Song Sources: The Howling Tongue of Each Other (FAWM 2016) part 2

This Song Sources series is a retrospective and comprehensive set of liner notes (including recording and mixing techniques) for every track on The Howling Tongue of Each Other. It’s my hope it will be useful to other songwriters and home recordists.

Part 1 is here. See also the equipment list if you’re curious about that sort of thing.

This covers tracks 5-9.

5. (Caught Between) The Hammer and Nail

This was posted out of order during FAWM because the recording took so long to complete. I sent it to Joe (Scala) for him and Katie to do overdubs and time just got away from us. His harmonies and harmonica were worth the wait. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for Katie to do a third harmony.

I had a note to write a song about carpentry.

carpentershopI don’t know where I got the title from, because I didn’t read it somewhere recently, but I verified by googling that it is a real saying. I cast the narrator as a recovering addict who never quite dealt with the reasons for his descent into addiction in the first place, and he’s teetering on the edge despite having turned his life around because he’s reached a point where it seems like “as good as it gets” just isn’t going to be good enough, and his parents, whose help and guidance he squandered, are gone forever.

This song certainly isn’t about me or my family, but my dad actually was a carpenter for most of the time I was growing up, and among other things, he’s built part of our kitchen, two amp cabinets for me; he really did try to teach me some of it; and I really was a an ungrateful kid sometimes (we all are at times, right?).

There’s some other stuff here … about one generation destroying what came before, but it’s far more complicated than just the main character squandering what little his family had kept through two centuries. I don’t want to give absolutely everything away so I’ll leave some there for others to make of what they will.

I wrote the first verse while running the door for a friend’s concert series on Friday the 12th (it was an Irish show, so of course I wrote a country song while listening to jigs …), and finished them on Saturday the 13th. We had a gig that night with ilyAIMY and Mosno, and I gave the lyrics to Joe and told him, “This is a good one and you will sing on it.”

Okay, I THINK I was a little less forceful than that. But I really did think it was a good one and deserved some better harmonies than what I could provide by just me, and I don’t have a G harmonica because I lost one and my cat … uh … “destroyed” several others (grr). I’m still hoping Katie will be able to add a third harmony; I’ll replace the recording if she does.

Recording/Gear:

The vocal is the junco in omni, but I’m fairly close to it. So no bass cut there. I did add some midrange via SlickEQ with the saturation turned on, at about 2KHz. Since it was kind of a nasally vocal (I mean, intentionally, it’s a country song …), this is counterintuitive, but the saturation actually kind of spread out the nasaliness somehow instead of making it overwhelming. I don’t use EQ all that often on folk-ish track (last year I intentionally left it off of almost everything) except high-passes to get rid of rumble, but the saturation feature on that one is really nice.

The acoustic, mandolin, and banjo are all miced with the ribbon through the Ge preamp, no compression or anything but a little low-cut for the lowest frequencies (I was tapping my foot a little too vigorously!) and some 250Hz taken out of the reverb.

The bass is my normal setup (viola bass, Bearhug + Sakura with the tone rolled off).

I used an OM1 for the room close to the ceiling, and played in different places to give a little extras live-ness. It’s every track, including the vocals and bass (I didn’t forget this time!)

Not sure what Joe used for his vocals and harmonica (done at his house), but it’s probably the MXL 990 I gave him at the beginning of the month. He always blends so well! And the harmonica part was exactly what I wanted.

Lyrics

Verse 1
G
There was a forest here in 1816
Em
When my ancestors settled this town
Am7    /b    C
Strong cedar grew on the ridgeline
G    Em7    D
And a strong current to carry it down
G
My grandfathers cut and planed lumber by hand
Em
and build cabins in the river basin
Am7    /b    C
And they built a mill at the river’s edge
Em(7)    D7    G
And my family’s owned this land ever since

Chorus 1
C    G
I know it was a hard life to live
D    G
All it took was one crop to fail
Em    G    D
An early frost, a drought, or a hail
Em    C    G
And you’re caught between the hammer and nail

Verse 2
So my dad became a carpenter by trade
He fell into it just like his fathers did
Tried to teach me everything, what little he knew
but he raised one hell of an ungrateful kid
He and mom stayed up late when I was out
Almost every single night for a year
But one day he said we all have our limits
There’s some advice that I want you to hear

