Guy Michel is this “guy” that lives in San Francisco and is a graphic designer. I haven’t seen him in ages. He decided, after writing this, not to send it to me, believing it was needlessly hurtful, or just didn’t have the nuts to deliver it. Soon afterward, Pete Straus discovered it on Guy’s computer, and talked him into letting me see it. Yes, I agree, it’s a terrible thing to read, having just put out my new record, but it’s no worse than a negative review. Except in this case, I think he listened to the CD a few times, and apparently spent hours composing this (reneged) letter.
I was gonna write you something like, welp, no--I will write it, and then I'll renege a little. But this is in response to your asking me, at the show at the Make-Out last week where Danny opened for Dale Duncan's abortion (read: a bore, shun) of a vanity band called Map Of Wyoming ("Wow! You'll never guess what we did! We just discovered, like, Gram Parsons, yuh, bet you never heard of him, he's like been dead for a while now, we think he's like cool and we're gonna try and sound exactly like him playing the not-slow-not-even-medium-fast same song over and over and over again! Even though of course we've never been to Wyoming and we think the title is just a clever bit of ironic false-Americana!"), anyway, rant rant rant, which is what this is, you asked me if I'd heard "the new CD" yet.
NICK 'N' CHRIS
This would be what I been a-wantin' to write for a few days now, ever since Pete gave me Wood + Wire . It was included on the BeSide of a cassette he made for me of Nick Lowe's newly-released (like a good dump? In the case of his new offering, yes) CD Dig My Mood, which was extremely disappointing, and that sucks.
Almost as bad as your new one.
Read on (if you can).
In Nick's case he was, I can only assume, experimenting with an "In A Mellow Mood" phase (which got the same "What th--??!" he's-losing-it panic from me as when Blondie or Dee Dee Ramone did rap, Springsteen went acoustic or Bob Dylan saw Judaism in the sky with diamonds)--maybe good 'n' reflective for him, but not even remotely interesting for anybody else. I couldn't even listen to that shpilkis all the way through; just fast-forwarded ("Man, another painfully slow one after the previous two slow ones--screw this one, is the next one slow, too? Jaysus!") from one turgid ballad to the next turgid ballad.
Then the first song, "Starting Over" from your new CD, followed his last song ("Cold Grey Light of Dawn", one of only two even halfway-good ones) on the same side. I was surprised when the song started: I thought it was still him. I thought, "Yeah! At last!" when the first chords powered in, "He's back to 'American Squirm'-type Big Sound! All royt!"
Then your voice kicked in, Lennonesque as usual (although McCartneyish inflection steps in sometimes--I mean you can sound like Paul, too). And I'm not faulting you for that--I love the Beatles, too, and I know thinking of John is a device that helps you project, plus you've got--I'm jealous, even--a good voice. So if you end up sounding like John Lennon, so what? Even if it's not a most uncanny thing, so what? It's a good voicing. All I can manage to sound like is an imitation Joey Ramone woefully trying to sound like Elvis Costello. And God Bless the Beatles and anybody who is trying to---listen carefully now---not trying to "keep their sound alive" but to trying to Excite People The Same Way They Did. This is an important distinction. More on this later.
Immediately, as in all your songs, after what has now sadly come to be a signature "let's go!"-type promise of Fun In A Song (cf. the opening chords and crashing cymbalism of "Starting Out"), the promise turned false: the tempo apparently got scared or something, and once again slowed down to an annoyingly timid rock-ballad middling slowness. This tempo, a frustrating constant in your music, ends up sounding just self-indulgent, nothing but an "aren't my lyrics great" showcase, no matter how "huh?" (Dylanesquely oblique and constantly self-contradictory) you make those lyrics. This is not smartness, it's cleverness, and a chore to listen to. The music doesn't stride, it trudges. And that's too bad. Is this the only tempo you can play "if you must"?
Ask any of your friends: do they have any idea of what the hell you're trying to say? Look at a song like, let's say, "Annalisa". What is this song about? What are you trying to proclaim? I've never been able to figure it out--it just kind of moans off into some kinda crap like, "I know it's just a girl's name but somehow you could be anyone with that name" or some such thing. Be direct! If you have nothing to say but wanna say it, SAY "I have nothing to say but I wanna say something!" instead of trying (and failing) to make something out of nothing. Enunciate.
