Monthly Archives: May 2011

Non-Album Tracks #3: ‘Wolves, Lower’

Welcome to the third edition of my Non-Album Tracks series, dealing with a selection of my favourite B-sides, standalone singles and other songs from releases that were not studio albums. In the last installment, I managed to go wildly off-topic multiple times – something I’m keen to rein in. Since my massive R.E.M. obsession which lasted the bulk of the 1990s was covered in one of that post’s many digressions, I’m hoping that, by choosing an R.E.M. song this time, I will be less prone to my typical tangents. We’ll see how that works out. I have a feeling I might be starting off with a preamble…

R.E.M. – ‘Wolves, Lower’

Released on:
Chronic Town [EP - 1982]

Chronic Town

Also available on:
Dead Letter Office [CD] [1987]

Ah, EPs. Strange beasts. They’re longer than singles; shorter than albums. But since there are an array of definitions and interpretations of what singles and albums are, that puts the format in a massive grey area, dense with confusion. While there are plenty of archetypal, 5- or 6-song, 15- to 20-minute examples, there are many anomalies.  A recent high-profile example would be Lady Gaga’s late-2009 release, The Fame Monster: it is eight songs and over 34 minutes long; three of its tracks were released as individual singles. And yet it, like Nine Inch Nails’ similarly-sized Broken by , is not an “album”. In years to come, Gaga’s back catalogue of studio albums will read “The Fame [2008], Born This Way [2011]…” and so on.  This is possibly down to its planned/alternative life as a bonus add-on to the re-release of the fame, but regardless, the end result is that this release holds a somewhat awkward position in the artists canon of releases.

This odd, in-between status is shared by the more typical EPs. And unlike Gaga’s stupendous popular ”EP”, these are more likely to be forgotten about – or lose their individual identity if/when they are absorbed into compilations or other releases. Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ utterly excellent 5-song, self-titled debut release has been eclipsed in the history books by Fever to Tell. The now-standard inclusion of Pixies Come On Pilgrim* on the CD version of Surfer Rosa (in this part of the world at least) does a double-disservice: the former becomes a tacked-on extra, while the latter’s structure becomes perverted (à la the bonus track thing I complained about here) – ‘Brick Is Red’ is brilliantly realized album closer, yet so many listeners don’t know that it closes an album!

R.E.M.’s first EP, Chronic Town is 20 minutes long, contains five songs and was first released in 1982 – a year after their debut single and about eight months before their debut album. However, I’m willing to wager most people who are familiar with it know it as those five tracks at the end of the Dead Letter Office CD. That’s certainly how I first came to know it – though, predictably enough, it took me a while to figure out that it was actually a separate entity, as opposed to the preceding mish-mash of B-sides and other rarities compiled on the collection. But I guess that’s the whole point – and the point of this thread of posts: since it is not one of the bands “proper” albums, its songs become part of the mish-mash, destined to be regarded as offshoots or asides, if regarded at all.

Which is sad, because they’re an excellent bunch of songs. In particular, the first song: ‘Wolves, Lower’. It goes a little something like this:

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This is pure “early R.E.M.” – back when Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker still jangled the jangle with those arpeggios and no one could understand what Michael Stipe was singing about (or, often enough, what words he was actually singing). It has it all. The guitar leads the way, soon augmented by Mike Mills’s propulsive-yet-melodic bass and Bill Berry’s tight drums to create a tense, nervy atmosphere. And that’s before Stipe comes in with his crazy  ”Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, don’t get caught” stuff.

