“More than Passable, Less than Perfect”

fred in studio

I have been writing songs since the early 1970s. Since 2011 I have produced albums for two singer-songwriters and have collaborated with other musicians on two albums. I am in the home stretch of finishing a solo album that I began last spring. However, I have not made a dent in recording, mixing, and releasing dozens and dozens of my songs. I have plotted albums for these songs, based on a number of factors. I now realize that constructing albums this way leads to a faulty quest for perfection, which then leads to procrastination.

So, what to do? I have decided to release an original recording each week in 2016. 52 tracks. Most will be newly recorded weekly but a few will be final mixes of songs that have sat dormant on my computer for years. There will be no rhyme or reason for the song selected each week.

I will document each song on this blog. I will discuss its genesis, its lyrics, and how I produced and recorded it.

My goal is to end 2016 with 52 well-arranged and recorded songs. There may be some tunes that would benefit from an overdub by a singer or musician but my intent is to make these recordings as finished as possible. My motto is “More than passable, less than perfect.”

It would be great if you would join me on this journey. I would love to get feedback. If you think you could add something musically to a recording, let me know. I am willing to revisit a song.

 

“More than Passable, Less than Perfect”

Clearing Customs

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I am leaving a country I inhabited for a year. As I depart I have a few things to declare. I am probably forgetting a few things.

Deadlines Work. Having a Thursday afternoon deadline worked for me. I have always responded well to deadlines, but this self-imposed weekly deadline at first worried me if I did not have the recording and mixing completed by Tuesday. Within a few months I realized I could push the process to within an hour or two of the release time. This gave me confidence that even if I was sick or if I had to complete two recordings in a week because I would be traveling the following week, I would not falter.

Focus Improves with Repetition. As the weeks rolled along, I became more efficient in how I played, sang, recorded, and mixed. For example, the number of vocal takes for each song steadily declined during the year. I learned how to focus my attention on the immediate task at hand, rather than thinking about the things that lay ahead of me.

A Small Set of Tools Works Best. Over the years I have acquired numerous instruments, microphones, recording equipment, and software tools. I wasted a lot of time trying different recording chains and effects. The first six or seven recordings followed this pattern until I resolved to use one microphone for my vocals, guitars, and mandolin. (The tube condenser microphone pictured above.) Then I chose to use one preamplifier for the microphone. Finally, I selected a set of software effects (five or six at most on the recordings) that I used on every song the remainder of the year. By narrowing my palette I learned how to use these tools to shape the sound on a consistent basis. Each week I pulled up the same tool set, knowing I could dial in the sounds quickly.

You Never Can Tell. I am a great list maker. Early on I wrote down which songs I would record over six or eight weeks. I quickly discovered that my mind rebelled at such an orderly process. I found that I would instinctively “know” which song I needed to record that week. By mid-year I prepared a list of over 50 songs I might want to record. On Friday or Saturday I would wake up and choose a tune.

Time Flies. Looking back, this project reshaped my life and redirected my energy to one task. For the first time in 40 years I did not write a song. I made a conscious decision not to do so, knowing that writing would throw me off track. I would occasionally scribble a line or two but nothing more than that.

Whose Project Was it Anyway? I did this for me. Not just to document 52 of my songs but to prove to myself that I could pull it off. There were weeks, when I got very few listens or responses, which made me question whether I should go on. When I got to feeling sorry for myself, Theresa would tell me to get back to work. And I did.

Expectations are Fool’s Gold. From week to week, I was rarely correct on what to expect from listeners. I received wonderful responses to songs I thought might be too weird or too dark, while “sure thing” tunes got the ho-hum treatment. This has taught me not to prejudge a song or a listener’s response.

Heading for the Exit. For you that have listened, liked, shared, and commented on the songs, I thank you. I treasure so many of the things you have written about how a song moved you. Those types of connections mean the world to a writer.

Clearing Customs

Track 52 Almost Made it Home Last Night

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Photo by Sam Grittner

Recording and Mixing Dates: Recorded December 22 and 27, 2016. Mixed December 27, 2016.

 

Genesis: I wrote the music in November 2001 and was intrigued with the chord structure. I wrote the lyrics on November 16, 2001 and revised them on September 2, 2002.

This is a song about a lost soul, struggling to get back to the safety of some type of home. I was battling depression at the time and looking back I can see how bleak things looked for me. The imagery of a dried creek bed, a shipwreck, and dead broke rivers confirms this impression.However, things can get better. Hopefully, the lost soul will eventually find his way home.

I have recorded numerous versions of this song. I have gone back and forth between rock and folk arrangements. For this week, I settled on a hard rock version. If I were to record it next week, you would probably hear a banjo and a fiddle….

Production: Bass Guitar, Electric Guitars, Organ, Drums, and a Drum Loop.

