Detholz! demos – “Minnesota Nice” I/II

Welcome to Episode IV of the Detholz! Mp3 Blog – a 2-parter this week.

I originally intended this song to be posted last week, but it was met with such controversy from other band members that I decided to rustle up an alternate, “Detholz!-friendly” arrangement.

So, here are both versions:

“Minnesota Nice” – new, DH!-friendly version
For those who aren’t interested in music geekery, this is the one to download.

“Minnesota Nice” – original version

Today’s song necessitates an apology to any Minnesotan listeners: I have nothing against the great state of Minnesota, or any of its residents. You all had the good sense to elect Jesse “The Mind” a few years back, and that cannot be overlooked. He’s the source of my favorite summation from any political figure, in reference to MN ice-fishing restrictions in early Spring: “You can’t legislate stupidity.”

Also: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”

So, on with the show!

1. SONG CONCEPT

Unlike the previous 2 posts, today’s ditty, “Minnesota Nice,” came totally out of left field. Also unlike the previous two posts, I really didn’t know what this song was about until more than a week after I’d written it.

Unless you’ve been away skinning rabbits in a cave, you know there was a terrible accident in Minneapolis 2 weeks ago where a bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in the teeth of the rush hour, causing dozens of cars to plummet into the water. Six people were killed and many more went missing. This is a stretch of road I’ve traveled over many times on tour, and when I heard the story on the radio and saw the pictures on the news, I was saddened and a little creeped out.

I guess these lyrics are collections of images stemming from the bridge accident and from recent conversations with an old friend that’s had a hard time in Minnesota, mostly owing to circumstances beyond her control. Subsequently, “Minnesota” serves as a metaphor for death, stagnation or fate.

[Again, angry Minnesotans: it could have just as easily been Ohio or New Jersey… pick a state. Yours happens to have a pleasant sequence of phonemes.]

The plastic smiles of death and/or fate inexorably turn to all of us, regardless of what we wish for. So perhaps this song is about the fear of fate and the loss of control. In that spirit, I’ll leave the final determination up to you:

“I don’t want to live in Minnesota
I don’t want to float with the dead
I don’t want to go to your funeral
Minnesota Nice up ahead”

[complete lyrics below this post]

2. SONG COMPOSITION

(It was hard for me to discuss this one without lapsing into some music theory. If you have questions about any of these ideas or the terminology, don’t hesitate to ask. For the record, I’m going to try and avoid forced rides on Music School Bus as much as possible on this thing…)

Despite the grisly subject matter, this song was a barrel of fun to construct! It’s an experiment in phase-shifting– one of my favorite musical devices– based on the 4-note fuzz bass line that doesn’t change much throughout the song. In other words, the downbeat shifts. (Downbeat = 1st beat of a musical measure, for any greenhorns out there)

The bass line occupies 4 eighth notes. During the choruses, the downbeat is on the first note of the pattern (imagine me crooning at you here): “BOM-bom-bom-bom.”

During the verse, the downbeat shifts to the THIRD note in the pattern: “bom-bom-BOM-bom.”

I recorded bass first, then drums, then vocals. The downbeat shift between chorus and verse was initially too difficult for my poor pea brain to sing, so I had to mute the drum part to record the vocals. Once I un-muted the drum part, presto! A dramatic change in feel between verse and chorus! Whether it’s effective or not, I’ll leave up to you, but I think it will have interesting possibilities if the band can pull it off live.

I decided to add horn parts next, which I knew would be controversial within the band. And man, oh man, were they ever! There’s a growing debate in Detholz! as to whether or not horns fit within our particular… mileu. After my years of servitude in Baby Teeth and Bobby Conn’s band, I’ve become enamored with a more organic sound, and am attempting to steer the new DH! record in THAT direction. Sorry, folks, but I think it’s time to veer away from the paper-thin synths of our dorkalicious past. There’s some major disagreement on that topic in Kamp Detholz.

Here’s what a few other Holz had to say about the original version of this song:

Jonny: “The bridge is compositionally pretty cool…minus the bird noises. πŸ™‚ I think that’s what cheezes it for me. Also, i’m still not used to the idea of a ‘sax section’ in the detholz. it still doesn’t make sense to my ear.”

