Monday, May 19, 2008

Ed Shepp - The Madonna Within EP

Ed Shepp - The Madonna Within EPAloha, gzeeplets! Welcome to the post for my latest offering, The Madonna Within EP.

OK, Before we get to the story behind the project, here are the mp3s. Click HERE to download a zip file of the entire EP, encoded at 128kbps (~20Mb). Or click here to download the zip file at CD quality. OR click below for the individual songs---click the 320kbps link to download the high-quality file; click the 128kbps to download the average-quality file.

1. Beautiful Stranger (320kbps) (128kbps)

2. Love Tried to Welcome Me (320kbps) (128kbps)

3. La Isla Bonita (320kbps) (128kbps)

4. I'm Not Cool Enough to Listen to the White Stripes (the Madonna within mix) (320kbps) (128kbps)

And a couple alternate mixes:

5. Love Tried to Welcome Me (Softly) (320kbps) (128kbps)

6. I'm Not Cool Enough to Listen to the White Stripes (the Madonna without mix) (320kbps) (128kbps)

There we go. Now let's talk about the EP. Overshare time!

What's an EP? According to Wikipedia, "An Extended play (EP) is a vinyl record or CD which contains more music than a single, but is too short to qualify as an album." I grew up in the 80s, so I remember having vinyl records--12-inch dance singles (which sparked my lerv for remixing & glitching), a Footloose picture disc, and that David Lee Roth EP with Just a Gigolo on it. When I bought it, I thought "extended play" meant remixes; but no, for some reason it meant "4 songs or so." Whahappah?! At the time I was a li'l peeved, but it must've stuck in my mind, because "releasing an EP" became one of those things I always wanted to do in my imagined popstar life, like doing a "concept album" or a spread in Playgirl or coming out with a line of vitamins or something.

Why Madonna covers? Well, why not? I love doing cover versions--they're often pretty quick to put together, and you can put your own spin on them; plus, (and this is just my theory here) people can be more easily persuaded to actually listen to them. Not to imply that I'm putting myself in the same league as these people, but I heart the various versions of Smells Like Teen Spirit, Umbrella, Baby One More Time, etc. I also love the different versions of Like A Prayer, like Bigod 20's and John Wesley Harding's versions. Which brings us to the other half of the question--why Madonna? Well, again, I'm a child of the 80s. Behold me in my full 80s horror (this picture is from a Prince-inspired idea I had of wearing only purple, white or black. Ugh. I still remember someone making a joke about me wearing "disposable clothing.") So anyway, yeah, I grew up listening to Madonna songs. And I had (and still have, sigh) friends obsessed with Madonna. (I reiterate---sigh.) Also, her music is so ubiquitous that pretty much everyone knows or likes at least one song. Furthermore, they're not exactly the most difficult ones to sing--I don't think Madonna has ever put gwakloads of melisma into any performance.

Moreover, I already had ideas for Madonna covers. One idea was for a version of Nobody's Perfect. I thought that it, with its out-of-control auto-tune, sounded something like an artificial intelligence experiment gone awry. The song is sung from the point of view of a robot that's just been given emotion which it cannot control and massacres all the scientists developing it. Of course, then the robot feels sorry and sings the song about nobody being perfect. I thought it would be cool to remake the song like that, with audio clips to suggest the backstory. It was actually on the list of songs to do, but I decided eventually not to do it, because the song (let's face it) is pretty dull, even if it has a backstory and all that. Another song that I wanted to do but didn't make the final cut was Like A Prayer--I wanted to combine the acoustic guitar sound of the John Wesley Harding version with a hard beat like the one I used in Swamp. I ended up not doing that one because I didn't feel as strongly about it as the other songs. As for other songs I might have liked to do, there's Inside of Me and Bedtime Story, the former because it reminds me of a few people who've died, the latter because it's just such a cool song. But since I didn't have much of a point of view for those songs, and not much to really add, I decided not to do them. Oh, and I always thought it would be fun to do American Life (such a bad song--I wonder if the song she stole it from [allegedly--fascinating and bizarre link] was any better), but I sort of incorporated that into La Isla Bonita, so yeah.

But enough of the songs I didn't do; let's talk about the ones I did...