Lyrics

Almost Made it Home Last Night

First a left turn

Then a right turn

Then a rough patch of corduroy road

Through the darkness

Past the creek bed

Where the waters of spring once had flowed

It was quiet

Oh so quiet

But the silence didn’t suit me right

I almost

I almost

I almost made it home last night

From a shipwreck

Into dry dock

Missing persons in the shipping news

All these arrivals

And departures

Wholesale feelings retail blues

Shadow memories

Shadow boxing

Split decisions in the candlelight

I almost

I almost

I almost made it home last night

Dead broke rivers

Bare-boned bridges

Blackened hills meet an oatmeal sky

Out of nowhere

Into nothing

What might have beens chasing alibis

On a long lane

That has no turning

I stumble in the failing light

I almost

I almost

I almost made it home last night.

Copyright 2016 Fred Grittner All Rights Reserved

Track 52 Almost Made it Home Last Night

Track 51 Unless

row-dory

Recording and Mixing Dates: Recorded December 16 and 18, 2016. Mixed December 18, 2016.

 

 

Genesis: On February 22, 2009, Theresa and I were enjoying a getaway to the North Shore of Lake Superior. I brought my laptop to check email and one message appeared that morning from Jan Hauenstein, my songwriting collaborator in Germany. He sent me a song fragment with each line beginning with “Ain’t no,” followed by noun, followed by the word “unless,” followed by a verb, and concluding with the word “it.” I sent him back a verse based on this structure. He in turn responded with more verses. Then I wrote two bridges to break up the monotony. In the course of four emails we wrote the lyrics to “Unless.” (I made a few changes before recording it.) I suggested Jan write some bouncy, ragtime music to fit the words and he came up with a cool set of chords.

There is nothing profound in the song but it was fun to write and now record.

Jan released his version on his 2009 CD, Late Bloomer. For my version I decided on a classic jazz piano quartet sound.

 Production: Acoustic Bass, Acoustic Guitar, Piano, and Brush Drums.

 Lyrics

Unless

Ain´t no beard unless you grow it

Ain´t no seed unless you sow it

Ain´t no lawn unless you mow it

Ain´t no row unless you hoe it

Ain´t no beauty ‘less you show it

 

Ain’t no snow unless you flake it

Ain’t no sin unless you snake it

Ain’t no stop unless you brake it

Ain’t no rouge unless you cake it

Ain´t no time unless you take it

 

With a stockpile of abuses

Hiding in your drawer

Not taking your excuses

You gotta check them at the door

 

Ain´t no boat unless you row it

Ain´t no nose unless you blow it

Ain´t no line unless you toe it

Ain´t no debt unless you owe it

Ain’t no truth unless you know it

 

Ain´t no bread unless you bake it

Ain´t no beast unless you wake it

Ain’t no dance unless you shake it

Ain´t no love unless you make it

Ain´t no time unless you take it

 

I came looking for some comfort

And the chance that I might find

Shelter from the winds of change

That strut and cut across my mind

 

Ain´t no knowledge ´less you stow it

Ain´t no boast ´less you crow it

Ain´t no earth unless you quake it

Ain´t no lie unless you fake it

Ain´t no song unless you make it

Copyright 2016 Jan Hauenstein and Fred Grittner All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

Track 51 Unless

Track 50 It Don’t Feel Much Like Christmas This Year

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Recording and Mixing Dates: Recorded December 8 and 14, 2016. Mixed December 14, 2016.

 

 

Genesis: I wrote this song in early December of 2011. St. Paul, Minnesota was indeed brown—no snow. I had lost my father in March of that year and the family circle had contracted: parents gone and my sisters out of state. It was definitely a period of adjustment for me. Throw in the commercialization of Christmas and the song was written in about 30 minutes. I quickly recorded a vocal/guitar demo using one microphone and posted it on Facebook. Some listeners expressed concerns about my emotional state. I laughed them off, but in retrospect they were on the mark.

The family circle has since been enlarged with the presence of a granddaughter and grandson. And there is snow on the ground this year and subzero temperatures. The Christmas holiday is still a tricky emotional rollercoaster for many people and I have to admit that I still have my off days at that amusement park.

 Production: Bass Guitar, Acoustic Guitars, Resonator Guitar, Mandolin, and Drums.

 Lyrics

It Don’t Feel Much Like Christmas This Year

The trees are bare

The ground is brown

Ain’t no snow coming round

It don’t feel much like Christmas this year

The neighborhood is brightly wrapped

With front yards full of plastic crap

But it don’t feel much like Christmas this year

 

BRIDGE:

The family circle has shrunken down

Not much left in this northern town

Silent nights in front of me

I just might torch this Christmas tree

 

Where’s the joy

The peace the hope

The world keeps playing rope-a-dope

It don’t feel much like Christmas this year

BRIDGE

The baby savior

Has left his crib

To grab a Micky D’s McRib

It don’t feel much like Christmas this year

Living in this ho ho hell

Waiting for the last noel

It don’t feel much like Christmas this year

Copyright 2016 Fred Grittner All Rights Reserved

 

Track 50 It Don’t Feel Much Like Christmas This Year

Track 49 West of Everything

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Recording and Mixing Dates: Recorded December 2 and 6, 2016. Mixed December 6, 2016.

