Birth of a Song, Part 3: Bringing it all together

I started with a few verses, then decided that the song should end with a chorus I wrote 3 years earlier. The first part is an A-minor reggae groove, while the Rejoice! chorus in D-Major has a more West African feel – same tempo, but straighter eighth-notes. Since the song was inspired by memorable jam sessions, I have always envisioned Our Own Holiday as a jam vehicle. So I wanted the middle section to be an instrumental improv with a little bit of structure, ideally in A-Major. I may eventually write something for that part, but for the sake of getting to work rehearsing what I’ve got so far, I asked my good friend Scott if I could borrow a tune he wasn’t using.

Signs of Life is a jangly instrumental jam in A-Major, built on an Allman Brothers-style bass riff, set to a tribal sort of beat that would flow nicely into Rejoice (A>D.) Scott wrote the song a few years ago, right about at the time that Mystic Canyon went full-time acoustic, so it never found a home in the stage repertoire, but we’ve revisited it in casual jams a few times. Scott agreed that it would be a good fit.

One final touch was a brief turnaround in F-Major, to transition from the A-minor verse to the A-Major Signs of Life section. I put together a chord and lyric sheet and headed over to Keith’s house for Jersey Rhythm Mafia rehearsal.

We worked on a bunch of other stuff earlier in the evening, and in retrospect, we would have had a better first read if we had done the new tune earlier. It was a good reading that kind of ran out of steam, as we never quite worked out the ending. But I felt I was able to communicate what I was looking for. With a few more tries we’ll smooth the transitions and lock in the rhythms. A recording was made of the final run-through but I have not heard it yet. I’m hoping to see Keith before he skips town for a week so I can listen to what we’ve got so far.

I’ll continue this series in a few weeks when we’ve got a few more rehearsals under our belts and hopefully a recording worth sharing.


Birth of a Song, Part 2: Rejoice!

In July 2005, Mystic Canyon played at the Bend Summer Festival, still the farthest we have ever traveled to play. We did the right thing and rented a cabin so we could sleep well and jam throughout the weekend. At the time, Matt Kuerbis was moving beyond “new guy” status and starting to show us some songs he was working on. We also discussed collaborative writing, something the band had never really tried. He even suggested a lyric idea from a store marquee in his neighborhood, an optimistic twist on the familiar incantation of doomsday street prophets:

“Rejoice! The Beginning is Near.”

This line repeated in my head for most of the afternoon while driving around Bend and setting up my percussion gear. I thought about other ways to spin a potentially fearful situation into a message of hope.  The weather took an unusual turn that day as storm clouds blew in and drenched our audience. But the rare summer storm also provided the perfect metaphor I was looking for:

“The rain will wash away fear.
The storm will be chased by the dawn.
We will be one! We will be one!”

The last line was inspired by the sense of tribal unity that I felt all weekend, especially later that evening at the cabin, when I taught the rest of the band my new melody and Scott helped me figure out the chord progression in D. We made a joyful sound that night, working out the three-part harmonies I had been hearing in my head all day.

Upon returning to Portland, I was eager to add some verses to this new chorus, but I was never satisfied with the results. I tried to come up with stories of people perservering through dark times, but every attempt sounded forced, not at all as natural and inspired as the chorus had come to me. Eventually I accepted that it was a great but incomplete idea and kept it filed away until I could find some use for it.

As I alluded to in Part 1, I have now found a home for this chorus as the ending of Our Own Holiday. The message of hope in the lyrics, which I had originally conceived on a more global scale, fits well as an addendum to the first verses about overcoming social discomfort through music. The beginning of a beautiful union is near, if we are not afraid to let it happen.

In Part 3, I try to tie it all together with an instrumental jam section in the middle. I’ll also report on how the first rehearsal goes tonight.

Birth of a Song, Part 1: Inspiration

Being in a band with four very talented songwriters, it is hard not to be inspired to write music of my own. I have never considered myself a composer, but I have often had musical ideas pop into my head that capture my imagination. Most of these ideas go no further than that inital spark, as my attempts to develop them usually end in forced lyrics and incomplete chord progressions. But I have tried to keep these song fragments in mind in case I am ever compelled to complete them. Recently, inspiration has taken hold and I am finally ready to share a creation of my own with my musical brethren.

This will be the first in a series of posts documenting the Birth of a Song. Since songwriting is new to me, I thought I would share my process here for the sake of discussion and facilitation of future compositional endeavors. The song is called Our Own Holiday, an upbeat jam tune with multicultural influences. I am sharing writing credits with my Mystic Canyon bandmates Scott Hewitt and Matt Kuerbis, but since the song does not really fit the MCB repertoire, I will be introducing it via my side project with Scott, the Jersey Rhythm Mafia.  

The first part of the song, an A-minor reggae groove, came to me in July 2008 after a particularly fun jam at Horning’s Hideout. I was invited there by some friends for a birthday party, although I did not know the hosts or the guest of honor. When all of the scheduled bands had finished, there was plenty of time left before the sound curfew, so I joined up with Chris and Ken from Jersey Rhythm Mafia, Dave from Jerry Rig and Josh from High Ceiling for an impromptu open stage jam. Afterwards, the campfire jams continued well into the morning hours.

