a particularly righteous weasel


This is another of the Oberlin College-written collaborations between Don Marvel and me. Perhaps the least-celebrated of our collaborations, it was only performed by Mr Ability -- it's not among those college songs I revived for Anomaly in my NYC years. Writing about Mr Ability becomes a minor minefield of namedropping, as a number of our members went on to exciting and notable careers.

The song is interesting on a few fronts. There are a few ideas thrown in together, somewhat ambitiously. I set out to write a weird blend of blues and medieval elements. First of all, true to the title, the verses are written to a 12-bar blues chord progression -- the only time I've ever written a song using this progression. It also is in 12/8 time which is a feel I don't use very much. I felt this was appropriate for this odd medieval feel I was imagining, probably borrowed from some wonderful Gentle Giant. The chorus is more typical of my melodic style (difficult to sing, it's a spastic melody I'm really proud of) -- from "and I hit the road and it hit me right back" through the titular chorus section ("...when love comes, it comes in twos for me and youse.") The "soloing" section is another blues, suddenly with a driving Chuck Berry/rock'n'roll 4/4 feel. The twist was that everyone would be in a different key. We were all supposed to be fifths apart, bass in Eb, guitar in Bb, keyboards in F. As I recall, Don (on bass) and Jason, our guitarist, decided it sounded bad for them not to be in unison and decided they would both play in Eb, so I compensated by playing piano in F, synth in Bb (or vice versa). Ever the Conservatory student, I wrote a 12-tone "solo" melody for the violin. Imitating Alban Berg, I tried to come up with a tone row that sounded kind of tonal, and started out a little bluesy. At the first couple of performances, Carla played this as written. In later performances, she didn't bother -- in the recording you'll hear, she improvises. I didn't fault her for it, the whole section was an experiment and I wasn't convinced of its unmitigated success. An added bonus, in this section, for this recording only, you get to hear Matt Hubbard blow some harmonica, which is a treat, and almost makes the song sound like real blues for a minute.

"In the middle..." This polytonal blues gives way to the quiet middle section in a mysterious G minor, the rock'n'roll fading out as the signature keyboard figure is restated (I failed to mention its appearance at the outset.)  Mr Ability was augmented at various points by other instruments such as saxophone trombone and cello, in addition to the more reliable Clarinet (me) and violin (Carla Kihlstedt). So an arrangement exists for this section with clarinet, Cello, violin and harpsichord. At the point of this recording, we were basically down to our core membership, so I just play the accompaniment to this section using a harpsichord patch doubled with a portative organ sound. For the music, I stole a little bit of my favorite Christmas song, the ancient "Coventry Carol," which ends with this beautiful scat-like phrase typical of English carols, "bye bye lullee lullay" -- with a picardy third on "lay."  I couldn't resist borrowing this picardy phrase in setting Don's line, "never die over spilt silk."

After this, we abruptly jump back to the "hit the road" part which instead of leading us to the chorus swings back to the final verse, beginning with the words "And in the end, there was this shape" -- using the same blues progression melody as the verse which opened with "In the beginning, there was this guy." Although the chord progression is technically a blues, we should note that the section is NOT bluesy at all. It's practically chipper, with its 12/8 "bump-a bump-a" feel. Then we go to the "Righteous weasel" chorus, played twice for emphasis and finality. A couple of times you can hear our vocalist Thisbe struggle valiantly with the chorus melody. It is difficult to sing. We used Thisbe brilliantly on other songs like "Here Adolf Lies" and "Paco" but this one stretched her pretty far. Over all she did well, but I recall her giving me grief over the leaps in the melody. It still makes me chuckle thinking of the musical stew I put together here. 

This recording was made at the Cat in the Cream, Mr Ability's favorite performance venue, at our final performance. The semester ended shortly thereafter and Mr Ability would never reconstitute, though from its ashes would rise Lumberbride. The only other musician in the group I failed to mention is my good friend Dan Kennedy, who by now was a little tired of the jeering, tongue-in-cheekness of the style that inspired Don, Jason and myself. Dan would look for more earnest campus band pastures, after a semester in Vienna.

 "Righteous Weasel" was performed on three occasions, one of them outside of a full Mr Ability gig, as my entry for a  Music Technology Departmental Recital. This latter performance of this song gives rise to my story about John McEntire, noted musician of Tortoise, Sea and Cake, and multiple production credits. John and I were students in the Oberlin TIMARA department together so we had opportunities to run across one another's tracks a fair amount. My only real knowledge of his music at the time concerned a duo he put together with a like-minded fellow whose name escapes me, a group they called the Putney Ensemble -- perhaps it was "Trio" -- where they would create live music on stage with 2 or more of the Department's Putney VCS3 synthesizers (best remembered for their use on Dark Side of the Moon). I did share their love of old analog synths, but their performances never excited me much. I'd like to think that I acknowledged even at the time that they were more willing to wrestle with the old technology outside the classrooms and try to  make music that meant something to them. But to be clear, John and I were not friends -- we barely knew one another; he was quiet and I was shy, never one to try to pull quiet people out of any imagined "shell."

The aforementioned Putney boys were also on the bill for the recital. Mr Ability was a large ensemble, and we were here in expanded form, with an added cello and harpsichordist (I had hoped the latter would be able to help us borrow a real harpsichord from the historic music department, but instead he played a Roland synth with a cheesy Harpsichord patch that sounded more like a trumpet sound.) The bridge to this song, described above, is quiet, with no drums, voice  accompanied by cello (Rebecca Arons), violin, clarinet (me) and fake harpsichord (Dave "Alex" Rovang).  Carla Kihlstedt had a pickup for her violin to help her be heard over the din of the ensemble, but our only choice was to mike the cello and clarinet. We sound-checked before the show earlier in the afternoon and left our stuff on stage (most acts at an Electronic Music show were tape pieces, in those days, so there is typically little problem of having to move equipment on and off stage during the show between acts/pieces.) After we left, the Putney Trio sound-checked, but we didn't stick around to watch that. So later, during the concert, when we took the stage to perform the song, lo and behold -- Carla's pickup was nowhere to be found. Apparently it had been deemed useful by the Putney fellas and absorbed into their cluttered setup. So when we took the stage, Carla couldn't find it -- she was forced to share my mike, which was not totally satisfactory as Carla was more accustomed to having some freedom of movement on stage. I was pretty pissed. It took a few great Tortoise and Stereolab records for me to get over my resentment of John McEntire.