Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Band: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down






Who is Virgil Caine? The way Robbie Robertson portrays his protagonist in The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, he is rather a sad sack— nostalgic for a demolished past, stranded in a desolate present. What makes him compelling is how deep his emotions run, not only about the Civil War but about his own familial roots, and his compulsion not to forget where he comes from. On a subterranean level, there are hints that Virgil, like the dealer in Chest Fever, is at least partly a shyster— when he tells us “Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood/ And I don’t care if the money’s no good/ You take what you need and you leave the rest/ But they should never have taken the very best,” the issue of “taking what you need” exteriorizes that he resorts, in lean times, to some form of thievery. This contradiction in Virgil Caine— his sense of being deeply rooted in a familial past, and with it, his deep emotional connection to the world around him (here expressed in bereavement), balanced by a shyster’s instinct to take from others what he does not have (even the hint that Robert E. Lee himself was no slouch at shyster routines), makes him the kind of voice which offers a well-rounded sense of humanity. By the song being released a century after the action here takes place, we also get a sense that to listen to Virgil Caine is to listen to a portrait which has the capacity to ring down the proverbial ages.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ardent (full album)/ The Story of Ardent







This mp3 offers the entirety of Adam Fieled's 2004 album Ardent, produced and engineered by Matt Stevenson.

In January 2004, Matt Stevenson and I made plans to record a spoken word album. We had done one in 2002 called “Raw Rainy Fog,” and Matt had released it on his own little indie label, Radio Eris Records. I planned to call the new album “Princes and Enemas.” In two sessions we recorded about an hour’s worth of material. Matt was now living in a row of dilapidated duplexes off the corner of 11th and Webster Street in South Philadelphia. His studio occupied the third, top story of the duplex. It was heated only by a space-heater; one of the windows was missing some glass. As it happens, the studio windows overlooked not only Webster Street (which was narrow enough to resemble an alley) but the broad side façade of a middle school; and a massive and imposing façade it was. This meant that Matt preferred not to do too many daytime sessions— he didn’t want to incur the ire and recriminations of the teachers and administrators from across the street (or, even worse, the police). The studio space had a high ceiling; a large blue area rug covered most of the floor. Matt’s Pro Tools set-up was run from his computer against the south wall. As the windows faced north, the room didn’t get much direct sunlight. Because of this, and because Matt maintained the place in a ramshackle way, the studio space had a crepuscular quality.

Back to the story— we had included a few songs on “Raw Rainy Fog” just to liven the thing up. Matt agreed with me that we should do the same thing for the new album. My first thought was that the songs should be instrumental, so as not to compete with the poems. I was living at the time in an apartment off the corner of 21st and Race in Logan Square. I was just out of a major relationship and was free to write all the time. I came up with a complex set of chord changes in E, which emphasized chord voicings which let the open high E and B strings ring. The rhythmic nature of the track was to be driving, martial, and heavier than anything Matt and I had recorded before. On a cold, snowy January night, I arrived at Webster Street Studios with nothing but my black Strat. I laid down a rhythm guitar and bass track— the song was four and a half minutes long. We were working with a drum handicap— it was the one major rock instrument I had no competent skill on. Fortunately, Matt introduced me to the miracle of drum loops. He recorded me beating the hell out of a floor tom, and looped it.

Matt, by now, was probably stoned. The bowl we smoked out of while we were recording “Ardent” was a tiny green and white faux-ivory one— it was always grungy, and clogging was a problem too. I had probably had a single hit, which I often limited myself to if I wanted to stay sharp. Sometimes there was beer around, sometimes there wasn’t. In any case, I loosened myself up. Oddly and impetuously, I decided to improvise the four and a half minute solo while sitting on the amp, a classic Fender Twin Reverb. The fuzz pedal was pushed. I had the cans on. It was probably about 11 pm, and I either had to be at Barnes and Noble, where I worked, or U of Penn, where I was finishing my last semester, the next day. It was a nice moment— no stumbles, and I didn’t need to do a second take. I left that night with a CD of a rough mix of the song I called “Mars in Gemini.” I still thought it would be an add-on track to the spoken word album. Matt, it must be said, didn’t have too much invested in the project at this point. Even as “Ardent” developed, Matt never became attached to it. In his Cancerian way, Matt was always attached to his own band: Radio Eris.

