It’s been a year in the making. I’ve been talking about it and talking about it and it’s finally time to inflict it upon my family and friends and who whoever else. My new album “It Could Be Worse” is available for free (or best offer) via download or on CD RIGHT NOW. I’m excited about it. I think it’s one of my best albums, and since I’m giving it away, you can trust I have nothing to gain by lying about that. Here’s the cover:
I’m going to write about all the songs and such in this post and give you a look into the themes of the album and also a window into my year long process. And that’s an interesting thing. I chose to take a year to do this album. I wanted to take my time and not cram everything into a few weekends. And in the long and short of it, all that happened was I stretched those few weekends out over a whole damn year and didn’t learn a thing about myself or my process. So the next one will come quicker. Taking a year was a good idea that didn’t really work out in practice. Nevertheless I enjoyed working on this one and I think everybody who likes my stuff is in for a few surprises, but ultimately a solid Derek Brink style release. Here’s what I wrote in the liner notes:
This album contains 10 songs about survival. It’s a punk album, a folk album, and almost a light FM album. The title, of course, is a reference to the Mel Brooks movie “Young Frankenstein.” You know the scene. My favorite lyric on it is in “Who I Am” where I say, “My heart is an old drunk. Last call came and went, I should probably be getting home…but come on, man, you know me.” My least favorite lyric is in “I Still Believe” because I bet people are going to think “I still believe in survival” is “I still believe in the Bible” and they won’t read the lyric sheet. By my count this is my 9th album as a solo “artist” whatever that is. All songs are made up. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is hilarious. Tracks 2-4 contain swear words, including the word “fuck.” I’m not sorry about that. They’re just words.
…and I know that’s all a little confusing without hearing the record. I’m not sure if it gets much less confusing after you have. But you’ll be able to decide for yourself if you listen to it.
The song list is packed with some stuff I’ve had sitting around, some stuff that was newly written that convinced me to start work on an album in the first place, and also a track or two that sprung out of the recording process. While I was starting out on the project, I was deeply immersed in listening to Big Star’s “Complete Third” set, which takes the listener all the way from the rough demo stage to the completed (and remastered) “Third” album (also known as “Sister Lovers” among Big Star fans). It’s a heck of a listen that teaches you how a song can grow and change throughout the process of making an album (with acoustic guitar tones so incredible that they literally made me cry). It also serves as an interesting chronicle of how sometimes in making an album, you add an idea, drop an idea, and just generally mess around a little seeking the end result.
If you want a behind the scenes look at making an album, start with “Complete Third.” I was eager to try out some of the stuff I was learning by listening to that album and particularly “Always” (the last song on my album) came out of that. As did my approach to having an acoustic guitar track on every song, even where I normally wouldn’t have, and several of the microphone placements and mixing techniques I used. Without “Complete Third” this would be a very different album. I don’t know if you can hear it in the song construction, necessarily…but it’s all over the production.
As I said above, all of the songs are in one way or another about survival. And now I’ll go song by song and tell you how.
1. So Anyway
This is a track I have had sitting around in various forms dating back to probably 2003. It has always been a short, punky tune and the first line has always been “So anyway, like I was saying before, I don’t like much of anything anymore.” I think that’s a good opening line at this point in my career. I did in 2003, too. The rest of the words went through a few changes over the years. I only wrote the part referencing Pete Townshend when I sat down to do the demos for this record. I reference the Who’s song “The Seeker” so heavily in that verse that they might deserve a writing credit.
The song itself is at once dismissive and also seeking depth. I said in my description of the album that each of these songs is about survival. “So Anyway” is a summary of taking the step of owning one’s own mistakes and flaws and trying to figure out what to do with them. I guess I don’t really offer any answers or insights…but at least I’m acknowledging the problem. That’s the first step.
You can’t really tell unless you know what to listen for, but this song features my first and so far only usage of the Electro-Harmonix “Pog” pedal. It’s an octave generator that plays an octave above and an octave below the note you’re playing to generate three tones at once. I used it on the main lead line. Should’ve turned the effect up a little louder, probably, but subtlety is a fine art. I like the pedal and it’ll show up more on future releases, I bet.
2. Nobody Else
“Nobody Else” is a song about betrayal. We’ve all had a friend bail on us and show their true colors. I wrote a song informed by one such instance in my own life. It’s not a blow by blow description. Most people won’t know who I was writing about (or will assume the incorrect person, maybe). But I told a version of the story, anyway. I was surprised to find out that the story had a harmonica in it and was in a major key.
