ABOUT THE SONGS: ANNALS OF MY GLASS HOUSE
Can't Help Myself
The Heart that Failed
Light in the Window
Never Make Me Cry
Softly, Like an Amen
Those Beautiful Words
THOSE BEAUTIFUL WORDS
BOUND (Annals of My Glass House, Disc 1)
THOSE BEAUTIFUL WORDS
Ah, beginnings. This song is based on a recollection of my first "date" with Darleen, the exhilarating rush of discovering someone as we walked through the streets of Boston, talking non-stop. Nearly two decades later, the feeling remains. This song is also important for Birdsong as it was one of the first that we recorded, and one that defined the template for our sound when the sound of strings would not leave my brain, demanding that we try to record a string arrangement. It could have gone so many ways wrong, but as soon as the players began to read through the chart, we caught a glimpse of the future.
About a character who has followed a path into the deep dark woods, and now desperately wants to make his way back home, though much of this journey might have only occurred "in his heart" (to paraphrase Jimmy Carter). Not exactly biographical, but who hasn't ever exclaimed, "What was I thinking?" At least internally.
An uncomfortable acknowledgement of the doubt that creeps into many relationships. But to raise the question doesn't render a foregone conclusion. This recorded performance has been modified slightly from its initial release. One line of the lyric was changed, corrected really, as I mis-sang it on the first version. We also employed technology to give a little more rhythmic push to the arrangement. Hey, it was our first time out.
This is the song that led to forming the band. After a long, long dry spell, Roses emerged from experiments with altered guitar tunings, in this case a standard Hawaiian slack key system. Conceived (appropriately enough) while in Hawaii, the second verse came to me upon our return to a sub-zero New England winter, as I was literally staring out the window at the massive icicles, longing for the lush tropical breezes. During one of the 'living room' sessions that we periodically organized with a loose affiliation of musician friends, only Darleen, Greg, and myself showed up. I hesitantly played them my new song, and they spontaneously created the harmonies on the chorus. That sound told us we might be on to something, and it's a joy for me to hear their voices whenever we perform this song.
About the unbearable tension between having something to say, and being terrified that someone might hear. Anyone who has ever embarked on a creative endeavor will know the feeling of anxiety associated with a first hearing/viewing/reading of a new work. And yet, so many of us are compelled against our natures to share. This song is meant as a little nudge of encouragement. I was proud of the guitar part as it required that I move my left-hand fingers up and down the neck while maintaining a very specific finger pattern in the right hand. A considerable challenge for a guitar-playing pianist. Never too late to try something new.
Several years ago, a group of my students at UMass Lowell initiated a concert to celebrate women in popular music. After being stunned by the quality of the performances at the first show, I wheedled my way onto the bill the following year, selecting this Blondie song as my contribution. This event was significant for me as it was my first public performance in many years, and solo at that. The positive response from the audience was an enormous boost to my confidence, and gave further fire to the notion of forming a band. Cover songs have always loomed large in my musical world. My senior recital at New England Conservatory was composed completely of radically altered arrangements of pop songs. When I played this song to Greg, he immediately pushed for its inclusion in our repertoire. Good call Greg.
HEAVENS (ANNALS DISC 2)
In the mid 1980s, Suzanne Vega's debut album turned my synth-immersed head around. Her minimalist lyrics, and especially her very precise and sparse guitar playing sounded so different from what I had long dismissed as "folk music." There's an element of her style in this guitar part, not consciously so, but in hindsight, so clearly present. Like a lot of my songs, this one long consisted of nonsense syllables, with the word "lobotomy" coming closest to real language. But that just didn't seem to match the feel of the music. After several weeks, I finally sat down to create a list of words that had the same or similar sounds to the syllables. Working alphabetically, "astronomy" came first. It became a short list. Coincidently, we were already thinking about the packaging of our CDs, looking through the work of Julia Margaret Cameron to maintain the mood established by the cover of Bound. I stumbled upon a set of portraits she took of Sir John Herschel, an astronomer (and son of the much more important astronomer, William Herschel – making Sir John sort of the Julian Lennon of the astronomy scene). Thus we hit upon an album cover, a theme for the record, and a setting for this song. The rest of the lyric was inspired by Darleen's nephew and his wife, both brilliant neuroscientists, who also do normal things like making coffee and taking the subway.