They happened to be recording an album in the same place at the same time. Occasionally, sessions would overlap and we’d play “Ardent” rough mixes for Dan Baker and Lora Bloom. Now, the ritual started of doing one major session a week. Over the week, I tried to come up with music for another instrumental. What I composed to me sounded more like a ballad. I thought I might use fuzz-tone for the solo, but the backing track would be more ambient, something like early-period Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” As the session progressed (another cold January night, and as Matt mixed I huddled by the space-heater) and I laid down the arpeggiated guitar part, bass, and another drum loop, the thing just didn’t sound filled out. I decided to attempt another rhythm guitar track with fuzz-tone. Matt did a quick mix, with the balladic guitar track buried. Now, the track sounded like edgy, straightforward rock. So, I would improvise a lead track over it. If it didn’t work, we’d remove the two tracks and work from the ballad framework again.

I remember how the studio looked that night— the wonderfully garish overhead light, the sense of absolute urban darkness outside. It was like being marooned on a little third-floor desert island. Once again, I sat on the Fender Twin Reverb. As I played over the track, cans on, I found a way to add emphasis using the kind of licks Alex Chilton and Chris Bell used on “Feel” and “Daisy Glaze”; licks which came out of gospel, and were originally imported into rock by Robbie Robertson, among others. The whole track started to come together as a near Big Star pastiche; and the balladic aspect of the track was lost entirely. Still, it sounded good to me. I decided to call it, at the risk of seeming ham-handed, "El Goodo." Now, Matt and I entered a new phase with the project. He agreed that another spoken word album with a few songs was passé; also that “Mars in Gemini” and “El Goodo” together showed a lot of promise. The new idea was to do (maybe?) an album of instrumentals. Matt had another session that night after mine (I was out by 10 pm, and Matt now had work as a hired studio gun), and the guys who came in as I was packing up talked to me about “Mars in Gemini.” If I remember correctly, one of the band cancelled at the last minute, and their session ended before it began. Matt and I decided to troop down, in the biting cold, to the bar 12 Steps Down on 9th Street in the Italian Market, a fifteen minute walk. I bought the drinks; Matt was strapped for cash.

12 Steps Down was a bar with no particular ambience to distinguish it; a standard South Philly dive. Matt talked in guardedly optimistic terms about Eris, and Webster Street Studios. Eris had already gone through more drummers than Spinal Tap; but the core of Matt, Lora Bloom, and (by the mid-Aughts) Dan Baker was incredibly staunch. We also talked about “Rock Star Abe,” who was doing roughly what I was (a one-man album) with Matt at the time. In early ’04, the idea for the Philly Free School was percolating, but nothing had come to fruition yet. I looked forward (as was and is my wont) to the walk from the Italian Market to 21st and Race, Strat slung over my shoulder. Even in the dead of winter, I loved to walk around Center City Philadelphia. One of the things Matt and I discussed that night was equipment we might need if we decided to do an all-music album. I decided to buy maracas at 8th Street Music on 9th and Arch over the week. Matt had more pedals he wanted to borrow from different people. Over the week, I wrote another instrumental. I had watched the last one do a shape-shift routine in the studio; I wondered if the same thing would happen to this one. In a way, I had a new tack to take— this time, I deliberately underwrote. I wanted to leave the thing open to anything which might happen to it at Webster Street. I was still stuck on the instrumental idea; by the time the next session ended, Matt and I realized that we had blown a few fuses towards making a full-blown Philadelphia rock album. A certain spirit had mastered us.

