Wednesday, October 24, 2007

2x: 5. Body Of Mine

This track turned out to be one of my favorite recordings. The deep bass and electric piano give it a really dark mood for me.

Track 5: Body Of Mine
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Body Of Mine

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass
  • K.B.: electric piano
  • D.P.: drums
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (BEADGC), electric piano, drum programming

This was probably the most difficult song to match the timing to the existing acoustic guitar and vocal tracks. There are 49 tempo changes in the sequencer file, and it's still not quite locked. But I'm not too bothered by the looseness -- it still seems to have some feel.

I'm really happy with the way the noodling on the piano turned out. Its movement, ornaments and chromatic passing notes here and there add real spice, I think.

There's a double quote of Take the A Train at 3:09 under the lyrics "Underneath my feet the rumble of the A Street Train"*. In the first quote the bass echoes the main A Train theme ("You... must take the A Train"), but in root position of the I-minor of this song, as opposed to the second inversion position of I-major in A Train. At the same time, the second quote has the piano playing the standard first bar comping chords of A Train (third inversion of the VIm7 in A Train, which is Im7 here) but with a rhythm that fits here. Sounds kind of like a train horn, too.
*Of course, after working on the album for five years, I finally realized that the real lyric is "the 8th Street train", not "A Street". Haha. Oh well. Extra clever to quote A Train under "8th Street Train", then.

The bass and drums are pretty much rhythmically locked throughout this track. But as they play the same rhythmic figures, the piano has most of its rhythmic interest in the spaces the bass and drums leave.

There's a twist on the "delayed chorus accent", here -- an "anticipated chorus accent". The main chorus accent comes on the "and" of four of the bar preceding the first chorus group bar (and other chorus bars, too, with lesser emphasis).

Next: 2x: 6. Don't Try

Thom's Journal -- Body Of Mine

In the fall of 1996, it had started to sink in that one relationship was truly over and the new one might be a dead end. I was living in the Glebe, in downtown Ottawa, and working for Nortel (then Bell Northern Research) way out in the west end of Nepean. The long bike commute every morning and evening provided ample fodder for lyrics writing.

It was a moody time for me and I tossed a lot of lyrics around, bits and pieces that never really gelled into a fully formed composition. It finally all came together on a trip to New York City to visit my distant and mostly absent love.

There was no going back and, at times, I felt like there was no going forward and I just couldn't fathom being happily single because so much of my identity and self-esteem was wrapped up in other people.

Fortuitously, Ferron happened to have a show at New York University, which I went to, alone. The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I got the majority of the song together in a hotel room in Newark, New Jersey and polished it up when I got back to Ottawa.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

2x: 4. Life Is A Circle

Time to slow things down a little...

Track 4: Life Is A Circle
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Life Is A Circle

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • K.B.: organ, synthesizer, background vocal
  • D.P.: congas
  • E.G.: shaker
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretless bass (BEADGC), organ, synthesizer, cat toy, drum programming, background vocals

Listening to the transparent, finger-picked acoustic and the somewhat spastic congas, I decided this track needed some kind of constant ground rhythm. It needed shaker! Johanne had recently bought a new toy for the cats: two balls wrapped in and joined together with twine. I remember thinking how great they sounded. So I set up a mic at head-height, figured out how to hold the balls and move them to get an even recording, and hit the big red button. But I'd forgotten that this song is six minutes long, and by the end my arm was about ready to fall off. Of course I could have stopped at any time and just copied what I had to the rest of the track... but I had such a great take going!

This arrangement has another brand new theme on the organ. The first entry (1:17) is a simple legato statement, with one subtle grace note embellishment. The second statement (1:55) adds a harmony note or two, has some staccato and glisses up to a higher note toward the end. The third (final) statement (3:25) adds more harmony notes and embellishes the melody with more runs, including a nice parallel thirds run at 3:29.

This was the only song I was able to get a decent standalone recording of my Alembic fretless. On all the other songs the recording (not the playing, honestly) sounded like krep. Breaks my heart.

Did we really need that blues fill on the bass at 4:43? Probably not. Too bad, it's my recording.

Two organ parts appear right at the end. They're variations of the original organ theme, played in different octaves and offset in time. The time offset is intended to be suggestive of a Simple Canon (aka a Round, like Row-Row-Row-Your-Boat), but I made the repetitions imperfect in various ways. That is, "the ending is a round, but not very circular", a kind of bad musical pun on the lyrics.

