What is Dog -- an unfinished essay from 2004
Monday, April 02, 2007
Found this in the computer today, don't think I ever posted it anywhere (someone can tell me if I'm wrong). It was written while I fooling around with ideas for a plot continuity to the "Dog" album, with the idea that an album-length conceptual video could be produced. I never finished this outline (it ends right when it gets to "This Tastes Like A Hotel") but I thought it was interesting reading and that you might get a kick out of checking it out:
WHAT IS DOG
Both the major projects I've worked on over the last three years, "Dog" and "The Universe Will Provide," are largely concerned with a variety of private occurrences and memories from my childhood and a general rumination on that time of my life. "TUWP" being the first part of a continuum which "Dog" completes. "Dog" is saying goodbye to a lot of things. It's kind of a sad album to me so I wanted to make the musical settings big and bright and noisy, maybe to counteract some of the emotions the lyrics convey to me.
The lyrics to these songs were written very quickly and without a lot of second-guessing. Usually they're written before I'm able to start figuring out what they mean. Most of the words on this album and the last one, "Wooden Smoke," reveal specific narrative details pretty sparingly. My hope is that they paint enough of the picture without being unnecessarily explicit. Specific details can mess a song up a lot of the time. But "Dog" may also represent a goodbye, at least for a little while, to that abstract style of lyric writing for me. Already I can tell that the next batch of songs I'm about to write are going to be either instrumental or lyrically really straightforward.
I also wanted "Dog" to be thick with guitars but there's not a lot of long solos on it, because I wanted it to be more of a pop album. Just because that's what I felt like hearing.
Every album is an interesting part of a process. I think so far all the albums balance each other nicely. I definitely want the whole catalog to have a compositional flow to it and "Dog" felt like a refreshing way to turn after "Wooden Smoke," and also a nice counterpart to "The Universe Will Provide." Since I was working on both albums at the same time they do refer to each other in subtle or not so subtle ways. I definitely think of them as closely related.
"Dog" is also concerned in part with secret activity and conspiracies ("Louie," "Raining Sound" and "Gravity Grab" are all somehow related in this).
The album starts with four songs which are sort of a "radio suite." In the alternate universe where "Dog" takes place, the radio station that Bober (the dog) likes to listen to has all four of these opening songs in heavy rotation. They don't play "Louie" or "Bober" so much because they're so long. In fact "Bober" only gets played twice a month or so, about as often as they play "Sky Pilot" by Eric Burdon and the Animals. "Louie" gets played about as much as "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," and "Pride Is A Sin" and "Splane" are biggies, we're talking "Don't Fear The Reaper" territory here.
(Now I'll tell a story about what's happening in the alternate "Dog" world, but occasionally I'll use parenthetical asides to convey actual, real-life information about the songs on "Dog.")
In the alternate "Dog" world, each of these four songs is by a different imaginary band and each has an accompanying video as well.
"Louie" is played by a group from Canada called Those Aren't Shoes. Their video is pretty funny - they dress up like Neil Young and Crazy Horse and lip sync to the song while a guy dressed like Marilyn Manson with a janitor's overalls and a denim hat (actually Dave Grohl in costume) knocks things over, spills paint on the floor and shit like that.
(Additionally, regarding "Louie": it was written on an instrument called a Guitarp, which has seven standard guitar strings and a small passel of additional harp strings on which I played some odd melodies. Phil deGruy (who developed and has mastered the Guitarp) and Matt Resnicoff are responsible for the instrument being in my possession. I tuned the standard guitar strings to an open A7 chord with a low A in the bass. Very chunky. The lyrics came quickly during the buildup to the US invasion of Baghdad. The background vocals in the bridge are singing: "Our strength insults the world / and everything beyond / karma careens, returns / don't have to like the taste / excuse us, we'll go home / stop poisoning the pond / and learn what we've become / before we show our face again.")
"Bober" is by a Connecticut emo group called AortaSplinter. The video is just a closeup of the singer's head, with blue and white lights being projected on his face, while the rest of the band plays out a series of faux-dramatic tableux in a Saturn ring of activity rotating around his head.
(Re: "Bober" originally supposed to be the opening song on the album until I found that some of the people in my coterie were somehow nonplussed by the final version. "Louie" seemed like more of a grabber so I decided to stick that in front instead. I think the people who were confused by "Bober" were thinking too hard about it. I think of it as kind of a sixties-style uptempo rock ballad.)
"Pride Is A Sin" is by a guy named Todd Petty, and "Splane" is by a guy named Dane Mathers. These two mega-stars have have been waging a public feud for years (both singers seem bizarrely unaware of the messages in the songs they themselves are singing) and they dis each other in their videos, burning effigies of one another etc. Pretty silly.