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 By the third “Ardent” session, we were beginning to enjoy ourselves. As had become routine, I laid down an instrumental track and did some lead guitar work over it. The basic track included me making heavy usage of octaves— more in the manner of Jimi Hendrix and Billy Corgan than Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and the other jazz guitarists who used them. I also used a signature Clapton lick from “Badge” by Cream. The song had a key-change and a turnaround at the end I was pleased with. Over a bowl and in an up mood, Matt and I decided I should at least try to do something with the track lyrically. He played it over the studio speakers a few times, and I started scribbling. I was giddy— the weed we were smoking was speedy stuff. As I happened to be listening to a lot of Syd Barrett, I had his songs on the brain, so I started, “Lime and limpid/ trails of Eden/ cause I’m Adam/ and I’m feelin…” I reeled off a series of absurdist couplets in this manner; Matt played the backing track over the studio speakers one more time, and I got the rhythm and the cadence I knew would work. It was a Lou Reed rhythm, rather than a Barrett one. I left that night with a rough mix of the song, which we called “Bullett.”

Now, all inhibitions had been shed, and we were into the album proper. We had a run of very productive sessions. Some of our experiments didn’t work; “Justiner” was a two-part track, with a tempo and key change, and we just couldn’t pull it off. “Sweet Sweet Rock and Roll” was a song I had around then, so steeped in “Loaded” era Velvets that it never developed its own identity; and the psycho-trance ambient instrumental “Ololo” (“Lolo” was my nickname for Loren Hunt) opened up a gulf between Matt and I— he loved it, I thought it was weak. Usually, we would more or less agree about the strength of respective tracks. “Streetlakes” actually took a handful of sessions. To get the “layered” effect we wanted, we had to keep adding and subtracting. For the slide guitar track, we tried every amp/pedal combination available. I don’t quite remember what combo we settled on. I do remember doing the “keeper” take. Matt was sitting at his computer console. I was standing in the doorway of the studio space, from which a winding wooden staircase descended (murderous for carrying gear up and down). I had finally found the passkey to give “Streetlakes” its ghostly ambience— some bits of under, some bits of overplaying. After I laid down the slide guitar track, Matt laughed. He accused me of self-indulgent wankery, but it worked. For one of the “Streetlakes” sessions, I spent nine hours overseeing Matt mix. For every hour I spent lying around, smoking bowls and reading Matt’s books, a frantic twenty minutes would ensue during which I’d find Matt about to bury something in the mix I liked, or even to accidentally destroy a whole track.

This actually happened once— I had to redo the “Streetlakes” bass track. For some reason, the bass tracks on “Ardent” were all done standing up; probably because I had to concentrate more. The last session for “Streetlakes” was the one in which I did the spoken word section at the end. I’d written it beforehand at 21st and Race. I knew some of the references (Coleridge and Baudelaire) might be considered pretentious, but there was a point to how they were used, and it wasn’t a contrived point, so I excused myself. Matt had pulled a bunch of production tricks with the track, and I thought the result was highly interesting. So much so, in fact, that I did get frustrated, knowing the album would take a long time to reach a wide audience (if at all). I was already working on the song “Ardent,” and had decided to call the album “Ardent” too. It was a self-conscious tip o’ the hat to Big Star, who had recorded at Ardent Studios for Ardent Records in the 70s. I also knew that, as had been the case for Big Star, no matter how good the music was, it would take a long time to be heard. Matt and Radio Eris were still gigging, in Philly and elsewhere; I wasn’t. I refused to do the troubadour, guy-and-a-guitar routine I had done; and, as ever, I had horrible luck finding other musicians to play with. Not to mention, the Philly press corps were as uselessly inept as ever. They loved to invert things— what was great was terrible, what was terrible was great, and were more about dope deals than music. So I made my peace, as we were making the record, with the idea of gradual and incremental progress. Matt and I would put the record out, in a low-key, limited edition way. After “Streetlakes,” there was no doubt in my mind that a whole record was there to be made. It would nag both of us forever if we didn’t make it.

