Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 5
This Friday, Bandcamp is donating all of their share of proceeds from purchases on the site that day to the ACLU. I think that's really great and want to do my small part to support that, so my share of any Bandcamp sales for my album for this whole month will also go to the ACLU.
Track 5: The Power Let Me Down
"The Power Let Me Down" opens side 2 of Muscle Memory, or at least it will if I ever press the album on vinyl. I always thought that albums from the vinyl era tended to be more digestible, and paced more satisfyingly, because artists were forced to get the record in around 40 minutes or less and divide the tracklists into two ostensibly equal halves that each have a beginning and an end. So this kinda became the big loud track that abruptly kicks off the second half of the album.
I've always been obsessed with mondegreens, misheard phrases in songs that your brain kind of creates meanings for. It's something that just happens constantly as you listen to music, whether or not you try to learn the right lyrics or look them up. And I think there's something to be said for using it as a songwriting exercise. My favorite story about that is that Desmond Child wrote the Billy Myers song "Kiss the Rain" after he misheard Bush's "Glycerine" and decided he liked what he heard better than the real lyric.
So the title of "The Power Let Me Down" came from me listening to Diddy and Keyshia Cole's 2007 hit "Last Night," because the way Sean Combs mumbled the words "I tried to call, but my pride wouldn't let me dial" made me hear something completely different. And I think that phrase stuck with me in part because of the Merle Haggard song "The Bottle Let Me Down" as well. From there, the words "the power let me down" just led me into this weird dreamlike narrative about half-remembered incidents of power outages, cautiously driving through intersections while traffic lights are out, and the eerie quiet of being at home with the all the electricity off.
There were some summers that I lived in Baltimore where there were just these huge blackouts on the hottest nights of the year. So the first line of the song, "This is one of those cities that sleeps," is really the only lyric on the album that's about Baltimore, it was this line I had for years that I just slipped into the intro of the song before the first verse starts. I kind of got the idea of how that line functions in the song from the opening lyric of "Mule On The Plane" by Beauty Pill, the way it's kind of intoned over the instrumental intro.
Every song on the album is in the first person and has a "me" or "I" and usually a "you," and "Power" has that semi autobiographical element to it. But I also think of it as one of the two songs, along with "As Friends, As Lovers, As Co-Defendants," that is more of a weird narrative fiction experiment. And somewhat unintentionally, another thing those songs have in common is that the lyrics kind of tell the story backwards, the first verse of "Power" takes place chronologically after the second verse, in my mind.
"Power" is one of the three songs on the album where most of the instruments were recorded way back in the early sessions at Mat Leffler-Schulman's home studio in Takoma Park. I tended to go into sessions with Mat with a game plan and demos I wanted to re-record, just because the studio time was finite and you really want to make the most of it. But "Power" was really the one track that came together pretty spontaneously in the studio. We'd finished all the stuff I'd planned to record that day and still had a couple more hours on the clock, so I started messing around on the drums and brainstorming, and got that fast, tightly wound rhythm, and just recorded it as it is on the track, rising and falling in intensity with a vague idea of where a verse and a chorus would go.
The main 3 note riff was a simple little thing I'd had from a demo maybe a year earlier, but on the demo the rhythm was much slower and had kind of a shuffling reggae swing to it. But after I laid down that beat, I went back to that riff, and just laid down a bassline and then doubled up the riff and put that screaming portamento 'lead' line over the top of everything to get it really ridiculous and loud. After putting a lot of effort into having distinct different keyboard parts for each section of each song, "Power" was the track where I just went ahead and vamped on one riff for the whole song, differentiating the verse and chorus with some good old fashioned loud/soft dynamics, and a little countermelody on the chorus. Years later at Mobtown Studios we added the tambourine track and the vocals, but otherwise pretty much the whole track was thrown together in one afternoon in Takoma Park, the fastest gestation of any of these songs.
Of the four people who I invited to sing lead on the album, Andy Shankman is the only who's also become a member of Western Blot and plays bass in the band (guitar for the first few shows and then he switched to bass). We'd traveled in some of the same Baltimore music media circles and met a few times, and he invited me to see his band Jumpcuts. And I remember being impressed by that first Jumpcuts show I saw, where he played synth and sang, and kinda kept him in mind as someone who could help me with my own weird synthesizer-driven rock project. Ironically, though, that was only one of a handful of Jumpcuts shows where Andy played keyboards, otherwise he plays guitar in that band, which I found out later.
I pretty much did all of the selecting and contacting singers for the record myself, but Mat had played this track for a band he was working with at one point and got some interest from their singer. But after Mat tried to play matchmaker, I sent over an early set of lyrics for the song, and they kinda went cold on the whole thing, which was just as well because I liked their voice but wasn't sure if it fit the song, and I didn't really like the lyrics I had. So I scrapped those words and started over from scratch with the mondegreen that inspired the whole "The Power Let Me Down" title.
I kind of took some inspiration from the Morphine song "Thursday" to kind of vamp on this one riff for the whole song with talky verses and then blasting the riff on the chorus. But I really sounded bad on the demo and knew I needed someone else to sing that song, and I knew from Jumpcuts that Andy could kind of fit the ominous nocturnal vibe of the song. It was Mat's idea to have Andy double his vocals with a "whisper track" and I was skeptical about the idea, but it really made the verses work. Andy and I went back and forth about delivering the chorus two different ways, and I ultimately decided to have him sing the first chorus one way and sing the second chorus the other way, and I really like how that contrast turned out.
During the time that we were making the album and Western Blot had released a single and started playing shows, Mat had started doing some things with the studio that were sponsored by Flying Dog, a brewery based out in Frederick, Maryland. And when they asked him to put together a compilation of Baltimore bands, he had me help oversee the whole thing, and we asked a bunch of people we like to contribute songs from their latest releases, and got a few previously unreleased tracks, including "The Power Let Me Down."
There was a release party at the Ottobar for Baltimore, Vol. 1, and Western Blot wasn't initially going to play, but one of the booked bands had to pull out, so we got a spot on the bill, and it was really one of our best shows to date, probably the biggest crowd we've played to. Andy told me "I always wanted to be on a compilation" that night, which I thought was kind of funny, but it's true, as a musician you always see these compilations full of bands and it's a weird little thing you kinda wanna be a part of. It was gratifying for me to play the Ottobar because the only other time I'd gotten a chance to play there, almost a decade earlier with a previous band, I had planned a trip to visit my brother, so I told the band they could just do the gig without me if they found another drummer. They did, and I always regretted it, because we broke up before we had another chance to play the Ottobar.
Speaking of those kinds of situations, I once booked a Western Blot show at the Golden West which we then realized Andy couldn't do because it was on Passover. So John and I decided to try and do the show without him, doing some songs as a duo and some with Tim Yungwirth of Your Solar sitting in on bass. So I sang more than usual at that show, and it was the only time I sang "The Power Let Me Down" live, which is really difficult given how fast the drums are on that song. It's otherwise a lot of fun to play live, though, it is, along with "ETC" and "Time And A Half," a song that we've used to open sets and close sets and have played in the middle of the show, and it seems to work in any context.