Reflections on Rock Music: How to Become a Songwriter…

Originally posted 2009-04-20 23:38:17. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Regardless of which genre of rock music you listen to, chances are that you are a fan of songwriters.  As recently as the fifties and even into the sixties, it was considered par for the course to have the songwriting separated from the performance.  For instance, consider Lieber and Stoller’s contributions to Elvis Presley’s catalog.  Johnny Cash wrote some of his songs, but he certainly covered more than he wrote.  And this was an understandable system.

Somewhere along the line, the singer/songwriter became a closely watched and more appreciated commodity.

It really began in the sixties, predominantly with Dylan and the Beatles.  Both acts began by playing traditional music and covers before they started writing their own music.  Whatever it was, something struck them, and from that point forward, it only made sense to record their own material.  This most likely contributed to the legendary heights that sixties rock music reached.  Consider Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s groundbreaking records that truly sounded like nothing that had come before.  Take Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ experimental and, in the case of the latter, concept albums that literally changed the texture of album making as we know it.

Meanwhile, don’t forget all the other singer/songwriters who emerged during that period and since.  Brian Wilson went so far in the mid-sixties as to stop touring and devote his attentions one hundred percent to songwriting and arranging lush, complicated — and, of course, beautiful — background tracks, perhaps best showcased on Pet Sounds and the finally-released SMiLE (the latter of which literally drove him crazy).

Since then, some of my personal favorite bands and individual artists have been, first and foremost, songwriters.  Take Warren Zevon’s unique brand of songwriting, particularly his dark humor and literary references.  Or R.E.M. and their contributions to the genre now known as “alternative rock,” wherein Michael Stipe purposely cut out electric guitar solos and — at least in the band’s early work — muffled the lyrics so that there was no single set of understood words for each song.  It was literally left up for interpretation.

Later acts have split off in a range of directions.  For instance, acts like Ben Folds, the Barenaked Ladies, and the Wallflowers have clearly taken their lead from classic sixties songwriters and then added their own unique lyrical and instrumental twists.  Other bands, such as Pearl Jam and Wilco (to name only a couple), continue to make music that stretches and redefines the boundaries that have previously been set for rock music and songwriting in general.  (This is a painfully short list of five contemporary bands that I love, but they are enough to provide fodder for conversation…)

So, based on this, how does one become a songwriter?

If you’ve always wanted to be a songwriter but were never sure how, or even if you’ve just been curious, then this list is for you…

1)  Rebel Against Something

This is a requisite coming-of-age process for all you prospective songwriters who hope to make it to the big time.  Whether you have grown up in suburbia or on the streets, there are always reasons to rebel.  For Bob Dylan, it was the dull realities of daily life in a dying mining town in Minnesota that caused him to see music as an escape.  He has described his exhilaration as he tuned his radio in to whatever distant stations he could pick up.  Others, such as Eddie Vedder, found music as a way to channel their emotional reactions to what they experienced and witnessed around them.  Vedder reflected on such experiences from young adulthood as abusive relationships, dysfunctional people, and secrets being kept from him.

2)  Show Your Distaste for Tradition and “The Man”

Once you’ve begun the process of rebelling (and perhaps even winning over the masses), it’s time to stick it to “the Man.”  The Beatles’ history epitomizes this development.  They certainly didn’t go from “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” overnight, but one thing is certain: the more they rebelled, the more fans flocked to Beatlemania.  Bob Dylan brought a giant light bulb to a press conference, refused to communicate in a straightforward manner with any member of the press, and plugged in — full volume — at the Newport Folk Festival.  The Moody Blues promised they would record a classical album, then turned around and used the studio time alotted to them to record their own original material for Days of Future Passed.  Pearl Jam fought the good fight against the “convenience charges” implimented by Ticketmaster, and Eddie Vedder, after a fan threw a copy of Rolling Stone onstage during a concert, wiped his butt with the magazine, explaining to the crowd that RS printed a cover photo of him without the other members of his band in the shot.  When Trent Reznor tired of record label interference and corporate nonsense, the Nine Inch Nails frontman began releasing his music online — including his 2008 album The Slip — for free.

