Thursday, November 2, 2017

I Wrote Seven More Tunes In October

Mose Tolliver - "Blue Bird"
In June of this year I happened upon a Mose Tolliver painting at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, VA. Mose Tolliver was an African-American farmer and laborer from rural Alabama who took up painting after a work-related accident crushed his legs and left him unable to walk without crutches. As an adult in his late 40's he became a prolific self-taught artist who would sometimes produce ten or more paintings a day on plywood or fiberboard using house paint. Simple, expressionistic birds, plants, turtles, fish, "Ladies on Scooters", and more were the subjects of his work, painted with an oddly limited palette. I was impressed by Mose T's art brut originality and his outsider status.

At the time of that museum visit I had just begun writing my own tunes and I wasn’t sure where I was going with it. Now, five months and 25+ tunes later, I’ve reached a critical mass where the act of playing/practicing music can now be the same as writing my own tunes and playing the music that I’ve written. Mose Tolliver didn't "cover" Picasso or van Gogh or try to re-interpret their paintings, he created his very own Mose Tolliver paintings.

I think it was Steve Earle who said something to the effect of “they can’t tell you you’re doing it wrong if you write it yourself”. In every situation except for a tune I’ve written myself, there is going to be a source recording (or multiple sources) that sets a standard that I can't live up to. But, what I've realized is that if I take Ornette Coleman's words to heart and make a sound that has no parents, then there is no version other than my version; no better sounding version to compare to my inferior take. The only way for this to be the case is to write the tune myself and consider it a unique piece.

This realization feels like an arrival, especially now that I've got these 25+ tunes under my belt. I thoroughly enjoy the act of creation, of bringing something into this world that didn't exist before. In this case it's melodies, and I don't have to worry about any of the things that tend to frustrate me about music. I just turn on the tap every day and see what's ready to come out.

OK, all that said here are the seven tunes I wrote in October.

Iguana Bridge

Skull Provider

Take It or Leave It Bloom

Common Carriage

Loco Motion


Looks on the Ground


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CD Collection (Then) vs Vinyl Collection (Now)

My CD buying years were from about 1993 to 2006.  I still have a bunch of these discs in a couple plastic bins.  (For the liner notes, of course).  This collection has a disproportionately large number of Phish and Grateful Dead CDs, followed by Frank Zappa, Norman Blake and John Prine.  Other prominently represented artists include Ween, Medeski Martin and Wood, My Morning Jacket, Gillian Welch, Miles Davis and Leftover Salmon.

It's safe to say that this old CD library is dominated by jamband and Americana music.  During those CD years I subscribed to both Relix and No Depression magazines, gaining music recommendations from each.  I also read Dirty Linen magazine on a regular basis, so there's a fair amount of folk and world music mixed in as well.

After about a ten year span of non-physical music buying - iTunes, online downloading, Spotify - I got on board the retro vinyl trend.  At first I sought out vinyl versions of desert island discs, like The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi, My Morning Jacket Z, Ween The Mollusk, Frank Zappa Grand Wazoo, Culture Two Sevens Clash, The Grateful Dead Reckoning, Tortoise TNT, and Camper Van Beethoven Telephone Free Landslide Victory.

However, with the possible exception of Tortoise, I don't find myself putting on these old favorites very much, if at all.  Instead, the type of music that dominates my record player tends to be both instrumental and older - jazz or jazz-like.  Lots of Sun Ra, plus Mulatu Astatke, Eric Dolphy, Horace Silver, Grant Green, Mary Halvorson, The Souljazz Orchestra - stuff like that.

I don't know what triggered this shift in preferences, but I think it has to do with honing in on an agreeable sound rather than an isolated focus on disparate bands.  For example, I'm sure I could make a Pandora channel centered around Sun Ra or Eric Dolphy and like a much higher percentage of the music it selects than a channel based on Phish, Steve Earle or Wilco.  Another way of looking at it is a festival like Knoxville's Big Ears seems much more appealing at this point in my life than Lockn' or the Newport Folk Festival or DelFest would be.

