Your Weekend Listening • 8/17/08
Songs from the Film of the Same Title
Tah-dah! Presenting the Subway Rambler's first full album - a 'lost' 'classic' from 1997. Click on the cover to hear the whole thing in streaming glory, complete with pause, stop, skip, fast-forward and rewind controls. Don't say I never do anything for you. In theory, this album-length Rambler will pretty much eat up a lunch hour, so that may be the recommended use. Note: a couple of the tracks from this album will be Weekend Listening repeats, but now there's some attempt made to put them in context, with supplemental commentary.
I should note that both the name of the album and the album itself really are retroactive creations. The songs were all recorded in the space of a few months, and the period mix-down cassette that I pulled all of these from has 'Songs from the Film of the Same Title' scrawled on it, but there was no order to the songs and I'm pretty sure that the title on the cassette came a few years after the fact, as I was organizing my library. The sequencing came when I digitized these back in June, and attempting to give it some flow.
Songs from the Film of the Same Title represents the burst of material that came from the period when Edz and I first started playing together. Here's the story behind that. Since this is a full album, rather than give the whole kit and kaboodle, I'll just give a little info behind each song.
Technical notes first: all of this was recorded to the trusty Tascam Porta-One 4-Track, usually with one mic for the drums and me strumming along on guitar as a guide. All drums are Edz, and all guitar, bass and (minimal) keys are myself, with exceptions noted below. The mixes were done directly to cassette during the period, and those mixes are what you're hearing here. Bear that in mind when you're wondering why the guitar is so loud or the vocals so inaudible, or vice-versa. Plus, as many of you know, the four-track requires mixing tracks down permanently if you want to have more than four (drums, bass, guitar, vocal and...), so the bass and drums were usually bounced together first, which did no favors to either instrument, both of which like a lot of tape room.
All that aside, I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the primitive and compressed recording to be part of the charm of this, along with the sound of a new band finding its footing and a songwriter finding his voice. Also, Edz' drum performance throughout is just great, and if nothing else, that's my justification for preserving this and presenting it for public consumption.
Hopefully, you'll agree.
One - Ambition
I've always had a strong autobiographical element to my material, but the songs from this period probably are the most direct and straightforward I've ever written, in the sense that they all refer to events which occurred while the songs were being written, rather than well after the fact, which is more of my current paradigm.
Ambition is, essentially, a song about being desperately horny - specifically because my then quasi-girlfriend was living overseas for a year, having been accepted to the RISD European Honors Program in Rome. As such, it's about the only genuine bump and grind number I've allowed myself to write, because I usually feel silly performing such material. No doubt, one element that let me relax enough to get carnal was playing in Lizard Music, where bandleader Erik took on the mantle of the white indie rock answer to Marvin Gaye. One Erik song in particular - My Zebra - informs this track more than anything else. Except for maybe Frankenstein, which the mid-section clearly borrows from.
In terms of content, the lyrics betray my conflicted nature about the relationship in question (it wasn't healthy). The references get kind of deep, but most of you should catch the Twin Peaks reference in the first line - "How's Annie?" - which was definitely used to clue the listener in that the singer is maybe not feeling all right in the head. The ersatz Italian in the second verse - "La donna - che ce di nuovo é? Per piaciere, vieni." (forgive my spelling) is both a reference to the Rome location of the subject, and also a direct result of an Italian class I took in the fall of 1995(?) to prepare for a two week visit to Rome. The translation - such as it is:
Hey, girl -
What's new with you?
Please, come here.
Which serves as exhibit 'a' as to why I failed that Italian class.
The female voice leading into the jam is my step-sister Gail, chosen for the sake of expedience more than anything else.
Two - She's Busy
More on the same relationship, although this one pushes the material more in to fantasy land. The protagonist of this song finds that he's been excommunicated, and fails to get the point, hanging around cluelessly and hoping that the mere fact of being the father of her child will be enough to get him back into her good graces. My life, as recast with the regulars and scenario from the Jerry Springer Show, which was (as you might recall) a tremendous cultural phenomenon from the time.