And the list goes on…

Perhaps the best example of the importance of this step in the successful songwriter’s career is found in the Beach Boys’ decision not to play at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival.  For the late 1960s and well into the 1970s, they were labeled as “them” instead of “us” by many music fans.  It is arguable that the Beach Boys’ clean cut image that skyrocketed them to success in the early sixties ultimately led to the band’s decline in popularity.  Ah, the irony…

3)  Go Through Rehab

This sounds like a terrible and heartless suggestion to make to you.  Yet, while there are some artists who have not gone through rehab, there are indeed many great musicians and songwriters who have had to face their addictions and other demons at some point in their careers.  Recently, Jeff Tweedy underwent rehabilitation to deal with an addiction to painkillers.  He, like many other artists in the past, was asked what the effect would be on his music.  (I was delighted with his reply — essentially, he said he was feeling better than ever and that his state of mind can only have a positive effect on Wilco’s music.)

Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash was asserted by many to be his way of stepping back from the spotlight after a wild tour overseas where he was known to take downers before the acoustic half of his show and then take uppers during the intermission before coming out with the Band.  He was quickly setting a precedent that no individual could survive.  Brian Wilson, of course, withdrew from music and life in general for decades after failing to release SMiLE; it is apparent to anyone who has seen him recently that he still battles with those personal demons.

If not rehab, then every songwriter certainly needs to undergo a period of reflection after a fall from grace.  Take the case of the Barenaked Ladies’ Steven Page, who recently left the band in the aftermath of his cocaine bust.  To read many so-called fans’ scathing rants against him online, you would think you had stepped back into Puritan times.

(Still, I can imagine that he will only be stronger for the experience, and I can’t wait to hear what his next album will be like…)

4)  Have a Family Period

As a songwriter, you may lead the life of a rock star for a matter of years, but eventually everyone has to bring it all back home.  This is the point at which you must find a wife, have one or more kids, and attempt (probably unsuccessfully) to live an ordinary, anonymous life for a while.  The most notable example of this truth is Paul McCartney whose utter failure to accomplish domestic normalcy has been given a name.  It’s called Wings, his band for much of the seventies.  The lineup, much to the chagrin of his earlier fans,  included his wife, Linda.  The lyrical content was often nonsensical enough to make even the most gullible, innocent three year old ask, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”  And yet this is a rite of passage for all music fans, as well.  We’ve all gone through a Wings phase.  Go on, you can admit it…

The Barenaked Ladies have been in a family phase for years, evidenced most recently by the masterful Snacktime.  Ben Folds briefly indulged in the “normalcy” of family life, recording such simple, touching songs as “Gracie,” but his 2008 album Way to Normal strongly suggests that he’ll be a bachelor for some time to come.  Dylan’s so-called family period lasted from the aforementioned motorcycle crash until about 1974 when he apparently got the itch to tour and record music again.  As he sings in the Planet Waves deep track “Something There Is About You,” “I can say that I’ll be faithful.  I can say it in one sweet, easy breath.  But to you that would be cruelty, and to me, it surely would be death.”

Pretty much speaks for itself…

5)  Um… Continue to Write Songs!

So, after all these steps, phases, and experiences, what’s a songwriter to do?

Continue to write songs, of course!

At this point, you can pretty much choose career paths from a plethora of options.  For instance, you could “find religion” and record a series of records devoted to expressing your spirituality.  You could get more personal and vulnerable by going acoustic for an album, or for that matter, turn to harder rock and roll to showcase your newfound rage over a breakup.  Why not record music for a different genre?  (I would recommend country music, as that seems to be the going trend these days.)  Oh, and don’t forget to release an album exclusively through Wal-Mart, although that’s probably best reserved for a planned reunion or comeback album.  In the meantime, you can always record four non-album tracks per release and split them up, offering one exclusively at iTunes, Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart respectively.  It may seem like you’re screwing the fans at the time, but don’t worry; you’ll eventually release a rarities CD that will contain all the non-album tracks.  Put your heart into those non-album tracks now, as there’s nothing more disappointing — and perhaps more predictable — than a sub-par rarities compilation.  Consider it an investment in the future… a future in which you may be writing songs more slowly than ever and yet still be in need of a record to satisfy your contract.

