signs.comets, dance parties, and ambition

This blog is going to be three fold, as cleverly suggested by the title. 

The first musing I have is on the howie&scott (or as I like to call them, Scott Money Big, or S$B) double-disc, signs.comets.  I have listened to the CD plenty of times, and although I know they were seperated into two CDs for a reason, I still listen to them as if they were a whole work (like, I won’t usually listen to just one or the other; usually it’s the two right in a row).  I remember being at Howie’s house, helping him EQ some of his uncle band’s songs, and Howie mentioned something to me about the “signs” disc from signs.comets being, in his opinion, the single most important artistic achievement he has made thus far. 

To Howie, signs is not just a better CD musically- it meant more to him to write, I believe, and from what it looks like, it sounds like he’s poured just about 100% of himself into signs, emotionally.  Not that he didn’t with any other musical effort he’s done, but I know what he means- there are some moments when you write a song, and you can’t believe how accurately it describes how you feel.  It doesn’t happen often for me that I write a song and say, “Holy sh*t- this is EXACTLY how I feel!”  Language and music are tough to manipulate sometimes, but for Howie, it sounds like he was able to do just that for the creation of “signs.”

Final paragraph on signs.comets- I was listening to “comets” a few weeks ago in my car on the way to work, and I had a realization that went against what Howie had said, at least at first, and my realization was this: that “comets” was probably the better record of the two.  I know this probably doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to most people, but it’s a rare occurance when I don’t agree with Howie on which albums are better, especially when it comes to the records we’ve written.  For example, “Prove It” > “Mixed-Up Head.”  But I bet even Scott Stapp could tell that.  Actually, for some reason, I bet he would like “Mixed-Up Head” better.  Anyway, the point is, I believe that there’s a good chance that “comets” is the better record- it’s more accessable without being too accessable, the lyrics and songwriting are wonderful, and it’s cohesive in a way that signs doesn’t accomplish.  But after mentioning this possibility to Howie, and thinking about it afterwards, I came to the conclusion that just because “comets” might be better than “signs” doesn’t mean that “signs” shouldn’t mean more to Howie as the songwriter than “comets.” (as an aside, Howie should feel free and, well, obligated to correct or amend anything I’ve written here). 

Dance Parties-  Sometimes I get bored at my favorite band’s concerts.  I’ve gotten bored while Cursive, Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, Nada Surf, Ben Kweller, Bright Eyes, and countless other “favorite” bands have played.  Why is that?  Because at a live show, I need something more than just the songs.  I need an atmosphere.  I need energy.  I NEED HEART.  And that’s why, out of all of the concerts I’ve ever been to, stupid punk shows and ESPECIALLY hip-hop shows have been the best.  Even if I don’t know the song, I usually enjoy watching an Honorable Mention song live better than watching some Bright Eyes songs.  The best concert I’ve ever been to was The Streets- it’s the only one that I was never bored at.  In fact, I was PUMPED.  It was awesome.  So much energy, and I was dancing the whole time.  What do you guys think?

Finally, ambition.  Is it wrong to want everyone in the world to hear your song or read your cool, funny Noose article?  Is it wrong to want to consider demo-submitting and/or newsletter advertising to get your name out there?  When we step on stage to perform a show, we are not only silently admitting that we believe our songs are worth listening to- we have taken it upon ourselves to make sure that people DO listen to our songs.  We’re making these songs for more than just ourselves.  Although the songwriter should be the only one truly concerned with his or her own work, it doesn’t really work like that- after all, why would MFR even bother to post our music if we didn’t believe it ought to be heard by others? 

Is ambition in music a bad thing?  I think these questions can all be answered by studying motives.  Some people start bands because they want to “make it big.”  Others start bands because they want to create new, original exciting music.  These two types of people blur in a lot of ways.  I’m perfectly happy to be a part of the MFR community, giving away music, but really (and possibly hypocritically), if Robb Nansel from Saddle Creek called me tomorrow and said “I want to sign Benjamin Axeface,” I’d do it in a heartbeat.  Mostly because I want as many people to hear my music as possible.  Plus, imagine the possibilities- if Benjamin Axeface or any other MFR artist got signed, that opens a door for every other MFR artist as well.  Also, a small part of all of us (no matter how focused on what really matters in music, I believe) would like to spend our days reading and writing music and volunteering and doing things that matter to the world, rather than working crappy 9-5 corporate jobs that don’t do too much for the good of society.  Maybe this sentiment is tainted with an unhealthy kind of ambition, but I can’t lie about how I would act if the opportunity presented itself.  Maybe the difference is in whether being signed or getting big is the main goal or simply a by-product of music.

I know there’s a lot in this blog- please feel free to pick and choose what to comment and/or reply to.  Just some thoughts for a Sunday night.

