fear is my live-in lover.

Jenifer Convertible were making an unbelievable record.

Jim and I emailed pretty frequently.  Jim was great at whetting my appetite for new songs, building my anticipation.  I felt like I had to remind him – I was already going to put the record out. There was no need to build anticipation: just send me a fucking tape!

Eventually, he sent me a tape of rough mixes.

They were astounding.

First of all, they were hot.  Not performance-wise, but recording-wise, it seemed like all the instruments were very loud.  Second, the rhythm section was much more forceful than in their past recordings.  While I realized that the tapes were just rough mixes, it just seemed like the drums were recorded better, the bass was much more aggressive-sounding, everything was just a bit more propulsive.  And Lenny was singing louder; it almost seemed as if the engineer coaxed a little extra volume out of his voice, a little extra emphasis or something.

Second of all, there were songs I’d never heard before.  Lots of them.  Although the band had re-recorded their singles “Speedracer” and “Car Song,” two songs I absolutely loved, they had also recorded a bunch of new songs.  And they were great.

Jim had written a song called “She’s Used To It.”  He had sent me a copy of it a year prior, recorded at the same time as a bunch of the other songs on the tape.  It was a pretty ballad, very emotional and earnest.

On the tape, I didn’t even recognize it.  The band had completely re-written the music of the song, making it much more aggressive and noisy.  Gone were the soft edges, replaced by dissonant guitars and a pounding rhythm section.  Gone were the sing-song vocal harmonies, replaced by Jim’s vocal, singing slightly off the rhythm of the song, sounding almost drunk as he recited his poetry with a gruff tone to his voice.

It was the only song that Lenny didn’t sing, and I thought it was great.

“Holy shit,” I told Sandy.  “This record is going to be ridiculous.”

Sandy had, for the most part, pulled herself out of Dromedary.  It’s tough to blame her – she had finished out her maternity leave and gone back to work, was navigating the challenges of working full-time and being a mom to a newborn.  At lunch she would drive to the day care center to feed the baby, and then at the end of the day she’d become mom again.  Indie rock is just not a priority in that scenario.  Dromedary cost money and time, and we didn’t have much of either.  Sandy had even less than I did.

But she still loved music and understood how spectacular these songs had the potential to be.  They were rough mixes, but we could still hear all the different elements of the song.  Once the final mixes were complete, the songs were only going to get better.  Her first reaction, within the first ten seconds of the first song, was one word: “Wow.”

That song was called “Overload.”  I had become a huge Pavement fan by early 1996, and loved the combination of how they recorded their music (with clear separation between each of the instruments so that you could actually hear everything), the music’s melody, and the lazy way that they executed it, almost nonchalant in its delivery.  Everything on Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was in heavy rotation in my house.  I loved Pavement (still do).

“Overload” had a lot of the same qualities as a Pavement song, without being too derivative.  The rhythm section drove the song forward, and James’ bass was way out front, often playing by itself without guitar accompaniment.  The guitars mainly augmented the song, providing short bursts of noise and feedback to accentuate the vocal melody.  The vocal itself was delivered in that same, nonchalant fashion by Lenny, but with Jim providing harmony vocals a full octave above Lenny.

Jim and Lenny had this stylistic way that they approached guitar passages, often playing two different scales that were completely dissonant with the song and yet somehow still in-key, with one guitar in the left channel and the other in the right.  The first time I heard it was in “Car Song,” the seven-inch they sent Rich for review in Indier Than Thou!.  It was almost jarring to hear.  It was also, I’m sure, incredibly complex to write, and I’m not sure how they did it.  The scale needed to work not only against the bass (which was, remember, often found playing away from the root note in the chord), but then needed to work with the other guitar as well.

Unlike any other band I’d ever met, Jenifer Convertible had an understanding of music.

My uncle played the B3, the old Hammond organ that was popularized by rock and fusion bands in the 70s, and also by jazz players like Jimmy Smith.  It’s safe to say that there’s no instrument that sounds like the B3.  Samplers and synth programmers have tried to approximate its sound over the years, but you just can’t duplicate its growl, or all the subtle sounds you can make by twiddling with its faders and knobs while you played.