Beautiful Stranger. [click for lyrics] I just think this is a great song. It's one of my favorite Madonna songs--I love the arrangement, and if I'd not done it, I might have thought that I had nothing to add to it, that it was absolutely perfect the way it was. Now that I'm finished with it, of course, I'm very pleased with how it turned out, and I think I brougth my own aesthetic to it. Why did I choose this particular song? Well, I know that it had become something of a 'signature song' for me, but I can't really explain why. Partly because I sang it all the time at the radio station while waiting for files to process or whatnot. Partly because I like to change the lyrics to make them Ed-centric. Example: "To know Ed, to know Ed is to love Ed... You're Ed-vrywhere I go...." In the end, the song becomes something of a song about myself, as if I'm the beautiful stranger. Or as if there's a part of me that is a beautiful stranger to myself. I suppose you could read a lot into that if you wanted to. One of things that I'm reminded of when I think of that interpretation of the song is when my friend Mark was learning the song Where or When for an audition. ("And so it seems that we have met before, and laughed before, and loved before... but who knows where or when?") His vocal coach told him to sing it as if he were singing to himself. I kind of like singing Beautiful Stranger in that way--it's an interesting interpretation. Oh, and one more reason why I chose this song: I've already performed it, sort-of, live on The Ed Shepp Radio Experiment as part of one of the fundraising shows I did. Another reason why it's a signature song of mine. I thought that since I've performed it already, I might as well do it right and make a big production of it. So I did. And I even name-checked my hometown at the end. ("You came here from Florida, and brought the beep from Mount Dora...") Booyah!!

The processing in the song: I fell in love with a lot of the instruments that I used to create the song. I love the choir-type voices, the celesta-type sound which I wanted to sound like a toy piano, the brass-type sound that you sometimes hear in it, and of course the tubular bell (one of my all-time favorite sounds; so is the "boing" sound effect in "dancing all over the place"). I'm also very pleased with all the beeping, and most especially with the timpani that comes in around the "Ed-vrywhere I go" parts. Ever since I heard a timpani used in both Bjork's Human Behavior and the bottom heavy dub mix of Madonna's Human Nature, I've always wanted to use the sound in something. I think in Beautiful Stranger is makes the song even more fun. Oh, and the drums: these were just drums I was using as a temporary file to check out the vocals and stuff; I hadn't intended to use them in the final mix. But the more I listened to it, the more I liked it. The song is at 122bpm, so I think a driving beat works pretty well for it. So I kept the drums mostly simple, and I'm really pleased with how they came out.

Love Tried to Welcome Me. [click for lyrics] OK, I must confess--I can relate to this song. Sure, maybe it's not the best, most moving song in the world, but in that tumultuous time when I was dating and all, I found that the song really spoke to me. I guesss in a way it still does, as I realize that finding a relationship and getting married just isn't important to me like it seems to be to other people. To paraphrase Bjork, I definitely enjoy solitude; perhaps I'm overly wedded to my own independence. Or perhaps I'm just rambling. Anyway, I've always felt this song was under-rated, so that's one reason I wanted to record it. Another reason would be that I have very little somber pieces in my repertoire, so I thought this would be a nice addition.

As for the processing in the song, I originally wanted it to sound very natural, but, as I am wont to do, changed my mind as I worked on it, going with a very electro sound. I'm very pleased with the vocoded parts. I also like the instrumentation, which in my head started out as a very simple recorder-type instrument playing the parts. But when I heard some of the wind instruments that I could use for the song, I chose to use a flute and piccolo for the main parts of the song and went with an electronic sound for the baseline, which alone sounds very haunting (you can hear this more in the softer mix). I flattened the echoes a little too to try to give the song a more 'blue' feel.

La Isla Bonita. [click for lyrics] With this song, I wanted to re-imagine it as a tragedy. The backstory here is that we have a transgender "woman" (male-to-female) sitting in a run-down apartment, despondent over something we don't know. We hear the sound of her refrigerator humming and various household noises, plus a television set in the background. We hear her crying, and from the television set we hear an announcer talking about a story to air at 11 about the "new hallucinogenic drug ravaging the transgender community." (I'm amused by the idea of snorting Calgon), and it's supposed to make those who use it, at least the MTF transgender ones, feel "like The drug is called Calgonreal girls." Then the announce says, "And now back to Tyra" and we hear The Trya Banks Show (a show which arguably epitomizes depressing, brain-dead daytime TV, and one which presumably would appeal to the transgendered, since Tyra Banks, with her wigs and being 9 feet tall and all, is practically a drag queen herself). Interestingly, I think in the clip she's talking about one of her biggest beauty secrets, which is, go figure, Vaseline. Anyway, the woman in the song mutters (of course), "Calgon, take me away" (I couldn't resist that one) and snorts it. Quickly thereafter the music from the song fades in and she starts singing.