Three - Untitled (Acoustic)
Maybe it's because I was freed up musically by having Edz suddenly there, but there's a high ratio of instrumental numbers floating around from the period. This one has appeared here before, and here's what I had to say about it at the time:
"All I can really say with some confidence about the acoustic piece is that I'm 99.9% positive that it was a complete improvisation, something that I threw together on the Tascam one lonely night in the basement, literally playing with myself in the way that only a man without a musical outlet save for his trusty four-track can."
Four - Prodigy
Also discussed earlier on the Rambler - specifically in that link to the blog about Edz.
Lyrically and musically this song is probably the closest I've ever come to limning the overwhelming 'now what' feeling that came during the few years after college when I found myself really casting about for direction. My trip through RISD had caused me to question my own long-cultivated self-image as a cartoonist/visual artist, and Prodigy reflects on that, and contrasts it with my childhood as an 'early bloomer' - all through elementary school and junior high school, I'd been placed in advanced programs with names like 'Gifted and Talented' and 'Great Books' and (guh) 'PROBE.'
This sense of being set apart and above my fellow students intellectually didn't do me any favors later on, when I lost my grip on academics - it ceased to be 'fun' - and didn't really have any social skills to fall back on. The image of a spent genius being shuttled off to a lonely exile in the lyric seems especially poignant to me, if to no-one else. I guess you had to be there.
Anyway, this reflection on my childhood came to me while I was preparing to completely abandon drawing for the decade, after having similarly failed to meet my own expectations at RISD.
Five - Final Jeopardy
If you've read and listened this far, you'll know that it's no stretch to say that I was deeply fuk't up during the mid-90s. This song furthers and combines the imagery of abandonment, isolation and obsolescence from She's Busy and Prodigy, this time casting me (accurately) as a man who no longer is welcomed in the brighter world where he most wants to be, and is more than a little bitter about it.
Beyond just my RISD experience and the faltering relationship with the Rome girl, my then-current musical and social life fed into this. The Lizard Music experience in particular had gone a long way towards making me question my value as a musician and writer. My complete sense of not fitting in to the ultra-hip scene down in Red Bank, NJ, where the band was based is also here.
The most potent feeling in the song is that of no longer having any kind of support system, since RISD girl was away (and never mine to begin with) and my closest friends, Ansley and Bran, were gone during much of this period, recording and touring. It's probably more to their absence than anything else to which the chorus is directed, and the two references to Simon and Garfunkel's Only Living Boy in New York are particularly on point about that - Paul Simon's deeply heartfelt ode to Art's departure seemed just right. It also probably makes this recording completely illegal, seeing as how I actually sample it for the bridge, back when sampling for me meant cueing the 4-track and CD player and just hoping that things lined up. It was supposed to be contrasted with a sample of Elmer Fudd from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, also saying 'Here I am' in a querulous voice, but this being the days before the real internet, such things were much harder to come by.
Musically and lyrically, this is my least favorite of the songs on the album, but it seems a necessary number. Vocals suck serious ass. Sorry.
Six - MOJA
Also discussed at length previously on the Rambler, this instrumental represents my only foray into through-composed instrumentals AND 'jazz' guitar. Composed while trying to avoid my situation while visiting family in Oregon.
Seven - Clementine Fingers
As noted, there were a few instrumentals to come out of my first experience of collaborating with another musician, as Edz' skill let me explore musical ideas I couldn't on my own. A fellow 'Gifted and Talented' and 'Great Books' traveller, Cathy Ricardo, makes an appearance here, playing the Moog that drifts in and out of the mix.
I've excised it from this version, but the full mixdown contains an intro with me explaining the title to Edz: this was written during clementine season, and those fuckers do make your fingers smell clemelicious.
Eight - Vinyl's Coming Back
Lyrically thin, mostly just an attempt to try to link underground music with underground comics. I think I was probably a decade early with that observation. I think that Ansley makes an appearance on guitar, here - not the clear solo line after the first chorus (which is me), but the bluesy lead mixed way, way down in the play-out.