How does one “suspicion” oneself exactly? Suspicion isn’t a verb, Michael! I remember, when the 2004 single ‘Leaving New York’ came out and people were harping on about the “Leaving was never my proud” line and how ungrammatical it was. People didn’t harp on about ‘Wolves, Lower’, though. Perhaps because the line works better. Perhaps because ‘Wolves…’ is a better song overall. Most likely, though, it’s because ‘Wolves, Lower’ was heard by an audience only a tiny fraction of the later song’s.  Anyway, the “suspicion yourself” phrase DOES work brilliantly, so grammar can just feck off on this one.

suspicion yourself from Wolves is just bad grammer [sic], but it works. Well it’s in a song called Lower Wolves that is titled on the record as Wolves, Lower. What did you expect? [Michael Stipe]

Around the 0:49 mark, the song takes an upward turn as we come out of the murky verses and build up to the chorus part. Stipe starts singing out, the backing vocals come in and Buck adds a dinky little guitar lick in there. And then it’s the chorus. For this, Mike Mills and Bill Berry sing the lyrics (“House in order”) while Stipe does some wordless ah-ing. It’s a strategy that served “early R.E.M.” pretty well. On the Live at the Olympia release, the band plays ‘Letter Never Sent’ from Reckoning, after which an audience member compliments Stipe on his repeated “ohs” in the song. He explains: “that was [a] just go “ooh” and “aah” and let Mike and Bill do everything kind of song.” Ditto ‘Wolves…’, which, incidentally, is also included on Live at the Olympia (which, incidentally, is a fantastically good live album, well worth your time).

Other than the briefest of breaks after the second chorus, that’s it. R.E.M. were never big on guitar solos, partially because Buck wasn’t a particularly skilled (in the traditional sense) guitarist and probably also because the guitar wasn’t really the band’s lead instrument. I can’t remember if it was said about R.E.M. or if it was Joy Division instead, but either way… R.E.M. – certainly in their earlier recordings – were a band where each instrument, Stipe’s voice included, acted as kind of lead instruments. Each member did his own thing, never encroaching on what the other members were playing, resulting in four distinct parts coming together, retaining their individuality while also combining forces to become something greater.

Yes.

I shall leave you with some fan footage of ‘Wolves, Lower’ played at the Olympia. Enjoy!

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*Apparently, Come On Pilgrim, is not really an EP either, it’s a “mini-LP” – longer than an EP, but shorter than an LP…

Self-Retrospect #3: ‘Flare’

Welcome to episode three of Self-Retrospect – this blog’s most overtly narcissistic series, which recounts the stories behind some of my earlier forays into songwriting.

As we saw in their respective entries, the first two tracks on the Projects compilation [download here] were mostly significant for their lyrical content. Musically? Well, they each had their moments. Sonically? Not particularly interesting at all. Of course, at this stage, everything was being recorded through an old computer microphone made in the mid- to late-90s. I had just about figured out how multitrack recording worked. I was still, however, compressing the hell out of stuff when converting to MP3. This was mostly down to ignorance, but it was partly due to the severely limited space we had on our PC hard drive at the time. The latter also meant that very soon after I’d exported a mixdown of a song, I would have to delete the recorded tracks so that I’d have space to record new stuff. This would persist right up until I got my own computer when I was living in Japan in 2006. Which means that no multitracks of Projects-era songs have survived, unfortunately.

I did come around to not compressing the hell out of songs in the MP3 conversion process a lot sooner than that, but not before recording ‘Flare’ on 19 January, 2002. ‘Flare’ – track 3 on Projects - is a harsh and ugly song. Definitely the most overtly brutal thing I’d done up until that point – and possibly still one of the most severe I’ve ever done.  It almost physically hurts to listen to it. The quality of the final mixdown certainly didn’t tone things down. At a time when most MP3s had a bit rate of 128kbps, ‘Flare’ was 32kbps. Ouch.

Flare - I'd say hello

But yes, the harshness was already there. First thing was percussion. This was the first song I’d done that had any kind of live percussion. It actually formed the basis of the whole song – and I have my little sister to thank for it. Jennifer, aged 12 at the time, was attending a sort of speech and drama/performance class thing on Friday evenings. At one, the class did a drumming workshop, where they did this polyrhythmic exercise in which one half of the class did one thing (keeping the 8th beat? – my knowledge of drum terminology remains terrible) while the other half did this “bom–bom-bom–bom-bom” thing. The next day, she demonstrated, and I suggested recording it.