I am writing this because this frustrates me, and I don't know if anybody 's ever talked to you like this before.
It' s sad. Your music teases: it starts off sounding great, I like what you hint at being able to do, and then it always lets me down. You have fun with Orbit, don't you? Being a backup musician, which, among other things, you are very good at? The only high point of Wes's look-and-listen-to-little-interminably-prattling-me-I'm-doing my-busking-routine show at the Great American (I think it was last summer--'97?) was when you and Pete stepped onstage to give him help he so badly needed (if he'd played one more fucking "Friend Of The Devil" riff song by himself on his acoustic guitar...!). It was great, I'll never forget it--the roof immediately lifted off the hall: "Spaced Cowgirl" sounded as big as "Cruel To Be Kind". Everyone jumped up and started dancing. It was great! Why not put some of that spirit into your own stuff? I love good Britpop, too. Make it Rock or be shockingly sad instead of just abuncha self-conscious Lennonly moaning. I know you mean to be wry a lot of the time (although I never would've if I hadn't seen your song-explanation/exclamations in the interactive poart of "Big White Lies", which, by the way, looks great on my Power Mac--those guys did a Good Job), but you get so lost in the trying. Studio's infinite options too distracting? Pare down. You need to turn it over.
Simplify. You can do it! (You need to.) We are all alike in some ways, so your use of yourself could be a good vehicle if only you could make direct statements, didn't have to hide your emotions behind some huge screen of oblique grade-school irony (do NOT call your next CD Look Back In Anger--please!). And shit-can the literary aspirations unless they absolutely lend something to the song.
Don't say "'tween". It sounds pretentious; awkward.
And don't use cop-out phrases like "Go if you must", especially over and over again--what the fuck is that? Why are you saying that? Why are you repeating it repeatedly á la "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"? Does it serve a purpose (or a non-purpose)? What are you trying to say? One shouldn't need a li'l QuickCam movie to have to refer to to explain each song (although that was a neat exposition on Big White Lies--which I do not want all your music to be). Are you Shakespeareanly sad at the person for leaving? Resigned? Wimpily angry? Just 'cause it sounds eloquent is not enough to make a phrase convincing: there better be a basis or anti-basis for it, e.g., you're visibly trying to hide barely-controlled rage, or want to wax rhapsodically about something but ironically all you can manage to utter because you're so transported with emotion is something like "My word!" (or "Golly!"). Do you know what I'm saying?
One simply can't get at what you, Chris von Sneidern, the kid near the end of the alphabet, are trying to say. Okay, you can sound like the Beatles in the studio, but this does not mean you'll be automatically able to produce good well-integrated (music and lyrics) tunes--as a matter of fact it makes it all the more sad when you don't.
JUST CROON AROUND
The tone of your voice when you're singing--the croon that I and others hear--is that of someone blamming through a hideous restraint of either shame or isolation; revealing, against his normal better judgement, a part of him that surprises even himself. That's what the songs would SOUND like if one didn't understand English (and liked having all songs at the same tempo). But your lyrics cheapen your good music, taking the titillated, then puzzled, then irritated listener way past any interesting true-confession-box stuff; all one ends up hearing is the lines that begin with "I"--and there's a hell of a lot of 'em--and realizing that you're gonna have to listen to the end of each line, and then another one right after, without having (or, finally, even wanting to have) a clue as to what that line was about, or how the first couple of words hinted that it might relate to the previous line and then it just spazzed off into vagueness.
It makes one not be involved, and thus not care. Big time.
AM I AN ASSHOLE
Chris, I like what you're trying to do. I think you could be good. I hope you don't just blow this off and run at the first sign of criticism. (If Orb read this he'd eat my head for brunch--he's a good and loyal friend. He'd never say nothin' like this. But I would.) You can call me an asshole, but I do care, because I think what you're trying to do is worth caring about, and you're a good guy. And I'm calling it the way I see it.