The organ parts at the end also have their reverb sends pre-fader. So as the volume of the organs fades, their reverb doesn't (making it sound like they're moving farther away). I didn't actually intend to do this, but I ended up starting to like it before I got around to fixing it.

Next: 2x: 5. Body Of Mine

Thom's Journal -- Life Is A Circle

In the summer of 1997, I packed up my little Ford Escort station wagon with all my earthly possessions -- save a few boxes of memorabilia I left at my parents' house -- and my sons Bryen and Patrick and we headed south.

I had no idea where I would end up or what I would do when I got there, but I knew Ottawa wasn't working for me. The lyrics for this song started to gel as we made our way across Tennessee. I finished it that same night in a campground in Louisiana while my boys slept.

I never really thought of myself as an unhappy person, but I was definitely chasing something that would turn out to be unattainable until I straightened out my own twisted psyche. The idea that life was roughly circular, but irregularly so, even as I was just setting out on what would end up being a six-year adventure, was perhaps my very first inkling that there is no such thing as a geographic cure for what ails you. No matter where you are or what you do, there can be no peace as long as it is the same old you who is there and doing it. That is a song for the next CD, however.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

2x: 3. It Goes On

This song is the first on the album to feature electric guitar. We were lucky enough to get my favorite guitarist of all time to contribute tracks: please welcome Christian Chénier.

Track 3: It Goes On
Thom's songwriting journal entry for It Goes On

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V. -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B. -- bass, background vocal
  • D.P. -- drums, background vocal
  • E.G. -- lead electric guitar, background vocal
  • K.B. -- rhythm electric guitar1, background vocal
  • guest -- rhythm electric guitar2, background vocal
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker -- fretted bass (CEADGC), drum programming, background vocals, acoustic guitar note
  • Christian Chénier -- electric guitars

This song has a simple, common verse form (I-VI-III-VII in A-minor) stated simply on the acoustic. Chris came up with a really nice melodic rhythm electric theme which, along with the walking bass, provides movement and interest over top of the acoustic ground.

The guitar solo in this song is one of my favorites. It overlaps the end of the bridge, climbing to the official start of the solo section where it just soars. Lots of classic Chénier double/triple-stops and varied articulations throughout. More opposite motion between the bass and solo at 02:22 (guitar down, bass up) and 02:38 (guitar up, bass bottoming out to low C). There's more subtle rhythmic interplay among the drums, bass and guitar throughout, as well (for example, at 2:19 the snare's eighth+sixteenths figure is echoed quickly in the solo and then bass). Finally, instead of ending the solo at the final reprise of the chorus, Chris just keeps noodling right through the end. Very artsy.

With all the mids in this arrangement, the acoustic has been eq'd out almost to the point of being a percussion instrument. This lets the acoustic speak (great example at 01:03) without it taking up space in the mix.

I always heard an A-minor-ninth instead of A-minor on the last chord, but we didn't think of it when we were recording the acoustic. Over time I decided I couldn't live without the ninth at the end. So long after all the other tracks were recorded, I finally mic'd up my own acoustic and added one note: the open B string.

Rhythmic gimmick:
  • 01:25 (bass + drums + vox)
  • 02:54 (bass + drums)
  • 03:12 (bass + drums)
  • 03:22 (bass + drums)
The delayed chorus accent is similar to We Cherish Our Scars: The chorus is again grouped 2+2+2(+2), with the delayed accent coming on the "and" of two in the second bar of the first three groups. The delay is itself delayed in the fourth group -- you expect it on the "and" of two after the eighth notes on 1, 1-and and 2, but the eighth notes keep chugging over 2-and right through to the one of the next bar. The 2-and accents are given by snare, bass octave and electric guitar.

Next: 2x: 4. Life Is A Circle

Thom's Journal -- It Goes On

As long as I've been self-aware, I have struggled with the impossibility of my own existence. Most of the time, it's simply a nagging doubt easily set aside in the busy activities of daily life. However, there have been times when it has become an almost frantic, paralyzing obsession.

The worst of these periods was a 1996 episode in Boston, Massachusetts. I was quite sick, but even worse, I couldn't get it out of my head that the existence of anything, much less sentient thought, is simply not possible. I spent three days in a hotel room. I did not move from the bed. It was so overwhelming I started trying to will myself out of existence.