 

Genesis: I came up with the song based on the title of a 1993 book written by Jane Tompkins. It examines the American West as portrayed in Western novels and films. I never read the book but loved the suggestiveness of the title. I use it as a metaphor of escape, a fantasy about leaving disappointing daily lives for a supposed better existence. In short, a rewrite of the bromide, “the grass is always greener on the other side.”

I wrote the song in 1993 and over the years I tried different arrangements. Most of them evoked Glen Frey ballads, such as the Eagles “Tequila Sunrise.” They never felt right. Last week I played around with the tune again and came up with the idea of changing the feel from straight time to swing time. Once I found that this worked, I develop an arrangement that reminds me of some the mellower tunes that Mark Knopfler has recorded over the years. While rehearsing the song I realized that some of the lyrics could stand editing or replacement.

Production: Acoustic Bass, Acoustic Guitars, Electric Guitar, and Brush Snare Drum.

Lyrics

WEST OF EVERYTHING

I see you’ve grown tired

From the daily wear and tear

I’ve got to admit I’m feeling just the same

We need to get out of here

Find some breathing room

The simple joys in life are there to reclaim

CHORUS:

West of Everything

West of the heartaches

Way past the morning blues

West of Everything

West of the bad luck

Far from these broken schemes

West of our foolish dreams

 

You’ve tried to be patient

While we worked to get ahead

The way things stand we’re only marking time

The look in your eyes tonight

Says things have got to change

We both know we’ve been waiting for this sign

CHORUS

 

We’ve come to a crossroads

I’m shifting my sights

Above the horizon

My heart is taking flight

CHORUS

Copyright 2016 Fred Grittner All Rights Reserved

Track 49 West of Everything

Track 48 Saying Doesn’t Make it So

soap-box

Recording and Mixing Dates: Recorded November 26 and December 1, 2016. Mixed December 1, 2016.

 

 

Genesis: I wrote the music, in a strange guitar tuning, in the summer of 1979. I wrote the lyrics on New Year’s Day, 1980.   I liked the title line as the hook and built out the verses to support it. I gave a shout out to The Band and Tony Joe White in the opening lines. I dreamed of Levon Helm singing the song.

I am guessing that many of the promises given by the President-Elect during his campaign will be abandoned or will be impossible to keep. Some of his supporters may end up singing the chorus a few times….

Production: Bass Guitar, Electric Guitars, Organ, and Drums.

Lyrics

Saying Doesn’t Make it So

Took a load off Fanny

And Polk Salad Annie

I’m tired and I wanna go home

Always ready

Always rock steady

I’m tired and I wanna go home

One of these days

I’m gonna leave it all behind

It’s not a lack of resolve

But only a question of time

CHORUS:

Saying doesn’t make it

Saying doesn’t make it

Saying doesn’t make it so

Saying doesn’t make it

Saying doesn’t make it

Saying doesn’t make it so

 

A rumor just hit me

A second thought bit me

I’ve been in this storm too long

Nonsense impressions

Extracting concessions

The way shape and form are all wrong

Slumbering judgment

Has opened its eyes to see

A crazy old fool

Spouting some dirt about me

CHORUS

 

I’m no hero

At ground level zero

Love is such a killing thing

Degrees of honor

Man I’m a gonner

Living by dead reckoning

After careful contemplation

I’ve settled on this bottle of wine

It was put or shut up

As she told me for the very last time

CHORUS

Copyright 2016 Fred Grittner All Rights Reserved

Track 48 Saying Doesn’t Make it So

Track 47 After is Always Before

hallway

Recording and Mixing Dates: Recorded June 3, 2014, August 10, 2014, June 30, 2016, November 17 and 22, 2016. Mixed November 22, 2016.

 

Genesis: I wrote this song on April 7, 2010. I revised the lyrics on May 25, 2015. The song was inspired by a dream. The first verse describes how I dreamed that I was walking an endless hallway, looking for a number I could never find. The hopelessness of the cause permeates the other verses. The last verse clearly is based on my last few years of employment.

The chorus is built on the concept of time, always a favorite with writers. The title comes from a phrase that the German author Gunter Grass wrote in his 2008 memoir, Peeling the Onion. The phrase suggests the elasticity of time and the possibility that some of our actions are preordained.

Leonard Cohen died last week. The mordant lyrics, melancholy music, and lush arrangement point back to the master.

 Production: Bass Guitar, Electric Guitars, Piano, Organ, String Quartet, Tenor Sax, and Drums.

 Lyrics

After is Always Before

I’ve been down this hallway before

Looking for a number on a door

Never found it, though I’ve tried

Someone tricked me someone lied

 

But I’ll try try try once again

In my book perseverance is no sin

Though the outcome’s not in doubt

I’ll take these cards and play them out

 

CHORUS:

Time is gold

Time is lead

Time is what you love

And what you dread

Time at peace

Time at war

After

Is always before

 

I squint hard to place that face

Fighting words in a very quiet place

Turn your back they soon will leave

The hardest part unweave the weave

CHORUS

 

I walk this hall with a broken key

No longer care what they think of me

I’m a lost cause go write me off

I’m out of touch I’ve gone soft

CHORUS

Copyright 2016 Fred Grittner All Rights Reserved

Track 47 After is Always Before