LIGHT IN THE WINDOW
LIGHT IN THE WINDOW
I'm from Asheville, North Carolina, as is the author, Thomas Wolfe. This is my version of You Can't Go Home Again. The cosmic imagery comes courtesy of our Heavens theme. The lyric came quickly while sitting on a Cape Cod beach. Not sure why sunny spaces bring out the darkness in me – "Wishful Thinking" was largely written on a beach as well. This song is one of my favorites as the lyric maintains the metaphor while fully setting down the elusive feeling I hoped to convey. As a recording, Darleen's guitar takes this performance to another world, and Greg's vocal harmony feels like velvet. So much warmth contributed to a song about being frozen.
For several years, I participated in a long distance bike ride (500 miles in five days) called Ride Far. This event benefited the providers of Hiv/AIDS resources, and a small group of riders and crew raised over a million dollars over the course of eleven rides. Because of the nature of the event, and the small number of participants, close, deep, and lasting bonds were formed. The first verse of this song was inspired by the sight of thin tire tracks, left on the pavement just after a light rain, 4 days in, at the 395 mile mark. By this point, exhaustion left me fairly brain dead, and I would have followed those tracks anywhere. Of course they were left by one of my bonded brethren just a few feet ahead of me. But they led me safely home. Ok, not to home, but to a bunk bed in a campground – such comfort, such bliss. The second verse was inspired by the ending of the film, Children of Men. In such grey blankness, hope.
About the inexhaustible search. Not a rebuke of belief, but a song in praise of unanswered questions. I'm content to leave the intangible untouched. Not everyone in the band is a fan of the song, but for some folks in the audience, it's the main reason to come to a show. Who knows why this is. It's a mystery.
Once the astronomical theme had been established for Heavens, we needed to find a cover song with cosmic imagery. I remembered this song from the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers – the hypnotic guitar part and gorgeous strings (and Nicky Hopkins' delicate piano work) has always stood apart from most of the Stones catalog. When I was a teenager, I spent a long sleepless night listening to the radio after my true love introduced me to her boyfriend. At around 3am, this song came on the radio. Something about that guitar line just resonated, the closest I've come to God speaking to me. Let the airwaves flow.
VIGIL (ANNALS DISC 3)
This song was suggested by the spectre of loss that follows Alzheimer's disease, as well as a cautionary tale for folks that move quickly through relationships without establishing real bonds. Who's going to remember you when you can't remember yourself? The guitar part came from a conscious attempt to speak the musical language of Mark Kozelek and Sun Kil Moon. Don't think I succeeded, but I like the results.
SOFTLY, LIKE AN AMEN
SOFTLY, LIKE AN AMEN
The guitar part suggests an Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument I remember trying to play with a Bic pen in a third grade workshop. The lyric was inspired by a series of photographs taken on the battlefields at Gettysburg, and I wrote it from the perspective of a soldier at the moment of his death, imagining his sweetheart. The title comes from a quote in an Alex Ross story about the composer Aaron Copland, whose last instructions to a string ensemble in rehearsal were, "Very good. Now again, softly, like amen." Sounded like poetry to me, and I held on to the phrase until I could find a song to append it to.
Formative years, formative years. Looking back, most of the cover songs we have recorded date from the years 1979/1980. Even the Stones cover comes from an album I bought in 1979, and played obsessively every morning before school. This King Crimson song always captivated me with its ethereal beauty. Our setting attempts to capture that mood, established by Adrian Belew's heavily processed electric guitar, with acoustic instrumentation. The title is Japanese for, "please, wait."
THE HEART THAT FAILED
THE HEART THAT FAILED
A song about alcoholism/addiction, a condition I am blessedly free from, as a number of sober friends would concur. While I can't know what that feels like, I can certainly describe what it looks like. The last verse was inspired by a Raymond Carver story in which a young couple visits a yard sale, the detritus of a dissolved marriage scattered about the lawn. A record player. A dance.