Chorus 2
He said son one day you will find
Life don’t have to be long to turn stale
The rest of your life spent chasing your tail
You’ll be caught between the hammer and nail

Verse 3
And it’s been ten years since they both passed away
Almost sold the house ‘fore I got clean
Married a girl I bet I don’t deserve
We’ve got a son of our own turning three
And though I once told her things would improve
I’m a carpenter now in my own way:
I can see my lies carved into Sarah’s face
I take a little of her hope every day

Chorus 3
It’s been an early winter this year
And the snow turns the cedars pale
It’s a fact in this life that all loves will fail
When they’re caught between the hammer and nail

6. If Our Cities Became Piles of Rubble

For my wife, Lexa, who loves bears and who I would totally survive the end of the world with, even though it’s not really her type of song so I don’t know if she’ll like it.

I was feeling a little out of sorts and emotionally disconnected to what I was writing otherwise this month even when the results were fun. It’s a little early in the month to get like that! So I resolved, on the way home from work on Monday 2/8, to just write whatever ridiculous thing I could think of and just have fun on the writing part.

So here’s a story about two people who survive the big one. They move out to the mountains, perform geological miracles, experiment with evolution, meet some bears and wolves, give language and writing to humans, and when they die they’re worshiped as gods by people who eventually figure out how to do these things themselves, and it starts all over.

In retrospect, even though I wrote other songs that I definitely liked, this was the one that consistently got me and felt most personal, so it’s the song I drew the title of the album from.

Appalacian Hemlock-Dominated Forest

Heaven, of a sort.

Again, experimenting a little with ignoring classic rhyme schemes, in this case nearly going to free verse. The rhymes are primarily incidental, but there is are long delayed rhymes between certain parts of the paired verses, and the last line of each verse, of course. I would have thought this was a problem for memorization, but I had actually memorized most of the times by the time I finished tracking the vocals, except a few places where the words changed in the moment.

Equipment/Recording:

There aren’t a lot of tracks or layers on this one, but I still got to have some fun on the production side.

I wanted this to sound a little like a tape deck recording, of a live band at that, without the hassle of digging out my Tascam 4-track. I went for folk-punk-meets-Waterboys on the arrangement, though a friend on FB had suggested the if you’re writing about absurd things then TMBG is the proper template. Maybe next time!

I set up one of the OM1s at the opposite end of the room from where I’d be working and left it on for a few tracks the tracks to get some roominess.

The acoustic (Tennessee) is mic’ed with the Seenheiser MK4 with the germanium and FET preamps chained to get a tiny bit of clipping on the front end and to avoid the need for a compressor during mixdown, which I thought would take away too much edge from the rhythm guitar (whereas the preamp clipping adds more without overdriving the converters).

For the lead vocals, again going back to the “sounds a little like a tape deck recording,” I used the chained pres for distortion, and I wanted to be sure I used a dynamic mic. The obvious call was a stage dynamic, but the RE-20 is just a better fit for my voice (it’s what I use live). If I were going hard on the mid-90s lo-fi sound, I would have used the 935, but here it was just a little too boxy sounding. I also experimented a bit with which preamps got chained — the ART sounded “too good” in that the high end was too crisp, but the FET had more weight and clipped a little sooner, so I stuck with about the same setup as the acoustic guitar got, which was probably a better call for consistency anyway. It was a little much distortion on its own, so it’s blended a little more heavily with the room mic than the acoustic is.

The piano is the FP4 with some presets I made in Logic to get it to sound more like an upright and very very light compression for the peaks.

The bass is my standard when I don’t have to go direct — through the Bearhug into Sakura, and a bit of peak controlling compression in the DAW. The electric guitar was the same way but with a little overdrive from the Snowday and a tiny bit of slapback.

Drums are Drummer+programming as usual. I wanted to use the “East Bay Kit” in Logic, because it’s a very “small” sounding kit, but I ended up using the Portland kit because there was some weird phasey effect on the snare in the East Bay that I found distracting with the snare-heavy beat.

