Lennon threw together one day in the studio. One of the Abbey Road recording engineers remembers this session as the last time The Beatles were all happy performing together.
  8. Mucho Mungo. Next, a real rarity. Lennon wrote this song for his friend and drinking buddy, singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, and Nilsson recorded it for his Lennon-produced 1974 album Pussycats. The only Lennon version of it is a 1976 home demo, which includes background cooing and babbling from his then baby son Sean.
  9. Steel and Glass. Over the intro to this acerbic 1974 tune, Lennon whispers, "This here is a story about your friend and mine. Who is it? Who is it?" For years I figured it was about Paul McCartney, since they did some bitter sparring in the post-Beatle years. Then, I figured maybe it was about Yoko, since she and John were separated when he wrote it. But now I'm pretty sure that he's singing about himself.
  10. Cry for a Shadow. Another rarity, the only (I think) song attributed to the team of Lennon and Harrison. It's also one of very few instrumentals that The Beatles recorded, though few people heard it at the time, as it was released in 1961, a couple years before they became famous.
  11. Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out. Critics generally pan Lennon's middle solo album Walls and Bridges, but it's one of my favorites. It's a loose, rocking party album - Lennon was separated from his wife and living it up in LA at the time - but it's tempered with sincere ballads like this.
  12. Dear John. Probably the most obscure song of the show, this one only exists as an incomplete demo home recording from 1980. I forgot to mention it at the show, but I put this song last because it's the last song he wrote before he died.
Next up, Lost Songs of George Harrison on Oct. 30th, followed by Lost Songs of Paul McCartney on Dec. 4.