The lyrics on this one are pretty rough when you really look at them. The song sounds deceptively happy. But lyrically, “…if you want compassion then you’d better pray because nobody else can stand you anymore” is a pretty brutal thing to say to someone. There’s a comeuppance factor in this song that you don’t always get in real life in that it’s indicating that the betrayer is abandoned by mutual acquaintances. That’s a rarity in real life. Usually they’re so manipulative they can keep their friends for a while. But in the case I was writing about and also in this song’s narrative, the asshole bailed on everybody. Sometimes life is fair.
That said, I thought it was important to include the line, “You’ve got your side of it, but I believe mine” and to admit that there’s culpability on “my” part, too. Everybody’s the hero of their own story, y’know?
In the bridge I used a line I’ve been wanting to use forever. “If you want to start a fight over this then just take a fucking shot, but bring a lunch, it’ll take you all day (etc)…” I had a professor in college who used to say, “You can probably whup me, but it’s gonna take you all day, so bring your lunch.” I liked that. So it’s here.
There’s a lot I like about this song. The “fucking shot” line was in and out once I realized I was in a major key, but I still think it works. I delivered it like Michael Penn would have, so I think I struck the right tone. I like the harmonica. I like the “Leslie” whirl in the bridge where there might otherwise be a solo if I hadn’t done that. I like the lyrics in general. It’s a fun little song about getting hurt but coming out stronger and smarter. One of my favorites on the record.
3. Everybody Shut Up
I should start by saying this song isn’t specifically about my workplace. But it’s a little bit about every workplace. Every office, anyway. I wrote a white-collar anthem. Didn’t really mean to…but I did it.
I had the opening line in a notebook for a couple of months, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to write anything to go with it. “Everybody shut up, I’m trying to think. I can’t hear myself fuck up.” It’s a good line. It suggested a work-environment to me and once I committed to that, it was easy to write, mostly just using standard office tropes. It’s a fun one. It’s a song about just trying to get through the damn day so you can relax. Who hasn’t been there?
I don’t have a lot else to add to this one. It’s not that complicated to understand. It was once of the first ones I finished writing specifically FOR this project. Once I had this one together I started thinking, “Maybe I’ve got an album coming soon…” I had a couple of ideas of what I wanted to do…I considered writing a full-on Americana album and playing a lot of old songs from bands-gone-by, but when I wrote this one, it became a half-punk, half-acoustic-driven mishmash that ended up capturing almost all sides of what I do. This one was important to the project in that way…it’s the song that made me realize I was going to be needing a distortion pedal on the album.
4. What I’m Dying For
In line with what I said about “Everybody Shut Up,” I didn’t fully abandon the idea of doing some songs I’d done in other bands. “What I’m Dying For” was something I wrote and performed in The Social Gospel and I think also Blue Tattoo (both with my brother Dave). It’s one of those songs where I finally felt like I’d hit my stride as to what I “should” be writing for that band…and then the band broke up. Ahem. But I liked the song and always knew I’d play it elsewhere. So here it is.
This is a song about discontentment. When I suddenly found myself staring down my 30s (and now seeing signs on the road ahead directing me to my 40s) I took stock of who and where I was in life. I’d thought I was going into ministry. Imagined I’d have the wife and kid and all that bullshit they tell you that you need to be happy. And I got angry for a very long time. I felt like I was slowly burning out and marching to the grave…and for what? I didn’t know. Clock in, clock out…still angry…
There are no real answers in this song either. I’ve found them personally, don’t worry. But sometimes describing the struggle is more important than writing a happy ending. That’s why the movie puts the happy part at the end…it isn’t the interesting part.
The line, “All I do anymore is suck up–shut the fuck up–like it doesn’t matter” is one of my favorite lines I’ve written. The word “fuck” is integral to the rhyme scheme. You don’t get that a lot.
This one was hard to mix. It went through about a dozen arrangements until I was happy with the final sound. And even so, could it have used more bass? Less background vocals? I don’t know. I just like it. Listening to this one over time made me realize how influenced I’ve become by Bob Mould (formerly of Husker Du). The “hard” side of what I write probably owes more to him than to anyone else at this point. So props to Bob, is what I’m saying here.
5. No One Leaves St. Louis
This song is very abstract. Stay with me.
