On Valentine's Day

November 10, 2011 6:52 PM

On February 11th, 1963, the poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide. This is the song the elderly painter, Mr Thomas, who lived in the flat below hers, did not write about the event. An odd little ballad in 7/8.

This is killing two birds with one stone -- both a challenge entry and my entry for the next songfight (subject 'The last afternoon of a woman he only thought he knew', yikes).

As some of you may know, I wrote a movie about SP. The painter, Mr Thomas, was played by Michael Gambon. In reality he was a rather strange man who wrote a memoir in which he seemed to indicate that he thought he had gained some kind of spiritual connection with Sylvia by living underneath her.

I never really felt that the movie captured the ineffable sadness of SP's death. People try to elevate it but in the end she was a single mum struggling to cope with two kids in the coldest winter in the century, whose husband had left her for another woman. I've always thought the most remarkable thing wasn't that she killed herself but that she hung on for so long.

I've tried to be as accurate with the details as I can. I don't think Mr Thomas actually helped to break down the door and I've no idea if he ever bought a card, but everything else is true down to the tea towel.

The piano sample is the Tonehammer Emotional Piano, which is utterly awesome and makes even my plonking sound acceptable.

Looking for any feedback that can help to improve this for the songfight (deadline is Sunday). I'm not sure about the vocal -- it's a bit pitchy in places but tunable. I like the lazy, contemplative quality.

Still working on the mix: the big 4th verse is way too hot so I have to figure out how to fix that while keeping the dynamics.

posted by unSane (22 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

nice song - although i wouldn't have guessed it was about sylvia - but i think it's better that way
posted by pyramid termite at 6:59 PM on November 10, 2011

That winter was colder far than any that I remember.
Snow fell on snow and turned to ice where it lay.
The girl lived above me and the last time I saw her
Was two or three days before Valentine's Day.

The sound of her typewriter was loud sometimes late at night
And I heard her crying once or twice in the day
Each morning I watched her as she walked to the telephone
And shivered there talking, but to who I can't say.

That afternoon she played the same record endlessly
And into the night - it was not easy to bear.
But I woke the next morning to the cries of her children
At a window left open to the cold morning air.

We broke down the front door with the help of a passer-by
The smell of the gas so strong it made our throats raw
We found bread for the toddler and some milk for the baby
And a towel soaked with water jammed under their door

They closed the doors gently on the back of the ambulance.
My breath froze before me as they drove her away.
A day or two later her husband came by
And moved in his mistress, on Valentine's Day.

I think of her now and them, and how she would talk to me,
A foolish old man with my hair turned to gray.
Somewhere I still have the card that I bought,
Half-meaning to give her on Valentine's Day.

Yes, somewhere I still have the card that I bought
Half-meaning to give her on Valentine’s Day.

posted by unSane at 7:02 PM on November 10, 2011

Yeah, that was kind of the point. Thomas thought of her as Mrs Hughes. She wasn't Sylvia Plath yet.
posted by unSane at 7:03 PM on November 10, 2011

Thanks! I changed the cello part a bit on a friend's recommendation and sorted out all the levels and sweetened the vox... the final version is here.
posted by unSane at 2:58 PM on November 11, 2011

Wow, two Valentine's Day songs in less than two weeks - in October!

I like how the song personalizes and brings a whole different perspective to her death, an event we've all heard of but probably not thought much about. Really lovely.
posted by platinum at 12:33 AM on November 12, 2011

It almost brought me to tears. Beautiful. Stunning, and in 7. Bravo, sir.
posted by askmeaboutLOOM at 5:48 AM on November 12, 2011

I'm sure it doesn't matter, but sorry for not making it here before your deadline.

I don't know if there's a format difference, but this sounds great from here on MeFi. Those initial snare hits totally work and aren't intrusive on the vocals at all. Speaking of vocals, I know you mentioned pitchiness, but they sound great and your voice is right on for this kind of thing. I wonder if you've ever considered doing any narration or spoken work. (I'd love to hear something like that.) Great voice, man. Your finger picking and other instruments are great too. This is a beauty.
posted by snsranch at 6:06 PM on November 14, 2011

Thank you, sns. It's been a long journey for me to figure out how to make my voice sound acceptable and I still don't really like it most of the time, but this at least had some character. It was recorded very close miked and almost at a whisper. I also backed off the reverb and chorus which I tend to use to cover up mistakes but ends up not sounding great.

I guess I'll try some more of this.

I have done various bits of narration, but only out of necessity. I narrated this teaser video for a film I wanted to direct a few years ago. But my voice sounds really tight and high to me. The thing about the voice seems to be that until you are relaxed your voice is going to sound horrible, no matter how good your technique is otherwise.
posted by unSane at 8:06 PM on November 14, 2011

(over on songfight.com it seems that the drums are bothering people.... like the groove is off or something? I can't hear it myself but three people have mentioned it)
posted by unSane at 9:55 PM on November 14, 2011

The funny thing is that this is actually extremely quantized. I played the drums and piano and cello in live but then I snapped them right to the grid because as Chococat pointed out on songfight, any slop in these odd metres really bothers you. Then I recorded the guitar arpeggios to a click, which I could hear bleeding from the phones, so I recorded them a second time using the first performance as a 'click'. So they are darn tight too. The only other instrument is the bass, which just plays slow root notes, so nothing going on there.

