There’s an episode of Family Guy where Brian the dog is working on writing his grand opus of a novel. He comes up with an idea he thinks is so brilliant that he says, “It’s going to take scholars a century to decode that one!”
Part of me wishes the same prestigious study to befall my own work, but alas, that’s only dreaming. Sure, I could dream of my work becoming a classic to be studied for years to come…but that’s just silly. (P.S. The idea Brian found to be so brilliant was to name a character Norm Hal–because he’s just a “normal” guy. Case in point, not everything we do is actually golden.) Instead of me expecting everyone to study my album for all of the nooks and crannies and easter-eggs and hidden connections, I decided I would…
give all my secrets away!
Disclaimer: What you’re about to graciously read is a blog I started writing in December 2014 to coincide with the release of the debut album by Ours By Accident. However, the crazy excitement of having a finished album in my hands faded after about…a week. While it can be nearly impossible for me to not have grand plans, such as music videos and album release concerts and essay-like blog posts, most of these grand plans never unfold. I realized my life couldn’t revolve around this new album. Now, eight months later, as I unearth and complete this unfinished essay of album commentary, I’m releasing it with different intentions than I had before.
Originally–and naively–I wanted to tell everyone the secrets to my album in the honest hopes that you’d be amazed at how intricate of an album I’d constructed. My present hopes aren’t even that you finish reading this post all the way through; I have a tendency to ramble and you have my full permission to skim-read.
I now have two far more earnest desires for you, the reader:
- Try out the album. I’ve lowered the price on Bandcamp to pay-what-you-want ($1+) so that more people can buy it, try it out, and give me some genuine critical feedback.
- I want people to respect the album as a constitution and as a medium of art. Almost all good and trustworthy artists enter the recording studio not with the hopes of making a few great songs but of making great, overarching albums where the songs belong together and add up to more than the sum of their parts. The idea of liking only a few songs from an album should be bizarre to us, akin to liking a film for only two scenes and leaving the movie theater once the scene you like is over. Albums are big deals to any artist, and as you’re reading/skimming through the next 4,000 words, you can be sure that any songwriter has the ability to write just as much (if not far more) about any album they’ve ever made.
A quick addition before jumping into discussing the “secrets” behind my album: If you find yourself not liking albums as a whole or only downloading/streaming singles, you should probably ask yourself two sets of questions: first, are you supporting artists who don’t care enough about their art to make completely good albums? If so, why are you supporting them, and should you be? Secondly, are you trusting your own judgment of an album prematurely? Is there a chance you’re missing out on great albums because you latched onto the songs that were easier for you to like instead of dedicating yourself to giving the whole album a fair chance?
To be frank, the OBA record, titled Act, Action and the Peace that Never Was (or Act Action for short) is 100% through-and-through a concept record. In case you don’t know, a concept record isn’t simply the “overarching” set of songs that all piece together into a unified piece. That’s just a definition of any good album. Fall Out Boy, for example, is an artist that could easily be pegged for writing singles yet have often gone on record stating how they believe in the album and that they always write songs with the complete album in mind. If you listen to Fall Out Boy’s albums, (and they’ve never released a bad one), this standard is evident.
Concept records take this idea a step further, sometimes focusing on a specific theme throughout the songs but usually having a narrative storyline the songs connect to. Act Action, instead of being inspired by the concept record “greats,” like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the Who’s Tommy, or the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, has closer ties to the lesser-known concept albums by an artist not well known for his forays into the experimental: Barry Manilow. These include 1984’s 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe, 2001’s Here at the Mayflower, and 2011’s 15 Minutes, the last of which was released right in the middle of me writing the majority of this album’s songs.
Lyrically, Act Action plays a pretty straightforward narrative that involves only a few characters. Like 15 Minutes, Act Action has one song from a girl’s perspective and the rest from the perspective of the Boy. On Manilow’s album, the singer of Pomplamoose plays the girl. On my album, my friend Emily joins me on the song from the girl’s perspective, titled “My Forever (The Words She Said)” to make sure the perspective shift is as obvious as possible.