I know that the tense shifts all over the place. Sometimes it’s past tense, present tense, and even future tense within the same line. Don’t try to make grammatical sense of it. It’ll drive you nuts. And that’s on purpose. I considered trying to clean it up, but I thought it helped the point of the song to leave it baffling.
I guess you’d call this a love song. Although I think the line “it doesn’t count as a love song if nobody’s in love by the chorus” is one of the most important phrases in understanding the lyrics. It IS a love song. But love is more complicated than a love song. Sometimes “I love you” isn’t as simple as “I love you too.” Sometimes it’s “let’s not fuck this up by dating, but I love you too.” And when that’s left hanging there, everything is fucked up. Time, location, emotions…they’re all out the window.
I guess in this story, it’s two people meeting up after not seeing each other for a while. The guy obviously has deep feelings for the girl, but it’s not meant to be. And that kinda sucks. But at least they’ve got whatever they’ve got, and whatever that might be is walking down Delmar in U City looking for a beer. He’d do anything for her, but the best thing he can do for her is not press that. No matter how long it takes to put those feelings away.
Yes, it’s semi-autobiographical. Of course it is.
When I wrote this I had a line in the song that I had to change because of the passage of time and events. The line “Worst case scenario, there’s that club where we used to go” USED to be, “Worst case scenario, there’s probably parking behind Cicero’s.” Cicero’s was a bar/restaurant in St. Louis that I liked. It closed while I was working on this album, with very little fanfare. Nothing lasts forever.
I also added a line to the song. I was writing about St. Louis and my pet theory that even if they move, no one ever really gets out of there. People are always drawn back. Or they can move to Detroit or Minneapolis or someplace and live there for 30 years, but when anybody asks they say, “I’m from St. Louis.” In the song, it’s clear that the girl has left…but she hasn’t. Something keeps her coming back–maybe it’s him and maybe it isn’t. Then while I was writing the album, Chuck Berry died. And I wrote “I guess everything changes. Even the best things. Nobody expects Chuck Berry to play here again.” It seemed like a perfect metaphor. Chuck Berry’s dead. But he’ll always be part of this town. No one leaves St. Louis. The love never fully dies.
6. Who I Am
This song came together while I was working on the album. I’d already demoed a few songs and set things to click-tracks and so on. But I had a few stray ideas sitting around both lyrically and musically that turned into this song. I’m glad it happened. It’s one of my favorite lyrics and songs I’ve written in years.
Self-identity is something we all wrestle with. Especially when we know we have to change. Even if the change would be good, it’s human nature to think, “I know the doctor said I should quit, but if I’m not a drinker, then what am I?” Even if we don’t like him/her very much, there’s comfort in at least recognizing the person in the mirror.
It seems like every few years, I look in a mirror and think, “Who are you this time?” (This is a metaphor. I’m not nuts.) That thought is usually followed quickly by “this again, huh?” and I spend a bit searching for myself and boiling myself down to the basics. I think that’s important to do from time to time; remind oneself of your fundamentals. It’s important to see if they’ve changed, and if so why. You’ve got to know yourself to keep living with yourself.
I mentioned in the CD’s liner notes that the “my heart is an old drunk” line is one of my favorite things I’ve written. But there’s a verse in the song that’s very personal and reflective of my music career…
Is anyone listening to this? Am I just giving it away for free again, or is anybody buying? Pouring my soul out again. I’ve got a million confessions to blurt out to a catchy tune. But it feels like I’m lying.
That’s what it’s like being a musician.
7. Amanda, I’m Tired
Let it be stated throughout perpetuity that sometimes a name is just a name. I used the name “Amanda” in the title/song because I like the name and for various reasons, I needed it to be a three-syllable name. It worked for Waylon. It worked for Boston. It works for me. Don’t bother my friends named Amanda with this lyric. If you read it out to them, I don’t think any one of them would reply, “Yep. That’s definitely describing the week we broke up.” The working title of the song was “God Knows,” but when I’d jot it down on lists and things I kept calling it “Amanda” and I added the “I’m Tired” just so people wouldn’t think it was a cover song.
Now that I’ve said that.
