(Canadian Rational, 2006)
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RockPaperScissors is Michael Brook’s third solo offering. When not recording in his Lavanderia studio located in the Hollywood Hills, Michael and his co-producer, multi-instrumentalist and arranger Rich Evans (of Peter Gabriel’s band) traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria on behalf of this ambitious project, where they recorded local orchestral and choral ensembles. Into this mix, Brook introduced several vocalist/songwriters such as his former 4AD label mate Lisa Germano, Shira Myrow and Paul Buchanan from the Blue Nile.
Michael offers some reflections on the unique set of events and working methods that yielded each track comprising RockPaperScissors:
Track 1 “StrangeProcession” — I like that it begins with a Bulgarian choir, ends with a Lebanese violinist, and has a rock band from Turkey in-between. It develops at times into a tongue-in-cheek homage to Led Zeppelin when they were doing their eastern rock thing (i.e. “Kashmir”).
Track 2 “Want” is a collaboration with Lisa Germano and I think she did an amazing job creating personal and strong lyrics. The scenario for this song is where someone in a relationship has essentially decided it’s the wrong thing. But they can’t end it as the other person is always happy and they don’t want to rain on their parade; or the person is always sad and they don’t want to kick them when they’re down. Richard Evans did a great job of taking the original chord progression played on a keyboard (which is slightly irregular but has a very emotional quality) and orchestrating it for the Bulgarian orchestra. The conductor of the Bulgarian orchestra was fantastic and had a strong understanding of the feel we were going for, which was a little more rigorous than romantic. And Lisa’s vocal performance is emotionally involving without being overwrought.
Track 3 “Doges” — There isn’t really a story behind this piece. In general for me there is not an idea and then the music. I tend to play randomly and improvise and then something comes out that I like; then I record and develop it. You work on the music and each time something there suggests what you should do next. It’s an incremental process and at the start I don’t know what the ending will be. It’s making music that sounds good to me at the time.
Track 4 “DarkRoom” has an amazing reading in it by Sir Richard Burton. I was playing the track to Rich Evans and we thought there should be some spoken word — something that really appealed to me to try on this project. I randomly heard a clip of Burton reading something from Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood”… the power and emotion of his voice, and the abstract imagery that created with the words, suddenly brought new life into the music. It’s just a list of things but it is done with such vigor that it creates a hard to specify but moving experience for me.
The contents of the piece probably sound very weird: Burton reading “Under Milk Wood”, our amazing Lebanese violinist, a Bulgarian orchestra and then the sort of slightly fake rock music that I do. I think the thing that pervades the album is an affectionate but also at times tongue-in-cheek look at rock music, which is what I grew up listening to and playing. But I find it too youthful in almost every way these days to hold much interest for me. Yet it’s still what I know how to do, and it’s what comes out most of the time.
Track 5 “RockPaperScissors” is a collaboration with Shira Myrow, a very talented singer and songwriter whom I saw perform, and was impressed by her lyrical ability. Then we were lucky enough to get Paul Buchanan, the extraordinary vocalist from the Blue Nile, to sing on the track, at Craig Armstrong’s studio in Glasgow. The idea behind this one was how it seems to me that people always envy what other people have. The title is a sort of metaphor for the idea that what we don’t have always seems more attractive than what we do have. I think Shira did a great job of taking the intellectual concept and putting it into a flowing, song-like structure. It was interesting for me as I tried to edit and add my own lyrical contributions and found that they seemed flat, pedantic, and intellectual. But her words convey the ideas and the spirit behind the concept of the song but do it in an artful way. The music is in a small way an homage to Timbaland, the producer who does a lot of Missy Elliot’s stuff, with a bit of a hip hop drum beat.
Track 6 “Tangerine” was one of the few pieces that was different in the way it was created. In some ways I’m from the 52 pick-up school of composition where I create a bunch of little snippets of ideas and then I try to compose by editing. But this one actually started as just a guitar arpeggio. And then the slide guitar, which initially was the prime melodic force, is just a real time performance. Claude Chalhoub doubled what the guitar was doing, and in mixing it I have one or the other or both included it to give light and dark shades. This piece is actually like what real musicians do. It’s like a performance and I like the simplicity.
