I released my latest EP on Wednesday. It’s kind of a mixed bag of tunes, but I think they hang together pretty well.
The EP is called Factory Seconds. I was thinking of Andy Warhol when the title came to me. I was also thinking about how I often check out factory seconds and B-stock when I’m looking for musical equipment. Usually it’s just a little blemish or a crack in the finish that knocks a few dollars off the price of a guitar. My favorite guitar, for example is a Gretsch Streamliner with a crack in the finish. The guitar plays great and stays in tune better than any of my other guitars. But because of that crack, I paid a lot less than the suggested regular retail price.
Along similar lines, I’ll be the first to admit that one of the things that lends a bit of charm — and, one might argue, humanity — to my songs is that they’re all imperfect in one way or another. For one thing, I’m no Caruso, but to quote a review of my song “George Around the Corner” by the (quite excellent) music blogger Jeff Archuleta, “He doesn’t have a powerful singing voice, but he more than makes up for it with a quirky, endearing vocal delivery that never fails to put a huge smile on my face.”
So I thought I’d play on the idea of factory seconds and offer four songs on an EP for what’s usually the price of two and give folks the same kind of deal I got on my guitar. Plus I added a couple of bonus tracks to the mix to sweeten the deal.
The first song on the EP is called “The Way We Walk.” If there’s a unifying theme to be found on Factory Seconds — and, to be honest, most of the songs I write — it’s expressed in this one. We’re all outsiders in one way or another, and if we’re lucky, we’re cool with it. The hook is admittedly — is “solipsistic” the word I’m looking for? I mean, what does “We walk the way we walk, it’s the way we walk” even mean? The words just came out of mouth when I sat down in front of my microphone and started singing to a drum beat that I had recorded.
The obviously rejoinder for the next line was to replace “walk” with “talk,” and that got me thinking about where I live. Ever since Mare of Easttown (and probably long before it), the peculiarities of the Delaware County accent have been getting a bit of attention. All in good fun, of course, and I, for one, take it as a point of pride. But the funny thing about accents is that no one really notices they have one until someone from “outside” points it out. Which, I suppose, is the idea at the heart of saying “we talk the way we talk, it’s the way we talk.” There’s nothing weird about it to us Delco natives. That’s just how it is.
Of course, there’s also a bit of an edge to the song as well. The first verse lets you know something is amiss: “You and I both know the lies they tell about our kind: The only good one is a dead one, and the dead ones just aren’t trying.” I actually wrote that long before the song’s hook came to me — probably a bout a year ago or more.
But once I started figuring out what the hook was trying to tell me, that verse fit nicely with the theme and the idea that arbitrary social markers like an accent can sometimes make a huge difference in one’s life, signaling as they do all kinds of insider vs. outsider distinctions. More than once I’ve said something in my Delco accent only to realize that I’m suddenly the weirdo in the conversation as a result.
Which is usually fine by me, largely because being an outsider to one group also means being an insider in another. And that’s why the rest of the verses are, to some extent, about finding comfort even in the fact that “the way we walk” and the “the way we talk” sets us apart from the mainstream. Even if the way we talk is a dead-end street, it takes us where we want to go.
Also worth noting, the “This is the glue…” lyrics in the bridge came to me while I was out walking my dog. It’s rare for me to sit down and write an entire song in one sitting. Mainly, I just jot things down in a little notebook throughout the year and then try to piece the scraps together whenever I feel like I want to develop them into a song.
The same is true of “All the Hairy Boys,” which I see as a companion piece to “The Way We Walk,” though I originally wrote it as a response to the first song I released under my own name, “Before the Boys.” The original idea of “Before the Boys” was to look at the kinds of pressures that society puts on young girls to behave in a certain way, and “All the Hairy Boys” was initially an attempt to do the same with boys — or boys of a certain era, anyway.
In the song, they’re teenagers in muscle cars, revving their engines and play their music as loud as they can because it’s the only way to let the world know they exist. Of course, they’re teens, so they don’t realize they’re just coming off as jerks. Eventually, one hopes, they’ll grow up and figure out some other way to express themselves constructively, but until then, it’s all about being loud and rude to mask their insecurity. Which, as you might guess, is a version of what’s going on in “The Way We Walk.”
