Nur Ein 7 (2012)
More or Less (6/10/12)
And so I found myself in the Nur Ein final for a third time. Once again, the challenge was to "bring your 'A'-game." Which to me means a full-blown arrangement. So writing the song fast is necessary to organize the arrangement and collaborate with other musicians if necessary (in this case, a drummer). So, the title is posted on June 6 at 9:47AM and I've got three days essentially.
For two days, I struggled to find a lyrical angle for this tune. And I really didn't have a solid musical idea either. I had ideas, at least six of them judging from the recordings I found on my cell phone. But I knew none of them were really worthy of developing. And then it happens. At 12:36pm on June 8, I made a recording on my cell phone of an idea for the chorus. And at 3:34pm, I made a recording of the entire song. That's how fast something like this can come together once you have an idea and a plan. The next morning, I met with Paul (the drummer) and we laid down his parts in a couple of takes and by 9:30pm, the entire song was recorded and mixed. (I did tweak it a bit the next morning.)
Of course, you know I won since I haven't stopped talking about it for three months. But more important, I learned the correct spelling and pronunciation of "cummerbund." Nur Ein!!!!!!!
frank caravella - vocals, guitars, bass, synth
paul gallello - drums
Cold Comfort (6/3/12)
One of the judges from Nur Ein 7 compared songwriting of this nature (title and challenge provided) as the exercises for actual songwriting. I think he may have even called it "homework." While I can understand that perspective, I have quite the opposite view. I know full well and from experience that the songs I write for this competition are way better than the songs I write on my own. And I finish them because there's a deadline. The titles and challenges coax me into areas I would not go on my own and all kinds of crazy creativity results.
Cold Comfort is a perfect example. We were asked to incorporate a tongue-twister. This is something I would never consider doing on my own because a) what's the point? and b) I think the challenge of a tongue-twister is reduced or even eliminated when supported by a melody. (I would compare this to the way that stutterers often lose their stutter when singing.) But since I was forced to work in this context, I came up with what I think is a clever tale of comic irony: a man loses his woman because she is repulsed by his stammer, which she most assuredly caused. The "cold comfort" of the title is revealed in the bridge: "Though I'm glad to see it go, I'm sorry to discover/The girl and the impediment: I can't have one without the other." The chorus (which is a pretty vicious tongue-twister when not sung!) offers proof of his ability to speak with ease while simultaneously lamenting the fact that he can't shake the feelings he has for his lost love, who of course he can never get back because then he will start stuttering again. It's a pretty complex song (even though one friend called it "silly"—the nerve!) and it doesn't really matter that I wrote it in a day or as "an exercise." In fact, my only regret is that I said "I pressed the screen" instead of "I touched the screen." Because it's called a "touch-screen." Not a "press-screen." I'm still slapping my forehead over that one.
frank caravella - vocal, guitar
It just so happens I'm writing this post on John Cage's birthday and it seems appropriate as Cage once famously said "There is no noise, only sound" and proceeded to break all the rules of music composition in the same way Picasso revolutionized art. This wasn't just thinking outside the box; it was ignoring the box altogether.
My Cassettes is not quite that revolutionary and doesn't attempt to be. I'm a slave to popular music in the truest sense of the word. Even when I step outside and try something new, I want it to be accessible and stand up to repeated hearings. That being said, this isn't your father's Frankie Big Face. It's noisy, messy, dissonant, harsh. My assignment was to write a villanelle (it's okay—I had to look it up) and I came up with this apocalyptic tale of acceptance and legacy.
Sonically, I was trying to create an atmosphere of certain annihilation at the hands of something mechanical. (I pictured that big machine in Lost that moved about the island taking out trees wherever it went.) I layered a lot of vocals with varying rhythm, emphasizing the major second which has always represented stasis to me. And I employed gradually intensifying polyrhythms in the crotales, tuned cymbals which have a brilliant timbre almost impossible to record without overloading the mic. In the end, I think I produced an interesting track, only wishing I had made the low end more apparent during the last two minutes or so.
frank caravella - vocals, guitar, keyboards, crotales
Elizabeth the Great (5/20/12)
For some reason, I took a lot of flack for this song. The main complaint seemed to be that I made it seem too "effortless" or that I "phoned it in." I'm frankly dumbfounded by this kind of criticism. But I have heard of this kind of thing before and even felt it about Mozart when I was younger. That his music was just too perfect. There were no rough edges and that made it seem almost mechanical by nature. (By the way, I am not comparing myself to Mozart...duh.) Although I did write and record this song quickly—I didn't have anything until 36 hours before it was due—a lot of effort went into crafting it. It is a manufactured song without question, but so is almost everything that came out of Motown so what's the problem?