(BTW, don’t miss Jonny’s own songwriting blog, jonsteinmeier.wordpress.com)

Ben: “I’m with Jon on the horns and crow sounds. What I dislike with the horns is replacing crazy synth parts for crazy horn parts. It’s good to get out of “New Wave” land, but to jump into ‘Ska-ish/Radiohead with Horns’ land might be worse. I don’t object to using horns, but I would like to see them be soulful, noisy and dare I say smooth. I think these motives would do better with the plastic touch of the synth.”

(And Ben’s delightfully weird music can be heard at www.tinytron.com)

Thing is, I didn’t include horns for their own sake, or to make a point. I think they genuinely serve the purpose of this song. It freely borrows structurally from Fela Kuti, whose music I’ve obsessed over for a while now. The horns are an important part of the rhythm section in this arrangement. They add a blanket of polyrhythms to the drum part that turns it from a standard “Wurlitzer-home-organ samba” into something more convoluted and interesting, at least to me. It’s often difficult to place where the downbeat falls in Fela’s music, as he plays around constantly with phase shifting and polyrhythmic patterns, most of which repeat over long periods of time. While this is nothing new, that’s territory that we’ve never explored before in Detholz! and we’re having some success at it in rehearsal.

In any case, I took Ben’s and Jonny’s recommendations to heart in the DH!-friendly version and substituted the horns with a distorted synth clav. Here’s what Jonny said about the 2nd version:

“This tune is growing on me a lot. I think part of thing with this new arrangement is that i found myself focusing more on the composition than on the sounds, which is a good thing. The writing is really cool. I DID end up liking the horns over the clav i think though. I know, I’m eating my words here. but I missed ’em.”

Jonny brings up an excellent rule of thumb: the orchestration/arrangement of a song should NEVER distract from the song itself. In this world of gadgetry and innumerable options, I have a major blind spot with respect to “over-arranging.” I really wrestled with that this time. Esp. given the weighty subject matter– this was no occasion to be riding the “Gimmick Train.”

Which leads us to the most difficult part of this composition– and one I agonized for hours over– the bridge. Originally, I opted for the standard “Jim Cooper Bridge” = meandering harmonic changes, no strong melody, plenty of room for either goofy narration or a novelty sound effect (cf. “Heather via JC” on Baby Teeth’s “For the Heathers” EP, “Jukebox of the Dead” theme song from the post-college camp era– click links for free downloads on both) Though I attempted to paint a picture of the aftermath of the bridge accident, I’m not sure I succeeded in doing much more than pasting part of a bad Danny Elfman movie score in the middle of a song that, as DH!/Baby Teeth producer Blue Hawaii would say, is “pretty OK” (meaning “pretty bad”)

In the DH!-friendly version, the bridge accomplishes its compositional function between the A and B sections more effectively, and introduces a flute line that reoccurs near the end of the song. It also reduces the “goof” factor quite a bit. The guitar effect is heisted from the end of the Shuggie Otis song, “Strawberry Letter 23,” from his album, “Inspiration Information” which is forever burned in my brain as the death-song of one of the characters from HBO’s Six Feet Under. While the original bridge with the prominent crow samples was a valiant attempt to conjure images of a death-laden ravine, I’m afraid it lapsed into pure frippery.

The chorus, as you’ll notice from the start of the song, consists of 4 notes in keeping with my “less-is-more” approach to chorus melodies (see the “Tammy” post below for more on that subject). In keeping with themes of fate and tragedy, the rhythm is unrelenting and the background vocals more primal: “Minnesota…ahhh, ahhh!”

The verse vocal is not improvised– mainly because I’m a terrible improviser– but the melody purposely darts in and around a strong tonal center, giving it an improvisatory flavor. The harmony is mostly static, and the changes are simple to leave room for all of the rhythmic interplay between the groups of instruments.