For the 8th beat part, I went with hitting saucepans (or saucepan lids?) with plastic chopsticks. This is the first thing you hear on the song. The sound is all treble and gets right in your ear. On the 6th and 8th beat, I hit a different lid and – on another track – hit two saucepan lids together like cymbals. For the “bom” bit, I wanted something deeper. I don’t know if there are multiple “bom” tracks, but the one I remember was Jennifer (or may be me) whacking an empty box of Celebrations, left over from Christmas.

I had come up with the repetitive, obnoxious, upstroke guitar riff a few days prior to this and hadn’t planned on doing much with it. But then I realized it totally fit the 8th beat section. Before I recorded that though, I got Jen to lay down a distorted bass part – just hit the open E string to the “bom–bom-bom–bom-bom” beat and let the last one ring out. She then doubled that with the same thing an octave above. After that, I recorded the guitar, ensuring that the tone knob was set as high as it went. And then the vocals.

Flare - your averting eyes

I had already written the words. Most of my songs – at least most of them back then – came about this way. I would write loads of words/pseudo-poems in a notebook (usually at night; sometimes drunk). Then, separately, I would mess about on guitar or bass and sometimes come up with something decent-sounding. After that I’d find words from the notebook that fit the song.

It was very very easy to match these words to this music. There were about 12 lines on one page – all rather seething. I took just six of them and then used that old friend (well, a new-ish friend at the time) repetition to lock them to the brutal repeating groove. Rhythmically, they worked brilliantly together. And as for the sentiment of those words? Have a listen and tell me if it fits:

At the time, there was some speculation among one or two friends about who the target of the lyrics was. No one guessed correctly, though. This was probably because the subject of ‘Flare’ wasn’t really in my life in the time and – in actual fact – wasn’t really one particular person. It was more about feelings I had towards a group of people, although I might have had one of the group in my head when I was actually putting pen to paper.

For me, the “beauty” of this song was its distinct lack of beauty. It was a lot of fun to play live too. It was definitely the highlight of the first “david ding” gig I ever did (which didn’t happen until November 2004 – nearly three years after the song was first recorded). That show was at Eamonn Doran’s (sadly no more) in Dublin, where my good friend Mr Peter Stringer backed me on drums. I was considerably nervous during the set, but when ‘Flare’ came, halfway through, I was able to let go. We played it faster – actually, Peter started off playing it quite fast and then I told him to speed up even more. And instead of doing my monotone deadpan thing, I found it in myself to do a monotone shouty thing. Heck, I’ve got a recording of that very performance [taken from the Selection compilation - a more expansive/less picky compilation of 2001-2006 stuff - which you can download here]:

I ended up playing it at most gigs after that – it was a handy sort of confidence-booster to have in my pocket, and/or something to confront an unfriendly/uninterested audience with. But around late 2007, I just stopped playing it.

Flare - the flavour of your face

I think, of all the songs on Projects, it’s the one I’ve probably “outgrown” the most. While it seems somewhat acceptable to hear an 18-year-old sing/say/shout things like “the flavour of your face is making me sick”, I don’t think someone in their mid-/late-twenties can pull it off quite as well. That’s not to say I wouldn’t still write harsh songs, or that I don’t enjoy performing them. But I’d like to think I – as a part of, you know, growing up – have become a little bit more sophisticated with the mean stuff. But maybe I’m just being pretentious there (as if I haven’t been for the duration of this post – ha!). Who knows, perhaps I’ll resurrect it.

Actually, in late 2008, I did come back to ‘Flare’ when I was figuring out how to use a piece of homebrew Nintendo DS software called bliptracker. I took six samples from the original MP3 and did this one-take live video with which I shall leave you. Tune in next time for Episode 4: David gets sexy.

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