Leading soprano in a junkman’s choir
The back waiting area of Complete Music Studios in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, situated between the rehearsal and production studio rooms, is cold today, its corrugated steel ceiling, visible between the open beams, not up to the cold snap. The front waiting room is always full of teen-aged boys watching music videos on the small television across from where the front desk manager sits, his hair piled into a stretchy knit cap, mostly ignoring them. We like the back one, which has no TV and is painted a bright blue, except for the parts that are carpeted over to dampen the sound.
Posters, signed by the artists who’ve recorded here, line walls and lead you to wonder if you might follow in their footsteps.
A poster for Peter, Bjorn & John is for performances at Lincoln Hall and Schubas, both in Chicago. This makes me feel at home.
AJ and I come here every Saturday and we never know what we’re going to hear. The first week, there was a full-on gospel chorus recording in the back room. Today’s sounds are dominated by the roots rock band behind the closed door of studio C.
They are working on a cover of Tom Waits’ “Come on Up to the House,”
a song I fell in love with through another cover version by bluegrass mandolinist and singer Sarah Jarosz.
The harmonica player, who plays with a Dylanesque earnestness has got it down, but the clear-voiced female singer sounds uncomfortable with the slow tempo. You can feel the tension between them as they work it out in sound. When they are satisfied, they move on to a song I’ve never heard before, maybe one they’ve written themselves, the harmonica player taking lead vocals and the soprano a soaring descant. Their voices and music are lovely. I would buy their album in a heartbeat. But I will never know their names, or see their faces.
A girl, somewhere between 16 and 26, in a large wool pullover jacket that looks like it came from South America in the mid-1970s, comes out of one of the production studios, singing to herself. Somewhere I hear drumsticks banging on a table, a stray riff of electric guitar – is that “Stairway to Heaven.” I hear AJ’s band start to tune. Back in Studio C, they’ve kicked up the tempo. For a moment, I think there’s a fiddle in the room, but no, it’s the guitarist playing a fiddle tune so impossibly fast that the sound of the instrument melts away and all you hear is the avalanche of notes smoking through the wall and making it nearly impossible not to start dancing. My feet are tapping on the legs of my stool. I can’t help myself. When the song ends, I have to stop myself from applauding.
Another band trickles in one at a time, three young men, each in a Navy pea coat with an impeccably groomed scruffy beard, if such a thing is possible, and a stocking cap. They remind me of a somber version of the Monkees until they start to play. Every song is C-A minor-F-G7 and they seem to have a great fondness for The Cars and singing out of tune and turning their amps up to 11. I try to burn a hole through their door with my eyeballs.
In between Bad Monkees takes, I hear the band in Studio C listening to takes, discussing them, and trying things again. They are doing some serious work today and it’s interesting to hear them make small changes, try things out, take the sounds apart and put them back together again.
AJ’s band launches into Green Day’s “When I Come Around.” Someone walks by humming and clapping his hands on his denimed thighs. This is the sound of my Saturday afternoons. And I have to say, I like it.