Musically, the Manilow album Here at the Mayflower (my review of which can be read here) taught me how stylistically diverse yet still cohesive an album can be when the conceptual ties are strong. With this in mind, I felt confident to foray into some different genres with a few new songs. The album has three songs that I wrote during the recording process–literally brand new songs I felt compelled to write in order for the storyline to be complete. This includes a key-change heavy acoustic ballad (“Little While”), a mostly a’ cappella piece with swing-time drums (“Intermission”), and a jazzy piano verse that is the album’s most Manilow-ish moment (“That’s How I’m Going to Love You”). These are spread out across the more rock-based songs, including one song with synth bass and programmed drums (“Sandcastles”).
2:00 AM Paradise Cafe mostly inspired me through the way it was recorded. Paradise earns its title of concept record because of its recording process, which was made to sound as if was being performed live in front of you in a small, steamy jazz bar. To achieve this, Manilow assembled a small band, along with a few guest singers, to practice for a few days prior to recording the album live in one take.
Act Action has the setting of a one-act play in high school, and I really wanted to make the album seem like it was being performed live, with different singers coming on- and offstage. For these reasons, I went for pretty minimalist instrument arrangements, favoring guest vocalists over singing harmonies on top of myself.
Now, before moving on to talking about the songs specifically, I’ll reveal my favorite aspect of the album–a facet I’m very proud of and that is, as far as I know, unique. The ten-song track listing has mirroring halves, with correlations between tracks 1 and 10, 2 and 9, so on. With that detail revealed, we’ll look at the songs in those pairs.
1. “Yours” // 10. “Whose”
The “mirror” effect on the track listing is sometimes evident in the song titles, but nowhere does the mirroring mean more than on “Yours” and “Whose,” which are the conceptual bookends of the record, literally major and minor versions of the same song. “Whose” was originally written as an alternate version of “Yours,” changed from a major key to a minor and from 4/4 time signature to 3/4. Otherwise, the songs have the same melodies and almost the same lyrics. (The statement “Yours is the only hand I hold,” changes to the question, “Whose is the only hand I hold?” and so on and so forth.)
These tracks are also the only songs on the album that refer to the “one act play in a high school” setting. Most of the other songs on the album have your full, four-minute treatment of verses and choruses, so these two mini-songs felt like the most proper places to interrupt the music with exposition. These details are given through my friend Jon, who appears in both tracks to play the Stage Director and essentially bosses the main character, the Boy, around a bit.
In production terms, these songs are also united through a heightened use of Auto-Tune, aiming for the T-Pain/Bon Iver sound as opposed to, say, simple pitch correction. This effect was chosen partially to give the feeling that these songs are being sang by an ethereal “chorus” onstage rather than being directly sang by the Boy. Lyrically, these two numbers are like mission statements, “Yours” being the mission statement for the next eight songs and “Whose” being the mission statement for an Act II that never happens, a subtly hinted-at future where the Boy continues his life, repeating a cycle of hurting himself and others instead of learning a lesson and changing.
2. “My Forever (The Words She Said)” // 9. “My Nightmare (The Things I Did)”
It’s with confidence and pleasure that I can call these two songs the greatest accomplishments on Act Action, two of the most individualistically entertaining as well conceptually interesting songs. This isn’t to pat myself on the back, either. I’m speaking comparatively, a partial admission that these songs turned out far better than some other songs on the album. This conclusion also comes from the confirmation of listeners. “My Forever” is the most common favorite, whereas “My Nightmare” is the song that the album’s producer Paul Demer swore could be the “single” of the album.
Structurally, the songs are very similar, but even then, there’s more than meets the eye (ear?). Both songs have verses and choruses leading into big, multi-part bridges that bring in out-of-key chords, hitting climaxes where the keys change altogether. Both songs prominently feature guest vocalists, my dear friend Emily on the former and my brother Taylor (aka Nelson Romantic) on the latter. While the two predominantly sing harmonies throughout their respective tracks, they get their own moments during the second sections of each song’s bridge; at 3:15 in “My Forever” and 2:25 in “My Nightmare,” Emily and Taylor sing the exact same melody, each with 3-part harmonies but in different keys and with different chord progressions on the guitar.
The reason this melody appears in both songs has more weight than simply the clever parallelism between song titles. The melody comes at a time of revelation for both characters. In “My Forever,” the Girl is apologizing for her realization that this relationship can never and should never happen. In “My Nightmare,” the Boy is apologizing for wrongly trying to force the relationship to happen anyway. In essence, both of these songs are endings, the former an ending that could have been on good terms and the latter an ending on bad (albeit self-revelatory) terms.
