Where The River Meets The Earth (Film Noir Blues) – Song Bio
Welcome to another Song Bio. …this intro is crap, but hopefully it gets better.
This one was written for Spintunes 9 Round 2. Even thought I just put a link there, I guess I’ll copy/paste the challenge, because I am a gracious and accomodating blogwriter guy:
“Undeserved Love – Write a song about unconditionally loving someone who plainly isn’t worth it. (example: “Grenade” by Bruno Mars)”.
I’ve been looking for a challenge that would be well suited to a blues song more or less since Spintunes (as in Spintunes 1) began, and although there have a few challenges that probably would have worked, they never quite gelled with whatever subject idea I came up with.
Longtime blog readers (ha!) will probably remember that as soon as I get an idea for Spintunes that isn’t clearly stupid that is usually the one I end up using. That actually wasn’t completely the case with this song, but in terms of genre I immediately thought “BLUES” after I read the title. So, it was nice to finally check this off my Spintunes bucket list.
Lyrically, this started out as a pretty typical “baby-done-me-wrong” kind of blues song. It was okay, it checked off the boxes. But it felt a little too flat and colorless… and after all, Spintunes is a Songwriting Contest. I did include in a couple of instrumental sections, but I was trying to hard to avoid the “song as an excuse to solo” trap that is all too easy to fall into when writing in this genre as a guitarist, so I took another pass at it.
I’ve been watching Angel, recently finished The Last Policeman trilogy, and am a huge fan of The Dresden Files, which is probably why the idea of “obsessed/doomed detective” occurred/appealed to me. The instrumental intro’s definite impending doom vibe, plus the inherent compatibility of midtempo 6/8 blues and film noir, probably had something to do with that as well.
Inasmuch as there is a real plot to the song it goes like this:
- A mysterious woman hires our detective. He is enamored with her, and accepts, though the task (never specified by the song) is dangerous.
- The detective learns in the course of the investigation that the mysterious woman has omitted important details and might be more than she appears (possibly in the supernatural sense).
- The detective has developed an unhealthy obsession with the woman and does not walk away though he clearly should.
- Everything goes wrong. Both the mysterious woman and the detective face imminent danger from (again, unspecified by the song) unknown entities.
- It ends badly for them.
It’s intentionally light on details for three reasons:
1. The song is primarily about the love (obsession?) that the detective has developed for his employer, as well as his Rubik’s complex for the case overriding his better judgement.
2. Assuming a passing familiarity with detective stories and/or film noir, the listener can supply their own details.
3. (If we’re being honest…) The song is headed towards “too long” as it is. ;p
So as mentioned, this is a first person account of an old school hardboiled private investigator’s final case, that begins (as these things so often do) with a mysterious woman walking into his office on a rain-soaked night in Chicago or Sin City or who knows where.
The first part of the song, which I’ll go ahead and call the verse, is the detective speaking to his new employer. (There is a time jump to later in the case between the first half and second half.)
Now let me tell you something
Before you state your case today
Anyone in this broke down town
Could see you’re trouble from a mile away
But I can’t leave a puzzle alone
And everyone’s gotta get paid
Babe you’ve been living out of nightclubs
And they all miss your when you’re gone
Soon they say your stormy eyes turn to ice
Sweet red wine lips to poison
I lit your cigarette
I cashed out on your con
“But I can’t leave a puzzle alone”: A reference to the dangerous level of curiosity that is inherent in many, if not most, detective characters.
“I lit your cigarette”: It’s film noir. Somebody had to light a cigarette sometime in there.
The second part (the chorus, I suppose) is more like inner monologue, or maybe voice over narration, or could even be the detective rambling to a favorite bartender over a bourbon:
I can’t let go of the chase
Though the lights are going out
Darkness hiding her face
The case cracks and suddenly
I move with the chaos
spinning around me
And I’m blacking out….
In other words: “The more I learn about my employer/her case the less I seem to know about her/it, but the more my need to know increases.”
“I move with the chaos spinning around me” could be metaphorical or literal when you consider the supernatural angle.
The next part (the bridge) is the obligatory “look what you’ve done to me” part of the story, from the detective to the mysterious woman:
Don’t touch me cause I’ll blink
Every missed clue is adding pain
How many did you leave
Mad in the thunder and falling rain
Don’t say a word your Siren song
Has me staring down a train
If I’ll escape this mystery
I can’t run to you again
Like the cigarette, it just ain’t film noir without a nervous breakdown in a thunderstorm, is it?
A direct reference to being driven mad and namechecking the Sirens is a little more evidence of a supernatural element.
But I can’t outrun it this time
Unprepared by so many years
Of passions and crimes
I know just where this road leads
Sideways rain falling around
And right through me
And I’m blacking out….
“Unprepared by so many years of passions and crimes”: Translated: “My growing obsessions with the case and this woman has finally completely overridden my judgement, though I should know better.”
