Live and Learn (posted for discussion)

January 7, 2013 9:56 PM

I wrote this song on New Year's Day. There are some things I love about it and some things I don't entirely. Help me figure out what to do with it.

Okay, for a start, this is rough as a badger's arse, so there's that. Everything's a placeholder, especially all the guitar wank and my drumming which is live on the e-kit.

Second, I really like the verses. I have a few changes to the second verse but nothing major.

The chorus is what's bothering me. For a start, I don't like 'sometimes we fly so high'. Fuck that, Celine Dion. Perhaps we could touch the sky, who knows? Maybe 'riding high' or something? As it is, my cheese-meter jams into the red on that line.

Then my pal John complains about the chord sequence in the chorus. The verse sequence ends on V and then the chorus goes ii-V-I-IV-iii-ii-V-VII and so on. He hates the ii-V-I ('we live and learn') it begins with and says it's cheap and predictable.

I'm OK with it as I think cheap and predictable might be a plus but I get his point. ii-iii sort of works with the same topline as does ii-IV-iii, but they're not quite as punchy.

I like the way the ii-V-I leads the IV-iii change, ('sometimes we crash and burn') which is money to me.

The main thing is that (unusually) the chorus seems to get old really fast, whereas you could listen to the verse all day.

I was thinking of instead of going for a double chorus after the solo, just doing one chorus and then coming back for another verse. What do you think? Any other comments?

I can hear a whole hunk of harmonies in the chorus but I'm not sure enough about this yet to start tracking it for real. Have at it.

I can post a chart for it if that helps.

posted by unSane (19 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

I bet it's not the V chord that your friend doesn't like, it's the I chord that follows. The chorus just resolves too quickly, before it even gets started, and deflates the tension you need when contrasting the chorus with a verse that already has a strong sense of the the tonic (with all those pedal tones and gentle changes). Then it should be no surprise that your least favorite lyric lands on the least effective chord in the song.
posted by grog at 11:48 AM on January 8, 2013

I'm hearin' ya re Celine Dion ("crash and burn" was what made me wince a bit*) and the verse arpeggio chords are a bit....well......predictable I guess. There's a couple of things I'd try on that. First don't do the finger picking stuff - strum it with a brighter sound if poss - and try a different chord on the end/turnaround. You know I'm musically illiterate but here's my attempt to notate it:
2 (bottom)
2 (top)

The bottom E (2) being I think F# (unless you're actually playing this in G, in which case it's 3, x, 1, 2, 3, 3).

It's a slightly weird chord but cool and would work well with this. If you can't figure it I could stick something on an mp3 for you (also my guitar soloing services are, as ever, available at the drop of a proverbial).

Need more listens before offering any more, but I reckon it could be a bit faster, have less instrumentation and - yup - harmonies. Also - the vocal isn't quite sitting in the mix - it's sort of on top of it. How about trying something different for you? Track the vocal and sit it deeper back in the mix with a little more reverb on it........

* always a really tough call/balance using cliched terms. People know and remember them, so they can be a really effective hook. But because they're cliches they can make snooty arty-farty literary aesthete types like me reach for the smelling salts. On balance I'd go with the cliches!
posted by MajorDundee at 12:10 PM on January 8, 2013

Thanks for those ideas, guys. I wasn't even attempting to mix it so don't worry about that.

Grog, I think there's something to what you say but it's definitely that V that bugs him. I think it's too vanilla, as is the whole ii-V-I-IV thing really. That said it's a nice clean pop sequence and every time I try to sub in a relative minor for the V or the I or the IV it just seems to deflate a bit.

I think the thing to do, musically, is just make it a bit less obvious, probably just by altering the chords a bit as opposed to changing them. Which is kind of what Major is suggesting.

Major, your chord is a bit too bossa nova for me but I can alter it to a straight Am6/E which is 002212, and then change that to Am6/F# at the end, which is 202212.

One aspect of this is that I'm still having fun playing with a seventies kind of feel and some of the chordal cliches are what give it that sound (eg the IV-V moving over the V root).

