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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Album Notes

Newsfeed Anxiety: The Compromise

Any guesses as to the album cover’s background image?

The Compromise began as a series of bedroom demos recording in fall 2009. As mentioned before, I was still new to songwriting and supplying an album’s worth of songs for an entire band to perform, so I stuck to subjects I knew well: disappointment, struggle, disenchantment, and, ultimately, hope, all of which presented in a manner I’d like to think akin to Richard Thompson, or, say, Phil Collins. There’s also a bit of Elliott Smith in the mix, as well as the Swell Season. Musically, I was drawn to electro-folk — Wilco, Monsters of Folk, Bright Eyes (mainly Cassadega) Richard Thompson (mainly Shoot Out the Lights), to name a few — introspective acoustica — Elliott Smith (mainly From a Basement on a Hill and New Moon) and the Swell Season — and, of course, the constants of Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, among others. It is also worth noting that we may’ve gone overboard on the GarageBand guitar presets, but how could one not with an entire digital pedalboard at their disposal? We’ve since learned that lesson.

Recording The Compromise was a long and oftentimes frustrating process, to the point where we eventually had to accept its mechanical shortcomings in order to move on to other things, namely gigging and writing new material. (I cannot stress the importance of recording to a click track, which is a lesson I fully learned after this album.) We recorded the drums in a variety of locations, such as Anthony’s basements, Ben Webster’s basement, and Carl’s basement, the latter of which was unofficially known as “The Bitch Pit,” named for the hanging mirror with those words scrawled on it. While recording in “The Pit,” we constantly tested the limits of not only our eardrums, but those of Lemiwinks, the house gerbil (mentioned in “Jesus Saved His Gerbil“). I felt bad for the little guy, who would gnaw at his cage whenever we attempted to record the drums to untracked tracks. Maybe that was the sign he enjoyed it. At any rate, “The Pit,” was an ideal location for recording and practicing, and I miss it dearly.

Blemishes aside and wince-worthy mess-ups aside, The Compromise is, in my totally subjected and personally involved opinion, a thoughtful, atmospheric, cautiously optimistic, 34-minute journey into the overwrought mind of a 20-something-every-person. There are some sonic components, but it’s grounded in universal, relatable themes — at least, that was my intention. Overall, it served as a fitting debut for what is still to come.

1. Vices (Steve Miller, John McClelland)

On some levels, it makes sense to have this as an opener: It’s driving, energetic, and attention grabbing, possibly more so than anything else on the album. But in another sense, it’s so different from the other songs — straight-forward rock as opposed to something more folk/psychedelia based — “Vices” almost doesn’t really fit, which is something that we heard several times when playinh live. But it was one of the few songs we practiced in our sole fall 2009 rehearsal, and a staple at our shows, so we stuck by it. Plus, I wanted to give proper credit to Clintons frontman John McClelland, whose lyrics from the excellent song “Potion” inspired the title of this song: “When I’m left up to my own devices / My vices get the best of me.” What a line.

The lyrics “I love you, I love you, I love, I love you so much, it’s probably not good for me,” came to me lying in bed one night, and they struck as somewhat manic and obsessive. I continued in that vein, slowly writing the lyrics over the course of five months or so, before I had something I liked. This was around the time when a good friend of mine was experiencing these consumptive feelings of attraction for somebody, so I tried to write it from that perspective, but exaggerate it to the point of parody.

I think I went a little overboard on the chord changes — sorry about that, Anthony — but it could’ve been a lot worse. Originally, I planned for the song to sound like The Darkness’s “Givin’ Up,” (in tempo and mood, not theme) but B-major was way too high for me, so I decided for A instead, while still considering a key change up to B. That would’ve made live shows a living heck.

2. Good With U (Steve Miller)

A combo between Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and Elliott Smith’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” “Good With U” (the “U” being an homage to Prince) is a somewhat-autobiographic tale dating back to my freshman year of college, when I first conceived the melody and chord structure, though the pre-chorus and chorus date back to an old Margo Foorehead demo named “Spindle.” I’ll let you be the listener and judge for yourself, but will say that pretty much each of those things happened to me at that time. Have they ever happened to you?

This wasn’t a part our standard set, but over the years, I’ve come to play this song more and more often during solo acoustic gigs. It’s simple, interesting, and has a nice tempo. I don’t really use the harmonica, though; as you can tell in the recording, it isn’t my forte.

3. House on Sand, II (Steve Miller)

Also dating back to my freshman year of college, “House on Sand” came from listening to Heatmiser’s (a.k.a. Elliott’s) “Plainclothes Man” and Bright Eyes’ “Four Winds” on repeat. The key (B-flat major) and the swing tempo may be evidence of such.