With “Before the Weatherman,” I got a little meta. Once again, the phrase “before the weatherman” came to me when I was out walking my dog, and I started building a song around the idea of a precocious or pretentious teen trying to sound wise and philosophical by making claims about what life used to be like “in olden times.”
The problem is that there’s nothing in the song itself to indicate that I’m in “character” while I’m singing, other than the fact that I’m singing in a voice I don’t usually use — my faux Michael McDonald Steely Dan voice. It’s like I’m trying to embody some teen who wants to sound older and wiser and therefore someone other than who he is by singing in the voice of someone other than who I am. The more I explain it the less sense it makes.
Anyway, the basic idea this kid is trying to convey is that people used to live much more engaging lives in the past than they do now, largely because their lives weren’t mediated by technology — like weather reports or the “tiny screens” that appear in verse three.
The original version of this song ran a lot longer.Once I started recording it, I realized that it was going to be nearly six minutes long — or longer. And though a six-minute meditation on the decline of interpersonal relationships at the hands of technology as told from the point of view of a pretentious teenager struck me as incredibly funny, I also felt like the joke might wear a little thin after a few listens. So, in the words of Billy Joel, I cut it down to 3:05. Or 3:20, as the case may be.
In case you’re curious, here are a couple of the verses I cut:
Vandals on the edge of town
Sharpening their axes
Made us wonder why the hell we
Paid so much in taxes.
The walls of stone we built could
Barely keep the bears out,
Let alone the savage scent of
Maybe it helps to know that the Vandals were a Germanic tribe that sacked Rome in the year 455? It’s the kind of thing I imagine the teenaged narrator of the song would know, anyway. And think was incredibly poignant. But as far as the song goes, it was incredibly unwieldy. In any case, some boys rev their engines while others try to sound smarter and wiser than they are. I imagine you can guess which category I fell into as a young man.
In terms of recording the song, I was lucky to have my friend and fellow Star Crumble Brian Lambert offer to add some backing vocals on “Before the Weatherman” and also to provide a brief spoken-word interlude in place of my guitar solo on what I’m releasing one of the bonus tracks on the EP. I’m calling it the “Bespoke Version” because it’s both bespoke in the “custom made” or unique sense but also because Brian is speaking on it.
If the first three songs of the EP are about young people who feel like outsiders trying to figure out where they fit into the world around them, the final song is about stepping out of the world for a quiet night at home with a hot cup of tea. And an interloping shape-shifting Pagan goddess named Bertha. Technically, it should probably be “Bertha with a Swan’s Foot” or “Bertha with a Big Foot,” but I liked the image that “Bertha with a Crooked Foot” conjured.
The “rewarder of the generous, and the punisher of the bad, particularly lying children” (so says Wikipedia), Bertha (or Perchta as she’s known in German) is a mythical figure who sometimes takes the shape of a beautiful woman and sometimes takes the shape of a beast. In this version of the myth, I imagine her being transported to the 21st century and, with some degree of amusement, trying to figure out what people are doing with their lives while the narrator of the song is himself trying to figure out what he’s doing with his.
In some ways, I suppose, Bertha is herself an outsider looking in. But since she’s a divine entity, she’s pretty okay with being an outsider and just views the ridiculous pursuits of contemporary humans as fascinating albeit silly curiosities.
It took me a little while to figure out how “Bertha with a Crooked Foot” should sound, and the lyrics evolved subtly as I continued to work on it. You can hear some of the differences in the early sketch of the song that I’ve included as the second bonus track on the EP. It’s just me working out the first verse and the chorus on a wobbly piano with clacky-sounding keys.
Altogether, I had a lot of fun recording Factory Seconds. It’s a weird little EP, but I’ve always said that weird is good. It beats the heck out of ordinary, anyway, and in the final analysis is probably what makes life worth living. We’re all weird in one way or another, and if I can celebrate that weirdness in music, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
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