The next morning I was filled with wonder at the ability of music to bring people together. There were a lot of people at Horning’s who I could not pick out of a lineup today, but that night we were one musical family. Drawing from that feeling, I sketched out some lyrics – essentially an invitation from one musician to another to let music be the bridge across their fleeting acquaintance. One line is even borrowed from an actual party invitation I had sent a few months prior: “No gift but your presence, no presents but your gift for music and conversation.” This line in particular suggested that the song would work best in a reggae style.

After writing two verses and a B section, I hit a snag. I wanted an instrumental jam section in the middle, followed by a return to the verse and chorus, but I didn’t want to repeat myself or force some lyrics to fit the form of the first part of the song. It then dawned on me that the jam section should be followed by a distinct third part, and a long-abandoned melody jumped immediately from the back to the front of my mind. In Part 2, I’ll flash back to the Summer of 2005 to revisit the creation of  a chorus that waited a long time for the right verse to come along.

UM (hearts) Sounds Good!

Just a quick note to thank everybody who stopped by to read last week’s post, featuring my review of the new Umphrey’s McGee CD release Mantis. Up until then, Sounds Good had been viewed by a handful of friends and family, garnering less than 50 total hits. Now, a week after the Mantis post went up, the hit count is over 1200! Special thanks and admiration goes to Jeremy Welsh at – at some point between the CD release party and perhaps the most important release day in the band’s history, he saw fit to put a link to my review on the home page.

That really sums up what this band is about. Rather than hanging their hopes for the new CD on the machines of a music industry that is struggling with its own obsolescence, they recognize that their fans will drive this release far more effectively. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that feedback from folks like me or the fine contributors at Hidden Track is featured right alongside reviews from the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly.

The music industry would be wise to pay attention to the Mantis phenomenon. UM’s innovative pre-order campaign turned eager fans into an effective marketing team, and the band has rewarded those fans with hours of bonus material, which I will review once I have had a chance to digest it all.

Umphrey's McGee bathed in blue by new lighting designer Jeff Waful
Umphrey's McGee bathed in blue by new lighting designer Jeff Waful

The Arrival of the Prophet

While January 20, 2009 promises to be a memorable day in American history, the date will also mark the release of a remarkable album that will help to secure a place in music history for Umphrey’s McGee. Mantis (greek for Prophet) is a compositional wonder and a production masterpiece from a band that has learned to leave their legendary stage prowess under the lights and embrace all of the possibilities of the studio. The eight songs contained in these ten tracks represent more musical ideas than many bands have in an entire career.


Mantis was recorded without having been roadtested, although some riffs were born out of onstage improvisations and later woven into the fabric of this dense collection of tunes. Over the last few weeks, the band has released a few singles and radio edits to their fans to build a buzz for the album. Adding to the anticipation has been a groundbreaking marketing scheme, with thousands of pre-orders unlocking access to hours of bonus downloads from the band’s extensive archive of live performances, studio outtakes, demo sketches and out-of-print fan favorites.  Mantis will continue to unlock new material for fans throughout 2009, giving listeners a reason to own the album instead of acquiring it illegally.

 Umphrey’s McGee has been winning the hearts of progressive rock fans for years with adventurous compositions that evoke comparisons to King Crimson, Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd. On Mantis, that courtship continues on several tracks, including the funky crunch of 1348 and the majestic Spires. The epic 12-minute title track, together with its 30-second Preamble, stands out as the centerpiece of the album and one of the most complex and beautiful pieces in the UM repertoire, seamlessly bridging the gap between the forms and influences of the Seventies and the futuristic sound that Umphrey’s has been honing on stage the last ten years. Mantis, the song, is at once a departure and an arrival.

This compositional standard should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Umphrey’s McGee. The really surprising achievement within Mantis, the album, is the ambitious production, allowing the guys to pay further homage to the likes of XTC, Steely Dan and Alan Parsons. The album-opening Made to Measure scintillates like a Paul McCartney showtune, while the aforementioned Spires gives way to a mesmerizing coda awash with lush strings and vocal harmonies that could easily have been sccoped up from the editing room floor of the Pet Sounds sessions. Primary beneficiaries of this treatment are Joel Cummins’s keyboards, which have never sounded so commanding, and Brendan Bayliss’s vocal work, which shines like a prophetic beacon above the darkly layered soundscape.

But don’t let all of this praise suggest that the album is inaccesibly esoteric. UM has earned a reputation for rocking with both litheness and precision, and they bring this to bear on mid-album tracks Cemetary Walk and Turn & Run. Jake Cinninger’s incendiary guitar work on these tracks, as well as the title opus, serves to cement his legacy as perhaps the last real Guitar Hero.

The album is not without its indulgences. Cemetary Walk II is a remix that incorporates a dancehall sound that is becoming an increasingly prevalent element of the live show, while Prophecy Now is an ethereal tone poem exploring a simple atonal melody. Red Tape may be the most poppy tune on Mantis – if the rest of the album elicits thoughts of Close to the Edge and Fragile, this is clearly the 90125 moment. These tracks may not hold up on their own as well as the others, but they lend balance to the overall complexity of the project.

Fans who have been as lucky as I have to hear the album early are already salivating over the live possibilities of these songs. Umphrey’s McGee must be commended for the restraint they have exhibited in withholding these gems for so long. The reward for that patience, for them and for us, is a pristine listening experience that will be cherished in its studio form regardless of how the songs evolve onstage. From the first listen it is clear that Mantis is unlike any album by a band that has ever worn the “jamband” label. Beyond that rather modest accolade, surely many more await.