One final little trick I starting using is carving out some lower midrange (usually around 250Hz) from the reverb to get rid of some mud. This has, I think, been a pretty big improvement for busier mixes.

sorry2c20bears

Here is a picture of a bear eating one of our salmon.

Lyrics
D    G
If our cities became piles of rubble
D    A
because people couldn’t learn to live in peace
when the soot descended and the sky opened
we’ll stand in the street and blink in the sun
and see ourselves for the first time in weeks
If we’re the sole survivors

And you and I would move to the mountains
We’d find the biggest oak you’ve ever seen
We’d cut it down with our bare hands
and build a better house than all those rich folks
whose bank accounts went south
when the world was broken and shattered

G    A    D
And you and I will face it together

And in the autumn when we get hungry
after the frost destroys our apple trees
We would change the course of a mountain stream
reshape the land and send it down to the sea
And stand in the delta and tell our stream to grow
until it became a mighty river

And when the salmon came to our river
We’d breed them as big as they were on Pangea
And the bears would come before they hibernate
and we’d tell the bears this is our river now
and you’ll have to find a new one to fish in
And that’s how we’d get through the winter

You and I will face it together
And when we finally encounter other people
We’ll still speak English and still know how to write
But the words will have changed after all those years
Except names like California
So we’ll draw alphabets in the dirt
And teach them to write and remember

And at night when the wolf packs howled
I’d become the moon’s own silver light
I’d howl back at the wolves standing on the hills
And they’d look up at me and wonder
like people did once and we’d understand
The howling tongue of each other

And you and I will face it together
And one day we too will crumble
We’ll bury each other and mark our own graves
And they’ll be a sacred place for millennia
They’ll tell stories as if we were gods
til one day they realize we were just people
like them
It seem nothing lasts forever

But as long as we face it together

Ending:
D G    A
D    G    A
D

7. In an Iron Shell (Seimas, January 1, 1991)

This was an assignment given to me by Joe. He relayed a story to me that a Russian tank operator refused an order to attack the civilians barricading the Seimas council building in Vilnius.

I read up more on the history of it (I did vaguely remember some of the general facts leading up to Lithuania’s independence), and it’s fairly typical of the final years of the Soviet Union and its satellite states: economic turmoil leading to protests, and the SSSR loses control of the situation and eventually the territory.

memorialasI couldn’t find the actual story of the tank operator that Joe was referring to, and the order refusal isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article or other accounts that I was able to find, but the column of tanks did turn around and leave when they reached the barricades.

More than a dozen people were killed during the protests.

I decided to make my tank operator grow up in a party-supporting family, but not one that’s particularly well off; he pretends he’s a good soldier when he’s little, and joins the military to put food on the table, around the time Gorbachev comes into power and institutes glasnost and the Perestroika programs.

A lot could be written about the complicated nature of Soviet occupied countries; but one thing that is a major issue is that there really are many people who identify as as speak Russian, and it’s been a source of unrest right up to the present day (most recently in Ukraine). Russia dispatched their military in part, at least by their reports, to “protect” the Russophone population, and protect might not really need scare quotes there on some level.

Anyway, this could turn into a book if I really get into it, so if you’re interested, look up Bloody Sunday, Lithuania, 1991.

The chord structure was lifted in part from Katyusha, a famous Russian World War II song.

Brief gloss: Bajkal was the Soviet equivalent of Coca Cola; you can still buy it I believe. Kalev was a very popular candy manufacturer in Estonia. Perestroika is reconstruction, one of Gorbachev’s programs. Seimas was the council building (I hope I pronounced it right).

This is one of those songs that at some point I’ll regret being unable to recreate live.

Equipment/technique:

The guitar is the Larravee miced with the ribbon at 1′ and the Junco 47 as the overhead (in omni). I left the Junco on and tracked the bass with the RE20 at the cab, so there’s some room coming from those two. I (once again) forgot to turn on the room mic when I did the mandolin, so I had to add some of the DAW’s room verb to that.

The vocals are the Junco in omni with the larger bass cut (140Hz), and I cut the bass a little more and brought up the 2KHz a couple decibels to give it a little more of a “talking in a can” effect. The vocals are sidechained to the guitar and mandolin to keep them out of the way of the lyrics.

