Sunday, September 17, 2006

Saturday, September 16: Joy to the World

I headed out to Karl's on Saturday morning knowing that I wanted to record a traditional Christmas song for the Toys for Tots program that Justin is organizing. I knew I wanted to do the one where the men stop singing, the women sing, then the men answer them. I just couldn't remember what song that was. Karl and I were going to go out and try to find an LBW (Lutheran Book of Worship) so I could solve this mystery. When I got to his place, there was one on his bookshelf already.

I looked through the book and found out the song I wanted was "Joy to the World". I had no idea how we would arrange it for Great Uncle Helmer. I thought maybe we could do four vastly different verses, recorded separately then spliced together. The first arrangement we decided to record was sort of a reggae thing. I played bass and Karl played the melody on trombone. We did several live takes working out parts. Finally we played through four verses and were happy with all four. I was still thinking we would only use one of the verses. But then we kind of decided maybe not.

Karl wanted to do another trombone part and I wanted to do a snare drum part. We decided to record these live at the same time. This took a few takes until we got one that I was thrilled with. Although Karl was not very happy with his harmony trombone performance, I really wanted to keep that take and told him, "I said everything I could possibly say on the snare drum with that take! I think your second trombone sounds great." So we kept it.

As we were listening back to it, Karl thought we should sing a little bit of "Angels We Have Heard On High" between a couple of the verses where there was some extra (accidental) time. We did two voices live, then I wanted to do a third part, so Karl also sang and doubled his original vocal up an octave, sliding down at the end to a funky little minor seventh. We had had a pretty fun vibe going already and now we were really cracking up.

The bass had slipped in to a heavy, non diatonic, chromatic quarter note riff during verse four. This was something Andy Honigman and I had started up at various times during Jubilant Dogs and Honigman rehearsals. Karl and I decided to stomp on the floor to go along with this. We tried a couple of different ways of miking it, but pointing the mike directly at our feet, then turning up the bass frequencies and adding a little reverb worked best. Karl also added a little bit of tambourine to verses two and three.

Karl added his banjo ukelele that was a gift from his bride. Initially this instrument was so badly out of tune that I only wanted it on verse two and only very percussively. But we accidentally activated the wrong microphone while recording it. We used the mike that was pointing at the floor where we had stomped. The ukelele sounded very far away and not as noticeably out of tune. It made us laugh and we left it in for three verses.

We wanted to have a sort of wheezing sound like in They Might Be Giants' song "They Might Be Giants". Karl got an ocarina and I got a party noisemaker from his case of weird instruments. We briefly considered a rainbow colored hooter, but it was diatonic and in D flat. We were in D. The ocarina and noisemaker we put only on verse four, which had taken on a parade like quality.

Finally, I said I wanted to do an Elvis like recitation. I love Elvis' songs where he talks ("Are You Lonesome Tonight", "Are You Sincere", "Hurt", and, most like this project, "America The Beautiful") and I wanted to try to capture that same sincere, heartfelt speech. I was glad Karl went along with it. I really felt the meaning of the words as I was saying them and tried to phrase them in a way that conveyed something important and true.

As I recorded it, the juxtaposition of the heartfelt recitation and the completely goofy background music became increasingly amusing. Karl was laughing so hard he was almost crying. He was trying not to make any sound and I could see his shoulders shaking as he was hunched over with his face in his hands. Finally during the fourth verse, only two lines from the end, I lost it as well. We did a punch in where I spoke only the last couple of lines and we were done. We had our traditional christmas song that was also a completely creative thing that only Karl and I could have done. It's both one hundred percent public domain traditional Christmas song and one hundred percent Great Uncle Helmer.

The Show

We played a show that night at a new place, Goochy Noochy's in St. Croix Falls. It was great. They have a PA there, so all we brought were mikes and instruments. It wasn't as big of a room as the Freighthouse Dunn Bros., but it was a much better arrangement with a real stage, nice tables and chairs, and a real back room where people who don't care about the music can get the hell out of our sight. A few people told me they really liked the part where I strolled around the room and even went out the front door briefly during "Shadowy Figure". I don't sing on that song and the guitars weren't plugged in, so it was a natural thing for me to do.

We went back to Karl's house and had some popcorn and beer and watched Arrested Development until I was falling asleep.


The next morning we started on another Christmas recording, not for the Toys for Tots thing but maybe for a GUH holiday CD. Karl really wanted to do "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and I have always liked that song as well. He recorded a brilliant one take fingerpicked nylon string guitar backing. Karl's fingerpicking is not like anyone else's I have ever heard and I love it on this tune. (And on "Tall As The Mountains", "It's All Too Clear", etc...)

I had a very low, resonant voice from staying up late the night before and the night before that (reading a very moving and captivating book, Winning With A Bad Hand by Mary Christopherson - I couldn't put it down.) So I recorded all five verses in the LBW, leaving one verse for an instrumental.

Then I recorded a low humming during the instrumental with the idea that we would add three parts above it. It took me about twenty minutes to write the other three parts, using my voice leading rules I memorized and practiced over and over at St. Olaf. There were parts where I heard a lot of movement and parts where I just heard block chords, so that's what I did. Then I recorded the other three parts, doubling only the "soprano" where my voice was a little thin.

I am really happy with where that recording is at right now, and it might only need a violin on the instrumental verse and maybe as an obligato on verse five. We'll see if Karl gets any good ideas about it. It is as normal as our "Joy to the World" is unusual, which was our intention all along. Or maybe it just became our intention after it happened. Yeah, I think that's it.