As I write this, I am sensing a gravitational pull towards music of the 1980's that isn't really nostalgic in my case due to a lack of exposure to it or genuine interest in it until now.  I just listened to The Smiths' first album for the first time last night and enjoyed it a lot.  New Order, The Cure, Joy Division and Bowie must be next.

I'd really like to find some cool instrumental music albums from the 1980's.  Something sorta trippy and groovy with synths.  Maybe like the STS9 or Maserati of the 1980's.  Does that exist?  I checked out some of Herbie Hancock's mid-80's output last weekend and that was getting closer to that feeling.  Arthur's Landing has that dancey, disco sound but that's newer.

There's lots and lots to check out and one thing always leads to another.  New revelations are happening quite frequently.  Music that I never would have considered listening to during the peak of my Grateful Dead related obsession now seems interesting, while The Grateful Dead and all of its offshoots feels momentarily(?) stale due to overexposure.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Driving Vacation - Nova Scotia in Nine Nights

I've been wanting to visit Nova Scotia for some time now.  In 2018 I hope to make this happen.  The coastal drive I did in fall 2016 from Portland, OR to Los Angeles, CA was one of my favorite vacations of all time.  From the looks of it, Nova Scotia has enough coastal roads to be a North Atlantic Maritime equivalent to the Pacific Coast Highway.

Since this will be my first time in Nova Scotia I feel like I need to see as much of it as possible in the course of the 9 nights I have to spend there.  Much of the tourist information focuses on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton and from what I gather this loop lives up to the hype.  So despite some inclinations toward just spending a leisurely vacation in and around Lunenburg and Wolfville, I am driven to add the 700+ miles it would take to see Cape Breton.

After much rumination, here is the plan I've come up with.

Fly into Halifax. (If I lived closer to Portland, ME I'd consider taking the ferry to Yarmouth).  First two nights in Lunenburg, which is about 70 miles from the airport.  Most flights, after one or two stopovers, arrive to Halifax relatively late in the day/evening and by the time you rent a car and make the drive to Halifax the day is pretty much done.

For the first and only actual full day in Lunenburg my plan is to drive west along the South shore, visiting Hirtle's Beach/Gaff Point and then taking the ferry across the LaHave River, then continuing along 331 toward Broad Cove and Cherry Hill, passing Crescent Beach, Rissers Beach and Green Bay Road along the way.  Then backtracking along 331 with a possible side trip to Petite Reviere Vineyards.  Instead of taking the ferry back across, a fun drive might be continuing along and around the LaHave River, maybe stopping for a walk at Miller Point Peace Park.  I'd want to be back in Lunenburg by mid-afternoon to check out Ironworks Distillery.
The next morning could start with a mission to Blue Rocks just outside Lunenburg before making the 90 minute drive from there to Wolfville.  I need to figure out a couple wineries to check out among the many to choose from in the Wolfville area.  If there's time, an afternoon hike in Blomidon Provincial Park might be possible before checking in to a waterview hotel.  The next day a block of time will need to be set aside to do the Cape Split hike.  I think it's about 5 miles each way on a trail that leads to a rewarding view.  There will need to be time for a post-hike drive to the coastal town of Hall's Harbour, returning along scenic roads back to Wolfville.

The next day could require a lengthy, time consuming drive from Wolfville to Antigonish, especially if I take 215 which passes by the Walton Lighthouse and Burntcoat Head, and continue on to 245 and 337 to the destination of Cape George Lighthouse.  The scenery around Cape George on 337 is supposed to be among the best in all of Nova Scotia.  The town of Antigonish to the south of there should be a decent stopover for the night.

The next day's drive from Antigonish to Baddeck will be a little less demanding, so there should be time to see beaches near Mabou and do a hike in the Mabou Highlands, while also stopping off at the Glenora Distillery for a tasting.
Due to its location along the famed Cabot Trail, Baddeck is a likely choice for an overnight or two.  Driving the Cabot Trail as a loop from Baddeck to Baddeck is about 185 miles, so it's doable in one long day.  I plan on doing it counter clockwise.