The choir is all me. It’s only four-part harmony but some of the parts are doubled or slightly different. The opening wasn’t particularly good but I think I did a decent enough job elsewhere. I didn’t do anything to these except stick them in a medium hall. (I am pretty proud of hitting the Eb … and the frigging *C* two octaves below middle C, which is now the lowest note I’ve ever sung; previously I had hit the C#.)

Creating the Russian exchange in the middle was fun. I was trying to think of how to go about this. My wife and I both speak Russian, but I decided to hold a conversation with Google Translate instead, which will speak words you either input or have it translate. It also sounds a little robotic, which worked for effect. Unfortunately, it was also woman’s voice (so in the end i might as well have asked Lexa), so I pitch shifted it. The other voice is me, pitch shifted very slightly to make me sound different. The radios are run through Izotope’s Vinyl, which is proving stupidly useful for instant lo-fi and noise.

Lyrics

Cm
I recall what it’s like to be small
Gm    Cm
As a boy in an iron shell
Eb    Bb    Bb7
And mother, laughing, would say her soldier was the best
Cm    G7    Cm
I’d keep our Mother safe from the west
F    C
Bajkal when I was thirsty
Dm    Am
Kalev when I did well
C    G
A kitchen pot for a helmet
Am    E    Am
I was a boy in an iron shell

But it’s become a perplexing world
Our books teach us to reserve any hopes
The iron curtain is shrinking and soon will be down
And many drink as if hoping to drown
We are finished with 5-year plans
Perestroika might fail in its turn
Many friends as we lyingly called them for years
Leave in anger and never return
I am a man in an iron shell
And I fear my fellow man
Those who cannot see beyond themselves
I am a man in an iron shell

But one can stomach only so much debt
So when I came of age I took a pledge
And as imagined when a child I served in a tank
And such service gave me metals and a rank
Always a protector to my fault
I believed that’s what others would want
But at Seimas no comrades nor countrymen would wait
Only barricade upon barricade
I am a man in an iron shell
Fearfully awaiting a command
I fear the darkness in my own soul
I am a man in an iron shell

Eb    Bb7
I recall the oath that I once swore
Eb    Bb7    Cm
But I know what it’s like being poor
Eb    Bb7
When you buy with a hundred what used to cost one
Eb    G7    GmM#11
And secretly we know that we are done

Through the periscope they look so small
And I recall what it’s like being small
Outside I hear songs over the radio’s crackling
And we refused the command to attack
I’m a man in an iron shell
And I fear my fellow man
I fear others and I fear myself
I’m a man in an iron shell

8. You Gotta Walk Right

Track credits:
Vocal and mandolin: Me
Vocal, resonator, and harmonica: Rick
Guitar: Mark Brine

I had an itch to do a country blues song as a brain cleanser and to have some fun after doing a lot of heavy or complicated tracks; the weekly challenge, “direction” (which can mean more than one thing, right?), gave me an idea; and a local musician I greatly respect, Mark Brine, agreed to play guitar on it. I sometimes tell my musician friends that if I like them, eventually I will try to imitate them, and I went hard on the “imitation” here, basically trying to write what I thought a Mark Brine song would sound like coming out of me.

Mark is a bit under the weather but ripped a solo like a champ, and had good pointers to give throughout the hour we were recording, especially an arrangement note so that his guitar solo would be audible. I can’t thank him enough for playing on it, and making a long drive in the cold to do this for me. I hope to be able to pay him back in some way in the future.

If you like country blues, even a little bit, I urge you to check out Mark’s music. He’s not just some guy who does it. He IS that music.

My buddy and bandmate Rick brought his resonator and harps along and switched instruments in the middle of the song a couple times, and added some awesome harmonies.

The lyrics are super simple, but I actually put quite a bit of thought into them. I wanted them to be assertive without being aggressive, in keeping with the chorus idea.