Cory Alan

9 thoughts on “signs.comets, dance parties, and ambition”

  1. #1- signs.comets

    I’m surprised you’re listening to the records back-to-back. They’re really our 3rd (comets) and 4th (signs) albums, and were written for the most part in that order; we recorded and released them together simply because of the economics of being a low-key local band. What order to you put them in?

    Good things about comets I don’t say often: the mix is better, it’s more accessible and has more variety, and it has some really weird/strong/catchy things (like “yes” song, which is nuts to play rhythmically but somehow feels natural to me, the 4/4-6/8 change in “midnights and tape delays,” or the riff to astroblue, and the delayed 3rd chord during the ending “Hold on” parts). comets is very expressive; it moves up and down and all around, within songs as well as among them. Reviewing both records, the production is much better than I remembered; the lead playing adds quite a lot, more than I thought. Also with time, I love and appreciate Scott’s ideas to S$B (aka h&s) more and more. At the time, it was hard because he was just learning to play the drum kit and learning 26 songs (we recorded 6 “b.sides”) at once, and I was worried that it wasn’t all perfectly radio-ready tight (my guitars weren’t, either…). But as MUSIC, damn. It’s no accident that I know Scott so well and am his biggest fan.

    Yet signs came out of the most intense year i can think of: intellectually, dealing with Pat Stone and Keith Hoogheem; spiritually, dealing with crises of faith (one from face-to-face encounters with the slave trade in Africa, and one from sociobiology); and relationally, making the wrenching transformation into a serious (not dour, but meaningful & centered, and also fun) lover. Somehow signs, in all its poetic obscurity, consistent tonality, and sparse, repetitive guitar lines, speaks to those things in my life. And continues to speak back to me (and others) in new struggles; it is EXACTLY what I want to say/hear, in DIFFERENT situations. In that way, it’s a work of art at the highest level I have yet reached (which is my definition for determining the “better” record). signs poured out from an intuitive, subconscious place more than others.

    It’s pretty crazy to try and hear these through your ears, Cory. Especially when it comes to cohesion, because comets was just the 10 best songs I wrote at the time. signs has a consistent lyricism and thematic tone (A major, F#min, D) – the new recording (without “New Title” and “Choose To”) will bring these themes forward even more. Thanks for giving me cause to re-visit this stuff, and hear new things in it. -h

  2. Signs/Comets

    I remember when Mr. Morris walked into the audtiorium for swing choir very proud of the new album and took us inside the room and had us listen to Blues or Astroblue and Major&Minor. I thought it was just fantastic right away, and all i ever listened to was Comets because, as cory said, it’s much more catchy, accesssable, and cohesive than the somewhat mellow and dischordant style that signs is.

    But, my musical taste matured in my opinion. I started listening to signs much more often. First song i fell in love with was tired chords. It gave me a lot to think about, starting with the first line. The next song was stop walking, which to this day is in my top 5 songs i’ve ever listened to. Listening to radiohead and and other bands that had this style of music just impressed me with the way it was written.

    I believe first and foremost that the lyrics are what have made the album mean the most to me. Like Howie was saying, the words to these songs consistently meet me where I’m at at situation in life. Howie, Houston right now has meant a lot to me during the issue that happened in North Platte.

    I guess that’s it. Both albums are great in my opinion, but I think that they each reach people on different levels. I know my roommate has never been into signs, but listens to comets all the time because of catchyness. We all just have different standards for waht we’re looking for in an album, and my guess is that people searching for something more find hints (signs??) of the unkown.


  3. Jake, welcome to the [blog]!

    I didn’t know the swing choir story, and that means more to me than I have words.

    Having listened to both records at work today, I think I understand where Cory’s coming from better. comets is significantly richer harmonically, and the production is more progressive/poppy (yes, both at once, somehow!).

    signs‘ sparse-ness (musically and lyrically) and fury are intentional, as you know. The new recording, and lessons learned from Kid Dakota, will help me express that in ways that are better aesthetically and better to listen to.

    Your last sentence is exactly what signs is for me; a search (not necessarily a finding) of “signs of the unknown.” It’s a long, hard search we’re only starting. Even people who are 90 years old are only starting. It hurts and it’s discordant. Maybe signs means the most to me, because it’s through that record and no other that I’ve been blessed to share in others’ searching. -h

  4. I can definitely understand the idea that signs is a little harder to “get,” but once you do, you appreciate more, in a way. Signs is probably the more emotionally investing album, and my favorite song out of both of the records are “Berlin (new title)” and “Stop Walking.” However, for some reason, when I listen to comets, I really do feel like the album is not only more instantly accessable (with songs like “Major and Minor” and “Wait, You’re Where?” kicking it off, of course), but that it’s aesthetic value is just as good as signs. This combined with the fact that it’s more accessable to more people gives it the biggest overall impact, I think.

