The Studio Awaits

Tomorrow morning we start work on our new album “The Ghost of John Henry” at JaronSound Studios.  We’ve got ten songs to tackle in order to tell the story of the album, and we might try to bang out a couple of one-offs or would-be B-sides if there’s the opportunity.

My plan is to try to do a video blog for every weekend we record, and get a bunch of pictures and whatnot up.  I assume I’ll be tweeting in short bursts, as well.

To recap, then: I wrote a concept album about John Henry — the 1870s railroad hammer-man who raced a steam drill, and won, but died from the effort — and broadened the canvas with songs that touch on the struggle between man and technology, the unknown future, exploitation of workers, and I wove a love story through it all, trying to tell the story of the human cost of something that has become a familiar, but fading legend.  The story of John Henry is one that has stuck with me since I was a little, little kid, and I’m very proud of the songs and the opportunity to add my voice to the conversation that this legend has authored.

And tomorrow we start recording it.  Bass and drums.

Off to it…

Thinking About the Album as Art Form

As we gear up to head into the studio to record the next album, naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about albums. Everybody knows that the album as we generally understand it — a coherent collection of songs by an artist — is pretty much dwindled to a niche preoccupation.  Bands like Radiohead get some press for their dedication to crafting albums, and theirs are albums that are united mostly by atmosphere or “sound.”  You recognize a song off of “Kid A” as being different from a song on “OK Computer” as different from a song on “The King of Limbs.”

The alternative is to make a couple of singles and wrap them up in filler and call it an album.  This practice was widespread, and totally never fooled anybody, so that’s why you see digital single sales/downloads FAR outstripping the pace of album sales/downloads.  Nobody even needs to bother making albums anymore if they are a big deal pop star and don’t want to.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a lot more concept albums coming out and getting attention.  A concept album is one united by a single topic or narrative that binds all of the songs together.  This is, of course, basically an opera.  “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is probably the most famous early example everybody points to.  It’s the Beatles, pretending to be a different band, playing a show.  Not much of a concept, but you can’t expect everything to be perfect right out of the gate.  The concept album was huge in the 1970s, with David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and tons others releasing often several of them.

But in the last few years, we’ve seen “Hazards of Love” by The Decemberists, “Hadestown” (which is stunning) by Anais Mitchell, “Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes” about a messiah who keeps getting distracted from saving the world by meeting pretty girls, NIN’s “Year Zero,” stuff by Coheed & Cambria, Mastodon, Green Day, and Aimee Mann’s wonderful “The Forgotten Arm.”

I think the reason why we’re seeing this, and maybe one of the reasons why I even tackled a concept album, is that if you want listeners to experience your work in context, with the dominance of the singles market, you have to give it an explicit context.  Bon Iver basically did this with “…for emma forever ago,” which wasn’t strictly a concept album, but is always described alongside it’s context (“Bad breakup, dude goes to cabin, makes sad record.”).

Me, I like it.  Between their concept work and song cycles (Crane Wife, parts 1-3), The Decemberists have become one of my favorite bands.  It gives people a reason to keep buying albums, and in a way, with the art form beset by decline, it has fostered invention.  I can only hope that someday the John Henry project we’re working on now might be mentioned in the same breath with some of these wonderful, wonderful albums.

Anais Mitchell – Wedding Song by BlurbPR

The New Album is Written

I finished writing the new album tonight, which will in all likelihood be called “The Ghost of John Henry.”

If you are not familiar with the legend of John Henry, it goes like this, more or less:
In the 1870s, as technology was rapidly advancing and railroads were linking the United States in a way that had never been possible before, railroad tycoons began experimenting with steam-powered drills that could chisel into the rock of mountains supposedly faster than the “hammer-men” who had been doing this back-breaking and deadly work for years.  John Henry was the most powerful of these hammer-men, and when a steam-drill showed up at his work site — just one of a number of new technologies that threatened to make the men on the line obsolete — John Henry challenged the drill operators to a race.  When the day came, John Henry took a hammer in each hand, and attacked the rock like no one never had before.  The steam-drill threatened to make better time, but it broke down, plagued by mechanical problems, and John Henry emerged from the tunnel, victorious.  Then he laid his hammer down, collapsed on the track, and died.

Possibly not the most obvious choice for a concept album, but I will re-post what I wrote a few weeks ago, when I first shared a couple of demos of the new material here on the blog:  “The Ballad of John Henry is a folk staple, done by everybody from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger to Johnny Cash to elementary school choirs throughout the South (this is where I first heard it — in third grade), and I think maybe because of that omnipresence the essence of the story has sort of lost its meaning to a lot of people. It’s an amazing story of loss, professional frustration, heroism, and man’s place in an increasingly technology-centric world, which I think all speaks to us today.

We will go into the studio in a few weeks and begin work.  Look for the album in early 2012.  And please, feel free to check out the tracks below and spread the word if you like the direction we’re taking this thing.

Sci-Fi Romance – A Broken World by Sci-Fi Romance

Sci-Fi Romance – My Love Look Up by Sci-Fi Romance