I meant it to be evident that this girl isn't relating to this song because she's actually been to any sort of tropical island, so I mangled the Spanish wherever I could. Except, of course, for the title, which pretty much everyone knows. I want to convey there that she's clinging to a corny Madonna song to escape her reality, but she's also conflating the song's content with her reality. Under the influence of this new drug, she believes that she's been to this island. At least, until, she gets to the bridge of the song, where we hear the song start to collapse (the vocoded background vocals flatten, etc.) as she gets to the line "...a boy loves a girl." Here she crashes down from her high, from two factors: 1) the high doesn't last very long, which I guess in a sense would make it like hallucinogenic crack and 2) the realization that she is not, in fact, a girl at all, which is a buzzkill. At this point you hear her break down again (and you hear Tyra talking aboug Spanx) and she snorts more of the drug. Then the music fades back in and she resumes singing.

I tried to make her sound as if she were breaking further with reality as the song continued, but that she was also connected to her sadness. So she's not "high" in a traditional sense; she's more in a "mixed state," some combination of despair, euphoria and agitation. Anyway, at the very end, I thought that nothing (nothing but nothing) could convey her despair more than a rendition of the rap from American Life. Cuz really, is there any lower point than that? And the last line about nothing being what it seems helps illuminate her experience; but mostly I liked the idea of adding that because in a pop music sense it's almost the very essence of tragedy. Can we agree that the rap in American Life is the worst thing Madonna has ever done (musically, at least), tongue-in-cheek or not? (I would even include "Wild Dancing" here.) Discuss.

A note about processing: You'll notice that the vocals in the song are not pitch-corrected within an inch of their life. This is intentional. The singer is not supposed to sound good. So I just sung the song in in one take, with no practice. Not that I had to worry about sounding bad enough--I'm far from a good singer. But I definitely did NOT want the song to sound like a good singer trying to sound bad. I've heard that so many times before, and it's tiring. I like the way my version came out--I'm sure it's cringeworthy to someone with good ears, but it's not supposed to sound good. As for the instrumentation, I wanted it to sound lush, and even disorganized toward the end. I also wanted it to build every time it began, since the music isn't real per se, but only part of the singer's hallucination. I did a lot of doubling of instruments to try to get the right sound, and for the most part I'm pleased with it, especially the part where the full drums come in--the effect I was going for there was this: when the bass and the drums first come in, they're supposed to sound puny, so I gutted a lot of low frequencies from the bass guitar and kept the drums low in the mix. So the listener is supposed to think it sounds crappy, but then be surprised when the full drums and bass come in. I hope I achieved that. Unfortunately, I don't feel like I really achieved the full effect on some of the vocals--I wanted there to be more echo in the end, to really give an impression of 'otherworldliness,' so to speak, but I just didn't have the time to delve enough into that, and I feared it would muddy the mix beyond recognition. Alas! Maybe with the next song of this sort....

I'm Not Cool Enough to Listen to the White Stripes (the Madonna within mix). [click for lyrics] I'm not sure that you can really call this a cover version. It's inspired by the beast within mix of Justify My Love, (hence my "Madonna within" mix and EP title), in which Madonna basically read excerpts from the Book of Revelation and interspersed them with some lyrics from JML. The music in the mix is actually pretty boring--some sitars I think, the sample of Madonna wailing from Erotica (although it sounds awfully good to be Madonna; kind of like the wailing in Paula Abdul's My Love is for Real, which is actually not Paula Abdul but Ofra Haza. I'd always thought as much, but I figured that it was so drowned in reverb that it could've been Abdul's crap voice. Anyway, as far as I know this remix pre-dates auto-tune, so I have my doubts as to whether Madonna herself sung that part). And the beat was from another rather uninspired remix of JML. So I redid the music with loops, rather than try to re-create any of it. Also, I didn't use any of the JML parts, but instead used my song I'm Not Cool Enough to Listen to the White Stripes (Vote for Angelyne) from my CD Superpowerpusssy. It's a song which is absolutely self-explanatory, as it simply states that I'm not cool enough to listen to the White Stripes and exhorts the listener to vote for Angelyne to be the governor of California. If you look at its success as an Angelyne campaign anthem, it's a total failure, but that's fine. It was a song I created while I was just learning how to use Cubase on a friend's laptop, and it served as part of the inspiration for a ditty that I made for WFMU's Pseu Braun called The P is for PsuperpowerPseu Too (which also combines elements from The P Is for Pussy and Superpowerpusssy.) So anyway, since the music is very different and the "remixed" song is as well, I wouldn't call this a cover version in the strict sense. But I will say that I made most of the same choices in interpreting the text as Madonna (or whoever coached Madonna) did, with a few differences, some of which work well, some not so well. One example of something we did differently is that I like to pronounce the word "blasphemous" as [blass-FEE-muss]. I just think it's funny; it might be hard to hear in the song, though.

