Ch.E.D.A.R. (Cheap Easy Digital Audio Recording)

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My Music (hosted at Internet Archive)

I’ve recorded my own songs at home, on various set-ups, analog and digital, since 1993. Since 2000 or so I’ve usually used Magix Audio/Midi Studio (versions 5-10–now up to version 14), because this was available cheap (whenever Magix upgrades, the old version tends to get dumped by retailers for as little as $10). I’ve also used various other multitrackers (like Reason and Cubase), but Magix does the trick just as well, if you get to know it well. The recordings that I’ll be posting here are from 2000-2007, most recorded, mixed and mastered on Magix on a home desktop PC (a Sony Vaio) using–seriously–the built-in soundcard mic & line-in jacks. (Some of the noise and sonic artifacts are the result of this noisy primary input and post-recording noise-reduction.)

My sound is, admittedly, a bit wacky. And rough. Often verging into chaos. I taught myself guitar, beginning at a pretty late age (17), and played on street corners and in coffee shops alot in college (in Eugene, OR in the mid-90s. I bought a mahogany-tone Washburn D-15 at McKenzie River Music (the place for vintage Martins) for $150 in 1993. I don’t know what year it is, but I think they were made between about 1978-87). My main influences are Dylan, the Dead, and the American folk and blues tradition. Though like most Americans my age, growing up I was soaked in the pop and rock of the 1960s-80s as well. My sense of a song is centered around the lyrics, with an atmospheric mood created by the music, a sonic texture of driving energy that envelops the words. It’s not dance music. Nor very “commercial”–I’ve certainly never made any money off it (except for change on the street, and I used to get a free meal after playing sets at the Glenwood Restaurant in Eugene.) Each song is a sort of one-off, a snapshot of time and of one (layered) performance. I often create the song as I go: compare the three takes of Still Blue Sky for a sense of how I tend to shift and adjust the song, on-the-fly, as I’m performing.

Walking Blues (2004)

Instrumental, with a generic title. This is the first thing I recorded when I finally got an electric guitar (a Schecter, Diamond Series Gryphon, looks like this, the middle one) in 2004. So, among the first things I ever played on an electric. I’d only ever played acoustic (and my lead “style”–or lack of it–reveals this). I just laid down a basic blues rhythm, threw on some bass, a couple lead tracks, and this was the result, which I’ve always kind of liked.

Welcome to America (2004)

A sardonic welcome, surely. (Perhaps that classic subversive spelling, with ambiguous intent, Amerika, might fit here.) Contrary to the flag-waving rhetoric of the “Country First” folks, it’s possible to love this country and its ideals and still be disappointed with our society, govt., and many aspects of our history. (It doesn’t take much human empathy, after all, to imagine what ideas and emotions the word America might summon up for the inmates, guilty or not, at Guantanamo Bay.) In any case, this song was written in the wake of the Abu Ghraib revelations (wikipedia link not for the squeamish), and reflects some of the tortuous feelings aroused by those pictures about where this country was heading.

Longer (2004)

A simple blues, spun out while on a grocery shopping trip to Wild Oats Market in Princeton, NJ, after an afternoon of listening to Hank Williams, among other things (“all these lies and laws, and love’s cheating hearts“). “And in the modesty of fearful duty / I read as much as from the rattling tongue / of saucy and audacious eloquence” says Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The individual and the planet are in sympathy here (“temperature keeps rising, my fever more severe”). It doesn’t go anywhere, really, just in circles (like the country blues-esque chord progression: A, A7, G7, F#7, E7, D7, C7, E7).

Bankrupt (2004)

A rather prescient song, I guess, now that the economy has imploded. I wrote this while commuting between Princeton and Rutgers New Brunswick and St. Peter’s College, teaching classes at all three. The moving scenes out the window of the NJ Transit trains, traveling through some bleak and beautiful zones of crumbling Americana like Elizabeth and Newark, NJ, inspired much of it. (The burning pile of tires and the VFW flashed by in close succession somewhere round Metuchen, I think). It begins rather autobiographically–my parents had just gone through their second bankruptcy, “livin’ in survival mode” is a direct quote from my dad that struck me when he said it–then moves out in expanding circles from there, to encompass the rather desperate whole world scene, as it appeared to me circa late Bush-first-term. (It was at this time too that I scribbled down the “found poem” P.A.T.H. Train Car 111F, composed exclusively of things on signs and advertisements in the train car.)

Any Way You Choose (2004)

“For everything in life, Uncle Sweetheart, there’s a price. You either pay it up front or pay at the door,” says the gangster when he comes for John Goodman at the end of Dylan’s 2003 movie Masked and Anonymous. I think that line was running through my head when I penned this song–like “Bankrupt” written on a NJ Transit train and the melody worked out singing to myself on the loud train platforms in Jersey City and Newark.

If You Only Knew (2004)

I don’t know where this song came from. If “Desolation Row” were a protest song in earnest, I suppose. It’s the Sally Struther’s 3rd World children’s charity commercial in lyrical form. Does a song ever do anything? Is it really a form of action, or is it only another form of aesthetic deferral of action? It’s less preachy than it sounds–the “you” is the narrator addressing himself as well–“would you follow for once your own advice.” (Like “How many times can a man turn his head / and pretend that he just doesn’t see” from Blowin’ in the Wind.) We all see it, but we can’t look it or think about it very long and still go on with our day, our meal, our conversation. It’s that sentimental bourgeois pathos going back to songs like Stephen Foster’s Hard Times (Come Again No More)–“while we seek mirth and beauty, and music light and gay, there are frail forms fainting at our door.” Only the global market makes it just that much easier to keep those frail forms further from our door. (But the media revolution does tend to counteract that commercial distancing of labor realities. Still, it’s frighteningly easy, from the comfort of North America, to ignore where everything is coming from.) The opening is played on a beautiful Maui-designed, Mexican-made Mele ukelele that I bought while vacationing there in 2004 (it’s their low-end, something like this, what I could afford).