In its first iteration, “H.O.S.” was solely concerned about yet another person of interest who may or may not’ve been intentionally giving me the run around. Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter anymore. But despite playing live a few times during the Thomas Brady days, these lyrics were too antagonistic and literal, so I stopped playing it. Three years later, however, I decided to revisit it, focusing my lyrics more on the disillusionment of the college lifestyle, primarily the bar/drinking aspect. Some nights were worse than others, but I recall one October evening in particular that prompted the completion of the song. As I was walking to a downtown bus stop, I was accosted not once, but twice, by two separate groups of complete strangers for no apparent reason, all in the span of a few minutes. (As small of a town as Missoula is, it has a large per capita concentration of inconsiderateness and crudeness that gathers downtown on weekend nights; go to Bodega or Stock’s during these times and tell me otherwise.) Once back home, I wrote the rest of the lyrics and recorded the demo the next day.

The term “house on sand” comes from Matthew 7:26. It applies to both versions of the song — one putting your trust in someone who will only disappoint you, the other placing your faith in times that can’t be sustained. I’ll also note the sparsely worded refrain was inspired by Death Cab for Cutie’s “Grapevine Fires,” and the dig at Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” (which is easily one of the worst songs ever written) was very intentional.

4. The Compromise (Steve Miller, Anthony Thompson, Carl Hansen)

We never intended this to be the title track, but after a setback-prone and technically stunted production, and seeing how it’s thematically the lynch-pin song, it made sense for this to be album centerpiece (but not the album Centerpiece, which is for another entry).

Although written in 2010, the mindset depicted in “The Compromise” took place in 2008, catalyzed by an event that had a profound impact on me, both personally and musically. Without going into specifics, it involved some good friends of mine and myself, who found ourselves in a very sensitive, tense situation. Not knowing how to react, I channeled my confusion through songwriting, resulting in “Everybody’s Got Somebody.” But even two years after the fact, I still felt the reverberations from this time, so much so that I had revisit the ordeal, not from my perspective, but from the others’. I tried to truly slip into the other person’s skin to understand their point of view, and while it may sound condemning, it’s meant to be compassionate and sympathetic. Now five years removed, I can honestly say that the outcome was for the absolute best, and that we are still great friends to this day. At the time, however, I believed I needed to address what I experienced. Hopefully it was worth it.

I can’t recall the exact musical impetus for this song, but I think it was a cross between the Swell Season’s “In These Arms,” and Bright Eye’s “When the Brakeman Turns My Way,” and maybe Coldplay’s “‘Til Kingdom Come.” The solos where taken from the “lick-tionary” of Aussie guitar virtuoso Keith Urban. (Say what you will about his songs, but the guy can play.) At one point the song file was in such disarray that we considered starting from scratch, but I couldn’t part with the guitar solos, though maybe I should have.

Whatever shortcomings the recorded version had, the live version was always rousing, especially the electro hoedown. When the double-time kicks in, that’s when I truly realize the importance of that trying time period five years ago.

5. Come Unglued (Steve Miller)

Another case study in near-excessive chordage and wordage, “Come Unglued,” like “Vices,” shows no restraint in either department. It was as though I crammed everything about a failed relationship circa fall 2008 and every chord remotely related to the G-major key signature into one, four-and-a-half-minute track. And because it’s so lyrically and musically exhausting, we only played it live once — at the Holiday Extravaganzer, segueing into “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” I played it at several open mic nights, and occasionally rears its head every now and then, but not too much anymore.

It’s been so long since I wrote it (starting in November 08) that I can’t really recall my exact inspiration for this song, though I think Conor Oberst’s “Moab” and the pop-stops in Tigercity’s “Other Girls” were buried somewhere in my subconscious at the time. But I remember exactly what brought forth the lyrics, and though the “47 reasons” reference may seem a bit random, that actually happened (inspired by this great spoof). I already over shared in this song, and won’t do so again here.

Unlike this recorded version, the actual song has a chorus after the bridge, and not a guitar-solo fadeout. The reason for the abrupt ending was, like most of the album’s flubs, due to untracked drums. Despite Carl’s best efforts, and Anthony’s masterful splicing, everything post-bridge falls apart. So, rather than re-record or employ some excessive GarageBand wizardry, we opted for the fadeout. Just another compromise.