I like the arpeggios, but the big problem is that if I play them so they don't drag, the chorus ends up feeling really rushed. You're right, if they're strummed it doesn't drag half as much.
posted by unSane at 3:25 PM on January 8, 2013

Even if John can genuinely say it's the V he doesn't like, he still might prefer it if that chord were in a different context. How about this: instead of that I in the chorus, try the flat VII (same chord you do near the end of the chorus). So it would go: ii, V, VII, IV, iii, ii, V, VII... Then, instead of resolving to IV the way you do in this version, stay on VII for extra long, and do some kind of strong flourish, like a guitar lead to foreshadow the guitar solo.

The hi-hats in the second verse are too clicky and stilted, but I know you said the mix isn't done yet.

Very cool guitar solo, though it could use some slight finessing on the phrasing and timing (2:37-38, 2:43).

I'm no lyricist, but I would just give this advice for the chorus: maximum of one cliche. "Live and learn," "crash and burn," "fly so high" ... keep at most one of those phrases, and change some of the other words so the phrases are more unexpected.
posted by John Cohen at 4:20 PM on January 8, 2013

This is basically my throwaway version that I do to work out the arrangement so yeah the hats are all over the place, like I say all one take and no editing.

I want to keep that bVII for the climax of the chorus so I think it loses its impact if you do it twice like that but I do see where you are coming from.

I've slightly come around to Major's chord now although it pushes the whole thing in a jazzier direction.

I figured out that I can substitute the iv9 for the V in that tricky spot and it sounds quite good and echoes the iv that you hear in the first part of the verse.

So it goes (if anyone's still playing along):

verse ends on 2210x2 (Major's chord, a Baug/F# or something)

| F#m | Am9 or Am9/F# | E | Amaj7 G#m |
| F#m | B7 | Dmaj7 | A | Am7 | Am9/F# |

It's a little jazzy but it might straighten out as the song picks up.


Am9 x02212
Am9/F# 202212
Amaj7 577665x or the usual 002120
Dmaj7 000222
Am7 002013

I think the 'one cliche' rule is a good one, by the way. Very helpful.

I might post a quick acoustic version of this to keep the meter running so to speak.
posted by unSane at 5:39 PM on January 8, 2013

(58766x works in place of Major's chord as well, a straight Baug)

Also, John Cohen, I dithered about hanging on that bVII at the end when I was recording this, and think it might be a good idea.
posted by unSane at 5:49 PM on January 8, 2013

Now that I've tried it out on guitar, I see what you mean about not wanting to go to VII too early. How about this:

ii, IV, I, VII, ii, V, VII __

By singing the same melody, there'd be more dissonance on the second chord (IV instead of V). Your friend gets more unexpected chords, while you still get to go to V the second time around.
posted by John Cohen at 7:12 PM on January 8, 2013

Bonus: that way you sing "crash and burn" as it's going down to the dissonant VII, which seems fitting (unless you change the lyrics).
posted by John Cohen at 7:15 PM on January 8, 2013

Using "live and learn" in the lyrics makes me think of "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney. Notice how he talks about how "you used to say live and let live" in the verse, but then twists half of the cliche into the opposite ("...die") in the chorus. It's still not very subtle, and you can tell he probably started with the straight-up cliche, but by making a fairly obvious twist on the cliche he came up with something that draws in the listener.
posted by John Cohen at 7:20 PM on January 8, 2013

One of the tricky parts is the dearth of useful rhymes for 'learn'.
posted by unSane at 7:28 PM on January 8, 2013

concern, discern, return, etc. :)

Another approach to cliches is to slightly reword them, the worst part of a cliche is the exact phrasing being repeated over and over. Even something as simple as "We live and we learn" might be enough to make it sound less cliche.