After two nights in Baddeck and having checked the Cabot Trail off the list, things may start to get a little more uncommon as the road takes me to Nova Scotia's less traveled Eastern Shore.  Liscomb is about a day's coastal drive from Baddeck. There is supposed to be good hiking there too.

Lunenburg is such an appealing town that it makes sense to spend the first two nights there.  The village of Mahone Bay looks almost equally as enticing, yet it is only seven miles from Lunenburg.  In thinking about the logistics of this trip, I don't mind the idea of spending the last night in Mahone Bay.  It's a very plausible driving distance from Liscomb the night before and only about an hour to the Halifax airport.  If a later flight out can be arranged, then after the night in Mahone Bay there may even be time to see the tourist mecca of Peggy's Cove.  Saving this popular lighthouse for the very end might be a good way to judge its awesomeness.

That's it.  Since I'm only planning for nine nights, I'll have to cut some things out - most noticeably any time in the city of Halifax.  But the point of this vacation is to do scenic coastal drives between rural areas, do some hiking, visit a winery or two, and stay in small waterside villages.  I'm also cutting out the whole western edge from Liverpool to Yarmouth around to Digby and Annapolis Royal, as well as the northern Parrsboro/Advocate Harbour side of the Minas Basin.  Sydney, Tatamagouche, Bras d'Or Lake, Kejimkujik National Park...lots of places.

I have a feeling that I'm going to like Nova Scotia, so after this fact finding high-mileage road trip I'll be better equipped to hone in on a smaller area the next time after this one.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Six Tunes Written in September

I continued to come up with melodies in the month of September - adding six new tunes.  Also in the last month I got a McMillen K-Board, which has had a creative influence.

Here are the six latest tunes.


New Burteeb

Lip Service



Bird Dog's


Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Poor Man's Electric Vibraphone

My fantasy instrument is some type of mallet percussion instrument - like a xylophone, vibraphone or marimba.  Whether being used in the Brazilian Classical/Folk recordings for Ney Rosauro or Uakti; in the jazz of Bobby Hutcherson, Walt Dickerson and many others; in the indigenous music of Guatemala's Marimba Chapinlandia; or in the rock-like settings utilized by Tortoise, Frank Zappa, and more; I just love this melodic yet percussive sound.

I especially like the idea of an electric version of this type of instrument, but considering the costs of a Marimba Lumina, malletKAT, or Xylosynth, I don't think I'll be spending that kind of money on a musical whim any time soon.  A decent quality piano keyboard like the Roland GO:KEYS can be had for $300 or less, so you'd think that someone would have produced an electric synth vibraphone/marimba/xylophone at a similar price point.

Enter Keith McMillen Instruments.  While their $79 K-Board isn't intended to be an electric vibraphone, it comes close to scratching that itch.  In fact, it might be just what I am looking for!

I'm used to playing melodies on an acoustic 4-string tenor banjo, so when I came across the K-Board through an online search last week I wasn't quite sure what technology it was supposed to be.  I assumed an instrument like this would have its own internal sounds, built-in speakers, and power source/battery.  None of that is the case.  After a little bit more digging, I learned of MIDI sound modules like the Midiplus miniEngine  and the MidiTech PianoBox which could provide the necessary power and sounds, as alternatives to a computer or iOS device.

I took a chance and ordered the K-Board, along with the Midiplus MiniEngine Pro and a couple cheap, tiny rubber mallets.  I already own a little speaker that can plug into the headphone jack.  These items arrived yesterday and worked right out of the box!  Here's a sound sample:

The K-Board features 25 chromatic keys, making it super compact and portable.  The bottom row contains the white piano key notes C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C from low to high, while the top row contains the black keys C# D# F# G# A# C# D# F# G# A# (also known as Db Eb Gb Ab Bb Db Eb Gb Ab Bb).

