Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Beauty of Revision

So, here's a first real post for Wildcat Wire. I'll post about random stuff, mostly music and movies, maybe sports on occasion. For a first foray here, I'd kind of like to talk about revision.

Most of the time when you buy music, you are completely unaware of what changes are made to songs during the demo and recording process. All we see is the finished product, where we judge sounds, lyrics, mixes, etc. We are left to judge what could have changed, where lyrics could be improved, and ponder just what an artist was thinking when they came up with a melody, unable to imagine that a band, like a writer, goes through many drafts on the way to crafting a song. However, on occasion we are able to see the creative process and how artists change their songs before they are formally released.

Sometimes, the idea to revise lyrics goes horrifically wrong, and the songs ultimately sound much worse than their original incarnation (go find those Weezer demos for the Green Album and Maladroit to see how Rivers Cuomo f'd up some great ideas). Other times, rewriting does a lot of good.

Case in Point: Kele Okereke of Bloc Party.

While Bloc Party toured relentlessly in support of Silent Alarm, a lot of songs got written and debuted live in a raw, intense form. These bootlegs turned up online, and sounded like promising songs for their second album.

Now that A Weekend in the City has been released, and the plentiful b-sides from the sessions tracked down by bloggers everywhere, it's become clear that Okereke changed the lyrics to a lot of the songs he debuted in the early stages of writing that album. Songs like "Cells Shaped Like Stars," "Blue Moon," and "Merge on the Freeway" underwent some serious changes to become "We Were Lovers," "England", and "Song for Clay(Disappear Here)" respectively. After listening to the changes, I now think Okereke is sort of a master at revising his work to better suit the message he tries to send with his lyrics. Granted, the work by the rest of the band to create the atmosphere behind the words is probably what I love best about Bloc Party, but the revisions to the lyrics on those songs makes me admire Okereke's committment to putting out the best material he can.

Bloc Party's first album was a hugely refreshing foray into the alt-rock world for me, but it never made that big of a splash stateside. Too many pundits compared them to Gang of Four and others, effectively labelling them in the same way Interpol have been bearing the Joy Division cross on their backs since the first notes on Turn On the Bright Lights left our speakers. Silent Alarm was hardly what its name implied: the album tore out of my headphones with reckless abandon, guitars careening into each other with dueling riffs, bass thundering, and Matt Tong beating his drums so quickly and precisely I completely did not believe what he looked like in the first pictures I saw of the band. They even were poweful when they went for the lighter side of things: my favorite song off that debut is to this day "This Modern Love," which I would not hesitate to throw in my list of songs for a desert island or time capsule. The boys from Bloc tore across their native England and through the indie scene in America with a deafening roar, but endless touring and world events changed frontman Okereke's approach to his art.

If Silent Alarm was the sound of a kick-ass, speaker pulsing party, A Weekend in the City had another dose of album title irony. The getaway weekend suggested by the title was completely absent on the album's 11 tracks, replaced instead by a sense of paranoia, dread, and wisfulness for a more peaceful time. It was the sonic equivalent of leaving the party that was Silent Alarm and having to walk home through the dark, uber-modernized metropolis that the world is slowly becoming. As an Englishman of African decent, Okereke wrote songs about xenophobia (Hunting for Witches), feeling out of place (Where is Home?), and the death of friends (Song for Clay). In simple terms, Bloc Party followed a party record with a concept album about the world changing for the worse with the advent of more technology and increasing fear. This sounds like a disaster, but after listening to some of the songs-in-progress and b-sides, Okereke and the band must have spent an incredible amount of time crafting the album as a dark vision of modern Britain. The songs they left off sound more like Silent Alarm, and they are fantastic, but they don't suit the artistic idea of the album. That is why I have respect for the band and their choices for the record; they intended to say something specific with the album, and chose the correct songs to do so. They did release all of the other tracks, so fans got their fix of the namesake Party.

So take a look at the before and after versions of a few of the songs from the Weekend in the City Sessions, and see how Okereke changed his songs to make them much better thematically.

Bloc Party - Cells Shaped Like Stars(Live)
Bloc Party - Blue Moon(Live)
Bloc Party - Song for Clay(Demo)

Bloc Party - We Were Lovers
Bloc Party - England
Bloc Party - Song for Clay(Disappear Here)

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