Anyway, I like the song, especially the 70s chordal cliches (Carol King changes!), and enjoy it when people humor suggestions from the peanut gallery.
posted by grog at 7:35 PM on January 8, 2013

turn, earn, yearn, churn
posted by John Cohen at 7:44 PM on January 8, 2013

Well, naturally I've outsmarted myself on this one. I'm now completely paralyzed with all the options.
posted by unSane at 11:47 AM on January 10, 2013

I don't know about all that, but this is a real nice pop song you've got started here, unSane.
Try not to work it into the ground and kill it. Ha! Seriously though, I really like it.
I love the piano and the organy-mellotron thing under neath everything. And the whole feel of it.

I don't like 'sometimes we fly so high'. Fuck that, Celine Dion. Perhaps we could touch the sky, who knows?
That made me chuckle.
I suck at lyrics but you might try adding some syllables to your rhyme word. I was going to suggest concern/return etc. but I see grog was there first. Boston Fern?
Sometimes I'll try a word after the rhyme; so you sing the rhyme where it goes and then there's just a little extra word that you slip in after, subtly. As a shit example:
baby we live and learn
sometimes we fly so high
(and) if things don't seem to turn...out
baby we live and learn
That's terrible but you get what I mean. It doesn't really work in this situation but sometimes if you play around for a bit you can sneak another word in and give yourself a bit of freedom instead of having to end on the rhyme while still having a line that makes sense.

Tell me to screw off on this one, but I've never loved the use of calling someone "Baby" in songs. Unless you're like the Shirelles or something. Who says that in life? It's only in songs. One idea would be to say "maybe we'll live and learn...maybe we'll crash and burn" or...maybe not? Opens up some possibilities if it's a question, perhaps.
There's no school tomorrow and I'm into the Sherbet now (thanks Major!) so I'm probably no help at all, sorry. Let me know if you want some harmonies!
posted by chococat at 6:59 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks, Chococat, that was a very helpful comment. I think I've sorted myself out now. It's mostly a case of first thought best thought but I do have a couple of changes that I think will help.

The 'baby' thing... screw off. Ha, not really. It's exactly the Shirelles. For me it's a little marker that says 'this is a song, it's not real life'. I can see how it would bug people. I'm a hopeless romantic so I guess I want my songs to be about a fictitious bittersweet pop world where people do call each other baby, if only in a slightly ironic way.

Also, I did have a girlfriend once who called me baby all the time and I liked it, although she turned out to be a monster from hell.
posted by unSane at 7:35 AM on January 11, 2013

Oh, PS on backing vocals I might take you up on that. I've got some stuff going on in my head that I would like to get down first. It sounds bizarre but there's a full beach boys backing to this which I should probably get out of my system before anything else.

And Major, still thinking about the guitar solo offer too. Thank you. It's a bit tricky as I can hear part of it in my head, and I also keep thinking I should let my real guitarist loose on one of these tracks soon. Part of my mission in life is to restore the guitar solo to pop.
posted by unSane at 7:44 AM on January 11, 2013

Don't take that offer the wrong way mate. Nothing wrong with your solo on this and I wasn't implying that there is. I just like to play and, basically, am happier as a sideman/sessioneer.
posted by MajorDundee at 12:49 PM on January 13, 2013

Are you kidding? I just blasted out meaningless noodling. Anyway you should know by now I'm uninsultable.

I have to tread a bit carefully now I'm doing demos for the band. It's one thing for to put down solos but if I was the other guy I'd raise an eyebrow if I heard a third party doing the solos - kinda "why didn't ya ask me?"

I totally get the sideman thing. I love playing in other people's bands.

I rejiggered this a bit and played it live this afternoon at a little happening they have near here, and it went down well. I took all the cliches out of the chorus and I played the troublesome B a bit differently. It all seemed to mesh even though I was still figuring out the lyrics in the track on the way over.

Chorus goes something like

Well, baby we live and learn
I thought we had luck to kill
I thought we had love to burn
But baby we live and learn

Withe a few variations. I also speeded it up from 115 to about 122.

Sometimes the hardest thing to figure out is what criticism to take on board and what to reject. In the end it's all helpful even if you decide not to act upon it.
posted by unSane at 3:59 PM on January 13, 2013

Soundcloud's kinda shitty tonight but here's a new version.
posted by unSane at 5:38 PM on January 14, 2013

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