Anyway, enough of that. I made a jaunty song about a spoiled brat toddler who longs to escape from the perceived tyranny of her parents. I'm really happy with the bass tone, the backing vocals, the no-time-for-breathing lyrics—it all works. I chose the unusual solo instrument because it sounded primitive (i.e. child-like) and reminded me of a kid banging on pots and pans with wooden spoons. The ending is a little corny, but I had to figure a way out of the song (and also incorporate a dramatic tempo change) and it sufficed. It's fun to switch genres and write a cute song once in a while, even if it stirs up the internet haters! ;)
frank caravella - vocals, piano, bass, synth, progamming
Unexpected Guest (5/13/12)
I had been wanting to write a song with the key of the chorus a whole step higher than the verse ever since I discovered the same in Come on Eileen by Dexy's Midnight Runners. Unexpected Guest seemed like the perfect opportunity because I knew I wanted to keep the arrangement relatively simple, knowing I had only a couple of hours to record it with my good friends from Student Band. Even still, there are some nice asymmetrical variations in the verses that keep the song from being too predictable. I'm not sure the additional key change for the final chorus was necessary but no-one ever went broke from ratcheting up the momentum in a song, right? (I have no actual statistical evidence to support this claim.)
The lyrics to this song are absurd, of course, but they tell an interesting story even if it's been told before (and much better) by Ray Davies. One of the things I like about it is there's not a single pure rhyme in any of the verses, which is something I have been working on lately to expand my options. Some people said it was unnecessary to spell out the gag in the bridge but it's worth it for the rhyme of "overreacted" with "Irish Catholic." At the time of its recording, I thought this song was kind of a throwaway but, in retrospect, I rather enjoy it. I am also now remembering that I had injured my back badly right before recording this and it's nice to hear that it is unnoticeable in this energetic performance.
frank caravella - lead vocal, guitar
austin wagner - backing vocal, drums
austin wood - bass
The Best Place in Town is Also the Darkest (5/6/12)
Sometimes the challenges in Nur Ein can really encourage creativity. In Round Two, we were instructed to employ a "creative use of stops and starts." Were it not for this challenge, I probably would have completed the song that you hear on the "radio" that opens this track. But I really wanted to write something where the stops and starts were an integral element of the song. I was especially drawn to the idea of placing this pause in the middle of the verse and of using pauses that were of varying length. To me, this creates a more organic environment for the lyrics (but also makes for more difficult drum programming).
Having had a few months away from this track, I find I really like it. It was fun to revisit my prog rock beginnings and I think the comparisons to Rush (especially more recent Rush) are warranted. The alternating sections of 5/8 and 6/8 seem unforced and there's a lot of energy in the track. It seems a good setting for this tale of revenge brought on by feelings of loneliness (my favorite line: "empty homes are catacombs for the living"). I wish I had had a real drummer but someone had to attend his son's baptism. The nerve!
frank caravella - vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, programming
I like words that are most commonly used as one part of speech but can be used in other ways, often heightening their meaning or uniqueness. "Architect" is one of those words and once I decided to use it as a verb, I found much more inspiration and clarity of direction. Although the song may seem like a throwaway blues-rock number, I'm really happy with the earnest chorus lyric of this "cautionary tale":
If you architect a plan of mutual respect
You can build a house of love
If you engineer a machine that's fueled by fear
You may find yourself alone
Architect was a particularly fun song to record. It features the very talented (and life-time Frankie Big Face member) Paul Gallello on drums and the debut of the Slave Labor Choir, a group of five students who had been bugging me to sing backing vocals on one of my songs for a few weeks. It was interesting to work with them in the studio, where everything is typically made up on the spot, given that they're so used to having everything written out and rehearsed. I think they were also taken aback at just how loud one has to sing to get the desired effect (i.e. rocking out) for this style. I'm not sure I got exactly what I was aiming for (I was thinking gospel choir), but having backing vocals sung by other people is such a luxury and really adds a lot to the arrangement. Plus, the more reserved vocal style has kind of a "cool" quality, especially during the unison scales that follow the chorus.
frank caravella - lead and backing vocals, guitar, bass, organ
paul gallello - drums
brynn godshall - vocal
maddy keener - vocal
hope sholly - vocal
zach beard - vocal
paul dodson - vocal
Breaking the Ice (4/22/12)
Breaking the Ice is not a terribly interesting song. I was quite happy when I came up with the hook but I recognize now that it's kind of overused throughout the song and that the structure in general could have been tightened up. I think I could have shortened the chorus here and there or perhaps tried to come up with some alternate lyrics. The subject matter is pretty near and dear to my heart as I am terrible at starting conversations with strangers. I think the second verse is especially good at illustrating that concept. For this song, I had to employ a "significant use of shouting," which was kind of fun as I was given the opportunity to try on my best screamo hat. Otherwise, a pretty inconsequential song but a solid start to Nur Ein 7.
frank caravella - vocals, guitars, bass, programming