Lyrically, the song contains two of the three images I’m trying to include in every song on the new record: blood, animals, and betrayal. The “betrayal” element is missing this time, so I left the “Traitor” motive out (see the “Catherine Zeta-Jones” post below). However, the flute parts use the same descending intervals as the “Traitor” motive, so it’s referenced indirectly. A great device to unify a number of songs or movements, incidentally, is use of the same intervallic material.

So, doughty readers, which version do YOU prefer?

I think the newer version is cleaner, though I miss the horns and the dulcimer (the stringy sounding instrument) from the original. The horns also strike me as more chaotic-sounding, which I prefer.

For some reason, the dulcimer evokes images of the snowy Northern reaches of Minnesota, where the ghosts of Scandinavian ancestors roam the countryside, hooting spookily in their native tongues.

Thanks for reading, friendly ghosts… and, as always, thanks for listening!

3. LYRICS

I don’t want to live in Minnesota
I don’t want to talk to the dead
I don’t want to drown in the water
Minnesota Nice up ahead

Brutalized by the 3rd degree
Stuck in traffic, in the heat of the heat
I saw you smile
Before you were exploded
Your guts spilling over my feet
The sight of your blood–
I really thought I could, but–

I don’t want to live in Minnesota
I don’t want to talk to the dead
I don’t want to drown in the water
Minnesota Nice up ahead

Minnesota, ah!

Don’t forget your water wings
on the Overpass over watery things
A stream full of eyes
They’re sinking ever deeper
Their bloated bodies doing nothing
You’re crossing a bridge
A bridge that won’t hold you
And then it’s over
Over Minnesota
Drowning in the heart of town

I don’t want to live in Minnesota
I don’t want to float with the dead
I don’t want to go to your funeral
Minnesota Nice up ahead

I don’t want to die like a monkey
I don’t want to die in your stead
I don’t want to live in Minnesota
I don’t want to talk to the dead

Minnesota, ah!

I don’t want to talk to the dead

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26 Responses to “Detholz! demos – “Minnesota Nice” I/II”

  1. detholz Says:

    Thanks to Leigh for pointing out a boneheaded coding error… the mp3 links should work now.

    Sorry, folks! Try again!

  2. WOTSAC Says:

    My first impression was that the flute bit (traitor lite) that starts the bridge reminds me of the last song on that Sheath CD from ages ago, which in turn used to remind me of We’re From the Future (or something of that ilk). The more I thought of it, the more that I was reminded of Sheath — the over repetition, and the weird mix of clang-y and windy orchestration.

    Generally, I like v1 a bit better – the loss of the crows is a strong net positive, but the replacement piano is sticking a wet finger in my ear and twisting spiritedly. Which, in a far more diffuse sense is the problem with v2 – the clean edge from replacing the horns and the dulcimer is distinctly uncomfortable for me.

  3. WOTSAC Says:

    I am, by the way, entering a dangerous D! demo haze right now, chasing too many passes through Minnesota Nice with a complete review of the New Blog Canon over porn.

  4. Abraham Says:

    I loved reading actual dialogue from DH! rehearsals! I think the next step, after these blogs run their course, is to make each rehearsal available as a downloadable teleplay! and then people could act out different scenes on youtube.

  5. detholz Says:

    Say hello to WOTSAC, everyone, a founding member of Detholz! from the days of yore.

    WOTSAC, you ought to re-post some of the Sheath material, all of which makes for an excellent listen. I just searched for your old MySpace page and couldn’t find it.

    All in all, I agree with everything you say. This is more of a longtime personal policy than a musical one, but in this case, it works on both scores! Huzzah!

    Abraham: I am currently installing tiny speakers in homemade Detholz! bobbleheads to film these dialogues for posting on YouTube. I’m going to do all of the voices.

  6. detholz Says:

    Oh, and tracks from WOTSAC’s (aka Mister M’s) and my collaboration from a years back, “Surrounded by Monarchs,” are coming soon! RIGHT HERE ON THIS BLOG.

  7. kebabdylan Says:

    DH comments are indeed fantastic. When I was posting the demos on specnet Jim would send me comment from the band. My two favorite that I remember were “It’s annoying. and not in a good kind of way” and “sounds like don henley!”