If none of that works, you can take a break from writing for a while to work on covers.  Record a traditional album?  Contribute to a compilation of covers for a famous artist?  Join a supergroup?

The opportunities and options are endless…

Whatever you do, don’t stop caring about what you’re writing and recording, because you’ll always have a fanbase out there that will buy whatever you put out, be it a masterpiece or a recording unworthy of serving even as a paperweight.

So, good luck, and we’re all counting on you!

Brian Wilson’s “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” (2010) – The Weekend Review

Originally posted 2010-09-19 21:10:55. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  3.5 / 5 stars

For songwriters with strong, distinct voices, albums populated by covers are typically stopovers between other, more serious efforts.  For Wilson, it appears that projects such as this are where he looks these days to keep himself occupied while he waits for inspiration to strike.

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin delivers just about what you’d expect from the former Beach Boy: lush harmonies laid over a bed of smart, tight pop music, albeit the pop music of a bygone era.

Perhaps the slogan for this release should have been, “Brian Wilson updates the music of the Gershwin brothers… to the sixties!”

The greatest criticism I can lob at Reimagines is its apparent contentment to revisit the established.  Wilson was given access to fragments of songs written but never finished by Gershwin that numbered in the triple digits, and yet there are only two new compositions — “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love” — which provide the bookends for the full-length tracks.

Simply put, this is what prevents Reimagines from reaching the same creative heights as Mermaid Avenue (the original, and Vol. II not so much), a similar project conducted by Wilco and Billy Bragg.  The key difference there, of course, was that they dipped exclusively into unfinished lyrics and wrote the music for them.  The results on Mermaid Avenue should be attributed just as much to Wilco and Bragg as to Guthrie, whereas Reimagines often reads as a collection of Gershwin tracks with the Brian Wilson filter applied.

In other words, Reimagines often plays more as a tribute from Wilson and his band than as a fresh and creative project.

On the other hand, to label Reimagines as a straightforward tribute to the Gershwin brothers would be to unfairly marginalize the creative spirit that Wilson so evidently brought to these recordings, not to mention the crispness and emotion that each of his lead vocals are imbued with.  There can be no question as to his intentions; he clearly threw himself into the project, as supported by reports that he would spend eight hours a day in the studio perfecting his vocals.

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (2010)

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (2010)

There are many, many positive words to be said about this record.

For starters, even on a project that lends itself to slow paced, old-school compositions — and he does indulge at times — Wilson and his crack band of music makers manage to carve out a record that verges on rock.  As would be expected, there are some beautiful bass lines and some wonderfully fun harmonies that beg to be sung along with.

There are other touches, many of them subtle, that should allow for Reimagines to be accepted among Wilson’s studio discography, as opposed to a one-off side effort.  Paul Von Mertens’ contributions can’t be overstated, serving as a link between the instruments that were employed on many of the original recordings of these songs and Wilson’s more rock/pop-oriented arsenal of drums, guitar, and bass.  Likewise, Probyn Gregory’s acoustic guitars add significantly to many of the tracks, filling in the gaps admirably.  The acoustic guitar is not an instrument one might readily associate with Wilson’s general sound, which makes it all the more notable.

“Rhapsody in Blue,” snippets of which serve as the intro and outro of the record, should be familiar to fans as a song that Wilson has noted in past interviews as one of his influences.  That this is the song he chose to place at the corners is quite fitting, and that he would choose to sing the multiple vocal tracks entirely on his own may, if nothing else, be read as a sign that he is still in command of his music.  Reports of his mental acuity — or lack thereof — may not have been greatly exaggerated, but no one should presume to claim that Wilson is present on his recordings in name only these days.

“Summertime,” the first full-length cover, touches on bits of Billy Stewart’s chart-topping 1989 version in the intro but quickly spreads out into a ballad filled out with horn blasts, twinkling bursts of piano, and strings that loom ominously on the horizon.  This version is a bit slow, but after the recognizable Wilson-esque romp of “The Like in I Love You,” it’s as though he is flexing his classical muscle, as he continues to do on “I Loves You, Porgy.”

