Unnecessarily Explaining My Art: Melt In The Sun (So Many Pretty Ways)
And so we come to Round 2 of Spintunes. And that’s all I’ve got for an intro, sorry.
The challenge this time (The Musician Strikes Back) was to write a sequel to a song that charted at some point on Billboard in the top 20.
This challenge was frankly mortifying to me when I first heard it, because I thought that it was only the Hot 100 charts we were allowed to draw from. That probably would have led to either quitting out right or recording a sequel so full of sarcasm and vitriol (and not in a fun, Inverse T. Clown sort of way) that everybody had wished I quit, so it’s good that it turns out we could use any Billboard chart (Alternative, Country, etc. etc.).
I still wasn’t really a big fan of the challenge. I expressed displeasure when it was first announced and I think people assumed it was the Hot 100 thing. That was definitely part of it, as I don’t listen to music I hate and probably wouldn’t do so well writing a sequel to such a song either.
The other reason, though, has to do with “intellectual property”. Fair use!, you cry. Nobody really cares!, you say. True and true. This is something that usually happens when I mention IP – everybody starts assuring me that (insert whatever it is I’m doing, like this sequel) is totally protected by law, etc. What is hard to communicate in many cases is that my objection isn’t “I’ll get sued”, it is actually “I’m screwing around with someone else’s art without permission from them and regardless of the legality that FEELS wrong to me.” Both because.. well, IP is near sacred to me (I’m a weirdo) and because I would hate to build the art out into some direction that was never, ever intended by the artist that they might fervently disagree with.
I also admit that I told another competitor that this challenge could have been “Disingenuous By Nature” because of one other problem I had… how easily can you really make a genuine expression of art when you’re doing something like this? Luckily, Brian Gray completely destroyed this concern and I feel silly for worrying about it now. (By the way, I can hardly believe he got cut. Shadow, Brian! You’ve got fans!)
That same unidentified competitor pointed out (subtly, but it came across) that since there was no legal reason not to complete the challenge, if I didn’t turn something in I would be, in effect.. a Quitter. Maybe I had moral/ethical high ground and maybe I didn’t, but I would still have Quit.
Well, dammit, I wasn’t going to be a quitter so I finished the song. I’m glad I did.
The lyrics actually came together very, very quickly. Night of the challenge, in fact, with minimal tweaking afterwards. I was able to find “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead, that timeless anthem about a young man admiring a woman trapped in a soulless relationship from afar, had been number 11 on the alternative charts in 1995. I did a quick lyric check and determined I could write a fairly good sequel for it, and got to work.
Fair warning: I’m well aware that the original song has a pretty ambiguous plot/meaning – the listener has to interpret for themselves. My intent was to write a song that will hopefully work with WHATEVER interpretation you had of the original… this was honestly easier than that sounds. I have a somewhat similar lyrical style to Radiohead (the difference is, basically, they’re better), so I just did what felt natural. I’m hesitant to reveal my own interpretation of the song since everybody might disagree and it might RUIN EVERYTHING FOREVER, but what the hell, I’m feeling bold.
I read the original Fake Plastic Trees as being about a woman locked in a soulless relationship (probably a marriage just to make it all more suburban-tragic) with a wealthy doctor who is able to provide for her but doesn’t seem to have any real interest in her. Looking at all the synthetic items (ie. The fake plastic trees/house plants) that they own and then generally shallow nature of their own relationship, the woman feels emptied and alone. Reflecting on the fact that his work as a plastic surgeon is nothing more than a stalling tactic, the doctor reaches similar conclusions. They both have the anxiety you’d expect from this.. it “wears (her/him) out”.
The singer is a third party, watching the woman from afar. He can tell, easily, that he wants none of this situation but is still drawn to the woman (“she looks like the real thing, she tastes like the real thing”).
As “Melt In The Sun” opens, the woman has left the doctor and is moving into a new apartment. Whether it’s the same one as the singer or just nearby is kind of irrelevant.
