Sunday, November 25, 2007

2x: 9. No Forever

Finally cowbell.

Track 9: No Forever
Thom's songwriting journal entry for No Forever

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • E.G.: electric guitar
  • K.B.: organ
  • D.P.: drums
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (BEADGC), organ, drum programming, background vocal
  • Christian Chénier: electric guitars

No Forever almost didn't make it on to the album (along with Don't Try). Here is the actual email conversation (with minor edits to clean up the language):
  • TB: dude, do you remember why we're not doing no forever on this CD?
  • KB: On your original list it was in the "maybe" section. When I created my list from your list you told me not to put it on. There was some question whether it fit musically with the rest of the songs. I don't really see why it wouldn't. But if we're going to add songs from the "maybe" section, I'm definitely going to have to vote for "Don't Try". That trak rawks! (Honestly, I think it's a mistake to leave it off).
  • TB: what was i thinking? why don't you tell me these things ... it's not like i know what i'm doing or anything!
  • KB: I think I would have mentioned them eventually. So do you want to add both No Forever and Don't Try?
  • TB: yeah, let's add 'em, it's not like we've got a big record company breathing down our necks or anything
This is really one of the few "radio-friendly" tracks on the album. It comes in at just under 3 minutes. That's because this version is much faster than we used to play it. We first recorded this song about ten years ago with the Thom Barker Band at Sound of One Hand Studio in Ottawa. That recording was way slower. I bet it was almost 4 minutes. I recently found a tape of it, and while the sound quality is way warmer and more professional (recorded through a vintage Neve desk to 2-inch tape), the new recording sports much better performances. Would I trade the new performances for the old sound quality? No. But I wish I could have both.

The cowbell at the beginning and near the end was a very late addition. The single hit cowbell-as-intro is stolen from the Rush song Superconductor.* Believe it or don't. The fast, one-beat intro is a lot more sudden than a four-beat count-in, which adds to the urgent feel of the song. But it's not as cold as no count-in at all. The cowbell intro also prevents the cowbell at the end from sounding isolated and out of context. The three-beat cowbell break at the end comes from a mid-life version of the song. About six years ago we were playing this song with a guitarist and drummer in Austin. We always left that bar empty at the end for the drummer to fill it with some snare/kick fill. One day at rehearsal our drummer threw in this three-beat cowbell, just wailing on the bell. We laughed and laughed until I thought I might pass out. I'm not sure why it was so funny to us, but it obviously affected me. Long after I finished recording the parts for this song, when I was almost ready to close the book on it, I remembered that cowbell and decided to replace whatever boring drum fill I had in its place. Then it was inevitable that I had to replace whatever intro I had (probably a four-beat hats count-in) with the Superconductor ripoff.
*The Superconductor count-in is a cowbell on beat 6 followed by a snare flam on beat 7. So I really only stole half of the intro.

The electric guitar solo is pure, undiluted Chénier at his funniest. I sent him the bed tracks with the instruction "make sure you play that funny solo you used to play." Of course, he didn't know what solo I was talking about. So I sent him a version with the solo (as closely as I could remember it) played on electric piano. Man, did it sound lame. But it was enough to remind him how he played the original. The variety of articulations is what kills me in this short solo: staccato, hammer-ons, bends, slurs, half-harmonics.... It's the whole rock-n-roll bag of tricks emptied out onto the floor and scarfed until our bellies ache.

Next: 2x: 10. Not A Setting Sun

Sunday, November 18, 2007

2x: 8. What Will You Do

Track 8: What Will You Do
Thom's songwriting journal entry for What Will You Do

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

This is another one of the "mood" songs. I find this to be one of the sadder songs on the album and I was going for a pretty dark sound.

The bass in the second and third verses may sound a little busy, hitting with the kick, somewhat portato. But it propels the song a little better in this somewhat dead position on the album. Or maybe I'm just hijacking the album for my own amusement.

Piano appears starting in the second chorus, but more as a percussion instrument to brighten things up. It just pongs out octaves (with a little 9-8 resolution at phrase ends).
During the repetition of the chorus at the end it adds a third/sixth to the resolution notes, making it almost overly sweet.
I thought about adding a ninth to the final chord (as in It Goes On). In a completely uncharacteristic exercise in constraint, I left it out. Once is just right.

Next: 2x: 9. No Forever

Monday, November 12, 2007

2x: 7. The Quiet In Us

Track 7: The Quiet In Us
Thom's songwriting journal entry for The Quiet In Us

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass, background vocal
  • K.B.: piano, background vocal
  • D.P.: shaker, deerskin drum
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted (BEADGC) and fretless basses (EGADGC and BEADGC), piano, cat toy, deerskin drum, background vocals

This is probably the "pleasantest" song on the album, and many of the arrangement choices try to highlight that. In particular, the piano, fretless bass, cat toy shaker and deerskin drum contribute to the nice mood.

As with many of the songs on the album, I wanted fretless on this one, but couldn't get a decent recording of the Alembic. Unlike the others, though, I couldn't live without it here. So the bass track is a mix of fretted and fretless. I played the entire song on both fretted and fretless, EQing the fretless to remove most of its bottom end (which is where I've had the most trouble with the Alembic's recording). I then set a compressor+gate to bring in the fretless with a slow attack only when the high end is strong enough to trigger it. Unless you're listening closely, the result is that the song sounds like the bass is a single fretless track. In reality, the fundamental and low end is almost entirely fretted, with the fretless supplying mid-high frequency on sustained notes.

