Friday, November 28, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #6: Writing a Musical Bridge

source: Visual Facets Photography
As I'm bringing a few of my songs to a more finished stage, the biggest hurdle is writing a "solo" or musical bridge. It's fine to write verse/chorus/verse/chorus and then end, but this structure can be rather flat emotionally. Sometimes a song just needs a break in the lyrics where the music breaks out. It also works well to do the chorus, go into a musical bridge, and then repeat the chorus before sliding into a final "tie everything up with a pretty bow" verse.

Playing around with this has been a challenge. Since most music I listen to is not solo acoustic guitar, my ear seems  drawn towards sounds I might get from an electric guitar or a piano. It was also immediately apparent that simply replaying the chord progression from verses without words (even if playing is more urgent) doesn't work at all. A song within a song is required. Something a bit different from the verse/chorus chord structure but not so different that it veers off into some other place.

Hitting this point absolutely demanded I work with non-standard chords and explore the fretboard. I've pushed a lot on this already, because I really wanted to finish some of these songs and perhaps use them as practice pieces or tools for training myself to sing. However, I the 7th chords I had been working with weren't very helpful. While these chords vary from the stuff I have used so far in verses (although that's even true as I'm using 7ths a lot more to flavor the main body of my songs), they aren't 'strong' enough to propel a bridge in an emotionally satisfying way. Barre chords were even less helpful since I had to explore through trial and error. (Think the old adage of monkeys on typewriters!)

Of course, it's fun to experiment and just experiment with stuff. However, when you have a song's key and essential chord progression completed, it's no longer fun to play guessing games. At that stage, I know what notes and chords will (and won't) work. I just want to go for it at that point. After laying this all out for my teacher, he suggested something that has been very helpful: an image of the notes on the fretboard. There are tons of these one the internet, and this is the one I've started using. I like it because it isn't cluttered by sharp and flat designations.

This has been useful because, by figuring out what notes are in the chords of my song and what key it is in, I can go straight to those notes on this chart to figure out what chords might work for additional variation. I quickly came up with several chords to drive a bridge in a song I'm tying up. The chart is also useful in building the basic structure of a song too. While playing around with it, I came up with a whole bunch of E chord shapes and was able to start a whole new song as a result. And that's just from one practice session! This is going to help me out a lot.

To augment it, I also downloaded an image of a keyboard with the notes on it. Perhaps it's because I've spent so much time playing piano, but it's easier for me to figure out the key my song is in by looking at where the notes fall on a keyboard. I guess practicing all those scales for warm-up year really paid off, because the patterns are burned in my memory. I mentally lay the notes on this image and remember how I played them in scales, and the key pops into my head. Here's the image I use (although I imagine one without the sharps and flats would be cleaner).

I've only used these tools for a brief time, but they've been a big help in writing a bridge - and more broadly in exploring the fretboard. If I keep at it, perhaps I nail down my first musical bridge.

The other lesson to be learned here is practicing scales is a good thing! Perhaps if I practice them on guitar with the dedication I did on piano, I won't need this piano image to know what notes are where? It's tough to imagine that being the case, however, as there doesn't seem to be any visual cue on a guitar fretboard as anchoring as the pattern of black and white keys on a piano!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

If I Were a Republican...

After the recent midterm election, Republicans had a good deal to celebrate. They increased their hold on the House and took over the Senate. With control of the legislature, they were in an even better position to assert leadership and authority. And we need a good dose of leadership and authority in Congress after suffering through its least productive stint in American history. Additionally, with an approval rating of 7% (less than one-fifth the approval rating of an embattled President), the credibility and esteem of Congress has probably reached an all-time low.

Politically, I'm an independent. However, if I were a Republican, I would look at the midterm results as a huge opportunity! First, since it will take practically no effort to improve over the prior Congress, Republicans are positioned to be perceived as making government work again. Second, having control of the legislature is a chance for the Party to bring forth legislation that will show people the good things it stands for. Third, as Rand Paul succinctly put it "the Republican Party brand sucks". By setting the right legislative priorities, the Party can visibly belie the stereotype of Republicans as white guys who represent big oil over the interests of normal people. Seizing these opportunities would allow the Republican Party to counteract the mountains of negative publicity it has generated over the last decade.