Nine - Baby, I'm Your Man
To compound the sense of romantic doom from the RISD girl relationship, I'd had a very brief fling that completely changed my idea of what I wanted in a relationship and a woman. The girl in question was nineteen, while I was already pushing twenty-six, and I came to realize after a disastrous six weeks that I needed to date closer to my age. From this, I created the 'No Twenty-Two' rule, which basically meant that one has to apply some math to dating.
Which isn't to say that we had a cliché going where I was ready to commit and she was just looking for a good time. In fact, she married the very next guy she dated, who happened to be my roommate. And she didn't, as the lyric has it, try to kill me. Events unfolded as follows: when she broke up with me, it was with laser precision - no further contact. And I'm the sort of guy that wants to 'be friends,' which she wanted none of. To this day, I have no idea what happened in that relationship.
When it was clear that she and my roommate were really an item, I tried to talk to her one evening, following her out of the apartment as she literally fled from me. She got in her car and - with me standing behind it - started to back out. I got knocked back and realized that I needed to get out of the way.
Good times, good times.
This song also features future PCMA singer Christine Ricardo - Cathy's younger sister - on vocals. As Christine was seventeen at the time, she had the perfect ingenue tone for the countermelody/come-on in the coda. Her voice now is deeper and fuller, of course, but still having an air of knowing innocence - making it perfect for the tales of adult regret and melancholy that make up the bulk of the PCMA lyrics.
I particularly like the rhythm part on this song. I was feeling strong both on bass and guitar, and finally working out the types of Wings-Era-McCartney-inspired arrangements that I liked, where each instrument sketches out a simple, separate part of the interlocking whole.
Ten - In Sunny California
The second 'Only Living Boy in New York' moment on the album, this one inspired by the twins' impending trip to - yes, you guessed it - California. That, plus the insane worship of Brian Wilson shared by them and Erik - and one I never particularly got, myself - fed into an early attempt at a layered narrative, where the music and lyric refer to Brian's Smile era breakdown, which some hold was partly caused by his family/bandmates rejection of his new musical direction. But the secondary narrative is - again - my feeling of abandonment, both musically and socially.
Curiously, this song has a 'happy ending,' at least for the narrator - meaning me. Because the tone is one of strength, the voice of a writer acknowledging the importance of the relationship and the indebtedness to their musical inspiration - Ansley even helped arrange the song, by making the original chorus the bridge - but also finding that he believes more in himself and his own vision than that of anyone else.
The instrumental coda, btw, goes by the name In Rainy California. Naturally.
Eleven - Stop Teaching
This song was never considered as a real contender - most likely because of its unfortunate similarity to Everybody Hurts - so there isn't a complete recording of it. Only this live-to-tape version, presumably from the one and only time I played it for Edz in practice. But I think it's held up well, and more than anything else shows an interesting aspect of this entire album: at some point, I must have considered the possibility of actually taking on the role of frontman/guitarist, in the true indie rock sense.
To me, the most fascinating aspect of all of the recordings from this period is the guitar work, which shows that I had, by that point, put enough thought and face time in with the guitar that I'd developed a genuine functional style. A style that, again, is the most enjoyable thing in hearing all this again, because it's something that I failed to pursue and let erode. I'd come out of Lizard Music tired of keys, and I'd yet to really pick up the bass as my instrument in the band that eventually became Copper Man (although that is me playing all the bass on this album, some of which I rather like), so I for once in my life allowed myself to think of myself as a guitar player.
It was a short period - not even a year - but I'm very glad I have a record of it.
That's it. There are a couple of other songs from this period, some of which I haven't yet found and might or might not end up on some 'final' version of the 'album,' and some of which - like the 12-minute klezmer/prog workout Jakob Kurtzberg Meets His Maker - are too far out of the mood of the rest of the material to fit comfortably. And hopefully, as part of this giant reclamations project, I'll eventually find all of the original multi-track tapes and get better mixes. But still, for those of you who actually sat through all of this, thanks for playing.