Brûlée: To a Crisp
This band started with a New Year's resolution on January 1, 2006 on the Micronesian island of Yap. After that, it took about two years to assemble the Brûlée family here in Washington DC. So why did it take us four more years to release our first set of songs? We’ve been busy. Since this band started, we have collectively navigated through two weddings, three and a half house purchases, three root canals, four babies, and one PADI open-water certification. We built two guitars, survived four breakups, and traveled to over 50 countries. Somehow, though, we seem to keep meeting for vaguely productive and fully therapeutic rehearsals on Tuesday nights. We even made it to the studio for two day-long sessions. The result is this CD.
For me, listening to music is only part of the experience. Some of my favorite songs truly came to life only after some embarrassingly detailed discussion or a shared experience. So I'll tell you a little about each song to get the conversation started. Thanks for listening.
– Louis (September 2012)
In Defense of a Blue Shower Curtain
— Words and music by Louis with help from Dottie Northup.
By summer 2002, I had lived in Washington DC for about a year, and I wasn't exactly committing to my new home. When my friend Keith visited from North Carolina to usher me through a rough month, he saw the unopened boxes in the middle of my apartment, and he insisted that changes were needed. He suggested I start by replacing the sad, ripped shower curtain left in the bathroom by a previous tenant. We walked to Georgetown and found a gorgeous iridescent blue shower curtain for $5 in the basement of Urban Outfitters. And seriously, its blue glow seemed to set my life on a new path, finally allowing me to settle in this city that is often labeled as transient.
A month later, I received another weekend visit, this time from my friend Dottie who was the singer in my previous band, The Foolish Things. As a professional space planner, she commented on the warm blue light emanating from the bathroom, transforming my apartment into a 10th floor blue urban oasis. We decided that the world needed a song about the love between a boy and his shower curtain, so we wrote the first verse and chorus together, and I finished the song after she left.
The bridge with shimmering open chords and echo-drenched wordless vocals is a brief homage to a type of music I call space-pop, exemplified by late 80s bands such as the Cocteau Twins, Galaxie 500, and my personal favorite, Downy Mildew. When I told Aura to sing something like the Cocteau Twins, she knew exactly what to do.
Begging Bowl — Words by Aura. Music by Louis and Aura.
This song came into its current incarnation in hastily scribbled notes Aura made for the wedding of Erica Greeley and Jamey Stowell. She gave me the words when I was about to take a trip to some Greek islands. It was October, and there was one uncharacteristically rainy day spent in my hotel room, which was actually a cave carved into the cliff side. I think the gray day, the damp cave, and the lonely quiet of an island in the off-season shaped the murky bossa nova sound of the verses. I later added the jangle-pop chorus to brighten the song in an effort to match the arc of the story Aura was trying to tell.
Byrdsong — Words by Aura. Music by Louis and Aura.
When Aura's son Kai Byrd was born in 2009, she knew she couldn't escape the songwriter's obligation to pen a tune for him – but she didn't want the song to sound like just another lullaby. One night at rehearsal, she heard Andrew, Lex, and I playing with an E7 funk riff as I was testing the limits of my new Wah pedal. She thought this was a groove Kai Byrd could still be proud of when he hit his teens. So we used this semi-funk groove on the verses, and I added the big open chords in the choruses because I know Aura is a sucker for any chord with open E and B strings. Kai came to his first gig at around 3 months old, and by 18 months, he would insist on wearing his shades and doing a little funk swagger while earnestly singing along to this tune. Aura offers a lyrical nod to Christine Lavin for being the first to anthropomorphize amoebas in song.
Jump In — Words and music by Louis.
This song attempts to capture a moment involving a big decision and a leap of faith. In this case, the moment was a conversation on Rangiroa Atoll in the South Pacific in 2005. You’ll hear some references to South Pacific life. The strings in the first verse are from the carved Polynesian ukuleles. The houses in Rangiroa’s Tiputa village really don’t have doors. And dolphins jump every day in the Tiputa pass around 5:00 pm, while the local kids manage to play and survive in the ridiculously powerful currents.
