Remember when the Beatles anthologies came out? As a 10 year old, this was my first full introduction to the most popular musical group in history. Now, this wouldn’t normally have been too strange an occurrence, except for the fact that the 6 CD box set featured demo versions and outtakes from throughout the Beatles catalog while altogether omitting the official studio renditions. This has left me permanently impaired during singalongs of Rocky Raccoon, in which I habitually repeat Paul’s misspoken line, “the doctor walked in, sminking of gin” and other lyrical oddities. If this is the worst handicap I have in life, I think I’ll manage. But what strikes me about the anthologies on repeat listens is the rather odd decision to re-record several John Lennon demos with the surviving Beatles adding new takes atop the original guitar and vocals. It’s a process that while interesting comes across as a bit cold and artificial, like the 3D hologram of Tupac at Coachella. It seems an unnatural union, and something that might have been better off confined to “what if” chatter around the coffee machine at George Martin’s studio. Until last week, I thought it impossible that this process could create music that’s not only passable but in many ways superior to the original recordings.
Markleford Friedman is the not-so-silent partner in The James Rocket, an unusual collaboration with perennial Ampeater favorite James William Roy (AEM103, AEM015). After seeing JWR play live with A Bunch of Girls, he dove into the extensive catalog of JWR demo singles, reveling in a trove of undiscovered nuggets. I think many of us have had that experience with one artist or another, that eye opening moment in which you connect so deeply with a musician that even his scrappy ideas for songs sound better than anything on the radio. What makes Markleford Friedman different is that he had the skills and inclination to do something with the wealth of material that JWR continues to produce. Markleford’s background in music (jazz piano and trombone) and electrical engineering (with an emphasis on recording engineering) gave him the tools to make music, but little inclination to develop his own unique voice. Competent in a multitude of instruments, he recorded modest pop songs for his own enjoyment while working as a programmer at a music software company. When he met JWR, a plan began to form. Markleford saw a purpose and a future in crafting the primitive genius of JWR’s demos into something he could introduce to the world.
The two began to collaborate, and an album took shape. Markleford handed over a wishlist of songs for JWR to salvage from the original session archives, who in turn remarked on the choices, “That kind of sounds like a record”. And so it became. But whose record is it? The songs belong to JWR, but the album has Markleford’s fingerprints embedded so deeply that you can practically feel them on the jewel case, like palms pressed into wet cement. The original tracks came with session detritus–unused takes, discarded ideas, and verses that never made it to the mixing table. Like the eponymously named Minutemen, JWR has a penchant for short songs, often slamming listeners with just a single verse chorus verse before moving on to the next idea. That’s all fine and good for an eccentric tunesmith, but Markleford saw a larger vision for JWR’s songs. “There’s an honest troubadour quality to what he does,” Markleford explained over the phone, “and making a proper album was just the right thing to do”. When Lars Ulrich threw a tantrum during the Napster debacle, he went nationwide the the idea that (and I paraphrase), “You can’t expect musicians to do this for free”. To many of us (musicians included), it was a surprise that anyone would proclaim such heresy. Markleford remembers feeling stunned, “It’s what you’re driven to do as a musician, whether there’s money involved or not. And for most of us there’s absolutely no hope of ever making money at it. But it’s in your blood. You simply cannot *not* make music. I couldn’t believe that he said that.” This is the sentiment, the drive to create, that brought Markleford’s skills as a producer and musician together with JWR’s talents as a songwriter. The two compliment each other tremendously, though the nature of their working relationship is anything other than ordinary.
Like the Beatles working with the ghost of John Lennon, Markleford took songs by the very much still extant JWR and with his blessing began polishing them, lengthening them, and coaxing out a layer of melodies and harmonies that lay buried under the muck. He added additional guitar, vocals, drums, and other auxiliary parts. He mixed and matched parts from demo renditions of songs to lengthen the originals, even going so far as to add entire guitar solos, as in the case of the album’s standout single “Paper Valentines”. The album was mixed and mastered over several months, during the course of which it was declared “done” several times, only to be exhumed for additional tweaking and improvements. The overarching theory became “how can we make this lighter and tighter?”--a sometimes herculean task given the Pollard-inspired aesthetic of JWR’s original demos. But Markleford approached his numerous musical refinements with a goal to enrich the original tunes, and to reach a balance in which the songs speak more clearly in their final polished version than they ever did in demo form. The results are astounding, and what began as a superfan’s dream soon grew into a genuine partnership, in which Markleford’s attention to detail and borderline obsessive tendencies serve to temper JWR’s sloppier inclinations. Eventually Markleford grew bold, and asked himself “If I were to make my own perfect JWR album, what would it sound like?” At the end of the day, after months of meticulous work, the final result is the album Launch, which is being released today, and is available for sale on the Ampeater store in MP3 form. In honor of this new collaboration, we’re proud to present a follow-up single for free streaming and download. Take a listen to the latest release from The James Rocket: “Pretty White Flag” (album track) and “Sage Advice”.
Pretty White Flag
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem103-1/01 Pretty White Flag.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem103-1/02 Sage Advice.mp3