Here’s the second part of the Listening Project series; As our fifth birthday approaches in September, I’ve started listening to every release roughly in order, making notes as I go.
- MFR 010 – Bike, “Stroke Me Gently, Lady Luck” EP
- This EP turned out to be a preview of “A Wind I Can Lean Into.” Only the single minute of “I Take Pills Everyday” isn’t duplicated on the album.
- I think the mastering is ever-so-slightly different, though
- MFR 011 – Sally Ride, “Don’t Let Them Take Us… ALIVE”
- My memory of writing the riff and first lyrics to “A Come-on” is very clear; sitting outside on the grass behind Frees on campus at Doane, with Cory in the sun, just goofing off. Spring 2002, maybe? Or ’03? Probably ’02. Like “God Bless The Strokes,” it was immediately apparent it wasn’t a howie&scott song.
- Building off of “A Come-on,” the idea was to write a big love letter to the college rock of the late ’80s / early ’90s – Weezer, Pavement, Radiohead, etc. It seemed a little fanboy-ish to do it straight, so we invented the backstory that our uncles had been in this band, and we’d found the tapes somewhere.
- Cory’s uncle Dave – known as Dave Ryan In The Morning to those in the Twin Cities – plays Emerson Biggins.
- The drums are cut, pasted, and sampled from old Shacker recordings. It was a cool challenge to figure out how to do little fills and things that would sound natural and fit the live-in-studio vibe.
- Sally Ride was supposed to be a one-off band, just for this record. We didn’t have any idea it would continue.
- I love the scuzzy bass tone, and the guitars that are really responsive to touch; distorted when played hard, almost clean with a softer attack.
- “…ALIVE” set a precedent for MFR projects. It was lurking in the background of h&s and Shacker activities for ’02, then ’03, then ’04… never getting to the top of the list. Finally I moved to Minnesota and buckled down. Now, of course, taking years to record something is our typical M.O.
- “…ALIVE”‘s significance in creating for me the freedom to write different stuff probably can’t be overstated. It was so much fun to adopt a certain voice for a set of songs, and not feel like that voice had to be C. HOWIE HOWARD speaking earnestly to listeners, and know that once the record was finished I could hang that voice up and not have to use it again. Of course, paradoxically, that freedom from expectation is precisely why I’ve continued writing as Sally Ride.
- Cory really struggled hard to figure out what guitar leads and backing vocals would sound like, but he ended up nailing stuff. His solos are the ultimate anti-shred, which I love
- MFR012 – XMAS (Compilation)
- XMAS is accomplishing its mission, I think, which is to create holiday music in the tension between tradition, kitsch, and integrity. I didn’t really know *how* we were going to do that when we started, and each year has brought some surprise.
- Each Christmas song I’ve written has been one of those surprises. The first one, “Merry Christmas” in ’02, seemed to pop out of nowhere fully formed; I don’t think it would work to set out intentionally to write a holiday tune. I figured it would be my only one. Then “What’s My Baby Want’n?” arrived the following year. ’05 brought “Mary be the One this eve,” one of my favorites from my whole songbook. I like that the guitar figure feels slightly Irish, to match the memory of Big Ben, and the minimalism, the melody’s meter, the bridge bit, and the clear rendering of one of the traditions of my household; the electric candles in the north windows whose bulbs had to be screwed in each night. “Snow is a Bear” was also unexpected. Somehow Joel’s draft lyrics and melody twisted into a Christmas thing for me. Now, I think I have something for ’09.
- I can be pretty self-conscious about tracks like “Merry Christmas” and “What’s My Baby Want’n?” It’s not my strength as a writer to go out there with straight love in all its awkward glory; I’m more about the cool observation, the provocative abstraction, and the call-to-arms. Yet, something about the season must call it out, since I return to that more raw emotion year after year.
- MFR013 – echoes, “Be A Ska Rat” EP
- “I Don’t Even Know…” has a sort of manic energy that’s cool. The chorus is pretty good, I guess. It doesn’t quite gel for me as a song, though.
- In general, I think this EP is packed with cool ideas, and I like that the arrangements and textures fly fast and furious, without being super-busy. But somehow, it doesn’t add up the way I imagined it would. It’s almost too smart for its own good. The exception to this is “J. Cougar Mellensong,” which continues to be a pretty visceral tone poem to a certain feeling and need.
- Looking back, I’m pleasantly surprised by the drumming, though!
- I had just discovered Ted Leo + Pharmacists before I recorded this, which explains a lot.
- “Assassination Love Mission” quotes the Clash’s “Clash City Rockers.” The lyrics are abstract, but it’s just a story about how “fake it ’til you make it” works out in life. The rock-out part still rocks.
- Cari Ann asked me what “J. Cougar Mellensong” is about, and I was silent for several minutes. It’s not a story, and it doesn’t have a message. Eventually, I came around to saying it’s about needing a rush of energy and affirmation from the past – familiar places, familiar music, etc. – in order to take the next step into the future. It’s hard to find words to describe it; the lyrics to this tune are very unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness stuff. They’re the first words that rang true to the feeling of the music, unedited.