A bit of a departure from the previous tracks, “Deep Brown Studying” is an instrumental piece for solo piano. As usual, click the “play” icon above to listen, and the sliders below for more information about the music.
Recorded in May 2010, in Rick’s Home Studio
Rick: Digital Piano (Clavinova CLP860)
Something I generally take for granted, but am really thankful for when I take the time to think about it is the fact that I see colors (or “sense” them at any rate) when I play music. It’s been like that as long as I can remember, and it’s consistently the same colors… for example, “D” chords are a vibrant blue, “A” is orange, “C” a goldenrod yellow, “F” a slightly-magenta red… and the key of this song, “G”, is a deep, earthy brown color.
When I’m writing music, the color palette definitely figures into it (at least subconsciously). It’s clear to me which colors blend together well, and those color changes translate directly into sensible chord progressions. Sitting at the piano for this song, my hope was to explore (i.e., “study”) the color space around that brownish hue, imagining being lost in reverie. At the same time, I tried to develop a prominent melody to sit out in front of the chord progression to guide an outsider observer through my wanderings. Funny enough, because I wrote the song over 7 years ago, I’ve had plenty of time to interpret it myself… I tend to picture traveling through farmland in the late fall. A few years back, I had a business trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, and the flat-ness and brown-ness of the place seemed exactly right.
The recording was done on my digital piano at home, but once I got it into Sonar (the digital audio workstation that I use), I decided to double it with a second piano (“TruePianos Amber”) reading the same recorded MIDI stream at a very low volume level to fill out the sound.
One challenge I had to address is that the song intrinsically has a bit more dynamic (volume) range that the other “band” songs we’ve been putting out. After my first mix attempt, I popped it on my iPod where it directly followed “The Shortstop Song“. I played “Shortstop” at a normal volume level and when the tracks changed, the opening section of “Deep Brown Studying” was really soft. However, in the middle sections the piano becomes relatively loud in comparison to the opening, so I couldn’t simply raise the levels (without risking deafening legions of fans, or causing the senseless destruction of myriad speakers).
So, despite my conflicted feelings about it, I decided to apply a little bit of compression when mastering the mix. Over-simplistically, “compression” reduces the volume range of the song – the would-be soft parts are made a little louder, while the would-be loud parts are made a little softer. In a sense, doing it takes away a little bit of the “emotion” of the song for the sake of conformity to the other tracks – and were this being released as one of a number of similar instrumental songs, I wouldn’t even consider it – but I think it was a necessary trade-off to make it blend in more smoothly with the other songs. At a minimum, it soothes my guilt to be honest about it here.
As a last note, I’m perfectly awful at giving names to the instrumentals I’ve written. My wife likes to tease me about that – if she or my kids want to hear something specific, they’re forced to do it by the “hum-a-few-bars” method. In this case, however, serendipity came to my rescue by providing the phrase “brown study”… which is a somewhat archaic term for being in “state of serious absorption or abstraction”. That fit perfectly; the song was a “Deep Brown Study in G”, which I eventually shortened to the present title.
Steve: If you have been reading along during this series of song notes, you have probably observed that the thing I care about is that these musical compositions tell stories, that they take you from one state to another. “Deep Brown Studying” has no words, yet in the mood it conveys, in the sequence of the notes, it seems to me to have a clearly discernible plot, with beginning, middle, end. Being that we have not cluttered its theme with anything so specific as words, the nature of that plot is up to you. I know that were I ever to attempt to put words to this piece, I should have no trouble doing it, it is so evocative to me, but to do so would be to unnecessarily reduce a song that speaks for itself without my help.
The world abounds in solo piano pieces, and so many of them are so much aural wallpaper. I am quite proud that “Deep Brown Studying” demands that you listen to it. Even if Rick had called this piece “The Flamboyant Yellow Dragon,” I’m pretty sure it would still reach out and grab you with its wistfulness and yearning to find… what? Like I said, that’s up to you. I’ve been listening to this song for a long time—it’s part of my regular rotation—and I’m still considering the answer. I hope I never stop wondering.
“The Shortstop Song” represents the inevitable collision of two of our favorite things: music and baseball. As a reminder, click on the “Play” icon above to hear a streaming version of the song (or download the mp3 from our page full o’ tracks), and check out the sections below for the whole story behind the song.
Steve: Inspiration often comes from unlikely places. When someone asks you where you get your ideas, you’re supposed to reply, “From the idea distribution center in Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania.” No need to dissemble this time, though: the inspiration for “The Shortstop Song” came from the Royals’ acquisition of their current shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt, in July 2009.
