May 3, 2015

Love, Salvation, the Fear of Death

This is story number three in my series celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Sixpence None the Richer's This Beautiful Mess. It began with this review I wrote in February :
Sixpence None the Richer’s This Beautiful Mess
Then I wrote and published an extensive oral history on the release date, April 18:
Sixpence None the Richer’s “This Beautiful Mess” turns 20 
If you have not already, read those before you proceed. Later this summer I will publish the full interviews I conducted with Leigh Nash, Matt Slocum, Tess Wiley, J.J. Plasencio, Dale Baker, James Arhelger, Joel Bailey, and Armand Petri. But for now, here is the story of one song; the best song on this terrific album...

"Love, Salvation, Fear of Death."
This song, along with "Within a Room..." stayed in Sixpence concert setlists long after the other ten songs unfortunately disappeared. The song is important for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the unique bass line that brought so much attention to it. Joel Heng Hartse writes in his Songs That Explain blog, "If I had to choose any song to represent Sixpence's entire oeuvre, it would probably be ["Love, Salvation, Fear of Death"]. It's so complex and pretty, so full of musical ideas that converge so subtly. That first clump of bass notes blows my mind--not being an expert, I cannot tell which are the real notes and which are the digital ghosts, and I imagine something like a 20-string bass played by 10 nimble fingers."

Like Hartse, I was very impressed by that bass line, and until this year, assumed incorrectly the part was incredibly difficult to play. While I'll get into that--and most of this story is about the instrumentation of the song--what really draws me to it, and why I singled it out among the 12 songs on This Beautiful Mess, is the lyrics:

Well I'm staring straight into the face of hell
You're so close and you can't even tell
I'm so wrapped up inside
Because I don't have much to love

Horrified I reel from pits unseen
Falling off my pedestal of plentiful deeds
As it crumbles down on top of me
I contemplate my lack of love

Come and save my soul
Before it's not too late
I'm not afraid to admit
How much I hate myself

All these gongs and cymbals ring inside my head
Surrendered body to the flames has singed the skin
Can't speak in tongues and even if I could it's nothing
Because I cannot love

Well I'm staring straight into the face of hell
I'm so close and I can't even tell
I'm so afraid I'll amount to nothing
'cause I don't have much to love

I won't quote myself, but the central theme of my album review is based on the honesty portrayed in these lyrics by Matt Slocum. Unlike any song I had heard in the first 18 years of my life, it helped me understand my own thoughts, emotions, and personal faith struggle. Slocum admits he was very depressed at the time, and goes on to say, "We have to view our brokenness with compassion and admiration."


Live recording, St. Louis, MO, March '96. Bass played by J.J.

Most of the songs on This Beautiful Mess, and most of the songs in Sixpence's discography, were written by Matt Slocum alone. There are 4 exceptions on This Beautiful Mess, and "Love, Salvation, Fear of Death" is one of them. It was co-written by James Arhelger, who played bass in the band from mid-1993 to early 1994. That makes it one of the oldest songs on the album, and means Arhelger was only the first of three bass players to play it before it was recorded.

Arhelger had this to say about it: "So I love delay on a bass and will use it any chance I get. For example:



"...I was just messing around and came up with the song, mostly it started as a warm up exercise to be honest.  Matt liked it so we worked it up into a song. I think it was a little faster on the record, which is a good thing. I played more in the verses and especially the chorus. The bass kinda disappears in the chorus, I was still going like gangbusters...

"Actually it's incredibly easy, just straight 8th notes playing the 1-5-8 notes of the chord. The delay pedal is doing all the work, which is why it's so awesome.  Just set your delay to around 340 milliseconds and you should be good. ...It's really hard to explain, but the song couldn't be easier to play.

"The bass line just started as a warm up for the pinky finger, with some delay to make it interesting... J.J .played it great but with his fingers, I used a pick to give it more attack."

Slocum and Arhelger co-wrote the song in an apartment, and Slocum had this to add: "I remember hearing him play it in soundcheck and wanting to make it into a song. I think the [album] version was much faster than the original. J.J. just attacked it and launched that riff forward." Arhelger went on to play in the band Velosheen where he continued fantastic, creative bass playing.

Joel Bailey with Sixpence, Summer '94
But before Plasencio even had a chance to play it, it was interpreted and performed by Joel Bailey, who toured with Sixpence much of 1994. Drummer Dale Baker describes Bailey as having a punk aesthetic, and Bailey played in the hardcore band Mr. Bishop's Fist just after his time in Sixpence.

Bailey writes, "... I played it with a Boss Delay pedal.  I loved playing that tune.  Any time the bass player gets to have a stand out moment live is fun.  It sounds extremely complicated, but... it isn't that hard. It's basically a simple arpeggiated chord that ends up sounding crazy with the delay pedal... Dale is easily one of the best drummers I ever played with and made it easy."

J.J. Plasencio joined Sixpence in September of 1994, and went on to record the song for This Beautiful Mess and perform it in concert hundreds of times.


Live recording, Concord, CA, October '95


Plasencio says, "It is a brilliant, brilliant bass line. It is really fun to play. We just kept speeding that song up. It is not that difficult to execute; it is just a very creative bass line. The thing that is difficult to execute it with a band is that you are forced to stay in time, on a certain pulse. If you drift in anyway, it is not going to work. That band really listened to me. You had to really listen. That was the thing about us--we listened to each other really well on stage, in the band. I had to make sure I really heard Matt’s delay, Leigh’s vocal…

Plasencio recording at OmniSound, Nashville, TN, Jan. '95
"That song in particular I remember a lot of kids purposely standing in front of my bass rig. I could tell all the bass players that showed up to see me do that song, or if I got a lead, or something. Which is always a compliment...

"That song has definitely brought some attention, spotlight… James just did a wonderful job writing that, it is a brilliant piece. It was fun to be a part of, fun to play that. And the truth is, credit to Dale. The bass can do that, that’s fine, but to play to it, in time… it’s actually props to Dale for being able to keep us in time and allowing us to execute it."

Plasencio left the band in 1997 (after the recording of the self-titled album but before its release). Sixpence continued to perform "Love, Salvation, Fear of Death," but without the bass line. Slocum modified it into a guitar part that I first heard at Cornerstone 1997. Here is a recording of it from March 20, 1999 with the delay on the guitar and a much slower tempo:

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