I LOVED working on this song. The lyrics mean a lot to me and I’m very proud of them. In much the same way as “Nobody Else,” I think I did a good job indicating that someone ELSE might have a clearer version of the story than I do. In this one I flat-out say, “This is YOUR story, too.” We all forget that someone else was involved in the narrative. That someone else felt not only the same things we did, but probably a bunch of stuff we could never hope to understand. That someone else got hurt. As much as I felt like it was important to express “my” side of that, I am proud of the searching of the other person’s feelings that comes out in the second verse/chorus. This one means a lot to me.
Producing this one was fun. I love the change from the soft acoustic part to the rumbling, overwhelming electric. And I love the string parts. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but this one feels a little like a movie soundtrack to me. A friend heard it and described it as “Tom Petty meets Radiohead.” I don’t consider either one of them a main influence on what I do. But I hear it too, now that someone’s said it. Especially in the louder part.
Of all the things you have to survive in life, I think “the one who got away” probably leaves the most lasting scars. Especially when you’re the one failing to patch them.
8. That Was Then
The turn from “Amanda, I’m Tired” to this track is one of my favorite 180s in my career. From the deep, lush, grandiose production of “Amanda…” to the complete, childish irreverence of this song… It makes me happy every time I listen to that transition.
This one’s pretty clear, lyrically. “I loved you then…but that was THEN.” It’s just a good, old-fashioned kiss-off song. And it’s short and punky. It ticks all the boxes of what I like about this side of my writing.
I initially sang “I don’t fucking need you” in the second verse. Decided to dial it back. I don’t mind using the f-word, but it isn’t always necessary. In this song I was saying it just to say it. So it got cut.
I used to do this one in one band or another with my brother too. We had a lot of good songs that need to see proper releases. I hope (and think) I’ve done this one justice.
9. I Still Believe
People are going to think this is a religious song. I can see why. I even mention God in it. But it isn’t a religious song to me. To me it’s a song about keeping hope in the goodness of everything around you, despite the evidence. And that CAN include religion, but I didn’t mean that specifically here. In fact, this song was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend who is a staunch atheist. He told me about what he “still believes” about good and evil. I took stock of myself as well, and this is the song that came out.
I also was writing about depression. I’ve dealt with depression for most of my life. “It comes on like a fire” is the best way I can think of to describe my “down” cycles. Sometimes they come as an explosion, but a lot of times they come as a gentle smolder that goes unnoticed until suddenly the living-room’s fucking GONE. And in those times, it helps to try to remember the goodness I haven’t given up on yet.
I recently saw Rufus Wainwright in concert and he said that in his down times, he’s realized that he can only get through it by finding his gratitude. (He was speaking specifically about the death of his mother.) He has to find what he’s grateful for to find the road back to himself. I’d written this song before I heard him say that, but I think that’s what I was trying to say with this one. When life gets hard, focusing on what I believe and the goodness I am grateful for is part of what helps me feel better again.
As I said in the CD liner notes, I’m a little afraid people will misunderstand a line in the song and won’t check the lyric sheet. I’m afraid they’ll hear “I still believe in revival” as “I still believe in the Bible.” The latter is a stupid lyric. That’s why I didn’t write it.
As an interesting side note, I never start work on an album until I have a “Track 1.” I have to know how it all starts before I can begin working on it. When I wrote “I Still Believe,” I thought I’d written my “Track 1” for the album. And yet, here it is at track 9. I almost couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Always” was in progress when I started recording the album. I had enough of it that I knew I would put it on the album, but not enough of it that I knew quite where it was going. I bounced around between what point of view the song would be written in (first person/third person) and ultimately what message I wanted to give.
Most of the song is a down-note, lyrically. It’s describing someone who’s definitely struggling. It’s trying to tell the listener that it’s okay to feel bad. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to hurt. Then it turns it all around and says, “But you can ALWAYS come home.” Struggle while you need to, but come back to where you belong. And you don’t belong in the dark place.
It’s basically me in a good place giving advice to myself when I’m inevitably in the bad place.
I like that the bridge sounds almost gloriously, decadently happy, but if you look at the lyrics they’re “It’s always never getting better. There’s always something in the way.” It’s one of the saddest, most defeated parts of the song, but it sounds climacticly happy. Then, again, there’s that line… “But you can always come home.” It justifies all of the happiness in the music balancing against the sadness in the lyrics. There’s always good right there just waiting for the bad to stop. And that’s maybe the best way I could’ve ended the album.
It’s an album about survival, after all.
Here’s the download link again. I hope you enjoy listening to it.
Thanks for your time.