I’m going to go more or less line by line with my explanation of my lyrics, so it might get long, sorry.
“I couldn’t be what you wanted, but what you want is always subject to such change”
I thought it fitting that the first line of the sequel should directly reference the last line of the original – there is a brief pause of sorts and a change of mood, but essentially this is a conversation from a long time ago picking up right where it original left off. (The last line of the original was “If I could be what you wanted.. all the time..” with a sort of implied “I would be”) Here, the singer has given up on being what his significant other wants because he can’t keep up. Oh, and it should be “who” you wanted. My bad.
“I know that you’re so tired, cos you’ve got a new apartment to decorate. You left the man to keep your pride…”
This explains what has happened since the end of Fake Plastic Trees.. the woman no longer lives with the doctor (“the broken man”) and is in a new place.
“…synthetic plants and earth, but once you were outside, they all just melted in the sun.”
Synthetic plants and earth are of course direct references to the first verse of the original. I intentionally avoided using “Fake” or “Plastic” for reasons I’ll explain later. The idea of “melting in the sun” is basically that after leaving the “broken man”, rather than things improving they only got worse… things feel even less substantial for the Woman since she left the relationship.
“give me a sign when the heat is rising, and I will shelter you from ultraviolet rays. Give me a moment to collect myself, we fall apart in so many pretty ways”
The singer, despite the obvious downhill nature of things, is trying to keep it together, trying to nurture and save this new relationship. It’s not going so well. “We fall apart” is just an acknowledgement of the fact, with some desire to keep trying.
“I guess I can’t judge by sight or taste, but smell and sound are saying you’re real as anything… if we don’t touch again I might explode, ever upward defying gravity”
This is also a direct reference to lyrics from the original: “she looks like the real thing, she tastes like the real thing” and “I can’t help but feeling, I could blow through the ceiling if I just turn and run”. Again.. the singer is avoiding evidence that things are wrong and that he should get out of this situation because it’s doing no one any good.
“and you’re melting through my fingers again, I try to sculpt you back together”
This is pretty much the same as the chorus (NO BAD TRAVIS REDUNDANT LYRICS) but I really like the turn of phrase. It also shows that the situation is decaying even faster.
“you’d think I should have learned my lesson back when, we won’t stand up to extreme weather. Dead of exposure, should have known better”
Singer is starting to come around here and realize what he should have realized back in the first song…
And then there is a resurgence of hope and energy and such (ie. A guitar solo which has been pretty much universally well received, which is nice) and we launch back into the chorus. This might seem at odds with where the plot seems to be going… and it kind of is, except structurally we needed another chorus! So I decided that this was the singer being somewhat optimistic, but it doesn’t take him long to realize things are still wrong:
“give me a sign, a shout or whisper, I can no longer see through the haze…”
“Turns out I’m plastic too. Yeah, I’m just as fake as you.”
This is as close to a “big reveal” as I’ve probably gotten, except the listener has probably realized the problem with the relationship by now. This is just the singer doing the same. I thought it had a nice “closing the circle” element with the original song. And making sure this line had impact was why I intentionally avoided “fake” and “plastic” for the rest of the song. Sadly, none of the judges really remarked upon it. I guess I just don’t always execute my ideas? Sigh. Well. Anyway. Them’s the lyrics.
I decided to go with big guitars (not that I have many other options) although for most of the time it was only two. A hollowbody, jangly-clean rhythm part plays throughout most of the song (often mostly inaudibly—providing backbone for the main electric), strumming and arpeggiating chords. The second guitar might be the single biggest element of the Radiohead homage – it is played on a Strat (closest thing I have to the Telecaster that Johnny Greenwood favors) and is running through a custom made patch that includes (Guitar Geekery ahead..)
ProCo RAT Distortion > subtle octave down effect > Solid State Amp > Space Echo delay
This is as close to the type of setup that Greenwood used for his distorted sound in the Bends era as I was able to get with my equipment.
