If you’ve read any of my past-year accounts, you may remember that the 22nd is Cover Day. I’ve done a few, with mixed results, at least for my own satisfaction. I’m of a mixed mind when it comes to this tradition – on the one hand, I think it’s a huge compliment to have someone cover something you’ve written just days earlier; I’ve certainly taken it that way.
On the other hand, I’m always nervous when I’m covering something and know that the original artist is going to hear it. I have two criteria for cover songs: I have to like the song, and I have to hear something in my head that I could bring to the table or do differently than the original artist did. I’ve never really understood cover songs that are overly similar to the original – I’d normally rather just listen to the original, although that’s not quite as concrete a thing for me with Song-A-Day.
Every year I’ve done a cover, there have been plenty of good candidates to choose from, but I’ve learned to keep a running list as the month goes along, because it can get overwhelming to have to go back and try to find that song when you can’t even remember who sang it, much less the title. This was even more important this year, as by the 22nd, there were over 500 songs posted! Even subtracting the 21 I did, that’s still… well, it’s a lot!
I had about 15 candidates and, frankly, any of them would have been fantastic things to attempt. But the ones that I kept coming back to were Last Sad Day by Maria T, and Henry James by Junie. My job was a little easier, at least from my perspective, in that both tracks had been posted in more-or-less demo form, so I could go in almost any direction with them and not just be retreading what had already been done by the original artist. I couldn’t decide (and I actually had a couple others that I just didn’t have time for), so for the first year, I did two cover songs. Technically, Henry James wasn’t finished until the 23rd, but I’ve now been participating for six years and have written more than 100 songs, so I can break the rules I want to!
As with previous years, I’m including the original tracks in the playlist.
- Last Sad Day Maria T
- Last Sad Day (Maria T Cover) Ray Toler 3:02
- Henry James Junie
- Henry James (Junie Cover) Ray Toler 2:05
Last Sad Day
I think it was the melody that was the main thing attracting me to this song, but the lyrics were also in a similar emotional place to my own, especially when she posted it on the 5th. Structurally, there’s not too much to have to deconstruct – Verse 1, Solo, Verse 2. What’s interesting in this is that the verses also contain a single line that acts as the chorus.
My internal radio station heard a lot more going on when I’d listen to Maria’s version. I didn’t want to stray too far from the indie-rock / indie-pop vibe that was already going on, but thought some additional instrumentation would really bring out the beauty of what was there… this was going to be more of a sculpt and polish than a radical redesign.
The version I ended up posting is deceptively complex. There’s a lot more going on than it may seem, but in the end, I have to admit that I was less than satisfied with it, which is a shame, because I don’t know that I did the song justice. I’m pleased with my vocals, and I like the backgrounds / round that goes on at the end. I’m not happy with the “solo” between verses one and two, and I spent waaaay more time programming those stupid drums than I should have, especially for the less-than-stellar impact they ended up making on me.
In part, I think this is just needing more practice on straight-forward pop mixing, but I’m also not sure the arrangement and sound choices were spot-on. This is one that I might have been happier with if I’d taken another few days to really tighten everything up. It’s not bad, it’s just not as good as I wanted it to be (and as good as it still is in my head).
Stuck in a space of my own undoing I can forget about it, but only for a short while Baby, welcome to the past year of our lives That last sad day is soon to arrive A lost battle that I'm always losing I can't escape your disappointed eyes Baby, someday I'll be able to step outside That last sad day is soon to arrive That last sad day is soon to arrive Copyright © 2021 Maria T
Junie’s Song-A-Day tracks go back and forth between endearing “small” songs like this one, and “holy crap, did she hire Flight Tyme to produce this” professional electro-funk that makes you immediately chair dance. I’ve never been tempted to cover the latter type, because there is nothing that I could bring to the table.
Oh, what a lovely little thing this song was when I first heard it. The lyrics were actually written by Henry James, discussing the struggle of creating. I don’t know if it immediately brought psychedelic pop to mind, but that’s squarely where I was when I was ready to start recording. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. My first direction, even as I was auditioning instruments was that I was going for an old 78 RPM record from the 1920s you found in your great grandmother’s attic.
