What's nice about that clip is that you can see the majority of the people who performed on this album all on one tiny cramped stage at the Sidewalk Cafe: the trio version of Elastic No-No Band, Debe Dalton on banjo, Dibson T. Hoffweiler on glockenspiel, Frank Hoier and Casey Holford on harmonicas (Casey's the one a little further back in the corner), and Sammy Shuster singing backup (apparently just for the benefit of Herb and myself, since she doesn't have a mic).
Who is Laura Cantrell?
Despite how much people appear to like this song, tons and tons of them have no idea who Laura Cantrell is. And actually, some of them have probably seen this video for They Might Be Giants' "The Guitar," in which Ms. Cantrell covers her ears, strums a guitar, drums her fingers, holds an oversized gun, blinks, looks quizzical, and sings the hook without moving her lips:
(Please ignore the annoying music-channel superimpositions, this is apparently the only version of this clip on youtube.)
For those out of the loop: Laura Cantrell is a Nashville-born, New York City-based country singer whose last album Humming by the Flowered Vine was released by Matador Records.
(It is worth noting, for the sake of trivia, that before that, she and Major Matt Mason USA [who, you should recall, produced this here record] were on the same record label in the UK.)
Anyhow, I had been listening to some of her stuff online; I think I first checked out her website because I had been directed to it by a now-defunct Elvis Costello covers website [Reader's note: Oh, for Pete's sake! Does it all come back to Elvis Costello!?]. She has a really great cover of Elvis's country number "Indoor Fireworks" in her site's downloads section.
On July 4, 2005, I saw that Matador Records was having a kind of label showcase for free in Battery Park, so I went down. Some folks I knew were going for the other acts -- Yo La Tengo and Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks -- but I didn't, and still don't, really know either of those groups.
It was a good set. I was made fun of most of the time by my acquaintances (including ex-bandmate Clint Scheibner) for obviously having a crush on Ms. Cantrell, and then for buying three of her CD's at the merch table when her set was over.
As the night wore on toward fireworks time, there was much discussion of the countless past crushes I've had on female musicians, and within a week, I was trying out my new song on Clint. He liked it, and in fact, he later told me that he saw Laura Cantrell at a Prairie Home Companion broadcast (I think) and told her about the song. I still don't know at this point, despite the fairly easy accessibility of different recordings of this song on the internet, whether or not Laura Cantrell has ever heard this song. I'll have to figure out a way to send her a CD.
UPDATE: For more on Laura Cantrell's reaction to this song, check out this blog entry on ENB's Myspace page.
Fussed and fussed over
Although he never said anything about it, I was always afraid of annoying Major Matt with this song. I never thought I got the vocal right on it, so I was constantly re-recording it in part and sometimes in full.
A lot of the initial vocal recording on this album was done while my nose was stuffed up, which isn't the best for pitch control (or for saying the letter "n" -- if you listen closely to the first lines of tracks 4 and 9, it sounds like I'm saying "coffee dend" and "I am Klaus Kindski").
So it seemed, for the longest time, that most of the vocals on "Modest Proposal" were terrible. But the problem became that when I re-sung them, the alternative wasn't always that much better. In fact, there are still some moments in this song I wish I could re-sing... but the public clamor for this album to be done was so great that I decided that good was good enough.
Herb, glorious Herb
This song has one of my absolute favorite Herb moments on the album. It's not a big, showy thing, and it only lasts about 15 seconds.
You see, Herb is often very meticulous about the parts he plays, and would want to retake them -- in part or in full -- as often as it took to get them right (sound familiar?). This meant that sometimes we had sessions like the three-plus-hour marathon where the piano parts for "Coffee Den" and "I'm in Lust" were repeatedly altered, distilled, and perfected (maybe in the real world three-plus hours ain't much, but in DIY-land, it's a big expenditure of effort).
Alternatively, I think that Herb nailed "A Modest Proposal" on the second or third try, without much fuss at all. Admittedly, it's not a really fancy part -- although I think it's interesting the way it grows and develops as the song goes.
But the moment that gets me is during the bridge ("Maybe I could write you a song to sing"). The simple fills that Herb plays are so right for that moment in the song that I get a bit giddy when I hear them. You know, Herb doesn't always play things exactly the same every time -- he likes jazz -- and I think that this recording is the first time he had ever played those fills exactly like that. So I think it's not an overstatement to say that that moment is basically lightning captured in a bottle. Thanks, Herb.
Yes, I am aware that Laura Cantrell is already married. This song is not a serious marriage proposal. Thank you for your concern.