“Sideways rain falling around, and right through me”: See also “hail of gunfire”.
I’ll see you in the black
Down where the river meets the earth
I’ll see you soon now
Unless you didn’t get there first
“where the river meets the earth”: Hey, finally the title drops. While the first instinct might be to think this refers to the shore, it actually refers to the other place the river meets the earth: the bottom.
So, the detective is headed to the bottom of the river, but isn’t sure if his employer will be joining him, or if she’s already there.
Warning: This will
likely (edit: definitely) contain some freeform rambling about chord progressions and music theory and stuff, if that isn’t your thing you can stop reading now.
After a chimey Am9 chord and a bit o’ ye olde vibrato bar, we kick off with a musical punch in the face meant to convey an impending doom, beginning-of-the-end kind of scenario. It was originally slightly more restrained until I figured out the angle I was going to use on the song.
The bass is playing the notes A – B – C – D – D# (passing tone) – E. One guitar follows this in octaves while the other plays a higher register descending thingy (C – B – A – G – G#). Trem picking is the order of the day. I like trem picking a lot, probably too much, but it definitely communicated what I was after here. Anyway, for as big as this sounds, there are no actual chords being played — it’s all dyads until the end. “Less is more” or maybe “fewer is bigger” applies here.
After the “hits” on an E7 I immediately decided to follow the loudest part of the song with the quietest part. Because contrast and dynamics and stuff. While the loud and crazy part hints at what is eventually to come, the quiet part sets the scene for the minimalist story.
I probably did about thirty takes of the first guitar solo, fifty if you count the ones where I played three notes and said “nah”. I completely agree with the ideal of blues/jazz solos being improvised, but it just didn’t quite work here. Over those 30 takes I eventually decided what notes needed to go where.
The chord progession the “verse” and the two solos are basically this:
|Am (4 meas) |Dm |Dm* Dm| Dm |Dm* Dm| C | Fmaj7 E7 |
And then there’s sometimes a tag (which also doubles as the bridge):
|Am |Fmaj7 |Dm | E7 |
So while it does sound like blues, it doesn’t really use a (common) established form. The Dm* I mentioned is actually this chord on guitar:
So the notes lowest to highest are D – A – C# – E. Technically you could just call this Dmaj7add9 or (if really cheeky) A/D, but it really functions as a DmMaj7sus2(no 3rd) (no really) and if that is interesting to you, you are a big ol’ nerd (me too!) and if it was not interesting I apologize for this paragraph.
The vocals for most of the song but especially the verse are Bob Dylan/Tom Waits inspired growling. I can’t do it quite like them, but not many can.
The chorus goes like this:
|F |F | E7 |E7 |Dm |C |E7 | E7 | 2x
The first time through, the lead guitar (which had been winding through the lead vocal, playing little fills and counter melody) drops out to let the rhythm of the chord progression stand out, and then comes back in for the second time to raise the tension into the guitar solo. Vocals likewise escalate. Originally I wrote a higher registry melody line here that 1) I couldn’t really sing and 2) increased the intensity too much too quickly and didn’t really leave anywhere to go for the “blacking out” line and the build into the next section. So. I’m glad I changed that.
I DEFINTELY had my eyes closed and was swaying back and forth for the guitar solo. First take, baby! Okay, yeah, no. I did several takes on this one too, and actually after my first mix went back and completely did the first part of it over The first take was both too busy and not quite as intense as I wanted during the first take, but I kept it because I liked the second part.
Right at 2:42 you can hear the “good part of the first take” as a second guitar comes in and plays a harmony line and then ends the the solo with a very pissed-off-sounding bending riff.
The solo leads directly into the bridge, which uses the “tag” chord progression. I’m pleased with what I did with the harmonies here, but ideally I would have liked to have a choir.
The added background voice sticks around for the second and last “chorus” (Ugh, it’s got difference words though. Maybe that’s the B section? whatever). The lead guitar is also doing some pretty unrestrained acrobatics in the background — really the only part of the song I’m not quite happy with, I couldn’t quite get the balance and counter melody where I wanted here, but it still sounds pretty good. In the original recording, the lower voice wasn’t present and without that to ground the higher vocal a lot of words like “warble”, “squawk” and perhaps “caterwaul” were appropriate. I had very nearly convinced me that this was only appropriately “raw”, luckily a beta listener (hi Dad!) pointed out that non-musicians decide this is the point you “cannot sing” and begin to throw rotten produce. So, anyway. Tip: Have and actually listen to beta listeners, guys.
The outro (and long awaited title drop) does a miniature version of the quiet/loud thing that’s been going on most of the song and the second voice comes back in for some a sinister low register line to end the song. Musically, this is the same as the intro, except it plays twice and uses a looser, less frantic rhythm the first time through.
Okay, so.. that’s it! Thanks for listening/reading. Let me know if you have thoughts or feelings or prophecies.