Now, it's only fair to point out that much of that negative publicity has come from one wing of the party: the embarrassing freak show of the proud-to-be-uninformed Tea Party (think Ted Cruz, Christine O'Donnell, Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, and Michelle Bachmann). While claiming to defy big government and stand-up for fiscal responsibility, years in office have resulted in these demagogues doing little (perhaps even nothing) to contain the former. As for the latter, they have done tremendous damage by leading the US towards a default that resulted in the humiliation of America having its credit rating knocked down (as if we were Argentina or Greece!). While this asylum of crazies has hurt the Party, intelligent Republicans as far back as the Bush administration nurtured them to secure reliable votes while failing to distance themselves from their rantings. So they've pretty much brought this bad rap on themselves.

Things will change in the next two years. With Republican control of the legislature, the Tea Party's bankruptcy will become glaringly apparent to anyone still blind enough not to see it. This is because, despite all their loud rhetoric, the Tea Party has never stood for anything. They are a mass of malcontents who are against stuff. They're great at filibustering, blocking legislation, and throwing rocks at anything anyone proposes, but the movement and its leaders have proven useless in solving any of the problems they continually squawk about. I'm not even sure they have authored and passed a single piece of major legislation (good or bad). Aside from being re-elected and trashing other Republicans, their only activity seems to be repeatedly sending up doomed bills for repealing Obamacare. What this non-existent track record proves is that the Tea Party is great at using scare monger tactics to stir up their base, but that they are incompetent at leading that base into any constructive political or social change.

They've gotten away with this over the years through a smoke screen of blaming Big Government, special interests, and/or - that root of all evil (in their eyes) - President Obama. That isn't going to work in a Republican controlled congress. Keeping up this approach will, for voters, be like ordering a steak at a restaurant, having the chef come out and tell you he doesn't know how to cook, and then being charged anyway. Americans believe Congress is broke, and they want it fixed. If the Republican Party fails to muzzles its Tea Party wack-jobs long enough to accomplish something, it will be impossible to blame anyone but the Republican Party.

"But what about Obama?" is what any Tea Party lemming who might reading this right now is demanding. (As always, they evade issues by pointing fingers at someone/thing). If I were a Republican my answer to this would be that the Party isn't going to capitalize on the midterm success over the next two years if the platform is simply Obama-is-bad. What they need to focus on - now that Congress is in their control - is ensuring that Americans move that 7% approval rating up. If they don't, the Party will lose the power they have just won and will have no chance at all of taking the presidency in 2016. Luckily for them, with such a low bar for Congress to surpass, the midterm election results really are a golden opportunity for the Party to look really good while expending little effort. More importantly, it's a chance to reaffirm to voters what the party is for. 

If I were a Republican strategist, this would have been my plan for Congress during the first six to nine months:

  • A moratorium on public Obama-bashing. Of course, that won't be obeyed. So party leadership should publicly discourage it by publicly calling it: "the kind of partisan politics the American people are tired of hearing from their leaders". Take the high road for a change; it'll be refreshing for the American people.
  • Don't start with 'stereotypically Republican' legislation that rubs big groups of people the wrong way (e.g., anything related to oil, tax-cuts for the wealthy, etc). Instead...
  • The first bills should be chosen to show people Republicans care about issues beyond the ones  that are dear to white CEOs. These bills should be passed with support from Obama, while the Party proclaims its authorship and bipartisan efforts to get government working again. For example: progress on Pacific trade agreements would create jobs, grow our economy, and reinforce American leadership abroad...all issues with broad appeal (and traditional Republican bailiwicks). Or how about getting that stalled Senate Immigration Bill passed? Bottom line: the Party must prove it can wield political power to do something constructive and that matters to large groups of Americans.
  • Nab some warm-fuzzy bonus points with soundbites of Party leadership humorously bitch-slapping Tea Party ass clowns like Ted Cruz. Most Americans view these people as symbols of the problem, so whittle away at them while the opportunity is there

