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Music Production: Covers
11/10/2005 Covers: Victoria Williams

A friend asked me to do this back in the spring, and what with everything going on in my life, I wasn't terribly productive on it. Part of the problem was picking a track (I find the Van Dyke Parks production on her first record--first couple of records?--to be impenetrable, so there's not much of a way into those songs for me), although once I recalled "You R Loved," I knew I wanted to do it. It's simple enough, so it was mine to screw up.

I worked out the chord progression pretty quickly, but the question then is one of interpretation. Just me playing the tune in the same arrangement doesn't add anything to the cultural marketplace. OK, different playing style and a much lower vocal, but that alone wouldn't make such a version worth listening to. So, what to do? This question lingered nearby for months.

Gradually I started thinking of doing a Silkworm-influenced version, in part because I love that band, and in part out of thinking about the tragic death of Michael Dahlquist. This wasn't an appropriate tribute to that great man, however, especially as I tracked the guitars to a boom-chick MIDI drum track. It was clearly not going to work.

Well, what about a uke version? Or alternating uke and guitar? Maybe...not. Those didn't work much, either. Finally I started thinking I'd slow it down and do a Bedhead-influenced approach, with three guitar tracks playing minimally, then getting denser on the second chorus. I did a few takes of these, and they kind of worked in a loose way.

Some weeks later, I figured I'd track the vocal, and picked an evening when I'd be alone in the apartment, to avoid losing a take to unplanned sounds. This was, alas, a hot evening in August, and the windows were open, so I wouldn't be able to sing it at full power. I'd have to keep things quiet, which led me to thinking that the piece should be even slower. I did a number of vocal takes, trying to get a handle on this, hit some licorice root tea (great for sore or fatigued throats, which is a real problem for me, as my voice has decent tone, but very little durability), and kept at it. My biggest problem was on the high notes, which I'd ordinarily hit by taking the volume up, but with the windows open, I wasn't about to do that, so I kept to a lower range. I also thought to pull out the old Astatic crystal mic, which I used on several additional vocal takes on another track. It seemed kind of cool to do these alternate takes without listening to the regular tracks, to avoid tight unison. Finally, the Astatic shorted out, and that was the evening. I still have to solder it.

I did a mix of this session which the tribute organizer liked, but I just wasn't happy with the vocal and decided to retrack. More time went by with other things, and listening to this again, I realized that the problem wasn't the vocal, but the guitars, which were too dense. I went back and redid them around the vocal, and ended up with three takes that weren't bad, and often complemented each other, but which also sometimes clashed. Rather than retake, I just punched out the problematic notes, and suddenly I had more space. When all three guitars hit at the same time, there's a nice piano-like tonality. I went back through the vocal takes, and among the later takes were indeed better vocals.

Some nights later, I looked harder at the MIDI drum track, and added some changes to it as the song went on, so that it was a bit less mechanical and more like an actual drummer getting bored playing the same thing, and adding little touches here and there. Still, something was missing, so I dropped in a Hammond-like drone behind everything, and I had something...almost. One guitar note really bugged me--it was either sharp or flat, and it was important, so I couldn't just notch it out. I split that note out and raised and lowered the pitch, trying to find the problem, finally deciding it was six cents flat. Then several mixes, trying to balance everything right, and we were done. Next day, off in the mail, and the organizer (and her cats) liked it. (Strange, because I usually scare cats.)

A few days later, I listened to the original and realized that I'd dropped a third iteration of the bridge and chorus, but oh well--my version was already plenty long from being so slow. So I really was done, and you can hear it here.

06/30/2000 Covers: Jandek cover

Turns out that the Jandek cover didn't make it in. An mp3 file is available here. Be warned that the drum machine sucks and the solo is overlong.

05/23/2000 Covers: TV cover

Finished the cover for the Tom Verlaine/Television tribute. It's available here.

For the gear geeks among us, here's the lineup: lead guitar: Univox Hi-Flyer (Mosrite copy) through Kalamazoo Model Two tube amp (with attenuator); rhythm guitar: late 60's Kalamazoo solidbody (Mustang copy) through the same amp; keyboard: $20 Farfisa Compact; bass: generic Japanese Epiphone boatanchor (great neck, though); drums: BOSS DR-660; mic: generic Audio Technica knockoff of a Shure SM-57. All of it was recorded on a Fostex cassette 4-track running at 3 3/4 ips, and mixed to a PowerBook running Sound Sculptor II. The vocals, bass, and the overall mix went through the truly fine FMR Audio RNC and the mp3 was encoded using N2MP3.

05/23/2000 Covers: Jandek cover

Still no word on whether the Jandek cover's in or out. Well, you'll have that. Why haven't I updated in quite a while? You can click here to find out.

03/27/2000 Covers: Jandek cover

The Jandek cover was a success from my point of view, at least--the guitar sounds good (not direct, but recorded with mic and amp at very late hours--thanks to the attenuator I put in the Kalamazoo Model Two amp) and the performance is acceptable. I could have used more reverb in the mix, but live and learn. Structurally, it was a useful exercise to do, since the original has nonstandard verse lengths, at-will chord changes, and some other entertaining features. Putting my own structure and arrangement on it was fun, and a useful education. I have to agree with certain members of the Jandek mailing list that there's no point in doing a cover that's just a Jandek impersonation. In general I'd argue that the only reason to do a cover is to prove that you can add something to the song, to reinterpret it. I'm not sure if it's going to make the final cut, so I may put up an .mp3 of this for the truly curious.

03/27/2000 Covers: TV cover

Now on to the Tom Verlaine cover for the Marquee Moon Mailing List tribute.

02/20/2000 Covers: Jandek cover

Much of my latest cultural activity has been to work on a cover of Jandek's "When the Telephone Melts" for a tribute CD.

01/16/2000 Covers: Jandek cover

I've got commitments to do tunes for the Jandek tribute and the Television (the band) tribute. Again, watch this space. The Jandek's been an interesting challenge, but I'm over the hump now.

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Live at Black Forge, January 2, 2016
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Output
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