Subsequently, the instrumental “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin'” sounds like it could have been found on a Pet Sounds outtakes tape, the bass harmonica adding greatly to that feel.  “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is probably the first track on the album that is a fully realized blending of traditional and more modern styles, to the point that the two are difficult to distinguish between.

This is when Reimagines works so well: when Wilson manages to blends a traditional approach toward these songs with his own distinctive sound.  Contrary to some recent criticism, Wilson does not merely reconfigure the words to fit over instrumentals that conjure his previous songs, except perhaps for “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”  Where it works exceedingly well, by the way.

Where the album does fall short is on tracks like “‘s Wonderful” and “Love is Here to Stay” that fail to transcend lounge music, being little more than standard covers that don’t diverge all that much from the originals.

“I Got a Crush on You” sounds like it was ripped off a best ballads of the fifties disc, and it works surprisingly well.  It is followed by “I Got Rhythm,” which sounds like a cross between SMiLE and surf rock on the intro, before settling down into a groove that sounds like all the best parts of a sixties Beach Boys song.  Then comes the indisputable latter-half gem “Someone to Watch Over Me,” easily one of the most beautiful little tracks Wilson has recorded in years.

The original tracks are the strongest efforts on the album, and it is for this reason that the decision to stick primarily to covers will always baffle and disappoint me.  It is the single strongest justification for why I’ve denied Reimagines a rating of 4 stars: for all the promise of what could have been.  It is still an enjoyable record and I would argue that it has earned its place as a serious effort, in league with Wilson’s recent and quite excellent albums.

“My Last Mistake” (Dan Auerbach Cover)

Originally posted 2009-02-16 19:42:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

For Dan Auerbach chords/lyrics, CLICK HERE!

By Chris Moore:

Hello and welcome to another installment of “Chris Moore Monday.”  It is my priviledge and responsibility to start off each week right, usually with a selection that is in “new music” news.  I figure this is appropriate, since tomorrow is “New Music Tuesday” – what better role is there than to turn you on to great new music?

Okay, so tonight’s song is technically a week old…

Dan Auerbach is better known as one half of the blues rock music group the Black Keys.  The band formed in Ohio in 2001, and in less than a decade, they have accumulated an impressive resume — including opening for Beck and Radiohead, playing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Show with David Letterman, and receiving accolades from Rolling Stone such as one of the “10 best acts of 2003.”  Although the band has not broken up, this year has found Dan Auerbach making a name for himself by releasing his very first solo album titled Keep It Hid.  I almost transcribed and played this, the title track, but I couldn’t resist “My Last Mistake,” the subsequent track.  Auerbach might agree with this choice of songs to record and play, as he performed “My Last Mistake” on the Friday, February 13th episode of Conan O’Brien.

So, you may be wondering how I heard of this release.  Well, aside from receiving a coupon for the first-week purchase in my favorite email each week — the Newbury Comics e-newsletter!! — I was tipped off to the release by someone who has his finger on the pulse of all things modern and alternative rock.  (So, thank you again, Geoff!)  He’s the same person who strongly suggested I check out the 2008 albums of Beck and Cold War Kids, both of which I would never have purchased on my own.

And I would have missed out!

Now, they’re not my favorite records of the year, by any means, but there are some killer songs that would have passed me by entirely.  So, hopefully I’ll continue to receive new rock music insight from Newbury Comics, Geoff, and who knows who else!