Another similarity between these tracks was accidental. While finalizing the album’s tracks, it occurred to me that the album didn’t have very much breathing room. Vocals and lyrics on the album trudge on almost without ceasing, without any breaks. To amend this problem, each song now ends with some last minute tack-ons. “Forever” changes keys (and switches from guitars to keys) for a brief respite that sets up track 3. “Nightmare” also transitioned far too abruptly into track 10, “Whose.” The “Nightmare”-to-“Whose” transition worked in theory; the two songs end and begin with an F-major chord, which was supposed to make the track change seamless. In actuality, it felt stunted, so I added a sample of a record needle and guitar feedback to the song’s ending. This was a last-minute change that I still approve of; the extra space really feels nice.
One final note about “Nightmare”: when the key changes after the final chorus, I added a lead guitar part in the background. A lot about this ending breaks some rules I’d set up for the album. There are scarcely any moments when I harmonize atop myself or play two guitars at once. Here, however, I couldn’t help but channel my inner Thrice fan and make the ending as huge as possible. So with layered harmonies and a lead guitar riff straight from the Beggars songbook, this is my one overboard moment of throwing my rulebook away.
3. “That’s How I’m Going to Love You” // 8. “Little While”
These songs are nifty. Although they both clock in at only about one minute, these are my personal favorites on the album, predominantly because they were both written in 2014 during the recording process of the album. I went into the studio with only 7 songs, honestly unsure whether I was making a full-length or an EP, yet also knowing I had some narrative holes to fill. I believe these two songs display what I’ve learned about songwriting in the three years that separate the summer of 2014 and the summer of 2011, when six of the album’s ten songs were written.
While writing these songs, I knew I wanted both to be fairly structureless and simple, down to each song only having one instrument. On “That’s How,” the piano line and melody don’t even adhere to a tempo. “Little While” only has a tiny semblance to something like a chorus.
There’s a more complicated aspect that ties these tracks together lyrically. Both make references to the bridges of “My Forever” and “My Nightmare”: “Little While” is a reflection back upon “Forever” and “That’s How” foreshadows “Nightmare.” This second pair of lyrics forms the album’s most complex analogy, standing out from the straightforward, tell-it-as-it-is writing style I default to.
The lyrics in the bridge of “My Nightmare” read: It has ever been so ever hard to find where we belong, with whom we belong / So I took your beating drum of a heart and I played it like a song / I sang the words the way I chose and stole the chords straight from your hand / But it was an irony and a fallacy of me to try to be the entire band
The lyrics of “That’s How I’m Going to Love You” go: Turn the radio on / Carefully sing along to every lyric / So no one hears it / ‘Cause I don’t know the name, album, or band / I’m exposing a feeling, not promoting a brand / And I can turn off this system whenever I plan / That’s how I’m going to love you
The overall idea is how we, as the consumer, have the ability to manipulate music as we choose. (In fact, this analogy ties directly into my whole purpose for this blog: we should respect albums as a whole and see what they have to offer. Instead, we take what we want from an album and leave the rest behind. We often do the same thing with people, liking them for what we prefer but refusing the parts of them we dislike or misunderstand.) In these two lyrics, the Boy is acting as the consumer, treating the Girl as the product, rather than both being equals, speaking into each other and having unique attributes to offer one another. A relationship has to be a two-way street, and to send that point home, I threw a humorously self-deprecating line into “Nightmare” about me being “the entire band,” a literal reference to how I recorded most of Act Action‘s instruments singlehandedly instead of with an actual band.
“That’s How” gets more complicated with the analogy, basically working as an exposition of the idea of playing a heart “like a song.” Initially, this lyric was inspired pretty directly by the Barry Manilow song “Turn the Radio Up,” but I also steal an idea from the Fall Out Boy song “The (Shipped) Gold Standard,” specifically the line, I wanna scream ‘I love you’ from the top of my lungs / But I’m afraid that someone else will hear me. I wrote these lyrics with the intention of hiding a conniving, deceitful undertone beneath the poppy, lighthearted melodies. I think the key that unlocks the analogy here is “I’m exposing a feeling.” The way the Boy plans on loving the Girl is, basically, however he chooses. If he wants to keep it a secret, he will. If he wants to hide his love or turn it off at any moment, he will. The Boy is admitting that he “loves” the Girl without knowing very much about her, and with the line “I don’t know the name, album, or band,” he isn’t really showing the desire to learn more about her, either.