I've always heard piano in my head on this song. So I finally sat down and just played along with the guitar. What you hear is what came out. I think it fits nicely. I would have liked to play more piano on the album, but most of the songs just didn't seem to want it.

I've also always heard some big-ole drum on the low-G accents. I found an appropriate sample, but had to tune it to G and EQ the heck out of it so its boom didn't dominate the mix. Does it work? Dunno. I think I EQd it out of existence.

The background vocals really needed to blend smoothly to work here. I removed much of their attack (say 20-50ms) so that their entrance is smooth as can be.

The bass progresses from the beginning of the song to the end, as with other tracks on the album. The first verse plays roots, sitting on the G, moving up to C on accents:

The second verse drops down to the third of IV (C):

The third verse combines the two (one C, one E):

Near the end of the third verse, the bass FINALLY walks from the low E up to the G -- something we've been waiting for all song long:
We also have to wait until the final chorus for the bass to finally drop down to the low B. The E-F#-G walk reappears here too.

You have to listen carefully, but the bass plays the five notes preceding the final V7-I cadence as harmonics (C-D-F#-D-A). The harmonics are all natural, but some of them are pretty far up there.

Next: 2x: 8. What Will You Do

Sunday, November 4, 2007

2x: 6. Don't Try

This is the one song where I completely abandoned the small virtual ensemble, adding many more parts than the five virtual musicians could produce. Maybe the ensemble was sitting around the living room and 16 people dropped by to say hello.

Track 6: Don't Try
Thom's songwriting journal entry for Don't Try

Virtual Ensemble
  • A.V.: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • B.B.: bass
  • K.B.: organ
  • E.G.: acoustic guitar
  • D.P.: drums
  • guest: acoustic guitar
  • guest: pipe organ
  • guest: choir
Actual Ensemble
  • Thom Barker: acoustic guitar, lead vocal
  • Ken Barker: fretted bass (C#EADGC), organs, acoustic guitars (EADGBD# and EADG#CE), drum programming, background vocals

The organ intro explicitly acknowledges the influence of Jesus Christ Superstar on the lyrics: it's the main theme from The Last Supper. The B3 organ sound is also reminiscent of the B3 that pervades that song. I knew quite early on in the recording that I wanted to quote Last Supper, but it posed a bit of a problem: Last Supper is in 4/4, but this song is in 6/8. Matching the eighth-note tempo and then unambiguously stating the new time signature with the drums alone for two bars seemed to smooth the transition ok.

The organ melody following the chorus is again a brand new theme. It's only suggestive of the Last Supper theme, but the simple melody and the tonewheel sound remind us of the intro and keep it from feeling abandoned and irrelevant.

Of course the song needed a gospel choir for the chorus. I don't know a gospel choir, so I sang the parts myself. The main choir has eight voices singing standard four-part harmony. After the break I gradually bring in three more wordless parts (two voices each) moving among the main worded parts, giving a total of seven parts, fourteen voices. It would have been nice to have real singers.

This song is kind of unique in that it's in pure Strophic form: it has a single two-bar phrase (I-V-VI-IV) repeated over the entire length of the song. The lyrics break into verses and choruses, but the music repeats the same two-bar pattern in both. To distract from the repetition, the arrangement divides the song into three parts. It builds from the outset to the break, where it gets completely stripped down to acoustic and vocals. After the break it quickly builds up to where it left off and gets bigger and more complex through to the end. The instrumentation builds throughout the entire song. It starts with just organ, then one-at-a-time adds drums, acoustic guitar, bass, lead vocal, choir, two more acoustic guitars, three more choir parts and the pipe organ from the Notre Dame de Budapest Cathedral.

The bass arrangement includes a trick that breaks up the verses and keeps them from feeling too long. The bass theme progresses through successively lower inversions. But the change from one inversion to the next lower inversion occurs half-way through each verse, not between verses. This splits each verse into two shorter verses. After the break, the bass goes back to the highest inversion, but progresses quickly down to where it left off before the break. It then moves to its lowest variation, anchored on the low C#, where it hangs out, bouncing off fills with the drums to the end of the song.

In the verse after the break I needed to fill out the arrangement just a little. The organ comes in half way through the verse, and I really like it there, so I didn't want to bring it in at the beginning of the verse. Instead, I added two more acoustic guitar parts. The altered tunings allowed me to play different voicings of the chords in the same octave, filling things out. The guitars continue through to the end of the song, adding to the building arrangement.

The bass also reminds us of the album's delayed chorus accent thing by overshooting beat one on its downward fills (5:40, 5:51, etc.). The most obvious example is at 6:13, where instead of continuing down, the bass fill turns back upward at beat one, and the drums follow by ignoring the downbeat as well, cymbal-accenting the eighth note following beat one (6:15). This particular "deletion of the bar line" is one of my favorite time tricks on the album.

The plagal (IV-I) cadence at the end is a final nod to the religious theme of the lyrics. It's not an exact plagal cadence, because the bass (electric, organ and choir) hits V-I. I'm sure there's a name for a plagal cadence over a V-I bass, but I searched for it everywhere. Please, if you know the name of this cadence, speak up. It's killing me.

Next: 2x: 7. The Quiet In Us