Speaking of new music, I constructed a fairly impressive “Albums of 2008” iTunes playlist.  It contains 341 songs, ranging from the Barenaked Ladies children’s album to Ben Folds’ album (which was certainly NOT kid-friendly!).  I hadn’t really listened to the playlist since the New Year, but I just turned it on yesterday and fell in love with it again.  I’m listening to it now, and even now, Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” just faded into Brian Wilson’s “Oxygen to the Brain.”  Where else can you find that sort of variety?!  I cling to my playlists and albums these days, as the popular media has only embraced an extremely small and profoundly unrepresentative sample of what modern rock music has to offer.  Take the aforementioned Coldplay, an overrated and — until recently, in this writer’s opinion — mediocre band.  Chris Martin and his band have received more Grammys than all of my favorite bands combined.  No kidding!  Meanwhile, Brian Wilson got a Rolling Stone article for his amazing 2008 album That Lucky Old Sun, and that was all.  I understand that he is older and there perhaps isn’t a market for his music, but I find it sad that more people couldn’t have been exposed to the bright, brilliant, and uplifting rock tunes that pour forth from that album.

Enough ranting for one day’s post…

As a final note, I finally picked up and watched the Sam Jones documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.  I had planned on watching it with Dana last night, but he hadn’t returned home, so I got ready to watch it alone.  Then, Mike texted and sounded interested.  So, before I knew it, Mike had arrived with apple juice and saltines (food for sick people — my personal choice is G2 and wheat toast!) and we cranked up the volume on the big screen.  What a great documentary — not only is the filmography reminiscent of Don’t Look Back, but Jeff Tweedy is looking very Dylan-esque.  Scruffy, bearing harmonica rack, singing poetic lyrics — what more could I ask for?  Also, he seems like he would be a difficult guy to live and/or work with.  But that being said, I like Jeff Tweedy a great deal, and it was really interesting to see him candidly in the studio.  And thanks to Dana and Mike for making last night an event in and of itself — when Jim returns from vacation, I just may have to join them for their late night sessions that I miss so much since I’ve become an “old man” with a wakeup time of 5 or 5:30am…

And now to tie this ALL together…

Wilco switched to Nonesuch records after the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fiasco (the situation filmed and described in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), and Dan Auerbach is also on the Nonesuch label.  So, as you see, it all comes full circle…

Don’t miss an all-new Jim Fusco Tuesday tomorrow.  Until then…

See you next session!

Buying Music in 2010: Mp3s (Digital Downloads), CDs, and LPs (Vinyl Records)

Originally posted 2009-11-18 01:52:19. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Jim Fusco:

Hello everyone, I’m back with another article, as I still don’t have my HD camera (that’s what happens when you order internationally) and I’m still inundated with work here at FMP Studios.  The Traveling Acai Berries are hoping to get a two-song recording session in on Thursday night, but we’ll have to wait and see.  Those, unless I get the camera tomorrow, would still be in standard definition.

Anyway, onto tonight’s article:

Today at lunch, I told my colleagues at work (who are all much older than me) that I’m loving using my turntable.  A turntable, for those of you who either don’t know or have forgotten, is a record player.  And a record player is a machine that plays 12″ vinyl discs with grooves on them, producing sound.

Everyone at the table looked at me like I had four heads.  I heard, “He isn’t 25 years old- take off the mask, Scooby and reveal the real killer old man.”  But, I told them how much fun it was- having these great collector’s items and being able to just sit back and listen to some great music of yesteryear.

Then, you should’ve seen their faces when I told them I had bought new albums this year on vinyl.  They all couldn’t believe vinyl record albums (or long-players, LP) were making a small comeback.  Most of them had gotten rid of their collections or even their turntables.  What a shame!  I know they take up room, but I’m really loving them.  I thought I would write tonight about the options of purchasing and listening to music in 2009 that led me to my old-fashioned choice for music.

Let me start off by saying that, no, I do not believe that they are somehow superior in sound quality.  For years, it was all I could do to reduce as much hiss as possible from my own music recordings and I love the sound of clean, digital recordings.  I even love when companies remaster albums and take away all the hiss, like they did with Elvis’ #1’s album from a few years ago.  Listening to the remastered, cleaned-up version of “Heartbreak Hotel”, you feel like you’re in the room with Elvis.  And that’s a place I want to be. :-)

So, albums are all but dead now.  I am in the vast minority of people that purchase full albums rather than individual singles.  And, that cross-section gets even smaller because I’m also the type of person that purchases physical albums rather than digital downloads.  You see, I’m a person that wants something for his money.  And purchasing an album online for ten dollars (from iTunes or wherever else you may buy them) just doesn’t seem right to me- you get a FILE?  No jewel case?  No CD?  Nothing you can put in your collection?  Let me tell you something- my father’s vast CD collection is a heck of a lot more impressive than the 10,000 digital songs I currently have on my iPod.