So I'm still trying to work out what it is that is sounding off! Any help appreciated...
posted by unSane at 4:30 AM on November 15, 2011

Oh, I think I'm starting to get it. It's not a backbeat groove but it's close enough to one that your ear is fooled. The first snare hit in the bar is a ghost note before the kick on 3, not on 3.

S . . . x . . . . . . x . . .
K x . . . x . x . x . . . . .

If you're expecting the snare on 3 (the backbeat), like this, it sounds wrong.

S . . . . x . . . . . . x . .
K x . . x . . x . x . . . . .

If I swapped the kick and the snare there it might sound right. I'll try that.
posted by unSane at 7:03 AM on November 15, 2011

(In fact a true backbeat would have the snare on 3 and 6 1/2 to keep a steady pulse but that is too frightening, although it sounds kind of cool)
posted by unSane at 7:04 AM on November 15, 2011

Okay, I swapped the groove around to put the snare squarely on the backbeat. Not sure I like it as much but maybe just used to the old version.
posted by unSane at 7:44 AM on November 15, 2011

No the swap is worse.

Okay here's my overthinking attempt:
The more I listen to it I can hear what you're going for and it doesn't bother me as much. I think the problem with unconventional time signatures is that the listener is coming in blind and is struggling (at least I do) to find where the 1 is. So you've got your piano and bass on the 1's which sets us up for one thing, but then the drums are on that off-beat and it's like whoah, huh?
For me the drums suddenly work really well at the big climaxy part around 1:25. Because it's like, something's different now in the song, somethings changing and I just feel it better there.
I think that the fills and the sort of extra beats might clutter it up a bit, especially the fill leading into that big dramatic part at 1:25 which kind of drags or something. The fills during that verse are more effective, though. Maybe it's the little things that throw me? You say the drums are dead-on the click but sometimes the syllables in your vocal aren't on the beat. Of course vocals should be fluid, but if the percussion is so rigid then maybe that's what's throwing me off? At 1:52 for example, the cymbal hits I'm sure are mathematically perfect but they are hitting slightly different points than the vocal syllables, which are different again from where the piano and bass fall. Maybe that's totally anal but I'm trying to figure out what bothers me and the math is hurting my brain. Maybe my unsophisticated sense of rhythm just wants the song to be in 6/8.

The bottom line for me is that the song flows beautifully at the beginning without the drums; it makes sense to my brain. As soon as I hear the snare it feels like something other is being imposed on the structure and it freaks me out. In the end, I'm not a good enough drummer or music theorist to deduce why. Sorry!
posted by chococat at 10:22 AM on November 15, 2011

Chococat, I wonder if you are on to something. I have a terrible habit of playing and singing ahead of the click, usually about 1/32-1/48 note. That is exactly what you hear in that section at 1:52.

So I just pulled the drums up 1/48. It's not perfect but it seems to make a lot of difference.

I'm sure you're all exhausted by this (I know I am) but if you have the energy, see if you agree.


Otherwise I'm gonna have to call in heavy air support in the shape of Flapjax.

This feels like fixing a bug in a particularly nasty bit of code.
posted by unSane at 12:33 PM on November 15, 2011

Yeah, I can play this groove myself now, actually. I'll have a go at it I think.
posted by unSane at 1:25 PM on November 15, 2011

I would completely defer to flapjax's expertise on this one.
It does actually sound more on beat though, strangely enough.
However, it feels like it's off the instruments in a few parts, but just barely. If it was your vox track that was off...why not move that back instead of the drums ahead?
I feel like I'm being hypercritical here, and it's overshadowing your achievement of a great song.
As demonstrated in this thread, different people react differently so at some point you gotta just leave it how YOU like it.
posted by chococat at 3:12 PM on November 15, 2011

It sounds to me like the song just isn't ready for the snare quite yet until the little roll-in at the beginning of the 3rd verse. After that the drums are perfect and feel right. (I know that blows the idea of a subtle transition into a little more forte.)

I agree with choco too. I don't think it's totally about being on-time or about the signature, it's just about feel and flow.
posted by snsranch at 4:17 PM on November 15, 2011

sns, that's a good point. I sort of felt that when I brought it in on the second verse. I wanted it to be really quiet, almost subliminal, but it ends up being a distraction.

Thanks everyone for pitching in on this. It's really helpful and I appreciate it.

I'm going to put this aside for a few days and then listen to it again and see what I hear.
posted by unSane at 5:19 AM on November 16, 2011

on second listening, my advice is to leave out the drum part entirely - you don't need it - i think it'll open the track right up
posted by pyramid termite at 5:54 PM on November 18, 2011

I did do a version without drums which you can hear here. For me it lacks the punch of the version with drums especially in the big loud verse and at the end.
posted by unSane at 7:44 PM on November 18, 2011

I'd leave the drums out entirely and let the other instrumentation carry it for the first three verses. Bring them in with the build into the fourth verse and continue with how you have them in your "advanced" version, dropping out in the fifth verse and back in for the rest of the song.
posted by platinum at 10:50 AM on November 19, 2011

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