  8. BP Says:

    I really do like the horn section. It added an organic rhythmic excitement to the song that the “Detholz!-friendly version” just doesn’t capture. Also, I thought the crow sound effects worked, but only the first two times. The more it repeated over the course of the bridge, the more gimmicky it got.

    I guess my question is whether the Detholz! has a philosophy about whether a recorded version of a song necessarily needs to be closely reproducible when it is played live. I could easily see the horns getting included on the album version, but using the “Detholz!-friendly version” when playing live.

  9. Phil Says:

    I must chime in and say that, as a whole, I like the direction this song is taking. The DH friendly arrangement sounds good, but I must say that I really like the bridge on the original version, even the bird noises. Although, it might be tough to find a “bird pedal” for the guitar…

  10. detholz Says:

    Kebabs: Ask the rest of the band about a song called “Time Traveling Peterbilt Semi.” Then again, don’t.

    BP: Yes, I’m getting more comments from listeners outside the blog that the horns need to stay. Our friends, the crows, are also getting solid reviews, as is the 1st bridge as opposed to the 2nd, more standard Detholz! bridge.

    So it looks like I’m going to rustle up a THIRD version of this song, which I’ll post here when finished…!

    To answer your question, we’ve been able to expand a lot of the arrangements by using a laptop with backing tracks and having Andrew (drummer) play to a click. We’re able to realize the arrangements on the demos pretty closely, and I never write a Detholz! song without trying to imagine what it will sound like in a live setting.

    We are primarily a live band, as you know. In this case, I’d put the horns on a backing track.

    Phil: Actually, we’re talking about releasing live crows into the audience during that section. Bring your poncho!

  11. kebabdylan Says:

    Ha! that might be one of those demos that dj and I have that you would like destroyed for all time? I believe at the last show, dj shouted that one out. guess you didn’t hear it because you played mr. electricity instead.

    and for the record, I would love to live in Minnesota.

  12. detholz Says:

    Or I PRETENDED not to hear.

    As long as that song stays buried where no one can find it. If it surfaces anywhere– even if it becomes some sort of weird sleeper hit and makes millions of dollars– I will sue your ass! πŸ™‚

  13. kebabdylan Says:

    right after andrew sues me for releasing to the public that metal song on the kodon cd. You know the one with the drum solo at the end?

    good times.

  14. Academia Ginastica Concurso Publico Says:

    Well done, great blog and great posts!!!

  15. Steve Chignell Says:

    I get it now, there’s a blog for each song. Thanks for the tip.

    Super sick song. I think this is one of my favorites. So freakin catchy. I like the original version better. You’re right, it’s definately more chaotic; the other one seems too soft. I kind of like the riff in the bridge of the second version though. But I also really like the crows or whatever they are in the first one. The horns are cool too. Damn it it’s catchy.

  16. arhror Says:

    Thanks for the tip

  17. detholz Says:

    Academia: Thanks for reading! Say hello to everyone in Brazil!

    Steve: Thrilled you dig it, pal. This is a case where Ye Olde Blog has been hugely helpful in the development of a song. I’ll soon post a “bloggified” version, which will be a lumbering Frankenstein monster with pieces of both the 1st and 2nd versions smashed together.

    arhor: Anytime. Which tip was that? Are you spam?

  18. tiny tron Says:

    I’m starting to eat my words. The horn parts and original bridge are starting to work for me. In the past every single one of my favorite albums I’ve hated the first time I’ve heard them. I force myself to listen due to friends recommendations, online reviews or word of mouth and it starts t change me in small ways. In my memory the horns were some much more “animatronic” and now… well, they are much more palatable. Viva la horn section!

  19. detholz Says:

    The Blog Has Spoken.

    As I told Steve above, I will render a new (and hopefully) final version of “Minnesota Nice” combining the strengths of both arrangements and post it next week.

    Thanks for your input, everyone. This is a case where you have directly impacted our creative process in a positive way!

    So, next week, another 2-parter… the new, “bloggified” version of “Minnesota Nice” + an exclusive new demo from Tiny Tron aka Ben Miranda!