When it was time to go home and I still existed, I got up and started writing this song. It would sit on the shelf, however, until the next episode hit me on Christmas Eve 1998. I had popped by a favourite pub where watching the patrons and bartender, I developed a longing for female companionship. That was not to be. Later, in my empty Austin apartment, I was quite enjoying cultivating a lovely, bittersweet melancholy and a hangover for Christmas morning. It was, I think, the first time in my 35 years I was alone Christmas Eve. Then I crashed into that manic spiral of existential doubt.

I woke up Christmas morning and finished the song before going to the airport in Dallas to pick up my sons.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Thom's Journal -- We Cherish Our Scars

Perhaps the best line I've ever come up with.

The first time I ever felt vulnerable in the world was an incident that happened when I could not have been more than four years old. An older boy threatened me while I was playing in the park at Deshaye Elementary School across the street from our house on Cameron Crescent in Regina, Saskatchewan. He was wearing a ring that he said shot lightning bolts and he would use it on me. I ran back to the house where my mom gave me an elastic band to wear on my finger that would deflect the lightning bolt back at him. I went back to the park and told him about my defence against his potential lightning attack and he punched me in the face.

Life is a collection of victories and defeats. For me, the good and the bad can be equally compelling. I was told several years before I wrote this song, during a particularly devastating break-up, there was a sadness in me she just couldn't abide any more. For a long time, I thought it was something that needed fixing, but after grappling with it extensively, I realized it is a part of me I really like and a significant part of who I am.

I don't know how universal the feeling is, but I suspect I am far from alone in cherishing my scars.


2x: 2. We Cherish Our Scars

Track 2: We Cherish Our Scars
Thom's songwriting journal entry for We Cherish Our Scars

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V. -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B. -- bass, background vocal
  • K.B. -- organ
  • D.P. -- drums
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker -- fretted bass (DEADGC), organ, drum programming, background vocal

The organ on the post-chorus breaks is a new theme for this arrangement. The motion opposite the bass is straight out of the tertian harmony textbook, and it works like a charm.

The bass in the verses and chorus is much simplified in rhythm from older arrangements. The plain rhythms in the bass and organ are an attempt to reign in the busy acoustic rhythm. The drums are still probably too busy. Oh well. The bass rhythm in the verses also fore-echoes the accent delay in the choruses, with sustained high harmony notes accenting the "and" of beat two.

This arrangement also introduces a gimmick common to the up-tempo songs on the album. Drums and bass (and sometimes organ or guitar) come together to reinforce the rhythm on fills. It's almost overdone here, occurring at:
  • 00:21 (bass + drums)
  • 00:37 (bass + drums)
  • 01:08 (bass + drums)
  • 01:53 (bass + drums)
  • 02:20 (organ + bass + drums)
  • 03:18 (bass fill + drum accents)
The delayed chorus accent here is even more syncopated than in Even After All This Time. The chorus is 8 bars, grouped 2+2+2(+2). The drums are again responsible for the syncopation, this time delaying the accent to the "and" of beat two in the second bar of each of the first three groups. The first bar of each group houses snare and tom flailing but the drums mostly ignore beat one of the second bar. The accent (cymbals) is delayed until the and of beat two (right after the words "time" and "heart"). The fourth 2-bar group is a walk (bass and organ) up to the post-chorus section.

Next: 2x: 3. It Goes On

Thom's Journal -- Even After All This Time

In the fall of 2001, I was driving back from Houston to Austin. I had been living in Texas for three years, but still marvelled at how different the sky looked after having spent most of my life in Canada. I stopped at a roadside pullout to take in the familiar constellations tilted in their southern way above the scrubby chaparral landscape.

As I contemplated the universe, my thoughts turned to a long-term, long-distance relationship that I still viewed as current although we hadn't seen each other and had barely even talked in more than a year. We never really broke up, per se, but on that lonely stretch of road I started coming to terms with the fact that it was ending nonetheless.

Most of the lyrics came together by the time I could see the glow of Austin on the horizon. As soon as I got home, I pulled out my guitar. The music came just as easily because the mood was so sweetly melancholic.

She remained the love of my life until I met my present wife and it is still the only failed relationship I can look back on in only positive terms.