Once again, I spent far more time on the drums than anything else, but with only three other instruments, one of which is an anvil, I had a bit more time to focus on them. I’m still not entirely happy with them, but there’s only so much that can be done in a few hours without a real drumset. And a real drummer.
Most of the time these days I use loops. That’s a big change for me, because I still have that purist streak in me with its little voice screaming that I’m cheating. In both of these songs, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to “cheat” it’s that loops (at least the loops I have) weren’t suitable. The needs of these songs and their arrangements were too specific.
Now, I’m certainly able to knock out quick drum patterns, but when I’m doing MIDI drums that are supposed to at least make you pretend that you’re listening to a real drummer, I am really meticulous about only programming what an actual drummer could play. Many times, you’ll hear drums and they’ll be “fake” but you don’t know why. In a lot of cases, it’s because the drummer would need to have five arms and three legs, and maybe even a couple of heads, to be able to actually play the number of things you’re hearing.
If one hand is playing the high hats, and another hand is playing the snare, you can’t just magically produce a third hand to hit a crash cymbal at the same time. And if you’re being really picky about it (which I often end up being), you also have to consider, “could a drummer really have hit that crash cymbal so soon after playing that low tom that’s on the other side of the kit?” As mentioned in the entry for The Stinking Rose Waltz earlier this month, I mentioned that I often visualize playing these other instruments when recording MIDI, but it’s never as over-the-top as when I’m doing drums.
Does any of this actually matter? Probably not – at least not these days when I have people arguing with me that their favorite pop star doesn’t use autotune, despite them sounding exactly like Cher did in the 90s, not to mention that it’s a guy. People just get used to the production tricks and stop hearing them as “false” – whatever that means. At what point does anything other than a live performance right in front of you without any electronics involved become “false?”
Sorry – went off on a tangent. As I was saying, I spent a lot of time on the drums, and they’re not quite right, but the whole thing’s tongue-in-cheek, so hey, let’s just have fun with it!
Junie’s ukelele immediately transformed itself into that BOMP BOMP BOMP BOMP from songs like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer or Mr. Blue Sky. The bass and piano were quickly finished, and I did the vocals in one take with just a single punch-in to fix something where I said the wrong word. Doing character-voice vocals removes so much stress, because it doesn’t matter if I’m not perfectly on pitch, it doesn’t matter if I took an awkward breath – it’s all about the emotional performance, and I felt that I had pretty much gotten it right.
I hadn’t originally planned on adding the anvil, but once I’d decided that it sounded like Mr. Blue Sky anyway, eh – why not? The background vocals were the last thing I put in, and I’m not sure they’re essential, but they’re not taking away from anything either.
Aside from the drum programming, production on Henry James was pretty fast. Call it four hours total, with half of that being me digging around in the MIDI moving snare rolls to be just-so and redoing that stupid drum fill for the 18th time instead of just drawing it in. In comparison, I think I ended up taking between six and eight hours on Last Sad Day.
A second chance—that’s the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark— we do what we can— we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. Words by Henry James, Melody © 2021 Junie
These songs were both a blast to do, and I’m sorry I didn’t have more time – there were a few more songs that I really wanted to get to, but we’re now in week four, I’ve moved into experimental mode, and it’s time to get back to it!
Last Sad Day
- Drums: Roland Integra-7
- Bass: Trilian
- Guitar, sub-bass, synths: Omnisphere
- Solo lead, additional synths: Spitfire Contemporary Drama Toolkit
- Neutron 3, Nectar 3
- MOTU Masterworks EQ, Phaser, Custom ’59
- Valhalla Delay
- Soundtoys Effect Rack
- Drums: Roland Integra-7
- Bass: Trilian
- Piano: Keyscape
- Anvil: Spitfire BBC Symphony Orchestra
- Effects: Neutron 3, Soundtoys Decapitator, FabFilter Pro-C 2, Waves Abbey Road Vinyl