Another easter egg is that one of the chord progressions from “Little While” has a reprise in “Whose.” There wasn’t much thought behind that decision; a large portion of the recording sessions were improvisational in nature, so many of the drum fills, bass lines, etc., happened as spur of the moment “accidents.”
4. “The Place of No Return” // 7. “Repeating June”
As far as the mirroring track list goes, these two songs have the least in common. “The Place of No Return” is about looking toward the future with equal parts excitement and trepidation, while “Repeating June” is about reminiscing to the extent of obsessing over the past and numbing oneself from living in the present.
My initial idea for making these songs mirror one another was that each song would have two guest musicians. This didn’t pan out. While “Place” features the Engstrom brothers, who blessed the track with their beautiful voices–and they actually came up with the Beach Boys-inspired doo-wop’s during the third verse–my friend who’d agreed to lend his voice to “Repeating June” dropped out the day he was supposed to record. Paul (the producer) was going to jump in to sing in my friend’s place, but he too became busy. A few months later, I ended up recording the harmonies myself. “Repeating” does feature one musician, though, the extraordinarily talented composer/pianist Kory Morris, who graces this track as well as “Whose,” where his gentle playing ends the album in magnificent fashion.
Unfortunately, the real way these two songs mirror one another the most is how they are both missed opportunities. During pre-production, I was fairly convinced that these two songs had the catchiest choruses, the most “single” potential, and the highest likelihood of being fan favorites.
“Place” comes close to reaching its potential, but where it fails is entirely my fault. On the one hand, I limited the song too much. The song could’ve been far better with a more accomplished drummer, a better bassist, and with more layers of guitars. (I’m still pretty proud of the guitar solo, though; like many places on the album, the guitar solo was more improvisational than it was honed-in, and there’s actually an entirely different take of a guitar solo going on at the same time, hidden deep enough within the mix that it’s hard to hear.) Somewhere within the recording process, the song just lost track of what it was trying to be. And that’s only one hand of the problems. The other hand is that I got a little greedy during the mixing process. Most of the album was mixed by my brother, but I made some last minute adjustments to the vocal levels that bug me to this day. My mistakes are most apparent in the second verse, where the vocals are drowning in the mix, and then at the end, where the volume of the lead vocals rise and fall inexplicably. For those of you who are still reading: beware of last minute decisions! They can destroy your songs. Actually, last minute decisions can destroy a number of things, art or not.
As for “Repeating June,” it’s easy to listen to the first minute and write it off as the album’s obligatory piano ballad. On the contrary, if you have the patience to get through the song’s 5+ minute runtime, the song reveals itself to be the album’s most experimental composition. I truly believe there’s an alternate universe where a version of this song exists that works perfectly. But that’s not this universe and not this version. There are so many things about this song that I think are brilliant. Yes. Brill-i-ant. The way choruses change throughout the song, the way lyrics reappear but contextually have new meanings, the way the pretty piano drops off into dirty electric guitar, the way the song’s ending lingers with a weaving rise on the keys…I could go on.
Like “Place,” “Repeating” came with its own struggles of how to translate a song from an acoustic guitar piece into a full band orchestration. The seemingly endless possibilities become detrimental. As one of my college professors said,
When you can do anything, it’s hard to do something.
I had piano parts envisioned in my head, and Kory did a great job of trying to bring my “vision” to life in spite of my poor abilities to express piano ideas. I also had a mental idea of snare-rolling drum parts that I was 100% incapable of properly playing. Yet I insisted on recording the song this way, and the incongruence shows.
Ironically, I have since come closer to discovering the best version of this song. “Repeating” was the only song that received major lyrical rewrites from its 2011 original to its 2014 recording. When doing the lyrical rewrites, I ended up rewriting the music for the bridge as well, turning the bridge into an expanded spoken word. While I love the spoken word lyrics I wrote, they’re darn difficult to perform live. So in recent live performances, I’ve begun playing an acoustic rendition of “Repeating” that mixes together the 2011 and 2014 versions, finding a streamlined and simplified center that actually works. Live and learn, right?
One extra note for these songs: I love asking people what this album sounds like. My friend Sara nailed it when she said the album sounded like a mix of Jon Foreman and Mae, seeing as Foreman is the producer’s favorite artist and I was specifically aiming for the record to come out sounding like Mae’s debut, Destination: Beautiful.