Thom's Journal -- Twice the Usual

In the summer of 1996, I was out at Jim Albert's cabin in Québec for a long weekend. My friends Paul and Laura and I went out for a paddle in Paul's canoe. The passage of the boat through the water felt a little sluggish and I commented on it. Paul came back with: "Well, you're twice the usual amount of baggage we normally carry."

Twice the Usual instantly became the working title for a new collection of songs I had started writing while my last CD, The Forest for the Trees, 1995, was in production.

I half expected the title would change by the time we got around to producing the new album, but as my personal baggage continued to increase over the years, Twice the Usual became all the more appropriate.

During and since we recorded my acoustic guitar and vocal parts for this album in 2002, through much internal strife, a self-imposed three-and-a-half years of solitude and a complete overhaul of my emotional, spiritual and professional well-being, I have finally managed to slough off all that old baggage.

This collection of songs, a.k.a. 2x, as my brother Ken likes to abbreviate it, now serves as a poignant cautionary tale.


Monday, October 8, 2007

2x: 1. Even After All This Time

This is the first track on the album, so let me describe how I see this playing out. Each track gets its own post, which starts with a link to a downloadable .wma of the track and a link to Thom's journal for the song. The recordings are unmastered, so you might need to ride the volume knob. And you might have to play with the eq on your system to tame the bass or treble. You can just listen to the song and leave it at that. Or if you're interested in obscure minutiae, you can read further for a description of what went into the arrangement and recording of the track.

Oh, and comments are open, so have at it!

Track 1: Even After All This Time
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Even After All This Time

Virtual Ensemble

  • A.V. -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B. -- bass, background vocal
  • K.B. -- organ, background vocal
  • D.P. -- drums, background vocal
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker -- acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker -- fretted bass (DEADGC), organ, drum programming, background vocals

I wanted to start the album with just Thom on acoustic and vocal (ok, there's hats in there too). The "band" comes in after the first verse.

I didn't plan on putting so much organ on the album, but I couldn't help myself.

I also didn't plan on using a delayed accent in the chorus of so many songs, but it just happened. And I think the syncopated chorus turns out to be a bit of a unifying theme on the album (though not really obvious, I guess). Here, the chorus is already unusual: 8 bars grouped 3+3+2. The big accents are delayed by the drums to beat three of the first bar of each group. They start with a toms fill around beat two of the preceding bar. The toms fill completely ignores beat one of the first bar of the chorus group, playing through beats one and two to land the accent (cymbals) on beat three.

And yes, the "blue" C-natural (flat 7) on the bass at 2:45 and 2:53 is intentional; how can you not like it? It's sour.

Next: 2x: 2. We Cherish Our Scars

Saturday, October 6, 2007

2x: The Recording

As I mentioned earlier, we recorded the main acoustic guitar tracks and lead vocals for the album in my apartment in Austin. Christian Chénier recorded the electric guitar tracks in Ottawa and transfered them by ftp. I recorded everything else at Art Facts Studio, a.k.a. the attic of my house.

I recorded either direct or with the large-diaphragm AKG C3000B through a Mackie LM3204 into an M-Audio Audiophile 2496 at 24 bits, 44.1kHz. I used n-Track Studio for both tracking and sequencing, and Tascam Gigastudio 3 Orchestra for most of the virtual instruments. My controllers were a Yamaha KX88 and an Evolution UC33e. I monitored through Yamaha NS-10 and Event ALP 5 nearfields.

Eventually I'll do a separate post for the full list of instruments and libraries.

Next: 2x: 1. Even After All This Time

2x: The Album

All the songs on Twice the Usual (2x) were written for voice and acoustic guitar by Thom. But he left me free to arrange them however I wanted. I didn't want to deviate too far from the singer/songwriter thing, so I tried to arrange them for a small ensemble playing together. The "musicians" would trade tasks, pick up loose instruments, but the arrangements would not go beyond the available musicians in the ensemble.

This virtual ensemble consisted of five musicians:
  • A.V. -- acoustic guitar, lead vocals
  • B.B. -- electric basses
  • K.B. -- keyboards
  • D.P. -- drums and percussion
  • E.G. -- electric guitars
As many of the five could sing background vocals as needed. Most of the cases that seem to be violations of the ensemble can be accounted for by K.B. playing acoustic on songs without keyboards, E.G. playing bass, etc. The two exceptions are the song It Goes On (with three electric guitar parts) and Don't Try (where I completely abandoned trying to stick to the ensemble).

Next: 2x: The Recording