When I first showed the song to Aura, she resisted the dolphin line in the second verse. Apparently, she has a policy against singing anything about dolphins, kittens, rainbows, unicorns, or blueberry pie. In this case, however, she acquiesced after I explained that the dolphins appear as an expression of doubt in one’s own capabilities, even when you’re absolutely certain about what should be done.
Musically, this song blends jazz chords with pop song structure, which is one of my favorite song-writing tricks (check out the Style Council, Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, and Max Eider). It was Andrew’s idea to have Lex’s splash cymbal replicate the sound of dolphins hitting the surface of the ocean after jumping in the second verse. For the background vocals, Andrew and Lex sang together into one microphone.
Glaze — Words by Aura. Music by Louis and Aura.
This is the first song Aura and I wrote together, back when a “band rehearsal” was just the two of us in my Logan Circle apartment. She gave me some potential lyrics and asked me to add the music. It had been almost 5 years since I’d written a song, so I think I was excited to squeeze in lots of ideas, which explains the dense chord progression. I gave Aura the first few lines of the melody, and then she ran with it. I loved the hook and the high notes she found for the chorus, and I realized that I had to make something work with this singer.
The lyrics are a good example of Aura’s obsession with road songs, a genre that I also find irresistible (like Joni Mitchell's “Coyote” and Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”). Aura likes to say the words are about a donut, and you’ll hear a reference to the “HOT NOW” sign at Krispy Kreme. She wrote these lyrics after an early morning drive home from an exhilarating gig many moons and bands ago, and she claims she showed reasonably good judgment about everything but the donuts.
Peculiar Saints — Words by Aura. Music by Louis.
Aura wrote the first verse of these lyrics after dinner with her old friend Vernita, an extraordinary woman who carries a complex history under the surface of a highly accomplished, well-lived life. Aura says the second verse is about her mother’s similar efforts to rise above difficult circumstances and build a life of integrity and humanity, firmly on her own terms.
Aura wrote an earlier version of this song with Avril Smith and performed it with their old all-girl funk band, Zeala. Aura showed me the lyrics without letting me hear the original version. I tried to come up with some music that would be suitably upbeat and confident, and Aura says the result is the closest thing to a hootenanny that any of us care to visit. Personally, I love the key change from G major to D-flat major in the middle of every verse.
Although song writing credit is usually given to one or two people who spend time alone with a pen and paper, our songs don't truly come to life until we arrange them as a quartet. Every song includes ideas from all four of us, and Peculiar Saints is a good example. It was Andrew’s wacky idea to make the breaks within each chorus extend by one beat each time, culminating with the 7-beat break at the end of the song. He also insists on inserting a spirited yee-haw (or five) when we perform this live.
Flamingos Above — Words and music by Louis.
I wrote this one for my daughter Freya as a way to welcome her into the family. Most of the images are from the island of Bonaire, where she got her first passport stamp at four months old before she could roll over. She learned to walk during our second trip to Bonaire the following year. Sometimes I sing this song for Freya as part of our bedtime routine. She was able to sing along by about 18-months-old, and she named the song Flamingos Above.
On a few evenings when Aura has been at our house, we’ve offered Freya the option of having Aura sing the song at bedtime. Strangely, Freya always declines. She seems to be the only person on earth who prefers my singing voice over Aura’s, and I love her for that even as I question her musical taste.
Thanks to Lex for the intimate hand drums and the glowing vibraphone. The combination of these two sounds, particularly at the end of the song, creates some really nice unexpected textures. And if I were a music journalist, I would find better words to describe Tom’s sax solo, which takes the song on exactly the trip it needs to take.
The Wagon I’m On — Words and music by Louis.
I’ve never been able to resist late night jazz sounds like Miles’ muted trumpet, Bill Evans’ trio records, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, or Oscar Moore’s guitar. So about 10 years ago, I wanted to try writing a torch song. The phrase “the wagon I’m on” is from a poem written by my friend Dawn Trook. I remember driving on I-40 in North Carolina and thinking about her poem when the line “that's when I jump right off that wagon into his Cadillac” came to me, and I knew a song was waiting to be written. The second verse was drafted during a dinner with friends. I asked them to name some things that women remember about a guy. I never would have thought of the cotton T-shirt line on my own.
