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Song Talkings #5 (Christmas Edition): Coldest Night of the Year

I went out to the studio tonight to work on a song, but unfortunately my studio heater wasn’t turned up high enough to deal with how cold it’s been the last couple days here in Boise. I took that as a sign and decided instead to write a blog post about our cover of Vashti Bunyan’s “The Coldest Night of the Year” featuring Duglas T Stewart and Mel Whittle. First off, here’s a link to Vashti and Twice as Much’s brilliant original version:

Vashti Bunyan, for those of you unlucky enough to have not heard of her, is a pop and folk artist who started her career in the mid-60s. After releasing my favorite folk album of all time, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970, she retired from music-making for decades, disappointed by the lack of attention that album got at the time. After interest in Diamond Day was revived in the early 00s, she returned with a new album, Lookaftering, and hasn’t done a whole lot since, as far as I know.

Anyway, as I’ve already alluded to, I love her music intensely, so, when the time came for me to make a Christmas EP, it was a no-brainer to cover this track. One thing I wanted to do on this EP was to use a lot of guest vocalists. So, I asked Duglas T Stewart, the leader of one of my favorite bands BMX Bandits, to do the male lead, and I asked my Baffin Island bandmate, and leader of The Hermit Crabs, Mel Whittle, to do the female lead. Luckily they both said yes. I arranged for a recording session in Glasgow, since Mel lives in Glasgow and Duglas lives in nearby Bellshill. My friend Jo, who plays keyboard in Baffin Island, arranged for a bandmate of hers to record them in his home. I guess it was more of a student flat, and he didn’t have the best mic, but it worked out just fine, and they each did a wonderful job. Even though they came up with their parts completely independent of one another, they did a superb job of blending and playing off of one another.

For the backing tracks I wanted to use a lot of non-standard instruments. I felt that, in doing so, it would lend the production an almost antique quality, something that would contrast with the kind of super-slick production that’s associated with many Christmas songs. The final instrument list is as follows:

  • drums (by Sam Counsil)
  • electric and acoustic guitar
  • bass guitar
  • upright bass
  • Rhodes electric piano
  • Jaymar toy piano
  • glockenspiel
  • saw (by Allison Ward)
  • the extremely rare medieval instrument the douçaine (played by Br. Niels Aage Nielsen)

The thing I am most pleased with, aside from the excellent performances by my friends, is the fancy glockenspiel runs I somehow pulled off. It sounds like I actually know what I’m doing in this song, but the truth is I just practiced, A LOT. Overall, I’m really pleased with the feel and atmosphere this song conveys. It’s respectful of the original, but doesn’t sound all that much like it, in my opinion.

Song Talkings #4: “Changed Me”

This song started out with a slightly different title, “Changing Me”, and a version of this song was released on our 2004 album Making the Case For Me. I decided to rerecord it after I heard how much better it sounded live with our short-lived 2012 lineup, which included Jake Hite on drums, Brion Rushton on bass, Elijah Jensen on guitar, Lindsey Lloyd on vibraphone, and Holly Johnson Wallace on vocals.

Here’s the original.

Lots of differences, obviously. I prefer the newer version, with extreme prejudice. The old version is a little sluggish, lacks Holly’s gorgeous, spunky vocals, and relies on a stale drum loop rather than real drums. Also, the ending on the new version is a lot more interesting, with nice woodwind and brass interjections, a beautiful melodic guitar lead written by Elijah Jensen, as well as some nice guitar feedback with loads of effects on it. Just a huge improvement, in my opinion.

Credits on this song include all the people I’ve already mentioned, as well as Joey Corsentino on trumpet and Josh Valencia on saxomaphone.

(Edit: I thought I might as well include a link to our live recording of this song as well. This was recorded with the 2012 lineup, minus Holly, who had to work.)

Song Talkings #3: “There’s Nothing Missing”

“There’s Nothing Missing” is a song that’s been stewing for a long time. It started out life as an instrumental for our Christmas album, and ended up as a song with about a million vocal parts and having nothing to do with Christmas. There are still elements of the song that belie its origins as a Christmas song, including the use of toy piano and sleigh bells (which I use on almost all our songs, Christmas or not), but I’m not sure it screams Christmas. Perhaps that’s part of why the person who owns the label that was going to release a Christmas album for us in 2011 kind of loathed this song. Oh well. I still really like it. It’s not one of my favorite TVM songs, but I’m still quite pleased with it.

This song is a collaboration with Jake Hite, who was the full-time drummer of the band from 2008-2012 and will continue to play in the studio with us as needed. He’s also an electronic musician who performs under the name Discoma (best electronic band name ever). He created the basic structure of the song and sent me a bunch of synth tracks containing pads, bass, and leads, but no beats, interestingly enough. I added the beats, toy piano, sleigh bells, backing vocals, electric guitar, and bass harmonica (more about that later). At first, I relied on one of Jake’s synth leads to provide the main melody of the song. I just couldn’t see singing a vocal over it because it varied as much as a vocal would and would clash with anything I could have sung over it. That’s why I initially thought that this song would be an instrumental. I sent a rough mix of the instrumental version to the owner of the label, and, as I mentioned before, he really didn’t like it at all. So, the song sat on my hard drive for quite a while.