Track 7 “LightStar,” which I think has turned into a real winner, definitely had a troubled history. It always felt kind of generic to me and I felt uncomfortable with it. I was going to throw it out. But then we asked the traditional Bulgarian choir we were working with to sing over the music. It is was beautiful and moving, but the second part of their contribution didn’t work with the backing track. So good old Rich Evans got a friend of his to transcribe what the traditional song did, and orchestrate it, and he slipped it into a recording session he was doing in Hungary. So this song has a rock band, a traditional Bulgarian choir, a classical Bulgarian orchestra for the first half, and then a classical Hungarian orchestra for the second half. And then I thought it would be nice to take it to a sort of dream sequence thing where it drifts in at the end to the choir sounding like they are coming off an old ‘78’ being broadcast over the short wave. I really like this piece, it’s a journey. What I enjoy about a lot of this music is that often it doesn’t use repetitive structure.
Track 8 “Pond” — This has a long and complicated history. It started out as a just kind of white noise drone with a little dissonant melody in it played on a synthesizer. Then we had an orchestra play it, which I liked, and then added piano and percussion, and then added some outtakes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing, from one of the album sessions I did with him. This song also has Djivan Gasparayan playing duduk at the end. Two incredible musicians. Gasparayan is 73-years old now and is considered a national treasure in Armenia. He’s also always a pleasure to work with.
Track 9 “Silverized” is a kind of transcendental cowboy song. I like the mixture of elements. There is almost a spaghetti western Marlboro man guitar, and then an ecstatic growing organ swell with the orchestra, and then the choir. We were looking for words to have the choir sing and Rich suggested that they could sing just any old Latin. His wife, who is an Egyptologist, had a book from her university days of the writings of Lucretius and I really liked a lot of the things he said (he was a very skeptical philosopher). It was surprising how few words you can get out with a choir when they are singing slowly…I don’t think we made it through one paragraph of Lucretius. I think it ended up sounding really nice and I love the way this piece goes off on this psychedelic thing at the end. So it’s psychedelic, transcendental, country and spaghetti western music. Sort of. Tracks 10 & 11 “Pasadena Parts 1 & 2” — It starts with a wonderful, emotional piece from London-based singer-songwriter Ben Christophers. The second part is an orchestral thing that was inspired by Arvo Part. I really think he’s great. He does simple, beautiful music. Then it has Djivan Gasparyan playing duduk on the third section and at the very end there are these long sections of Claude Chalhoub’s violin. It is another journey composition which I personally like a lot.
“RockPaperScissors is a very creative and enjoyable album that stretches how we generally view two of the more dominant forms of western music; classical and rock…a sumptuous feast of a record… As a soundtrack with no particular movie in mind, consider the soundtrack to your own.” -BlogCritics.org
“On his new CD, RockPaperScissors, he orchestrates his multiple experiences into one sweeping cinematic excursion.” -John Diliberto, host of PRI’s Echoes
“…a mood record, full of delicate textures with a complex sonic landscape.”-Ink19.com
“…it’s the attention to little details–the bass throbs of “Silverized”, the samples of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in “Pond”, the seamless integration of Bulgarian choral singing–that hooks the ear and encourage careful attention to the delights within.” -HighBias.com
“Having heard “RockPaperScissors” now seven or eight times I fully ‘get it’. It truly is a masterpiece.” -Amazon Review
“So compelling is this CD that on the rare occasions when the house empties, the first thing I do is turn on RockPaperScissors. It requires closer attention; one listening and you are entranced.” -Amazon Review
“…I believe this album to be magical. Somewhat a musician myself I am amazed at the seamlessness and gorgeousness of transitions every time I listen to any piece on this record. Brook very masterfully goes from electric guitar to an orchestra to a Bulgarian choir and it’s so great that 1.) I wish I had written it and 2.) Why doesn’t everyone put a Bulgarian choir on their album!? It’s just really beautiful. I can’t even pick my favorite piece because honestly my answer changes every time I listen to it.” -Amazon Review
“A fellow Brook fan told me to give it one more listen and as I did I was fascinated by a billion details that I’d missed on the first time around. I was amazed and yes, blown away. It’s a gorgeous piece of work —- Tangerine in particular. It’s all stunning, really.” -Amazon Review