The net effect of these efforts would be:

  • Demonstrate to voters that a Republican congress can make things happen, which is what Americans want after years of filibusters and do-nothing whiners
  • Remind people that Republicans do in fact stand for something - and critically important things at that
  • Show that the Republican Party and its values are not just for white old farts and tycoons who pump oil so they can buy yachts (and elections)
  • Improve the Party's image among people it needs to reach: women, Millennials, and minorities
  • Erode the poisonous influence of the Tea Party with a long-term goal of marginalizing this political dead end

Unfortunately, if I were a Republican, it's clear the golden opportunity of the midterms is being squandered at light speed. The Party has already announced its initial legislative goals: passage of the Keystone Pipeline and repealing Obamacare. I can think of no way the Party could have better confirmed stereotypes held by opponents and the disillusioned center than the selection of these two issues for the front-burner. First, regardless of the value of the Keystone pipeline, its passage will have next to no impact on most Americans as long as gas prices are falling through the floor. A pipeline is also a bad first priority for a party that's repeatedly painted as being in the pocket of big oil. Second, focusing on the repeal of Obamacare is simply foolish since Republicans know they can't override Obama's veto. Since the effort is futile for the foreseeable future, pushing it won't look like convincing leadership to anyone beyond the hardcore Republican base. Even worse, kicking off the Republican Congress with a repeal of health care benefits in any form reinforces a belief among the poor that Republicans don't care about them. Both of these issues represent disastrous choices made worse by there being nothing else on the table.

Obama's challenge to Republicans: "Pass a bill!"
If that doesn't totally squander the opportunity, then the Party's response to Obama's executive order on immigration this past week will. Whether one agrees with Obama's right to issue the executive order or even likes what the order attempts to do is beside the point. As a Republican out to better the party's brand, the smartest course of action would have been to take Obama's "pass a bill" challenge head-on. By passing immigration legislation, the Republicans would visibly prove that their congress will not be 'politics as usual'. It would have been a resounding slap across Obama's face. Instead, Republicans cravenly took the low road:

  • Party members - apparently with Boehner and McConnell's blessing - have threatened to sue President Obama. To anyone outside the hardcore Republican base, going after Obama legally and turning the American government into an episode of the Jerry Springer show is politics at its worst. By taking the low road, Republicans appear to confess that they can't face Obama's "pass a bill" challenge. Bad message to send at this stage. 
  • Representative Randy Forbes (R-Va) claimed the "well is poisoned" for any further action on immigration. Again this just reinforces the belief that Congress (and remember that's now that's 'the Republican Congress' now) is more interested in obstructing Obama than leading America. 
  • Ted Cruz proposes taking no action on the backlog of political appointees from President Obama. 'Tit for tat' might seem like smart strategy to a fraud like Cruz but, since it impairs the functioning of the government we the people pay taxes to operate, it just comes off as petty and counterproductive. Of course, that suits a do-nothing like Cruz just fine. It saves him from having to offer ideas or achieving anything constructive.
  • Senator Tom Coburn (OK) went on record predicting "instances of anarchy - you could see violence" as a result of the executive order. Aside from the kook-value of this humdinger, it's just slimy for a sitting member of the Senate to even indirectly suggest civil unrest as a response to a political pissing match. And it's positively idiotic as strategy when you think that - given the issue - the violence would have to be largely white people rising up against something that benefits Hispanics. Race war, anyone? Nice 'thinking', Senator.
As an independent, the Republican win in the mid-terms was neither a depressing nor a joyous occasion. It was only a transition of power. Of course, given the stagnation of the past few years, I had hoped the change might lead somewhere positive. We certainly could use a functional government given the grave challenges we face as a nation: Ebola, IS, Russian military adventurism, and the increasingly competitive economy of the world.