This is the oldest song in our catalog by several decades. Greg and I performed it in a different incarnation during our conservatory years. Our teacher, Ran Blake assigned us some summer reading – Willa Cather's A Lost Lady – and staged a fall concert to include our musical responses. I was very pleased with the verses, but the chorus was all ham-handed drum machine "rock." Jump forward a few decades, and a different chorus popped into my head. Now I had a song, but no band to perform it. The seeds for our string section were sown here, and in many ways, Birdsong was formed so that I could perform a song like this. Maybe even this exact one.
What happens when friendships fade? The song came from the odd coincidence of three difficult phone conversations in the same week, all unexpectedly distant where there had once been deep and easy connection. Somewhere out there is a guy waiting to hear this over the radio at 3am.
LUMENS (ANNALS DISC 4)
This song is about the difficulty of writing this song. When we recorded most of the drum tracks in one two day session, a number of songs existed as barely more than fragments. This was one of them. I had no idea what the song was about, no words other than "go." We spent no more than 15 minutes recording the basic track, since it was unclear whether there was a song here at all. But Ben Wittman's drumming really brought the track to life, and it felt too good to drop. Still, I couldn't for the life of me come up with the words. The more I tried, the harder it got, until the song so intimidated me that the very thought of it brought me to catatonia. Then one day, "Eureka!" I realized that the song is about this very condition. What have you got to lose, just finish the damned thing. Very post-modern, etc. So emerged a hymn to self-empowerment, written under intense deadline, and sung just days before mastering the last record. Take a running leap...
CAN'T HELP MYSELF
CAN'T HELP MYSELF
Another fragment recorded in a single take with Ben. Can't help it, I love pop music. Catchy, sing-along choruses, nifty hooks, shiny surfaces and pulsing grooves. Not that I write those, but I do love 'em. This song always envisioned the string quartet as the driving force, so it took a little encouragement to convince the rest of the group – "this will work, trust me. Once the string part is there, then it'll be clear." Not sure I won that argument, but I still get a rush out of the string part. Hey, at least it's not another song about dying.
During the first year of Birdsong, I booked some solo shows out in the Midwest, spreading the gospel, so to speak. Visions of wheat fields for days, the train station in Days of Heaven, Dorothy's no-place-like-home-Kansas – it all screamed "America." Almost a foreign country to me. What if someone ventured there and never came back? Whenever you go, something or someone is always left behind.
NEVER MAKE ME CRY
NEVER MAKE ME CRY
An overlooked gem from Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, a double album from 1979 that has persistently insinuated itself into my stereo system. So unhip, but a touchstone nonetheless. (Hey Matthew Sweet has championed it, and Camper Van Beethoven recorded a cover version of the whole album, so...) I love the ambivalence of the title phrase. Defiant, delusional, accepting. You decide.
When I was in graduate school, I played in a Middle -Eastern music ensemble, and became enthralled with Arabic pop music, especially the monumental, but incredibly nimble orchestral parts. Once this song came to me on guitar, the unison string counterpoint rang loudly in my head. This one took everyone in the band, and the string players too, by surprise. But it was too much fun not to go with it. Conceived as an ode to Dick Cheney (echoing Neil Young's, "Even Richard Nixon's got soul"), the sentiment sadly remains relevant. Put down the gun, there's room at the table.
A lullaby to fresh starts. Nearly left off the album because I was unhappy with the mix and my vocal performance. Re-recorded the vocal and remixed the night before the mastering session. Thank God we don't work in studios, or many of these songs would never see the light of day.
This song had been part of our live shows since shortly after the release of Bound. After all the morose navel gazing, it was a relief to have something upbeat to go out with. But by this time we had sketched out the rough outline of the remaining CDs, and knew the last one would be lighter in tone. So we held it back, even as people kept responding favorably to it in concert. Somewhat written for that purpose, the not very deep lyric acknowledges the cliché of the easy, "I'm falling in love with you." But what if you are? Just because it's a cliché, it doesn't mean it can't be real. For such a romantic band, it's kind of impossible to sidestep love.