All the same, after about seven finished tracks (half the album), Matt’s energy began to wane. The sessions were taxing for him— I was demanding, and imposed a high standard (to the limited extent that I could, given our limited resources). Right as spring ’04 broke, Matt and I had a big row over some trifle I’ve forgotten. We took a few weeks off, and then I was able to get him to commit to the project again over the long haul. The spring weather turned out to be lucky for us— more often than not, we’d take our chances with the school across the street and do daytime sessions with the windows thrown open. That’s how we recorded the title track, also my elegy for Elliott Smith, and “Brown Eyes like His,” a holdover from my State College years. Gaetan Spurgin came around a few times to visit, and he and Matt, doing the same kind of production/sound-guy work at the time, commiserated. A good number of Philly scenesters had heard at least some of the “Ardent” rough mixes by this time— not only Loren Hunt but Stephanie Smith, Mary and Abby, and I even got the surly crew at the Last Drop to play them once. As we moved towards the summer and Matt was doing the final mixes, there was little else I could do to promote the thing. Matt put together the cover himself— a racy girl-on-girl picture he found online, and Photoshop. I began my creative writing MFA at New England College, and the Philly Free School began to take shape in Center City when I met Mike Land. Our intro to the Highwire Gallery was through Matt.

Mike, Nick, and Jeremy all got copies of the album; so did Gaetan. I remember thinking, at the time, that “Ardent” was progressing like poems (Donne’s) disseminated in manuscript form around royal courts in Europe in earlier centuries. The whole modern paradigm of success (especially in America) is massive popularity instantly; but that reaction is only accessible to a few. It’s also usually ephemeral. I was pleased with the “court” around me; they were all discriminating, educated artists. A few copies I know of found their way to L.A. and New York; even New Orleans. I was unable to find out if they did anything there. I also placed some of the tracks on the Philly website “Hinge”; and they agreed to carry it at AKA. Records in Olde City. If I learned something from the process of making “Ardent,” it was this: if you call yourself an artist, you have to do what you want to do because you want to do it, and not for any other reason. You make music because you like to and you’re good at it, and it’s worth doing for those reasons: that’s it. God knows, some gorgeous works of art have been created on commission; but patrons all those centuries ago had taste. In our modern age, there are a thousand ways to be a sham: to do it for the glamour, the money, the sex, the prestige, the idea of personal power over others. “Ardent” wasn’t by any means perfect, but it was real, and the blood, sweat, and tears behind it were real too. I even got Matt Stevenson to stick with it straight through to the end. I can’t think of that dilapidated strip of duplexes on Webster Street in South Philly without laughing. I’m sure there was at least one night we almost got killed (the front door lock only worked intermittently). And perhaps that’s for the best, too. Danger is not a poor stimulant.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Adam Fieled: Streetlakes (Fieled)






In comparing architecturally grandiose Philadelphia with butt-ugly New York, one notable aspect of life in Philly is how the city looks and feels at night. Neo-Romantic art is sodden with it: a sense of the ghostly, the apparitional, the spectral, and also the gravitas of architectural soundness and solidity. Streetlakes, from Ardent, is an attempt to manifest some of these vistas in rock music, complicated, in this case, by a sense that life in the street, living in an urban fast-lane, has to end at some point if a serious creative path is to be pursued. By throwing in the closing monologue, which attempts to formally address Charles Baudelaire’s prose poem "Crowds" from Paris Spleen, I knew I was risking accusations of preciosity and pretentiousness. If I was willing to risk it, it’s because I had a real point I wanted to make. I was preparing to write entire books, and even as all the PFS and the Highwire Gallery adventures loomed, I knew my life on the street would have to be reined in at some point.