Before the Fall (2004)

The refrain-line here comes from an old folksong formulaic rhyme (da da da I’ll be back this fall, if da da da, I won’t come back at all), which Woody Guthrie also recycled in “Gonna hit that Oregon Trail this comin’ fall.” (This version, by Clyde List, of Sherwood, OR, where my sister lives, is not bad.) That song is in here too (the “old wheel ruts” are of the Oregon Trail wagons, that you can still find “alongside the Interstate” all over the mountain West–or at least historical marker signs telling you that they are there). (Dylan recently used the idea on “Spirit on the Water”: I been in a brawl / now I’m seeing the wall, / I’m going away baby, / I won’t be back ’til the fall.) The song is basically about the tension between history and the march of “progress,” I guess. The heart’s constant tight-wire stringing between nostalgia and hope for something better, or just different. All of us stuck between primitivist and utopian fantasies of all persuasions. Of course you can’t say “Before the Fall” now without being shocked into a memory of Falling Towers. But the Original Fall is in there too–“got to get ourselves back to the Garden” etc. Our basic condition, unchanged since the beginning. (This article on Woody popped up in my search here; seems interesting, and apropos my point here.)

I Ain’t Got No Home (2005) (cover: Woody Guthrie)

One of my favorite Woody songs. Springsteen’s is a great version, on “A Vision Shared”, a tribute to Woody and Leadbelly that helped the Smithsonian acquire the Folkways collection (or something like that).

Lost Highway (2005) (cover: Hank Williams)

Perhaps an attempt to bring something of the energy of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” to this Hank William’s oldie which in large measure lies behind it.

Crash on the Levee (2005) (cover: Bob Dylan)

One of Dylan’s favorite concert songs, put into something like a primitive 1920s Beale Street jug-band sound. The last verse is my addition (but from traditional elements, except maybe the “quid pro quo, and tit for tat.” I think I can take credit for that).

Cumberland Gap (2005)

Traditional, my arrangement. Dates to the late 19th century, I think. I knew the song from things like Woody Guthrie’s reworking as “Delaware Gap.” And the Dead’s Cumberland Blues contributes to the mystique of the old American place name. As I researched the different verses online (see version here for instance), I put together several that I liked, that gave a kind of narrative history to the place, from white colonization, to the Civil War, to perhaps something like the early industrialization and mining culture of the Dead song (“Cumberland Gap, ain’t my home, gonna leave here before too long” compares well to “I don’t know now, I just don’t know, if I’m going back again”). It’s such an American pattern: we’re always looking yonder at greener pastures, idealizing it as some pie-in-the-sky Eldorado (“It’s got three kinds of water to wash your face”!). Commercial values, of course. Then so quickly the dream turns to the dust of reality. (“Goin’ where the water tastes like wine” complements perfectly the here-and-now lonesomeness of “Goin’ down the road feelin’ bad.”) I sang the three-part “harmonies” with myself–how lonesome is that!

Blue Monday (2006)

Inspired by the idea of Blue Monday on the Kansas City blues and jazz scene of yore. (I’ve never heard Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday”, which I just found googling for links to throw in here. But I’m sure he had the KC tradition in mind.) The days when different headliners, like Count Basie, held court like glorious, smoky potentates at the different clubs and theaters. Perhaps musically the tribute would not stand up to scrutiny. But I tried to give it a smoky, noisy, rollicking atmosphere, to try and summon up some audible phantom of that past.

Eyes Glare (2006)

An experiment in putting digital dance drum loops to some creative use. The lyrics are a pared-down sampling and rewrite from an older song from my college days (circa 1995), which might make its way on here sometime when I can find time to transfer it to digital from musty old cassette tape.

When Day Dawned (2006)

A crazy sonic tapestry I wrote and recorded sometime in the aftermath of Katrina. A Teiresias-like narrator wakes after a hurricane, or flood, or war, or some other massive calamity, and walks the landscape of devastation. Apocalyptic nightmares, with suggestions of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The music and mood and lyrical center were most consciously influenced by Dylan’s masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell” and especially the scene in Masked & Anonymous where it plays over Jack Fate riding through “Downtown” (Los Angeles) viewing the wreckage of civilization on the faces of the homeless: “Saying ‘This land is condemned, all the way from New Orleans, to Jerusalem.'” How one feels when everything looks a little (or a lot) out of joint.

Still Blue Sky, take 1 (2006)

I actually wrote this song sometime around 1999, while doing the dishes and listening to Bill Monroe. Just a bunch of recycled and reshaped traditional lines, thoughts, tropes from the American roots grab bag. I was getting to know Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music at the time, which Smithsonian rereleased in ’97. That’s where it all started, really, the whole folk thing. (Dylan himself says so.) Clarence Ashley‘s Coo Coo Bird is in here somewhere (“I played cards in England…Spain”), as is Dylan’s phenomenal “Moonshiner”, which I used to play all the time, and his “Copper Kettle” (the chorus is really a thieving twist on that one). Hank William’s “Banks of the Ol’ Pontchartrain” is behind it, and Dylan’s wacky “Santa Fe,” and the whole sound of his “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” soundtrack. So is, in some mashed-up form or other, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and maybe “Skip to My Lou” (“why were you my Lulu, why were you my darlin'”–skip to my lou my darlin). I recorded it on low-tech analog back then, but then returned to in 2006 when I had access to a better recording space and digital multitrack setup. I did it a few times. Here’s three of them. There’s things I like (and don’t like) about all of ’em.

Still Blue Sky, take 2 (2006)

Still Blue Sky, take 3 (2006)

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