    That being said, signs is one of those albums that I think sneaks up on you and connects with you when you least expect it. I remember when I bought my first Elliott Smith record (Figure 8). I liked it at first, but all of my favorite bands at that point were bands like Weezer, Superdrag, NOFX, Nada Surf- all power-pop bands. I liked “Figure 8” all right at first, but after a while, there was a very powerful “Oh! I get it now!” moment.

    Like Jake said, it really does have to do with the time and the place that makes up the context in which you hear a record. Comets is the record I can put on while studying or at a party or on a road trip; signs is the record I listen to every once in a while, but when I do, I am fully involved in it.

    Along those lines, I wonder whether “I’ve Been Waiting For…” or “Why You Gotta Be Such A ***** All The Time” is the more meaningful Shacker song? Jay kay, jay kay.

  5. I agree with Cory when he says he can listen to comets anytime, but though he might listen to signs less often, he is far more involved with it. I feel exactly the same way.

    I listen to comets on a regular basis. Well, specifically I listen to “Blues or Astroblue” on a regular basis. When I get that guitar in my head, it’s so hard to get rid of it, even after teo or three listenings in a row.

    But when I listen to signs, I get far more involved with it, and it’s hard for me to listen to a single song. The culmination, for me, comes in “Houston,” where I can’t help but walk away from that song emotionally changed from when I started it, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how many times I hear it.

    I think there’s a way to simplifiy it.: comets gives me energy, signs makes me think.

  6. For Erin, who left a comment on a previous post about the KC Irish Fest…
    Erin! Welcome.

    (I’m going to add this to the top of my next comment on the current post, doubling the chances of you finding your way to it)

    The Irish fest was a blast.

    What recording of James’ would you recommend? I remember searching around for something, but not finding any albums that looked like they would highlight his sound…

    There must be a story of how you found the blog/MFR… I hope you might find some music you like.

    If you’re around KC and are going for a show, I’m always up for some live music. -howie

  7. Back to signs.comets, I’m happy we’re even talking about those records. Thank you thank you thank you for caring & getting into them.

    Now DANCE PARTIES. I don’t have any comments specifically to Cory’s points, but my favorite shows are those where I lose self-consciousness; when I’m in the music and get “out of my head” as Pete Townshend says. That has happened at Blacklight Sunshine, Deftones, Janis Ian, Marianas, The Plastic Constellations, Olympic Hopefuls, and many more.

  8. …and finally, AMBITION. I’m not sure about your choice of language here. There is definitely a natural desire to share one’s creation with others; I’m not sure of the word for that.

    But you lump this desire together with wanting to “make it big.” Examining motives helps us make a distinction here; a desire to share art necessarily comes after the art is made. The ambition to “make it big” requires a preconcieved goal/end, which the “art” (?) then serves.

    These inclinations are, of course, mixed up in the real world as you say. Different labels/communities/artists work more in one mode or another. I’m not ideologically indie; it’s possible for labels and business interests to serve an artist’s desire to share, and if you find yourself in that situation, hot damn! go for it.

    Sidenote; the “making it big” syndrome need not apply to U2-equivalent rock star status. For some bands, just becoming well-known in their hometown seems to be the same phenomenon on a much smaller scale.

    Listening to: Chariots (America, North), Congratulations


  9. Yeah, yeah boyeee. I get what you say. It’s like, if I love playing music and sharing it, and someone comes along and hands me a briefcase full of money so I can quit my job and write songs full time, then turning that down would be kind of silly. Especially when you think about all the power that comes with that, like helping people with extra money you don’t need.

    But, if I’m like “I gotta make it big- I HATE working” so I write a bunch of really shitty catchy songs that aren’t original and play them for people so I can garner attention and eventualy make it big, then it’s no good.

    I’m sure no one is one extreme or the other- even people like Kyle from Little Wings (who apparently cares little or nothing for fame and recognition) will sign to Hush Records so he can afford to drive around in a van and play music with/for people instead of “working.”

    On the other hand, even Scott Stapp, who seems like the most success-fame-oriented person ever probably has at least SOME vested interest in making music, and if you asked him if he started playing music to make it big, he’d probably say “no,” and he might even believe it.

    When I say “ambition,” I am unclear- what I meant was the Plato version of the world, where “ambition” is unhealthy desire for success, rather than what we think of in modern times as “ambition,” which is a healthy desire to succeed at one’s passions. I think it’s Plato, anyhow… but in one or two of those philosophical texts we read in school, “ambition” was always a four-letter word.

    But yeah, like I said, no one who ever plays their music for anyone else is completely against the idea of being recognized and compensated, even if it’s just with a “thank you” or “good show,” and I don’t believe that even the most obvious of sell-outs are completely vested in selling out, because learning to play the guitar and singing (even if these talents are used for evil) seems like a lot of work to go through. Maybe if they just wanted success, they could do something way easier, like Law School or something :)

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