Equipment/technique:

I wanted to do a single mic, but I always have some issues getting the lyrics to stand out when I get too excited, even though I think I sing pretty loud. And especially with three instruments going and all of us unfamiliar with the song, I wanted a safety net. So I used two LDCs in omni (the Junco and the 251). At first I had them as a nearly-coincident pair, with the 251 around nose level and the Junco around my chin, but I ended up moving the 251 about a foot forward and up a couple inches so I could get a little more isolation on the voice (I was still about a foot and a half from the mic at my closest), and the junco down a few inches, so we could get a little more of the guitar in the balance and keep my mandolin from overpowering the other instruments (that thing’s a cannon, seriously).

The Junco is going through the germanium pre, and the 251 is going through the ART.

There’s no stereo information so I added a tiny bit of room reverb and a stereo expander on the master. This actually helps get the vocals in front of the instruments a little, too.

There’s some gentle EQ (SlickEQ) on each track and the reverbs, and a tiny boost to the upper midrange on the 251 to bring out the vocal a little more, and a cut at the extreme low-end to kill the heating system rumble. Klanghelm for the compressor on each track (just a tiny bit), and then a simplified version of my mastering template on the master bus … I didn’t see any reason to use my normal “mastering” template when there were only two tracks, and I wanted it to sound more like an old record, so there’s some Tape effect on early, and then a little magic courtesy of Izotope’s Vinyl.

Lyrics

Verse 1
Well you gotta talk right
That’s what you tell me anyway
Yes you gotta talk right
That’s what you tell me anyway
But it don’t strike me as polite
When you don’t let me have my say

Chorus
Well I ain’t gonna quarrel
Man, I ain’t gonna fight
I don’t need you to tell me
What it means to [talk / think / walk] right

Verse 2
They say you gotta think right
But they don’t care what you do
They say you gotta think right
But they don’t care what you do
I got a good mind
To tell you what I think of you

Verse 3
Well you gotta walk right
That’s what they used to say
Yes you gotta walk right
That’s what they used to say
But I been walking in the light
And can clearly see my way

9. Riddles

Each year (roughly), I try to rewrite an ancient ballad or write a new on in that style, transposing the time, place, or context of the story to try to find something new in it. For instance, for FAWM 2014, I wrote a short version of Hind Horn taking place in rural America in the 1980s, and for 2015 I wrote a new ballad about Henry the V’s victory at Agincourt (and I can’t believe there wasn’t already a ballad for that!).

I wanted to write something vaguely fairy tale-ish, since I had been reading Calvino’s collection of Italian folk tales, and was brainstorming a three-part challenge for the hero to go through involving proving his strength, courage, and wisdom, but I realized that would be far too complicated. When I pared it down to “wise,” the simplest way to do that in rhyme is riddles, which naturally put it into the “Riddles Wisely Expounded” family (Child no. 1). This gave me some structure: The general story (answering riddles to get into bed with someone), the meter (tetrameter … more on that in a second), the use of a suggestive burden (which I simplified to a chorus for length’s sake), and of course the riddles.

I’ll deal with the riddles first. The riddle game predates the song by many centuries. It’s familiar to most people even in modern times thanks to Tolkien.

The riddle to which “mountain” is the answer is almost directly from the rhyme Tolkien gives. The river riddle is another famous/common riddle I’m pretty sure; and the third is basically my own but using common tropes. The combination (and these riddles in particular) are not lifted from the original ballad.

The meter is, usual for a ballad, tetrameter (four-footed verse), written in couplets to boot. Very much NOT my favorite. One of the extremely interesting things to me about the various versions collected by Child is that they do not use tetrameter throughout the entire ballad, but usually switch to it when the riddles come in. I’m not about to do independent research to go into this, and Child didn’t, but that to me suggests that the riddles portion of the ballads are their own, set form, stuck into a framework story from another tradition. This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable assumption. In any case, I decided to keep/mimic this interesting aspect and start out in pentameter before switching over to tetrameter.

The original, or at least most common, burden, involves the phrase “lay the bent to the bonny broom.” This one’s also used in many other ballads, including The Two Sisters (one of the most common ballads; Atlas Obscura had a great article about it recently, actually), and if I tell you that a “bent” is a horn, and that broom is a flower, you can probably fill in the lines yourself. I wanted something a little more understandable, so I just nabbed a couple phrases floating around in my head that were, at bet, tangentially related to the subject matter, as is tradition.

