Sunday, May 27, 2007

Other People's Music

For starters: apologies for missing a day, but given yesterday's (Friday, that is) jam-packed schedule, and the fact that this is pretty much the last thing I do before bed each night, by the time we got into bed at 1:00, I was only going to get two hours of sleep before I had to get up to take Yesenia to the airport. So the Rambler fell silent.

Anyway, now I face ten days without the wife - and I'm not one of those married men that yearns for any kind of freedom. Basically, Yesenia's absence translates into cranky, moody behavior and an even greater degree of insomnia than I usually suffer from. So I the next few entries get increasingly self-pitying/mawkish/incoherent, at least you'll know why.

Spent the day hanging out with a couple of artist friends - both musicians, also in their mid-30's, both facing crossroads in their careers. Meaning that pretty much my entire day was spent giving advice and offering comment on their situations when I haven't even been able to sort it out for myself - simply put, how to proceed?

Putnam, a singer-songwriter in a folk/acoustic vein, seems to be on an upswing - he's just finished recording and album and has lined up some musicians to play shows with, and booked himself a few shows. If he plays his cards right, he should be able to build a small career touring the New England coffee house 'scene.' A scene I wasn't aware of until today, but I am assured exists. Which is good, because if you've ever met any New Englanders, you know how much they need a mellow place just to get some fucking coffee.

The other, Kristen, is in more of the same boat as me - a songwriter in a rock context who fronts a power trio. Kristen has suffered the same seemingly endless personnel changes as the type that plagued Copper Man during our seven year run. In our case, we were constantly breaking in new guitar players. For Kristen, it's either a new bassist or a new drummer, depending on the year. In the time I've known her - since 2002, when she answered an ad to audition for Copper Man, no less - she's had four bass players (although this last has stuck around for three years or so) and no fewer than four drummers in the last two years. And her most recent drummer just quit, meaning that she's half-heartedly embarked on the search for a fifth.

A fifth of scotch? Ha fucking ha. (No, although I'm sure she feels like she needs one.)

So, she's started to question even the point of proceeding in the context of the band as it is, and I feel both ill-equipped and perfectly suited to offer her any advice on the situation, since, when faced with the same decision a year-and-a-half ago with Copper Man, I decided just to shelve the fucking thing and walk away. And the sense of sheer relief I got when I registered that that particular outlet for my musical ambitions was truly over-and-done with released from me a mighty sigh, a sigh that shook the foundations of Heaven and Earth! Maybe you felt it? Big gassy rumble, back in January of 2006? Maybe it was more localized than I thought.

However, I can't bring myself to just tell Kristen to cash it in - although a goodly number of her friends have been telling her to do just that - simply because it feels wrong to do so, somehow. Mostly, it feels wrong because I think she's such an excellent writer and performer that she needs to have an outlet for her compositions. But I doubt she'd be happy with the solution I came up with to keep going for myself - namely, to construct a new band in which I was deliberately just a member and not the lead writer.

And I really doubt that she'd leap at the second part of my own musical reconfabulation, namely, giving up the lead vocal chores. Nor should she - in Copper Man, my position as lead singer was always by default, and ultimately it was a bad choice, hurting the strength of the music. I knew our songs were great, and that I just wasn't up to the task of singing them - since being a lead singer requires good pitch, projection, easy charm and sex appeal, all of which I lack (well, I'm dead sexy, but I lack the rest).* Towards the last year of the life of the band, I'd already made up my mind several times to find another singer, but was argued out of it. So the first decision I made when the new band came together that not only would I not write complete songs and would open up the lyric writing to all members, but that we'd get a singer, preferably female, to record the damn songs.

For Kristen, this part isn't an option, because she does possess all the great frontman qualities - she's got great pitch, excellent projection, charm to burn and (like me) she's quite sexy. But clearly the trio format no longer works for her. After all, what good is a tricycle if every trip down the sidewalk, you have to run out to buy a new wheel? Time to give up the fucking trike and upgrade to a Radio Flyer.

Lord knows what the Radio Flyer represents in this analogy - a band where everything is painted red enamel? - but it's at least a hint at a new strategy.

In other words, in Copper Man, the weakness was myself. For Kristen, the weakness is the structure of the band and the sound and style of the way it plays her music. So: how to create an environment where she can:

1) Write and sing the bulk of the material,
2) Maintain the environment without upheaval,
3) Find a way to make this new thing - whatever it is - a worthwhile pursuit.

And that's where it sits. I've suggested that she find a co-frontman, someone who could have a hand in writing the material while leaving her with the role of lyricist and singer, but she seems reluctant to pursue, and I don't say as I blame her. She's got such a unique style in mind that I don't see how she could fit anyone else's compositions in, and the primary time I tried that in Copper Man - the aforementioned Ryan Kaplan - the results were like chalk and cheese, if the chalk were radioactive and the cheese were (say) a fine, nutty Brie.

To me, the main stumbling block to finding Kristen a wider audience is the challenging nature of her arrangements. In many ways, her songs are straightforward enough (new wave anxiety like the love child of Tom Verliane and Chrissy Hynde), but every song is worked into a mini-suite, a collection of time-signature turnarounds and rhythm section feats of showy technique that push the music more into almost a Rush kind of context, with each song having not an ABACAB structure, but something that more resembles On Beyond Zebra in terms of sheer number of riffs, verses, pre-choruses, choruses, chorus variations, first bridges, second bridges, tacets, fugues, etc.

And the sad part is, losing that would change a fundamental part of what I've liked about her music - those clusterfuck arrangements. But what could be gained? Thematic clarity, renewed focus on lyric and melodic content, music that plays to her strengths as a singer and a trained actress, and above all, more direct communication with the audience.

I think that I could live with hearing that change in her. Frankly, I'd love it. But would she? I hope so, because the alternatives - either another go-round with the power trio or giving it up altogether - don't excite this fan.

Note: The entire reason this became a Subway Rambler entry rather than an email to Kristen should be apparent, but for those that missed it: all of the above says much more about me and my musical tastes than Kristen. She knows what to do and will figure it out without any influence or advice from me. In fact, following my advice in real life - much like in a game of Risk - can only ever lead to total disaster. Or at the very least, the loss of Kamchatka.


Actually, there's one area of frontsmanship in which I excelled, and that was between song banter. I mean, woo-hoo, but it's something. To this day I can listen to a live recording of one of our shows and laugh at something I just came up with, out of the blue.

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