And with physical albums, you actually own something.  I can’t feel ownership of a file on my computer.  Call me old-fashioned, but I want something I can hold, something I can look at in the future without wondering if it’s compatible with my operating system.

So, there are three main ways you can purchase music in 2009, now that cassette tapes, DVD audio, and Super Audio CDs have bitten the dust.  There are digital downloads (mp3’s, usually), CD’s, and new vinyl albums.  Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks of each:

Digital Downloads: Well, the obvious reasons are- they don’t take up any space!  Most people don’t want to search through hundreds of CDs to find the song they want, and I don’t blame them.  These things are portable and even I have fallen in love with my iPod portable music player.  But, for my money, I purchase the physical album on CD or LP and then put it into my iTunes for conversion into mp3 or AAC format.  Then, I have a portable copy to take with me, but I also have the physical copy for both my collection and in case something goes wrong with the file.  Plus, they haven’t perfected sound quality of these compressed digital files.  Sure, mp3s don’t sound bad, but have you ever listened to a song in mp3 and then listened to the CD version right afterward?  You’ll really hear the difference.  And, they’re coming out with new, higher quality codecs all the time.  What does that mean?  It means that every time they come out with a better-sounding way of presenting your music, you’ll have to either convert your CD collection again or purchase the songs again in a higher quality.  I like to do the job one time and that’s it, so no thanks.

CD’s (Compact Disc): The best part about CDs is the sound quality.  They are essentially uncompressed and you simply cannot get audibly better sound quality without moving up to surround-sound audio.  CD’s have been our main medium for twenty years now and there’s a good reason.  They scratch, but not too easily.  They take up space, but about a quarter as much as an old vinyl LP.  And they’re really cheap to both produce and to purchase.  Stores often offer CDs for $9.99 when they come out and still make a healthy profit.  I really have nothing against CDs- they seem to be very archival and I feel great about my collection.  There are drawbacks, though- they can skip while playing them if you’re on a bumpy road in the car, they can have digital “artifacts” from not being produced properly, and they’re just a bit too small to reproduce a beautiful album cover with the same effect on a vinyl LP.  Plus, they’re portable…if you’re carrying one at a time…  You can’t put a CD in your pocket or even dream about carrying 10,000 songs with you at all times.  Plus, CD changers are bulky and outdated.

Vinyl Record Albums (LP): “Everything old is new again.”  Again, I’m a collector.  I really don’t buy too much new music anymore, as my back-catalog collection is essentially complete.  So, when my favorite artists come out with a new album, it’s not a big deal to purchase a vinyl copy.  Buying four albums a year won’t take up much space and I’ll be able to see those great album covers and read liner notes, etc.  Plus, the actual vinyl record albums themselves are a sight to behold.  And there’s something strangely serene about playing one- putting the needle on the record and watching it spin while you listen.  It just calms you down.  Plus, I get a nostalgic feeling when listening to records- like I was alive then.  You’d even catch me listening to stuff I normally wouldn’t, like “Sinatra at the Sands”, that I listened to a couple days ago.  It just felt right.  Of course, records went obsolete for a reason.  In fact, most people that used them long ago really don’t miss them that much.  They complain about the dust, the needle cartridges, the scratches, and how easy it was to make them skip.  Plus, they take up a ton of room when you have a bunch.  So, they’re a nice novelty to me right now.  And, most new albums out on vinyl come with either a digital download code or a copy on CD so you can still have the clean version of the album and keep the vinyl as a collector’s item.

There’s only one recording medium that’s dead now that everyone agrees was a good idea to kill: the 8-track player.  I never had one of these and don’t plan to.

I hope you enjoyed this article and hope that you’ll contribute to the conversation- how do you prefer to buy and listen to your music?  Are you considering the switch to vinyl again?  Do you think they actually sound better?  We’d love to hear from you!