    Read you then…

  20. kebabdylan Says:

    as a side note. i would highly encourage the band to use as little backing tracks as possible live and go more in the direction of having to reinterpret songs to be played live. Just a suggestion.

  21. detholz Says:

    Backing tracks serve only to fill out arrangements in a live setting, and are rarely the primary component of a song.

    This is a practice that is now widespread, and has been utilized by every band I’ve been a part of for the past 5 years. In fact, there’s been some talk of incorporating some “traxx” into Baby Teeth shows.

    I realize we run afoul of the “photo-realists” but ultimately, if they serve an arrangement or make a song more invigorating in a live setting, why NOT use backing tracks?

    Heck, if it worked for Milli Vanilli, it can work for us. Put THAT in your @#$%in’ pipe and smoke it.

  22. kebabdylan Says:

    HA! I guess you put me in my place! Although I gotta say, first, it was “hall and oats did this”, now it’s “if it worked for milli vanilli”. I feel that you are lowering the bar for yourself. Should we expect a “while I was listening to glass tiger…” soon?

    i guess i am one of those “photo-realists” types. I just think 1. backing tracks take away from the whole “live band” thing. 2. I love when bands depart from the recorded versions of songs live. like a special bonus to seeing a band live. With this current demo, with so much going on in the song, it would be interesting to hear what you come up with if you limited it to 5 people playing 5 instruments.

    just my opinion/preference so feel free to ignore. the 5 of you put on a brilliant show, backing tracks or not.

  23. detholz Says:

    Only kidding, Kebabs. You’re free to criticize here in the Land of Blog.

    After all, it’s a land of joy, pain, sunshine and rain. Blame it on the rain, blame it on the stars, but whatever you do, Kebabs, don’t put the blame on you.

    I, too, appreciate a band that goes to the trouble to revamp an album’s material for a live setting. Again, I’ll direct you to the mighty Residents,
    who put on one of the greatest live shows I’ve ever seen when they toured behind their “Wormwood” album.

    A lot of the songs were barely recognizable from the record. They went on to release a live album of that material called “Roadworms,” which I haven’t heard.

    Incidentally, Kebabs, “Wormwood” is a record you might enjoy– a concept album containing so-called “Curious Stories from the Bible,” including a rendering of the plight of Lot (who misses his wife), the murderer of Sisera (the gal with the deadly tent peg), etc. Not their greatest record– you’ll probably hate the overabundance of MIDI-stration– but still a great idea.

    Plus, they realized most of that material on live instruments.

  24. detholz Says:

    Also wanted to add: I used to be a “photo-realist” myself having grown up in DC during the Fugazi era.

    While I appreciate being in DC during a time when the music community was particularly vibrant, the self-righteous, insular kind of musical thinking that was going on at the time– esp. the DC-centric Dischord party line– really hampered my musical development in the long run. To this day, there are large gaps in my knowledge of pop music b/c I was so concerned with being a snobbish DC punker.

    These days, I’ve adopted an “if it feels good, do it” policy when it comes to songwriting and to listening. Glass Tiger, you say? I say “Quincy Jones — The Dude.”

    BUY THIS RECORD. YOU WILL NOT BE SORRY.

    Plus, check out the cover. What is that thing? And what exactly is that “walking stick?”

  25. kebabdylan Says:

    yeah, i got duck stab off emusic per your recommendation and am listening to it. not sure if it will ever be more than a novelty for me, but I have been enjoying it. The track (live video actually) burn baby burn off the roadworm album was what I heard that peaked my interest in them. yes, very different. i really really really like that song. the roadworm album also happens to be on emusic and is in my cue.

  26. detholz Says:

    Novelty or no, how can you argue with lyrics like:

    “Weight-Lifting Lulu forever is gone,
    Weight-Lifting Lulu is under the lawn?”

    If you have any interest in pursuing the matter further, I’d highly recommend “The Commercial Album,” which is perhaps the greatest concept album of all time– each track is exactly 1 minute long, so if you play them 3 times back to back *poof!* an instant pop song:

    “Easter Woman came today and took away my wife…
    Took her through an open doorway to the Afterlife.”

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