Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tom on the G-Train -- harmonica jazz bit

The harmonica I'm using here is a Lee Oskar tuned in G harmonic minor. That is to say, it doesn't have the same collection of notes on it as a normal harmonica, which explains the odd gypsy feel of the melodies I'm playing.

Joel's guitar is obviously an addition to the normal arrangement -- we were quite excited about how much it added to the song, and felt it hints at some of the fun that a loose approach to recording affords us. The version here is his second take (on the first, he seemed determined to shoehorn the song into a major tonality, but his valiant efforts could not make it so). His bass, of course, is the heart of the song. The first time we ever played something like this I was trying to get him to play a pirate shanty, but he was in a more jazzy mood I guess.

Troy often claims that he is not a jazz drummer, but he gives this song a classiness it certainly would not otherwise possess. At least until the odd "reading...."

At shows, I normally insert band introductions during this song. That didn't seem appropriate during the recording session, but Joel had instructed me to say "something... anything" during the middle break, if only to read a beer label. The presence of beer labels likely sheds some light on the choice that I did make: the warranty card for our recording equipment that happened to be laying nearby. Pretty random, but because we're recording this stuff quite out-loud and live, the bleed-over in the drum mics meant that there was no hiding this odd vocal interlude without really slicing and dicing the take apart. It had a fun energy to it, so I rolled it in the mix. Bonus points to you if you figure out the secret of the second voice.

This track is featured on our 2012 album The Sound of Secret Names.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Twang Dark Ye Merry Gentlemen

One of the things I like to do with the band is to play stuff that we've not played before.  This recording was our second run-through on this song.  We played the first as part of a goofing-around sound-check meant to get the PA loud enough to satisfy Troy, our drummer.

I don't go for a lot of American Christmas music, but I do love the wonderful modal melodies of many of the English carols, and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" has always been a favorite among them.

This kind of impromptu, improvisational spin on a fixed melody is good practice for us.  Rather than worrying over arrangement, we tend to do this kind of thing with a repeat and mutate approach that provides us a way to experiment with our musical connections.  When we get into a flow on this sort of thing, the result is an emergent music that surprises us.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Pigstone Shuffle -- Mixolydian all mixed up

I'm a big fan of open-tunings.  It completely changes the feel of a guitar to suddenly have different drones and chord shapes available.

The drones in particular are a big part of where it's at for me -- drones are an integral part of dulcimer playing, of course, and I love to achieve similar, bigger effects on the guitar.  Drones not only provide a kind of accompaniment, but can be used to contribute to a sense of tonal center that, together with the scale in play, suggests a mode.

Modal music with drones  is a bit too much to boil down in a few sentences, but using drones to affect the tonal center can have a dramatic effect on the listener's experience with a scale.  For instance, if you play music created from the notes of a C-scale against a droning G-D interval, you're suggesting the Mixolydian mode, rather than a piece in the key C-major.   The modal feel is enhanced if your melody tends to resolve to G (which it will surely want to do, given the drone) and is fond of visiting the F (which is the stop that will make such a piece sound like something other than the simple G-major tonality).

I mention all this because this piece, "The Pigstone Shuffle," started out as a self-consciously G Mixolydian piece for open-G tuned guitar.  But the riffs at play quickly became much more chromatic, so you might say that the piece is not limited to Mixolydian per se.  Nevertheless,  I think of this song as representing an "enhanced" Mixolydian mode, since the recurring melodic emphasis on the F note and sure resolution to G keeps the feel of the mode intact (to my brain, at least).

This song is featured on our 2012 album The Sound of Secret Names.