Track 3: “May” by The Yarrows

I’m currently reading the zombie novel Monster Island by David Wellington. I checked out Wellington’s website to see if there was any possibility of the book being turned into a movie when I discovered a link to a site with a very cool premise. The Page 69 Test asks authors to open up to page 69 of the book they have written and are currently promoting and has them giving some background to the content that is on the page. Is it relevant to the rest of the story? If people read this page first, would it give a good glimpse into the style and tone of the rest of the book? Seriously, you can spend days reading all the entries on this site, it’s that good. The site gave me an idea.

My old college roommate Geoff used to buy CDs and say that he could tell everything he needed to know by listening to track 3 first. “If this isn’t the first single, it’s the best single on the CD,” he’d say and maybe 7 out of 10 times he was totally on mark. So mixing Geoff’s theory with the Page 69 Test site, I’d like to introduce you to the new column … Track 3. I’ll be sending bands the following three questions and asking them to apply the questions towards the third track on their current release:

  • Is track 3 representative of the whole CD?
  • What’s the story behind the song – from the lyrical content to the way it was written and recorded?
  • Was there a particular reason you placed this song in the #3 spot on the tracklisting?

The first band I asked to take part in this new feature was The Yarrows, an indie rock band with members spread across three states – New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. Setting the bar for future bands who take part in this feature, EACH member of the band offered their input into “May,” track 3 of their new CD, Plum.

Listen to “May” as you read about it.

Matt Backes (guitarist, vocalist)
Track 3 is like the guy who hits third in the batting order. You want it to hit for power but also have some speed. You want it to be able to make contact and move a base runner when necessary, but you also want it to be able to drive a double in the gap or knock one out of the park. In other words, it should be versatile and potent, and I think May is.

And then, of course, Nobody Knows You’re Gone hits cleanup.

Pierce Backes (guitarist, vocalist, wrote “May”)
I think Matt’s pretty much right. The way I think about the Plum track order is that Perfect Mouth sets a stage, sort of shows the range. You’re Cruel is in the traditional ‘single’ spot, and is an interesting twist on that; usually track 2 is the fastest, most pop-friendly track on the record, and You’re Cruel definitely doesn’t start out that way anyhow. Track 3 has to make good contact; anybody who’s that far into the record and sitting on the fence has to sucked in.

(I kinda wish we’d released Plum in MP3 form in whole-record-only. The order isn’t random, not at all. Like, Queen of the Air closes out Side A of the vinyl, and Diamond is both a revisiting of the whole record and a peek at the next record.)

I don’t think there’s a representative song on Plum, for better or worse. May is the most accessible song on the record, and maybe captures a certain representative aspect with its melancholy lyrics and double vocal.

Origins. This is sort of embarrassing, but I sincerely couldn’t sing that song without getting choked up from time to time in the early months. I think I cried the first few times we played it out, tho obviously not in any obvious way. The lyrical content is pretty self-evident; it’s the high modernist theme of Spring as a time of sorrow, when the bursting of new life reminds us of the brittleness and decay of our own, but framed as a love song. The structure is almost a prison, with its lock-step vocal meter and recurring “tho X / still Y” thing. At least half of what’s going on is setting up the central line, “everything would last forever if it could.”

I wrote the song largely in my head, with a bit of ac gtr to flesh it out, and then we collectively worked it into what it is.

The recording process started with bass & drums, and then one of the acoustic guitar tracks. The acoustic isn’t prominent on the recorded track, much more of a 2-electric harmony with pads and stuff, but it’s on throughout. The real interesting stuff, like those feedback melodies, just happened in the endless hours of fussing and working sounds.

I don’t think we decided to do that sound in particular, just found it. The vocal was added late, and the double after that. Like everything on Plum, it’s all heavily layered and manipulated, and the ‘live’ sounding elements are very intentional. May, for instance, is one of the few songs where I re-used measures of the drum part in different sections of the song because I liked them.

Jack Firneno (drums)
May is a lot different than most of Plum – it’s certainly the most folky and pastoral sounding. However, a lot of the album’s elements are on display here – the organic structure and careful arrangment, and the big sweeping soundscape with spare, poetic lyrics. But then again, most of the songs on the record sound very different from each other, anyway. Notably, it was one of the three songs on our original demo for the album.

It’s probably the first song that I really “composed” on the drums the sense that every hit, cymbal crash, and fill was carefully placed to get the best effect and to move the song along properly. It wasn’t a rock-n-roll sort of “I’m feeling the groove, so I’m gonna run down the toms here” kind of thing. The drum parts are very simple, but even after recording was done we had a lot of work to do to make it translate well live. The part I play onstage now isn’t radically different, but in some ways it’s a whole different vibe.

During the time we were recording, I had to go on an early morning rescue mission for a friend that had partied too hard the night before. I remember driving through Northeast Philly as the sun was coming up with my buddy in the car, totally washed out but making sporadic small talk. I had the latest roughs from the album playing, and we happened to quiet down as May came on. When it got to the big “Everything would last forever if it could” part, he looked up at me sort of dazed and just said “You know, I really like this song.” That moment always stuck out to me.

Scott Barcalow (bass)
I agree with Pierce’s assessment that none of the songs are representative of the whole. Personally, unless I’m listening to a concept album, or something by a singer songwriter where they approached an album as a song cycle, I don’t really pay much attention to song order on a record.

In this case, where there are two song writers and up to 5 arrangers all approaching the material in different ways, I’m not sure one can think of the 3-spot on Plum (or most rock records for that matter) as the key to the map – especially since May could be viewed almost as a country song and the album is definitely not country.

To me, May is really one spot in the evolution of the sound across all the songs. To my mind, that’s the real story of the record. The album is an impression, a map as Pierce says, not a statement or a tracing. It’s a meditation rather than a song cycle. It reminds me of Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of clouds.

>> Buy Plum by The Yarrows

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