6. Nocturn (Steve Miller, Edward Longo, Jimmy Salyer)

The Newsfeed version of this song is actually its third (and counting?) iteration. What started as a drop-B, alien dance song in the mold of the Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” written on Thanksgiving Day 2004 soon became Margo Foorehead’s most popular song, often played as the set opener, sometimes closer, and sometimes both. Three years later, the song resurfaced as a capo-ed acoustic strummer (still in B-minor), which also became a Thomas Brady staple. After Thomas Brady slowly gave away to the Magic Square, “Nocturn” slipped from the radar in favor of other, better songs, like “The High Road,” “Redemption,” “Research,” and others. But in December 2008, while working on Clap Your Hands, It’s a Fan-Be Christmas, oddly enough, I momentarily slipped into a dark place — and no, I don’t mean a basement lit by a single candle. It was like the events of fall ’08 (which was a very trying time on all fronts) came to a head, and after adding a synth line to “Frosty the Snowman,” I was forced to confront these demons. The result: a third “Nocturn,” whose lyrics were written in a matter of minutes. Once that darkness passed, it would be nearly a year and a half and one band later that this new classic would see its debut; once it did, like the other manifestations, quickly became a favorite.

The Newsfeed “Nocturn” is the melding of the two previous versions: it has the hard-edge fuzz of Margo Foorehead and the full chord-age rage of Thomas Brady, all of which played a full step lower to allow for a greater (and more manageable) vocal build throughout the song, especially at the end.

Production-wise, I may’ve gone overboard with the GarageBand guitar atmospheres, but we made up for it in our live shows, which were bare bones-y, as you can hear at our KBGA Battle of the Bands performance.

The title refers to a composition “inspired by, or evocative of, the night, ” and is actually spelled “nocturne” (Wikipedia). Such wasn’t necessarily the original intent when writing it, but I suppose it’s more evocative of darkness than it is, say, a sunny spring afternoon in rural Tennessee. I credit Mr. Siberian Blastula himself, Edward Longo, with coining the name.

7. Slipping Away (Steve Miller)

Even five years after the fact, I can still clearly recall the day that inspired The Compromise‘s sparsest, loneliest song.

It was cold, gray day in early December 2007, and I had just learned of a triumphant final grade in a very challenging journalism class. I should’ve celebrated the hard-earned mark, but instead, was fraught with a sense of impending disappointment. Sure enough, as I met with a close friend of mine, this foreboding came to fruition, and I knew no matter what I said, or how carefully constructed my thoughts were conveyed, nothing would stop what was coming. With each word, it felt like I was slowly losing grip until, finally, it fell away. This day and its somber feeling stuck with me, and in 2009, I put it to song.

To capture the essence of that bleak time, I once again turned to Elliott Smith, especially “Half Right” from his posthumous New Moon. The drop-D tuning, the slow finger-picking, the hushed vocals, the minimalist production, all of which was meant to mirror the haunting Smith demo, though I added a slide solo and Anthony a fretless bass to heighten the sense of isolation. Where I diverge from the Elliott song is in the bridge, where I employed the Death Cab for Cutie method in making that part of the song the dynamic and emotional climax (as heard in “Tiny Vessels,” “Your New Twin-Sized Bed,” “I Was A Kaleidoscope,” for starters.) The chromatic build at the end of the bridge was inspired by the bridge in Regina Spektor’s “Human of the Year,” where she uses it to dramatic effect.

The rest of the song trails off like so many lonely December snow drifts.

8. The U I Knew (Steve Miller, Anthony Thompson)

After a somewhat bumpy, inconsistent album (though it definitely has its inspired moments), we arrive at what I believe to be the best song — in terms of atmosphere, execution, mood, and theme. We only played it live a handful of times — each time as an acoustic duo — but “The U I Knew” (the “U” also inspired by Prince) closes The Compromise on a lush, lo-fi and hopeful note. I was so pleasantly surprised by this final version that I intend to use it as the production/sound model for the next album, which you’ll hear shortly.

For some background: I wrote the lyrics about/for a close friend who was going through an incredibly unhappy stretch in spring of 2010, so much so that she almost seemed like a different person. We once could share our troubles with each other, but it got to the point where we were hard pressed for a simple conversation. It pained me to see her like this, but I still did what I could to help her through this trying time, and had hope that the darkness would pass. Thankfully, it did.

When Anthony and I first played this song together, we knew it would be the album closer; it had that sense of finality about it. Production-wise, we wanted it to be minimal but full, small but spacious. To accomplish this end, we added high-register circuit dialogue synths, a slight chorus effect to the vocals, and background harmonies during the refrain. And although this song was also cut without a metronome, the drums are (mostly) spot on, thanks to a simple — but very effective — performance by Anthony, who used Ben Webster’s drum set (which was still in Anthony’s basement for practices), and recorded the tracks on an old reel-to-reel, thus giving it even more of a retro vibe.

I remember I was in New York City when I first heard the finished version. While walking the western Manhattan blocks, I selected the song Anthony had emailed me the night prior. In the midst of the mid-morning mayhem, the clean guitars panned hard right and left, the soft brushstrokes on the drums, and the echo chamber sound filled me with a sense of serenity. Even though I had written and recorded the song, to hear this version gave me a renewed sense of ease. After an album fraught with worry and flaws, hope and and simplicity had the final say.