The recording sessions for this at Main Street West were notable for Matt’s improvisations towards making a slide guitar sound unique, involving mike placements and an echo box. Matt also accidentally erased an entire bass track and I had to do it twice. The Streetlakes sessions were all late-at-night ones. We had routines going by this time: I would lay down all necessary tracks, and then lounge around, usually stoned, perusing Matt's ample collection of sci-fi, rock, and comic books while he mixed the track. The studio at Main Street West was a mess, but a minor one, and the books formed a series of piles on the floor near the door, which led directly down a winding staircase to a landing, and Matt's bedroom on the second floor. Carrying amps and other equipment up that winding staircase was no fun, but I liked that, as with Buttons Sound in Manhattan (and unlike the Eris Temple to come) we were high above street level. Eris Temple was more mole-like.   

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Big Star: Kangaroo (Alex Chilton)






One track on “3rd” which brings a surrealistic undercurrent to the surface is “Kangaroo,” which, if it is surrealistic (as well as psychologically and emotionally revealing about the protagonist), can be taken as a series of dreamed visions of Dana in her element (a more active, socialized version of “Dream Lover”). The way Chilton moves into the lyric, beginning with “I first saw you/ you had on blue jeans/ your eyes couldn’t hide/ anything/ I saw you breathing “No,”/ and I saw you staring out in space,” suggests that he is in a kind of visionary trance which might well be taken for a kind of dream state. The sound of the track, unhinged towards a slow-burn lurch of giddy drunkenness (which, as a description, belies the stark simplicity of the melody if I fail to mention it), continues with a series of visions of Dana, all of which are much more evocative, and artfully compressed than Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”; “I next saw you/ you were at the party/ thought you was a queen/ oh so flirty/ I came against…” Not to belabor things towards the graphic, but the word-play and how it relates to “Kizza Me” is clear; Chilton is able to have full, unimpeded sex with Lesa, while he “(comes) against” Dana. All the same, the verbal Jabberwocky, combined with atmospheric, ambient production and a plot already thickening, leads us to debate whether or not these visions of Chilton’s are real or dreamed.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Yes: Starship Trooper (Steve Howe-Chris Squire-Jon Anderson)



The third, final section of this piece, Wurm, written by Steve Howe, features the most magnificent orchestrated crescendo in the history of rock music. You'd have to look at higher musical forms to find anything to rival it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Maggie May






The protagonist of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" may be rock's greatest unreliable narrator. His travails, he wants the song's Maggie to believe, have been extreme, in relation to her; yet, we never get to hear her side of the story. It seems likely that she has one. Still, Stewart's protagonist, unreliable or not, is so touchingly human that it is difficult not to be moved by his plaintive narrative; especially as Rod's voice is, in its sand-and-gravel texture, so unique. For this to be a hit single in 1971 made it a major rock moment, even more so than the Beatles and Stones Sixties singles; because this kind of narrative sophistication and nuance in popular culture is extremely rare. "Maggie May" still sounds as heart rending today as it did forty-three years ago; it courts timelessness successfully.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Every Breath You Take (The Police)






Not many rock songs pull off the neat trick of being simple and profound at the same time. "Every Breath You Take" not only pulled this off, it was a massive hit into the bargain. The magic is in the lyrics, which are easily mistaken for conventional love song lyrics. On closer inspection, they may or may not be the ravings of a deranged, dangerous psychopath. But the poignance of the melody, which has a lingering quality, makes the song's emotional heft stick. And it is universal- we all have a little bit of the voyeur somewhere in us. If this song sounds down the ages, that's the reason.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rhiannon






As per "Rhiannon,"; the lyrical game Stevie Nicks plays here is sophisticated, and unique for rock music, if not for poetry. The narrative structure of the song forms a kind of triad- the narrator holds up one end, narrating to the frazzled, beleaguered knight-at-arms, as he beholds Rhiannon, a witch-wife or demon enchantress, who she (the narrator) blazons. It's an intriguingly skewered lyrical perspective, which recurs in "Gold Dust Woman" and "Gypsy," slightly tinkered with.