When the time came to make our new EP, I decided to revisit this song, only this time I got some input from Elijah Jensen (our guitarist and my brother) and Brion Rushton (our bass player). They both provided valuable insights, and both agreed that the song was too long, that it needed a vocal, and that I should probably take out the melodic lead that Jake sent. After I took out this lead, it was easy enough to improvise and refine a melody over the backing tracks. After coming up with the harmonies and melodies, editing the song down quite a bit, and adding the super high descending guitar leads, I felt the song was more than good enough to include on our EP. I hope you agree.

My absolute favorite thing about the song is the use of bongos and bass harmonica in the second half of the song. I think it gives it quite a Pet Sounds vibe, and I’ve had a couple people mention that to me as well. Since the bass harmonica isn’t the most well-known instrument in the world I thought I’d make a little video where I show you my bass harmonica and demonstrated what a crappy bass harmonica player I really am. Enjoy!

(Sorry for how quiet the video is. I’ll work on getting the levels up for our next one.)

Song Talkings #2: “Let Her Dance”

So, happy release day! Today’s the zero-th birthday of our Ununiversalizable Us EP. You can get it here, if you’d like.

In this installment of Song Talkings, I thought we’d discuss the last song on the EP: “Let Her Dance.” This song is a cover of a Bobby Fuller Four song that I first heard in the Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox. Bobby’s stuff reminds me of Buddy Holly, but it came out in the same time span as Revolver and Pet Sounds, a fact that makes me smile. I really like the idea of someone in the mid-60s being a bit of a throwback to the late 50s. Would you call that Proto-Retro? Anyway, here’s the original Bobby Fuller version of the song:

This came about as a The Very Most song when our bass player Brion Rushton suggested that we play the song live. I thought it was a natural fit for us, and so we worked out the song in rehearsals. The two or three times we played it at shows, it ended up being the tightest, most well-received song in our set. It’s always a bittersweet feeling when that happens with a cover song. Because it sounded so great live, I thought it would be great for our upcoming EP. Really, there’s not a huge difference between how we played it live and how the studio version ended up. Mainly, we just added a bunch of extra guitar leads and the slide solo in the middle. Overall, I’m really pleased with how it came out.

The female vocalist on this song is the amazing Holly Johnson-Wallace. Brion Rushton plays the iconic lead guitar part on this song, and Jake Hite, as usual, does a superb job on the drums. Lindsey Lloyd played a cool vibraphone part in the middle, and I do all the other stuff.

It should be noted that Bobby Fuller died under very mysterious circumstances. It was initially ruled a suicide or an accident, but serious questions remain, including whether he was killed by the mafia. Weird.

Song Talkings #1: “Ununiversalizable Us”

Welcome to a new feature here on the The Very Most blog, eloquently titled “Song Talkings.” The idea behind Song Talkings is, oddly enough, me talking about just one song in the TVM catalog: how I wrote the music, what inspired the lyrics, how the recording process went, any interesting happenings surrounding the song. You get the idea.

The first installment of Song Talkings is about the title track from our new EP Ununiversalizable Us. It started life as a “custom song,” which was a promotion we did in 2008 where if you bought our album Congratulations Forever, I would record a song about whatever you wanted. The original was about a woman in Seattle who was expecting a child and remembering back on her life as an “Indie Rock Queen.” So, up until nearly the end of the recording process, the working title for this song was “Indie Rock Queen.” When I was writing this song, I remember making a conscious effort to use more chords than I was used to using, and it was this effort that led to the song’s descending chord structure, which I’m pretty pleased with.

The solo at the beginning of the song is a combination of two synth parts. I got the repeating, almost mandolin-y effect using an extreme tremolo effect sync’d to the tempo of the song. The flute was originally a female backing vocal, but that didn’t quite sound right. I’m really glad I went with a flute in the end, beautifully played by my daughter’s piano teacher Carly Pannell. Jake’s drums in this song are so impressive. He came in, with no real practice (as is his wont) and nailed the part (as is also his wont). I love the fills on the bell of the ride cymbal during the choruses. The smooth-as-silk female vocals were done by Christina Boyd-Eisenhauer. The bass part was written and played originally by Brion Rushton, our bass player for the last six months, but I ended up recreating his part on a synth, combining sounds from my Alesis Micron and a soft synth. I love the part itself, melodic and with a rhythm that drove almost everything that came after (the drums and the high guitar leads at the end), but it sounded better as a synth part for some reason. Brion deserves all the credit for the part itself, though.

The lyrics, in typical The Very Most fashion, were written as late in the process as possible. The song starts out discussing the idea of being forced to honestly communicate to address a problem, and the idea that coasting along and/or letting a problem or an attitude go unchallenged is a missed opportunity for personal development. “I have to say something I need to get off my chest. / I gotta do something that makes me feel weird.” The lines that follow deal with challenging inertia within yourself, an inertia that often comes from wanting to protect yourself from awkward situations or hurt feelings. “My brain is constantly looking for a way out. / It thinks it’s looking out for me.” The second verse deals with the fact that we are all better off for not being exactly the same, that, unlike moral actions, people cannot be universalized (a la Kant). I know this verse makes it sound like “Ununiversalizable Us” is an attempt to make some profound, philosophical point, but really, it isn’t. I just needed some lyrics and the concepts presented in this song aren’t completely stupid. Once a lyric passes the “not stupid” threshold, I run with it.

So this concludes the first installment of Song Talkings. Just a reminder that this song is the title track off of our new EP, available this Thursday, November 15 from the superb Little Treasure label of Seville, Spain. To pick up a copy, go to littletreasure.es. It will also soon be on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc. Tomorrow, I talk about our cover of Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance,” the last track on our new EP.