If you follow baseball, you know that the Kansas City Royals have gone from being one of baseball’s great teams in the 1970s and 1980s to a seemingly eternal doormat. They have posted one winning record since 1994, have finished last in their division seven times in the last 15 years, and have lost 100 or more games four times. They show no signs of being less than hopeless now or at any time in the future.
The Royals have never had a good two-way shortstop for more than two minutes at a time—a season of Jay Bell in 1997, an apparent fluke .325 average from Mike Aviles in 2008 (after the preferred starter, Tony Pena, batted .156 over the first two months of the season), maybe a few weeks of U.L. Washington in the early ‘80s—and Betancourt, a fielding and hitting non-entity, fits right into the lineage of mediocrity. Thus it is especially ironic that his acquisition had me asking, “What would it be like if the Royals actually had a quality shortstop, say a Derek Jeter?”
The answer came back instantly: “They would still be terrible and the shortstop would be an emotional wreck.” In that moment, “The Shortstop Song” was born. This mythical fellow, the Royals’ star shortstop, bemoans his fate, thankful to the majors but praying for guidance to Buddy Biancalana, the utility infielder who started at short for the 1985 championship Royals (a career .205 hitter, Biancalana hit .278 in the Series, then was embraced by David Letterman for reasons known only to Dave) and calling out to Willie Mays, only to break down as he remembers that the great Mays never played for Kansas City. Instead, they had Willie Mays Aikens, the slugging, defensively inept first baseman who later went to prison for selling crack to an undercover policeman. When you have no hope, George Brett, Frank White, Dan Quisenberry, Bret Saberhagen, these are distant figures, but somehow Buddy and Willie are always close by. You can substitute your own demigods, but I find the lords of pain pick up their phones faster than the angels of succor… and so does our imaginary Royals shortstop, batting today between Scott Podsednik and Billy Butler.
Recorded in Dec 2009, in Rick’s Home Studio
Rick: Acoustic and electric guitars, synth/drum programming, vocals
When Steve first sent me the lyrics and a scratch take of the melody it was in the key of G, which made the second syllable of the word “ova” very difficult for anyone other than that guy from A-ha to reach, and kind of painful even if delivered on target. When we sat down to record it a few months ago the overall sound wasn’t gelling the way we were hoping, so we took a break and, on reflection, decided to give it a shot transposed into D. That simple change made things a lot easier on everyone (CO members and listeners alike), although it cost me a few extra recording takes on the guitar because my brain was having a hard time letting go of some of the original chords.
With the song being baseball-themed, I felt it imperative to add an organ part (though by the end of the process it wound up relatively low in the mix, so as to not clash with the electric guitar). I was, however, able to resist the urge to work in any standard ballpark musical fare into the backdrop (no “charge!” or “take me out to the ballgame” allusions…) — but, I have inside information that this isn’t the last baseball song in the CO catalogue, so stay sharp.
The main harmonies presented themselves easily enough, but the bridge section outright begged for something more. How often do you get to sing something as mellifluous as “Buddy Biancalana”? While I had the house to myself one afternoon, I recorded no fewer than 9 vocal tracks to get the “Buddy” harmonies just how I wanted them. I freely admit that I had far too much fun with that part.
As a final touch, I wanted to give a clearer distinction between the verses and chorus sections, so I added a (Steve Nieve-esque?) piano part in the background.
- Steve’s vocal is mixed out in front throughout, but I added a double through the verses just to thicken the sound a bit.
- Steve suggested both (a) the fill just following “among the nine” (a combination of electric guitar and a few chords on piano), and (b) adding the extra harmonies on the last chorus and outro to vary things up a little… both excellent ideas in my humble opinion.
- Thanks to the magic of the fade out, you all don’t get to hear how the recording session devolved into chaos at the end, with Steve singing “Shortstop Song!” repeatedly and me playing something that kind of sounded like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
The Shortstop Song
Since the sperm met the ova
I’ve been playing from behind
You’d think I would be grateful just to be among the nine
But I find that when you’re losing
Winning’s not a state of mind
And the coach shouts from the side
“Straighten up, boy, have some pride”
Forgot the meaning of the words
I’ll just pretend I haven’t heard…
I met a woman
Said she’d help to bear my load
When I told her who I was playing for
She said to hit the road
Fate is capricious
And too hard to resist
With high hopes for my prospects I was drafted off a list
- I’m a shortstop!
Always playing in the hole
I’m a shortstop!
And life is just a bowl of…
Help me please
I’m on my knees
And I don’t know how to rise up
You’d think that I would wise up
Quit and earn some honest pay
But where else can you make millions
Just for losing every day?
My body’s off the road trip
But my mind is still away
If in April you believed
Then you can’t help but feel deceived
Last night I drove in seven runs
But we were trailing ten to one…
- We lost one-hundred-and-one…
Willie Mays –
Willie Mays Aikens!