I also love asking the people who know me best to help me pinpoint what artists I was accidentally ripping off or stealing from. Two of my closest friends both hear The Dear Hunter, in these two songs especially. Personally, I don’t see (or hear?) that at all, but historically speaking, they must be right. These songs were written in the summer of 2011, which is when The Dear Hunter released The Color Spectrum, and I spent a lot of that summer listening to Color, specifically the Black, Yellow, and Orange EP’s.
5. “Intermission (Taking a Break)” // 6. “Sandcastles”
And now we’ve arrived in the middle, where the mirroring song numbers finally touch at tracks 5 and 6. In some ways, this set is the most imbalanced pair. “Intermission” was among the set of mini-songs written during the recording sessions in order to stitch the pieces of the album’s narrative closer together. In so doing, “Intermission” came out to be explicitly narrative in nature, juxtaposed against the conceptual and analogous leanings of “Sandcastles.”
Using sandcastles as a metaphor for a thrown-together relationship may seem typical or trite, but I have an excuse! I actually wrote the song while sitting on a Hawaiian beach. In order to not sound pampered, allow me to explain: my father had saved up for a few years to afford to take my brother and me on an overseas vacation. This would be our first family vacation since I was in junior high school, and it has been our only family vacation ever since. My dad, being the laid-back type, thankfully did not fill our week with activities but instead took us to Hawaii with a fairly open slate of a schedule. With this in mind, I wanted to go to Hawaii to escape the mundane setting of Texas and spend the whole week writing nonstop. This lofty plan didn’t transpire as I’d hoped, but I did come home with one finished song.
The similarities between these two songs are predominantly happenstance. Both songs are notably experimental in their orchestration, particularly the percussion, with “Intermission” being mostly drums-only and “Sandcastles” being the album’s lone song to utilize electronic drums. As best described by my friend Samuel after he heard the album, “One of the songs is not like the others.”
As these two songs developed in post-production, the two songs acquired a new similarity, as the album’s only songs to use synthesizers. Through these developments, “Intermission” became another song nearly ruined in post-production. The temptation to change too much, to add too many bells and whistles, was strong, but my initial desire to have only drums and vocals felt too bare. The biggest mistake I made was adding too noodling, out-of-place guitar riffs. It would’ve been pretty easy to see that the guitar riffs didn’t belong, too, as my honest intention behind adding the guitar riffs was to show off my guitar skills more. With intentions like that, you should know you’re about to screw up. (There was an added benefit to the guitar riffs, though. Only by recording those two riffs did I realize that the a’cappella vocals shifted keys, down a half step. By recognizing this, we still had time for me to re-record the vocals and ensure that the whole song stayed in the same key.)
Not everything we added was bad, though. The song ends with a pretty beefy layer of synths that, in my opinion, really take “Intermission” and turn it into something cool. Another cool aspect of these synths is that they’re performing the melody that comprises the first verse vocals of “Sandcastles.”
“Sandcastles” is the miracle of the album, at one point such a disaster that I feared it wouldn’t make the final track list. The song works better than it has any right to. This song is my Frankenstein’s monster, pieced together from ill-fitted scraps. With an acoustic folk intro, a pop-rock chorus, a spoken word second verse, and a jazz outro, the song seemed doomed from the start. Add in the fact that my drum takes were nearly bad enough to toss out entirely and you can see from wherein my initial dread came. Gloriously, the song received a new heartbeat when the original drum and bass takes were replaced with some MIDI drum and bass tracks I put together on my laptop.
From there on, every piece of the song was reconstructed. My brother and I recreated higher quality synth/MIDI tracks, and I re-recorded most of the vocals and guitars. We also pieced together a crossover moment during the build between the second verse and second chorus, where the real drums and bass appear over the electronic drums and bass for a few seconds. The only pure remnant of the original sessions is at the end, which is sonically the album’s fullest and most colorful moment. Back in June 2014, I recorded the drums with an improvised ending, then I improvised a bass line atop those drum parts, and then I improvised a guitar part atop the bass and drums. Those three magical takes still appear on the record unedited, in all their splendor.
If you pay attention to anything on the record, hear the ending of “Sandcastles,” experience how big those three instruments sound together…and suddenly, you’ll get a feeling for how I intended the entire album to sound like. No worries, though. I’m already at work on album #2.