If I were a Republican, I'd be extremely disappointed by what the Party has done so far. As an American, I'm furious but resigned to another two years of do-nothing government.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Stevie Nicks - 24 Karat Gold (2014)

Given the long breaks between Stevie Nicks' studio albums over the last two decades, I never expected that only three years would pass between In Your Dreams and her next offering, 24 Karat Gold. It's a pleasant surprise, but this also isn't a standard solo album. To come up with the material, Nicks mined her backlog of demos - including songs written as early as the sixties - and properly recorded fourteen of them. A rerecording of "Twisted" and a cover of a Vanessa Carlton song bring the track total to sixteen. That's a generous offering by any definition.

24 Karat Gold's title and the sub-title ("Songs From the Vault") wisely steer us away from going into the album thinking about these songs as what they really are: outtakes. Or actually even worse than that: songs that never made the cut to potentially become outtakes. Nicks wrote almost all of these tracks at least three decades ago, recorded demos for them, shared them with her many musical collaborators...and yet they never once passed muster to be included on any Fleetwood Mac album or on any of her own seven solo albums. They also weren't chosen for b-sides, extra tracks on greatest hits compilations, content on her extras-laden 1998 boxed set Enchanted, or give-aways to dubious movie soundtrack albums. This would seem to not bode well for the quality of the material.

This is especially true since Nicks - who is a brilliant songwriter - has not batted 100 over the course of her career (no one does). Even the most rabid fan can point to misses Nicks has unwisely committed to vinyl. "Paper Doll" from The Chain was a half-baked mess, "Fire Burning" from The Other Side of the Mirror was hopelessly self-indulgent, and "Jane" was the sappy closer to Street Angel. Nicks' worst moment, "When I See You Again" from Tango in the Night, was so dreadful that you wondered what magic spell the Welsh witch cast on Fleetwood Mac to ram it down their throats. If the content of 24 Karat Gold didn't get chosen over these tracks, then how good could any of it be?

The thrill and impressive impact of 24 Karat Gold is in being bowled over by how fantastic these songs are. Every songwriter should dream of having outtakes (or non-starters) of this quality. The sprawling album kicks off with a bang through one of many positively stellar moments: "Starshine". This sassy rocker has a seventies' boogie vibe that easily conjures images of Nicks prancing and cavorting around the stage at the height of her powers. Another stunner is the title track, whose stinging, ominous guitar work is underlined by Nicks intent singing and then softened by the lush harmonies she and her back-up singers weave.

As "24 Karat Gold" closes and you're wondering how on earth it never got recorded, Nicks fires off three more killer tracks in a row. "Belle Fleur" has all Nicks' captivating drama and mysticism flowering within catchy melodies and then slathered over urgent guitar work. Synth-tinged "All the Beautiful Worlds" is a darkly mysterious incantation with a truly satisfying hook. Then, backed only by a piano, Nicks wails out her anguish and fears ("what will become of me?") in the totally relatable lyrics of the heartfelt "Lady". It's a four-track roll that would have been a highlight on any of her classic eighties albums (Bella Donna or The Wild Heart). Other top-notch tracks include twangy rocker "Watch Chain", the likely-about-Lindsey musings of "Hard Advice", gently grooving "Blue Water", and the upbeat pop-rock of "The Dealer".

Tally that up and you have over half of the sixteen-cut album composed of tracks that match her very best recorded material. That's enough to place 24 Karat Gold with Nicks' top recordings. However, in addition, the remaining tracks betray little overt weakness. "She Loves Him Still" and "If You Were My Love" are beautiful ballads, although the latter probably meanders a bit much for a non-Nicks fan. "Mabel Normand" has an edgy sting one doesn't usually hear from Nicks, and "Cathouse Blues" is a light-hearted take on Laura Nyro. In each case, these tracks were clearly not included on her solo albums or anything by Mac for stylistic, not quality, reasons.