Now, it's true that almost every song written is written in the first person, from "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" to "I Dig A Pygmy", but your songs, as recorded, come across as whiny. And overly clever. One is just left with puzzlement ("What the hell is he singing/complaining about?"). One is just left with tunes that would be good on their own (if you varied the tempo a little occasionally--take that twig outta yer ass!--"She Said She Said" is a great song, but there are Others, too) but instead are overfull with lyrics that occasionally try to, what?, vaguely hint at being scared but in their annoying eeliness make your offerings just a lotta lukewarm air. In singer-songwriterly live acoustic context this frustrating lyrikschmüssen might be a little more okay, but not on a studio-produced rock album; it just sounds empty. Big noise signifying nothing. C'mon. Whaddaya think people will now remember you as, the post-modern Badfinger, for God's sake (not Eric Carmen's--oh, please)? I know it's only you, and hey, you're just putting out music you love and what's wrong with that and hey, I can buy the CD or not or change the dial or not.
Okay, I'll tell you what's wrong with that. In testing your interactive track 1 on "Big White Lies" I found that it played fine as I said, but I could not get it to open in the program it was created in, which was Director. So before playing the thing as it is on my computer, I tried examining the parts in ResEdit, which lets you look at components separately (PICTs, sound, menus etc.). I came across some sound files there, and played them, one by one, so at first I just heard your disembodied text-accompanied voice talking about your childhood of sticks-iness and your pilgrimage to SF. Sounds scary, a big step. Congrats for doing it, and SF is a better place because you did. (It's also better because I moved here.) (And Pete. ) (And Chris & Orbit.) (etc.)
You had some truly nerdawful pictures of your pre/post-ad self artfully worked into the multimedia mix on Track 1, and that was a good reality check, seeing you as a kid.
I mean who the heck do I think I am? Or you are? The Post-Modern Eric Carmen? (Who I like about as much as you like Bread. Or Foreigner.) Hell, you're just a guy, trying to get along; to do what he loves, which is making music (music nobody else around here is making, that's for sure); to have friends; parties (and I must confess, I'm a shitty party-giver myself--just a goer usually, fuckin' parasite)--you're not trying to change the world. You put a fuck of a lot of energy into polishing, producing and releasing your work and trying to get the word out, and I'll give you a lotta credit for that. Mailing lists, lugging amps, keeping vehicles repaired, networking (work on your stage patter, though!), establishing and maintaining a support group of friends and clubowners, hawking CDs, keeping studio equipment up and running, making sure musicians show up and don't flake--man! And it's all you. Even if you do (or somebody does) plaster your pictures all over your stuff, it's a lotta work to get people just to listen, let alone change the world.
But your music sounds as if it could, with work. For the three+ minutes a song of yours is playing.
That's where I get off going off on you like this, because you're Almost there. You are. I hope you don't give up. Seriously. But you keep shooting yourself in the goddam foot, with too many chords (less two-minor-chords-in-a-row stuff, please, and please Not A Major Seventh In Every Song!), all the songs being the same speed, and too much self-conscious lyric-play that doesn't say anything because it says too much.
I mean, you don't need to come away with some kind of philosphic epiphany from a song--"Runaround Sue" is hardly that, but it sure is fun and it sticks in your mind--so does "They Can't Take That Away From Me", "Can't Touch Dis", "Sixteen Tons", "Pale Blue Eyes", "John Wesley Harding", "Send In The Clowns", "Revenooer Man", "634-5789", "Teenage Lobotomy", "(I Am The Very Model Of) A Modern Major-General", "Nothing's Sacred When I'm Naked", "2,000 Light Years From Home", "In The City", etc. etc. etc. Even the theme song from Gigantor.
WHAT TO DO?
Embrace elements of bebop, thrash, mambo, gospel, rap, rhumba, rockabilly, sampling, swing, folk, funk, Tex-Mex; even atonality (Zorn/Zappa/Partch/Cage/Varèse/Spike Jones), Eurotechno, chamber, charanga--whatever you need to un-stiff yourself, spice things up a little. That's what the Beatles did! "I'm Down", "Piggies", "I'll Be Back", "Besame Mucho", Eleanor Rigby"... And write simple stuff; lyrics that people can understand. Believe me, it'll pay off, and you won't go around wondering why the world hasn't yet discovered your true and painful genius while you're still energetically hobbling your potential for a greater audience.
I know you can do better. That is why I am writing this! I would like to be affected by your music. You have a good sense of music, you're a great engineer and player: the potential is there. In fact it's sitting on all of your friends' (and potential fans') faces. Let 'em breathe instead of shoving it dowen their throats. Don't be afraid--people are smarter than you'd ever think.
All the best, Guy