I have played piano for most of my life, and I do not know how to play a B3.  Never tried.

My uncle approached music in an entirely different way from me.  For me, music is mainly emotional, played from your gut.  Even today when I sit down at a piano (and I understand that I’m not particularly good), I rarely even look at the keys.  My hands just sort of go where they go, I augment chords based on where my fingers feel they’re supposed to be, I accent things with extra force or by depressing the pedals based mostly on where my gut is telling me the song needs to go.  The result is that I can never play the same song twice the same way, and that there are very few actual songs that I can play from beginning to end.  Most of the time, when I sit down at a piano, I just noodle.  And it sounds good, but then someone will say “Play that again,” and I’ll sheepishly answer “I can’t.  I don’t know what I just played.”

My uncle looked at music entirely differently.  One time, he told me “Music is like math.  It’s very easy to understand.  There are certain spaces that belong between notes, and you use those spaces to build chords and melodies.  If you understand that this plus this equals this, or to get this, you must add this plus this plus this.

His view of composition was that you could hear the mathematical errors in songs, and he could fix them in his head.

“If somebody tells you nine times four is forty-five,” he explained to me once, “your mind automatically puts a five in place of the four, so that you correct the equation.  Your ears hear nine times four, and your brain almost immediately tells you no – nine times five. Music works the same way.”

I would nod my head and smile just like I did in college, when my wacky philosophy professor stood in front of me and explained to me why she was not really there.

But when I heard Jenifer Convertible recordings, I felt like they understood the kind of shit that my uncle was talking about, but still understood the emotional nature of a song.  They could, somehow, combine the two.  They were a cross between Pavement and Poem Rocket, Big Star and Shellac.

As far as the Dromedary bands were concerned, I thought that Jenifer was the perfect bridge between the soft and clever pop of The Mommyheads and the noisy math rock of Gapeseed.  Lyrically, their music was more real – they didn’t sing about having sex with watermelons like Footstone, about social issues like cuppa joe, or about intense personal relationships like the Mommyheads.  They sang about the real world.  When I listened to Jenifer Convertible, I felt like I was listening to a band that was way more worldly than me, that had experienced things I’ll only read about.

When I listened to Jenifer Convertible I felt like I was listening to a thrash metal band conducted by John Zorn, singing Lou Reed’s lyrics to the melody of Raspberries songs.

Produced by the guy who made Helmet’s Meantime record.

I was way, way out of my league with this record, and as I listened to the roughs over and over, my opinion on it was beginning to vacillate between unbridled excitement and unbearable anxiety.

~ by Al on October 27, 2009.

5 Responses to “fear is my live-in lover.”

  1. wow. just wow.

    umm, do you still have a copy of the “She’s Used To It” demo? i always preferred the original version and would love to hear it again. maybe you could post both, for comparison?

  2. Your wish is my command, Mr. Santo.

    Unfortunately, though, I have to put a “…to be continued” on that. I bought a new computer and it arrived yesterday with a chip in the display. I had to ship it back to Apple. That will be my music and Dromedary computer.

    When it got here yesterday, I unhooked the other computer and stashed it away, figuring I could hook all the music gear up to the new machine. New machine’s gone. Won’t have a new one til next week, probably.

    But I do have both versions.

  3. lenny just e-mailed me the non-album version, so you’re off the hook on that. although the comparison thing would be amusing for some people, i guess.

    funny thing, even the non-LP version is, IMO, not as good what i walked into rehearsal with. probably should have saved it for my solo album. 😉

  4. If you email it to me, I’ll put it up tonight or tomorrow in a separate entry, along with the album version (which I already have digitized).

  5. GEEZ! Thanks for the kind(est) words… it’s nice to be remembered! I’ll leave a link to Car Song (hard to tell for me which version it is anymore, but I think it’s the single) http://puddlemedia.com/jc/16%20car%20song.mp3, I’ll have to rip the CD again as I misplaced a hard drive somewhere. I still have to send you links to the ‘Fumes’ stuff (the last 5 we recorded) Here’s Jim’s excellent song “Anger” – http://puddlemedia.com/jc/music/anger-jenifer_convertible.mp3

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