Although I can’t point at a specific Radiohead solo that resembles the one in Melt, the “dreamy + experimental + just a touch of edge” is something that sounds right at home in the Radiohead style.
The bass has a bit of drive on it this time. Didn’t really make much difference either way. Although you can’t really pick out the bass part very well, it is there, doing what it’s supposed to do.
The initial recording was done by the evening after the challenge was issued and vocals were recorded.
Now, one of the most consistent criticisms of Stars Over Avalon was the weak/pitchy/whatever vocals and Dave Leigh had noted that if I was to team up with a good vocalist … well. It would be a good idea. So I sent out the call on Twitter, not actually expecting any responses. I let it sit for awhile and then listened to the song again. I don’t have the original mixes anymore, deleted them (quite on accident, believe it or not), but suffice to say there were also weak. My range normally breaks right around F#4-G4 and Melt unfortunately goes about a step higher than that. (I thought about rerecording everything a step lower and then hit myself in the face until my nose bled)
Well, over listening to the song a few more times I came up with some alternate melodies. They didn’t really soar like the originals, but, ya know, at least I could sing them. Having heard nothing yet from SingerSearch I rerecorded these vocals.
It was much better.. but there was a problem. Everything was a little bit too much in the same register for such an energetic song and as a result it was getting a bit difficult to distinguish choruses and verses…… ie ANOTHER problem I had from reviewers last round. In the end, I decided that caution would be better in this case, so I grumbled a bit and decided to submit….
….and then I got a DM from Joe saying he was working on it. At that point I had decided to just man up and take a chance, and told Joe so. Fortunately, he did not receive the reply until after he’d taken a run at it. So I had him send it to me.
Basically he had sang the original melody I wrote (the one I couldn’t reach) and done a much better job than I had (there was some debate about this from the judges but, for whatever it’s worth, coming from the guy who wrote the song, I thought it sounded rather good). There were problems – I had completely changed the first verse melody and liked it better – it had a more subtle, mood setting characteristic whereas the original was much more RAWK (and honestly less attention grabbing). I thought a harmony would sound good in the second verse. And so on, and so on. Basically I chopped up Joe’s sent vocal, recorded my own bits, and mixed them together. Apparently the vocals are Too Fucking Loud but, well, I like them, and I think that having Joe to reach for those high notes for me and add a second voice to harmonize with was a great asset to the song.
Re: Second verse: Joe sang it just as well, if not better, than I did, so I gave it to him.
Re: Bridge/final line: These were suspiciously absent from the track Joe sent me. We hadn’t talked about it at all, and I took it as him saying, essentially, “You’ve got that.” (Especially since those are easily the places my vocals sound best)
I had somewhat decided ahead of time I wanted to write something slightly uptempo from last round if it was at all stylistically appropriate. Fake Plastic Trees is of course the ‘90s version of a power ballad which I sort of already did. Aside from the fact I was already predisposed to something a bit faster, I did not want to repeat the style exactly because, well, frankly, that’s boring. I decided instead I wanted to write something that would sound at home as a B-side or “lost track” from the album that Fake Plastic Trees appeared on (The Bends, which, incidentally, is easily in my top 5 albums ever).
“Fake Plastic Trees” is in the key of A – “Melt” is in the relative minor of F#m. There are some other purely “Theory-etical” nods to the original (for instance, both choruses start on a B minor, a somewhat unusual choice for the key) but luckily (or unluckily?) my end product doesn’t sound much like the original. People do seem to agree that it sounds like Radiohead. This is one of those “gambles” I’ve been talking about on the Twitterz and the artifictionz.
F#m A E
D A E
Bm6 D5(b5) A E
D A E
D A E
Bm D E
Bm A D
Bm D E
Bm A D
D A E (sort of ambiguous as there is not much actually going on instrumentally.. sort of just outlining things)
Coming (or not) just as soon as I see the reaction to doing the responses last round…