Dawn’s original poem was personal and brave, so I had some guilt about appropriating her words for this entirely fictional exercise. My friend Dan generously interpreted the song as illustrating some larger truth about our universal path to self-insight and self-acceptance. I hope he’s right, but I have to confess that any deeper meaning is truly unintentional. Thanks to Aura for fully inhabiting the song’s boozy character and giving this song a second life. Thanks to Andrew for the soulful unaccompanied bass solo, which he introduced as a surprise during rehearsal right before the recording session.
Raincloud — Words and music by Louis.
I wrote this song as a way to say thank you to my wife for staying close during some tough times. Sometimes it’s important just to be present with someone, even when there's nothing to be said or done. The raincloud image was inspired by Stephan Pastis’ cartoon series “Pearls before Swine,” which follows the adventures of an abrasive, hedonistic rat and a dopey, big-hearted pig. In one episode, Rat is followed by his own personal raincloud. Although Pig is unable to stop the mysterious raincloud from drenching Rat, he eventually steps under the raincloud to share the experience and says, “What are friends for?”
Raincloud combines details from a variety of far-flung memories, like trips to Vietnam, Croatia, Burma, and a few Springsteen shows in New Jersey. The anecdote about “getting lost coming down” occurred on the South Pacific island of Maupiti, which also appears in Aura’s lyrics for Byrdsong (She asked me to suggest an island with a three syllable name ending with an “ee” sound). The last verse mentions trains going by at midnight. Years after writing Raincloud, I wondered if I was unconsciously influenced by Paul Simon’s “Train in the Distance,” in which he perfectly captured the sense of possibility in this simple sound. I remember being able to hear distant trains while lying in bed in my shared house in Oakland twenty years ago. I was reassured to hear the same sound on our first night in our current house in Washington DC.
Driftin’— Words and music by Andrew.
With this song, Andrew showed me that a groove can speak for itself, even without help from many chord changes. He intended for this particular groove to represent the calm but unstoppable flow of water. Check out the vibraphone and marimba, which Lex was playing simultaneously, with two mallets in each hand and one hand for each of the instruments.
About the lyrics Andrew says, “Driftin' was written somewhere between the sands of the lazy Patuxent river and the mighty Danube several years ago. The not-quite carefree lyric reflects summer weeks rowing on the local river, where the peaceful gliding mists and smooth water soothed the upheaval I was experiencing in Vienna during the rest of my time. Those shores always helped me feel grounded again, and I was reminded there with some help from a friend that things were going to be alright, with time.”
Jefe — Words by Louis and Sonya Matza. Music by Louis.
Sonya and I wrote these lyrics as a theme song for our friend Brenda, who is one of Washington DC’s most fabulously notorious residents. After Brenda heard it, her response was “I always thought I deserved a song.” She's widely known as “the Jefe” not because she’s bossy (Brenda is in fact flawlessly graceful), but because she is generously, lovably, and stylishly in charge. She’s the kind of friend that you really can call for anything, and she always delivers.
Change it Down — Words and music by Louis.
Although this song was written in 2008 when Brûlée was caught up in Obama-mania, the lyrics are actually about the disorientation that comes with personal, rather than political, change. New baby, new neighborhood, new bus routes, new house needing new repairs. The chaotic mood of the music was intended to reflect the panic and exhilaration of having your life turned upside down, even when the changes are clearly for the better. I was trying to follow the tradition of catchy and almost-but-not-quite-unhinged power pop songs by bands like the Replacements, Sleater-Kinney, and early REM. The guitar layers are probably inspired by the M. Ward albums I was listening to at the time.
Poesy — Words by Aura. Music by Louis.
A found object of old lines from her freshman year inspired Aura's lyrics, which are a nod to the mercurial poet she dated at the time. I was aiming for the trippy chords to unfold over the 6/8 time of 1960’s jazz tunes by John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. Tom’s soprano sax solo really brings it home. The dreamy guitar sound comes from the slow rocking of a Vox wah pedal. Mostly though, this song is a perfect showcase for Lex’s uniquely expressive drumming: sometimes powerful, sometimes whispery, and always fully in tune with the other musicians and the arc of the song. At the end when Lex brings the thunder (which nicely captures Aura’s stormy memories), Andrew holds us together with some seriously steady bass notes.