There are a few tracks on 24 Karat Gold that suffer by comparison with these other songs. For example, this is third version of "Twisted" Nicks has released and, while it's a great song, the overly Byrds-ish guitar arrangement detracts from the song's 'Stevieness'. Another another hidden gem would have been a better choice. The cover of Vanessa Carlton's "Carousel" is merely competent. Which brings us to "I Don't Care". This is the only song on the album that I haven't warmed to. I love the energy and how it rocks, but it just seems overlong and aimless and I always seem to end up skipping to the next track long before it's over.

Another plus of this album is the way Nicks steps up to the plate vocally. It's unavoidable that listeners will regret Nicks didn't record some of these songs when she was in finer voice, but she certainly doesn't short change the material. Her energy and commitment are admirable and compelling. It makes one wonder if the whirlwind studio sessions that gave birth to this album drove Nicks to record her vocals more like a live performance than a studio recording. That kind of energy certainly shines through.

Beyond the music, 24 Karat Gold is being released in a beautiful format. A large (not quite album-sized) sleeve holds the CD and a thick booklet with the lyrics and a slew of polaroids Nicks took of herself over the years. Apparently, Nicks' work is being shown at a gallery in New York. While I wish she had included the year each song was originally written, the packaging itself is fantastic and well-worth the purchase for a fan. I appreciate the packaging all the more because I remember when buying music involved the visual aspect of album artwork and even the texture of the contents. I miss this quite a bit, and that makes this release extra-special.

As 24 Karat Gold makes its mark, Nicks joins the reunited Fleetwood Mac for a tour and, it seems likely, a new album. It's clear Nicks' late-career renaissance shows no signs of ebbing. "What will become of me?" indeed.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

New Horizons: Mission to Pluto

Photo: Hubble Space Telescope
Faintly recalling the glory of space missions like the Voyagers, Galileo, and Cassini, New Horizons will expand our view of the Solar System. Although the focus of New Horizons is deservedly-demoted-to-ice-dwarf-status Pluto (and I still think there are other targets that would have been more interesting), I have to admit I'm on the edge of my seat now that we're less than a year away from the probe's closest approach on July 14, 2015.

New Horizons will give us a much better view of what this truly distant world looks like, which will be much appreciated given this photo is as good as it gets right now. In addition, we'll see Pluto's five moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos. At minimum, Charon is sure to be interesting given its size. However, I'm expecting the other moons to be boring irregular rocks. But you never know. Space missions have a way of surprising us. Who thought tiny Enceladus would end up being so amazing?

After the Pluto fly-by, New Horizons may survey other large Kuiper Belt objects. I'm not sure what's on the docket, but it's exciting that we could end up with some wonderful surprises in terms of what this mission delivers. In terms of deliverables... It will seem very petty and vindictive, but I hope this mission proves that Eris - another ice-dwarf - is actually larger than Pluto. That would hopefully, and permanently, silence the tiresome chorus of people who for some reason have their panties in a knot over Pluto no longer being a planet. While I'm certainly not in complete love with the IAU's definition of a planet, planethood is a bit like Justice Potter Stewart's oft-paraphrased definition of porn: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Pluto isn't a planet, and we'll just have to wait for more data and thinking to clearly explain why.
Comparison of sizes: Earth, Pluto/Charon, and the Moon
But then again...who knows? Perhaps Pluto will be so completely active or fascinating or...something that it will seem necessary to elevate it beyond the freeze-dried version of an anonymous asteroid belt denizen. Space missions always seem to surprise us; that's why I'm on the edge of my seat. There's no telling what is waiting to be discovered seven months from now!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Halloween 2014 - Costume Contest Win (Second Year Running!)

Halloween  is over, but I have a second year costume contest win at the TRANsylvania party one of our friends throws. This year, I went as a Killer Klown (specifically, it's Captain Spaulding from the heinous horror movie House of a 1000 Corpses). 

Turns out my good friend - and the host of the party - isn't particularly fond of clowns...YES!!!!