The story is pretty self explanatory, but because I usually like to go a little deeper with the explanation: It takes place in the late 1800s. The guy is a traveling worker, and he meets a semi-mystic woman bathing her feet in the river. The final riddle sounds like a riddle with a different answer (Time), which most people would get wrong, but he listens more carefully to her words and gives the answer she’s actually looking for (which is “love”) and she invites him up to her place for a cup of coffee.

For the music, I went super hard on the “very folky,” as it’s mostly lacking in syncopation and other modernizations, and it uses a simplified scale. Again, not my favorite way of doing things, but it did give it its own sound, and kind of informed how the rest of the arrangement would go.

Recording/Gear

For some dumb reason I decided to do the guitar and vocals together even though I hadn’t fully fleshed out the tune yet. This meant something like 16 full takes (never mind false starts) before I got one I was happy with (there are a couple fixes so it’s not a true “one”-take).

Rick basically learned the song and his harmony part during his drive to my house, banged out the banjo in a couple takes (tuning issues included), and then recorded a great tenor harmony like a frigging champ in probably 15 minutes. Rick and I both really like Old Time music (in fact, the reason he’s in *my* band is because of a Craigslist ad when he was looking to form a band) so it was a pretty natural fit. The banjo is in standard capoed at the 5th fret after double-C tuning didn’t really work out. (Cool sounding tuning, but it muddied up the track some.) Oh, and he went to play a four-hour gig with me right after. What a guy!

I tried to keep the recording simple and natural without sacrificing the ability to edit stuff when needed.

The guitar and vocal are recorded with two LDCs in figure 8; the 251 build is on my vocals with the null pointed at the guitar, and the Junco is on the guitar pointed at the sweet spot on the Larrivee. I tried to get *some* vocal bleed into the guitar, while there’s almost no guitar in the vocal track. A little bit of EQ on both and some very light compression as usual.

The banjo was miced with an RE20 on the fretboard and the ribbon mic in a very unusual place: pointed at the bridge off to the right-hand side. This turned out to be the sound I wanted (I just muted the RE20 track) as it just sounded “older.”

Rick’s vocals are through the 251 in figure 8 as well, but backed off a little compared to mine; I used a tiny bit of extra reverb to make it sound like we were singing into the same microphone but at different distances.

There’s an OM1 overhead at all times, with a VERY tiny bit of a short hall verb added, mostly to get some stereo information in the midrange (it’s very subtle and most of the ambiance is the real room).

Again, all this sort of informed what the final track was going to sound like. The main processing is the tape emulator, and then it’s dumped into Izotope’s Vinyl at the end of the chain (before the limiter), which I am convinced is frigging magic, not just for the lo-fi effect at the beginning and end (which is the 1960’s setting … 1930s sound TOO lo-fi) but for some warping effects, dust, and “wear” throughout to add some mojo. The beginning and end use a duplicate track to cross-fade into the 1970’s setting, which has enough bass to sound more hi-fi without becoming wholely modern.

While this is far from my favorite thing I wrote for this year’s challenge (though these might be my longest liner notes), I do think that the recording itself came out pretty well, and it was interesting to try to make something with a little bit of authenticity from another era. And as always it’s a fun challenge to rewrite a ballad.

Lyrics

C    F    C
A traveling hand in his boots and jeans
F    C
Came walking down on the railroad beams
F    C
And standing there in the mountain stream
C /b /g    /a    /b    C
Was the fairest girl he’d ever seen

Her dress was white, held to her side
She washed her feet in the river’s tide
He stepped up bold with a clear mind
And said my dear will you be mine?

F    G
Sorrow’s old, and love is new
F    (g)    C
But Summer will be coming soon

Of many men from south and north
Mighty few could prove their worth
But if you prove keen and you prove wise
Then I will lie with you tonight

What runs its course but never sleeps?
And what has roots you cannot see?
And what can heal but also harm?
And pricks you worse than any thorn?

The river runs but never sleeps
A mountain’s roots profoundly deep
And many say pain heals in time
But love could answer every line

She said you’ve answered well and true
And I will go along with you
They say that strength and beauty fades
But a clever mind lasts all your days


Part 3 here.

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