One thing that I really like about the song is the way the ending of JML and InCEtLttWS parallel each other. In JML, it ends with the quote "What're you gonna do?" from the song. Mine ends with "Are you cool enough?" which actually ended the original version as well. I like how that turned out.

But since this isn't a cover version in the strict sense (since Madonna certainly cannot be credited with writing the Book of Revelation, although I'm SURE she tried to change a few words or something to get a co-writing credit! :P ), why did I choose it? Well, ever since I first heard it, I thought it was one of the coolest ideas ever. And I always wanted to do something similar, or maybe even copy it outright for an episode of The Ed Shepp Radio Experiment or something, but I never had time to do the latter, and I couldn't think of any way to do the former which would come out as well as JML. I also have a fun memory of the song from college, when my friend Tavares and I, who were the only people who knew the words by heart, walked through campus speaking them in unison, looking like lunatics. So anyway, since I couldn't think of a way to make the idea myne own, I thought, "I'll just do a cover of it!" And so I did. I have to admit: I had a concern about omitting the line that says "the slander of those who say that they are Jews, but they are not..."; but I chose to leave it in. After all, it's not my words--I'm covering Madonna, who was covering the Book of Revelation. And frankly, I don't know that the phrase is explicitly anti-semitic. It seems to me that the author, John, was saying that Jews who'd rejected Jesus constituted a "synagogue of Satan," not Jews or Semites in general. I can see how some people might find the wording offensive, but let's face it, people, the text is thousands of years old and has been translated a zillion times by people with almost as many agendas. Who knows what was said back then? So today we end up with a potentially incendiary line in a song that no one will really take seriously, but creates some juicy controversy (at least it did for Madonna--obviously an intentional move on her part, and more savvy than Michael Jackson's pathetic "kick me, kike me" lyric intended to stir up a ruckus).

A note about lyrics: Basically, I just said what Madonna said. Or, rather, what I thought she said, because I already knew the song by heart and didn't feel like checking them. Yeah, I can be lazy. So I probably got some of it wrong. I guess that would put me in the grand tradition of people passing down holy books, then.

And now the processing: This was a fun song to do, because I like working with loops. The biggest challenge was to give them variation. While I think everything's in the same key, there is a bit of variation there. I think the song is listenable without being too boring. Another challenge was making the spoken parts loud enough to discern. I put a LOT of compression, probably too much, on them, and maybe forgot to apply a de-esser. But I really shouldn't talk about processing so specifically, because I'm sure the whole EP, and maybe everything I've done myself, is littered with technical errors. So to any engineers reading this and thinking about how to express your criticisms, suck it. Another vocal note: Everyone will notice that the chorus is not pitch-corrected. In fact, it was a "scratch vocal," something I just put in as a placeholder and meant to redo later. But when I heard it with the spoken parts, I really liked how it sounded. I think there was a bit of distortion in some parts of it, but that's minor. Also, the way I did it, off pitch and all, reflects almost identically the way I did the original song--basically, I sung it before I had any music done and hoped for the best. Interestingly, though, if you compare this song and the original back-to-back, you do hear a slight improvement in my vocal control, because in the original the last time I say "I'm not cool enough to listen to the White Stripes" I flatten to some strange place, which sounds pretty cool to me but almost certainly dastardly out of tune. My voice also cracks a little. I'm a bit more consistent here, although I would have liked to replicate the cracking and flattening more. Alas.

WHEW!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's a helluva lotta yakkin! I hope I covered everything; if not, maybe I'll come back and add more. Or ask me questions if you want, or leave a comment. I'd expect that if any hardcore Madonna fans actually listen to the songs, I'll probably get some mean, evil comments! :P Hell, that comes with the territory. In the end, though, I hope someone out there likes what I did. It was a fun project--more time-consuming than I thought, but also more fulfilling than I thought it would be, considering the songs are Madonna covers. I guess I should also note that I finished the project (actually was forced to finish it before I'd have liked to) because of sad events, so to some this may seem like an odd time to be dropping a CD (of sorts). But it really has to be done before I get down to apartment-hunting and all that. Thanks to everyone for your kind words, incidentally.

And since I'm thanking peops, I just want to give a shout-out to everyone who gave me feedback or acknowledged the project. Thanks! That means a lot. I'd also like to thank all the peops who did NOT acknowledge the project--that says a lot. Thanks to Andy for asking me how it was going, even though he couldn't care less about Madonna covers. :P And thanks to Craig at Little Pioneer Cider House studio for those great sounds.

In closing, I hope you like the songs. No, I hope you LOVE the songs. Or HATE them, and send them to everyone you know raging about how you hate them. :P And that's that. And that's the beep for now.

Ed Shepp

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