Before ordering I thought about the tunes that I like to play and realized that almost all of them contain melodies that live within that 25-key range.  On my GDAE tuned tenor banjo, it is rare for a tune to have a note higher than the high B of the 7th fret of the E string (the 2nd to highest "white key" on the K-Board) and it is fairly unusual for these same tunes to have a note lower than the open D on the D-string (the 2nd to lowest "white key" note on the K-Board).  Basically, my tunes would fit.

I wasn't sure how that MidiPlus MiniEngine pro would sound, but considering that it looked like the exact same same design as the supposedly German made - and twice as expensive - PianoBox, I opted for the cheaper version and it sounds OK to me.

The K-Board is described as being unbreakable - designed to withstand drink spills and being run over by a vehicle - so I figured it could handle being struck by mallets.  The 25 chromatic keys are designed like mini drumpads anyway, so it wouldn't be that unusual to hit them with a mallet or drumstick.

Having now tried playing it with mallets, I'm not sure if that will be my preferred method or if it will be more enjoyable to play with your fingers.  As someone who once took a typing class and can type on a computer keyboard, I like how the layout of the K-Board's keys - while based on the setup of a piano - could ultimately lend itself to a typing influenced approach.

Despite having less than a day's worth of experience with this instrument, I'm thinking that the K-Board will be fun to play.  It will also be a handy thing to have around for working out melodies by ear.  As a left-handed stringed instrument player, the layout of a keyboard like this is very non-intuitive at first, so it's a great brain exercise to realize that higher notes are to the right, if that makes sense.

My hope is that Keith McMillen Instruments does come out with something actually designed to be an electric vibraphone, at a price range well below the few other items currently on the market.  However, at the moment I don't mind pretending that the K-Board is already that instrument.  I probably would be a two mallet player instead of four, and key size and authenticity aren't as important to me as simply being able to play melody lines in a fun and easygoing way.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding

Labor Day weekend was the perfect time to be introduced to The War on Drugs’ new album A Deeper Understanding. Its expansive, 66-minute running time matched the open-ended luxury of a three-day weekend.

An initial attempt to deride their perceived similarities to other artists - as in trying to sing Tom Petty's "Learning To Fly" lyrics over the "Up All Night" melody - quickly subsided after the first song.

This album was my first proper exposure to The War On Drugs.  It's almost impossible not to draw comparisons as you take in a new (to you) band for the first time.  The best I can come up with is A Deeper Understanding sounds like that late-great 1980's Bob Dylan album that never existed.  The War On Drugs have the uncanny ability to sound both new and familiar.

There is a static nature to the music on A Deeper Understanding that I am finding to be extremely refreshing at this moment in time.  The lack of peaks, boldfaced hooks, rousing sing-along choruses, recycled folk-song lyrics and melodies, crazy time-signatures, and key changes keeps the focus on atmosphere throughout its hour-long plus running time.

The lyrics, when you take time to catch them, are effective at conveying the overall mood of the album, which seems to be cautious optimism.  The lyrics can also be, at times, inconsequential in a (good) way that blends in and serves the music.   

The static consistency I mentioned above does of course have some fluctuation that bubbles out with repeated listens.  Melodies and colorings that weren’t obvious at first start to take shape.  One gets the impression that these little synth keyboard and vibraphone(?) sounds are very carefully placed.

Sequence matters. Like a lot of albums, A Deeper Understanding leads with what could be said are the best three songs back to back. It could also be said that the uniformity of the remaining songs makes the latter half of the album start to drag. 

In actuality, the last 30 or 40 minutes of the album are where it really starts to open up and take form. While songs like "Thinking of A Place" don’t stray too far from the formula, these tracks definitely aren’t trying to be singles and are allowed room to breathe as necessary.

It's been a long, long time since I've heard a new rock album as good as A Deeper Understanding.  I think I prefer to start it mid-way through (side 3 if you have it on vinyl) and let it play through to side 2.  It's just one big loop.  


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Five More "Original" Tunes (There's 13 Now)

On August 5th I posted about the 8 tunes I'd written over the previous 8 weeks.  These were the first 8 tunes I'd ever tried writing.  Well, here it is 4 weeks later and I have 5 more melodic compositions to add to the list.


Phigure It Out



We'll Hum