("Pride Is A Sin" and "Splane" are the most accessible songs on the record. "Pride" was played live many times by the Keneally Band prior to making this recording so we were pretty loose and playful with it during the session. The lyric in part addresses the "pride" mania which is always prevalent in the US but especially these days, and how "pride" often is really code for more aggressive and xenophobic tendencies which people tend to shy away from owning up to, so they call it pride instead. But mostly the song is concerned with the pitfalls of personal pride. "Splane" is an acknowledgment of the abstract nature of many of the lyrics of the album, with mock pronouncements of profundity underscored by the ending, a sincere plea for assistance -- asking the listener to help the singer understand once and for what the hell he's singing about.)
Bober doesn't see these videos though; he's listening to these songs on his radio. After the fourth song "Splane," a little blue window of swirling sound opens up in the middle of the radio speaker, through which Bober finds he is able to walk. Bober enters the radio. (The blue window of sound is represented by the short intro to "Simple Pleasure," which is actually a separate short piece called "LP." Didn't warrant its own index point though.)
Gradually his surroundings change from old radio components to more abstract objects which then transform into sun and meadows and trees. "Simple Pleasure" represents his initial nervousness as his journey commences. During "Physics," he turns to his right and there's a bunch of weird looking cartoon flowers poking at him, changing color and shape and pulsating in unison and issuing whispered threats. Bober hightails it out of there.
("Simple Pleasure," especially the short intro, are a door into the more peculiar part of the album. The song itself is an enigma which fits my requirements for "arcane yet thought-provoking album cut," meant to be heard in context with the rest of the album. "Physics" is a cartoon for ears.)
He sees an old bearded guy in something that looks like a cardboard Pope's hat and walks toward him. It's Enggo Pah, a sailor/musician who was journeying around all through "Wooden Smoke." Enggo is distracted and keeps asking Bober questions about people Bober doesn't know (Mini-K? The Lizard? [characters from the song "Raining Sound] 'Let 'em know that I'm Amos?'), and they discuss whether or not they're actually still in the radio. Enggo gets a little morose (first part of "Choosing To Drown") but Bober talks straight to him and gradually lifts his spirits. During their talk, Enggo gets a call on his cell phone offering him a teaching gig at Berklee. Enggo would be thrilled to accept! Enggo bids Bober goodbye and sets out on his own in a new direction, which he thinks is toward Boston. During the final instrumental section Bober continues pressing on into the unknown.
("Choosing To Drown" was a poem for a long time before it was a song. As a song, it was constructed as a platform for the band to make a lot of noise during live shows. Very fun to play.)
The psychic energy expended to make Enggo feel better during their talk has left Bober a bit drained and he flirts with discouragement, and exhaustion. which is mingling with the confusion he's feeling because while he travels (through a fairly forboding patch of wood) he keeps visualizing these sudden snatches of activity which he doesn't understand at all. What's happening is that Bober is actually Mike Keneally's dog, and Mike's in a home studio working on the recording of "Gravity Grab" while Bober is inside the radio. and the sound of Mike working on the song is seeping into the radio, but in its journey through this transformative landscape toward Bober, the music actually materializes as flashes of visual narrative describing the happenings in the song, which is what Bober is seeing. Since the song is a totally absurd story Mike made up about a town hall meeting in a small community called Bedham (the government of which is guided in part by a document called "The Ecco-Briar Outblast," most of which is written in a language no one in Bedham can read), the visual flashes Bober is experiencing are difficult for him to relate to, but gradually he surrenders to the sensations and, given his exhaustion, he falls asleep during the closing section, which is a reminiscence of a special night spent trying to sleep in a room above The Empty Glass, a nightclub in Charleston, West Virginia.
("Gravity Grab" almost didn't make it to the record because I thought it was impenetrably weird, but soon found that a lot of people who heard "Dog" while I was working on it actually found it to be one of the more accessible things on the album. I know now that as long as you've got a chill groove going on you can ladle all kinds of strange things on top. To play both this song and "Simple Pleasure" you need to capo your guitar at the fifth fret. Get to it! The vocals on this song are a tribute to The Lettermen and other sixties-era vocal ensembles featuring multiple numbers of men singing in relaxed unison. An interesting sub-species of sixties pop.)
The introduction to "This Tastes Like A Hotel" jars him awake. He's heard this music before because Mike is working on it constantly.
("This Tastes Like A Hotel" sounds sort of like a cry for help, but it sure was fun to make. It's the most explicit example of the 'saying goodbye' sub-theme of "Dog." It uses a lot of techniques I've used in making music for years, and may well be a goodbye to a good number of those techniques. I see myself relaxing a lot more in the years to come, musically speaking. Writing more music which can be played easily by four people having a good time. Leaning more on an improvisational, conversational and bluesier guitar style and less on conscious "art"-making. I've been knocking my head against walls for years, chipping away at progressively more complex projects, and it's taken me this long to figure out that I connect with audiences most completely when I strip away the artifice and stand before them, pouring myself out through the guitar and voice. So, I'll do more of that sort of thing from now on. Leaving "Hotel," and "Dog," as a fond farewell to a number of previous ways of doing things. At least that's how I feel at the moment. We'll see how I do.)
unfinished essay from early 2004
Mike Keneally Band's new album Dog is now available here exclusively in Standard or Special Edition CD/DVD versions.
Shots from the Dog DVD...
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