Amsterdam — Words and music by Louis.
In 2005, my friend Larry Drake died in a motorcycle crash. I always called him the Big Man, not just because he was 6 feet and 3 inches tall, but also because he was a solid mountain of a friend. He effortlessly and unapologetically carried his own contradictions. He could be a moody motherfucker in the mornings (a description he wore proudly), but he was warm, funny, and loyal beyond compare. He always needed his independence, but he was also the center of our little group, and his memorial service brought 150 people together in a state of collective intimacy and openness that I haven't experienced before or since. For me, the Big Man’s big laugh will never be matched. That's how I usually remember him.
I lived with Larry in Berkeley and Oakland for about five years. After I left California in 1993, the Big Man remained a centering force for me, and his apartment became one of my homes. I flew back to stay with him a couple times each year, and he always welcomed me with Zachery’s pizza for dinner and oatmeal for breakfast (the slow-cooked, steel cut kind that required extra time for scrubbing the pot).
The Big Man loved to drive, and I never felt safer or more like myself than when I was in his passenger seat. This song is packed with memories from our trips together. You’ll hear details from Slovenia, Point Reyes, Spain, Portugal, Guatemala, Belize, California's Highway 1, and of course Amsterdam. In the year after Larry died, I had a series of vivid dreams re-living these trips, and a lot of these memories are now preserved in the chorus of this song. The beginning of the song describes our last telephone conversation, three days before he died. He agreed to join me on a work trip to Scotland. I ended up going on the trip alone, and the second verse is about the Richard Thompson concert I saw in Edinburgh. Larry loved Richard Thompson. The show was sold out, but strangely, there was one empty seat next to me. I don't consider myself a religious or spiritual guy, but I'm pretty sure the Big Man was sitting in that empty seat when Richard sang “52 Vincent Black Lightning.” A year later, Larry’s mother asked me to choose the place where we should scatter his ashes.
The version captured here is a duo recording. At the beginning of our first recording session, Andrew spent some time eating lunch. To check sound, Aura and I played this song without Andrew and Lex. Even though this performance has a couple of minor blemishes and it lacks a rhythm section, I think it captures something real that might be hard to duplicate in a more polished version. For the next Brûlée album, maybe we’ll record Amsterdam with the full band. Lex has a real affinity for the song, and he says he’s been hearing some nice horn parts in it.
Stay tuned, friends.
All these people contributed directly to these songs even if they don’t know it.
Aura would like to thank Lisa Handy for making her feel like a rock star even when the evidence suggests otherwise; Kai Byrd and Zola for comic relief; Mom, Hanson, Hammer Bob and Carol for always showing up; Jennifer and Sascha von Bismarck for making any gig light up just by hitting the dance floor; Susan Ruffo and Mark D’Agostino for making it to gigs even we weren't sure we'd show for; Erica Greeley, Jamey Stowell, Adam Bailey, Arthur Kanegis, Molly Post, Franklin Taggart, Steven Stichter, Mark Ewert, Caitlin Bergin, Stephen Sanford, and many others who have given long and steady support to this project; the boys of Brûlée for being stunningly talented, patient, and uncomplicated – and especially Louis, for posting an ad in the right place and time to build this satisfying, challenging, and ever-inspiring collaboration that makes her musical dreams come true.
Louis thanks Scott Saul for three decades of collaboration, Dan Fishman for always making it clear that someone is listening, Steve Baltin, Yair Reiner, Michael J. West, Dawn Trook, David Abbott, Dottie Northup, Ian Schreier, Jim Allen, Ken/Grey Kolevzon, Keith Hersh, Corey Parker, Quincy Waldron, Bill Jenniches, Keith Campbell, Michael Pemberton, Robert Lloyd, Deirdre O’Donoghue, Magnus Lauglo, Andrew Bliquez, Steve Stanley, Marc Feldman, Robbie and Jeremy, Rusty Wilson, Phil Jacoby at Philtone in Baltimore, Geoff Soule, Tom Anderson, Greg Kurczewski at Metro Guitar Service in Arlington, Bill See, Charlie Baldonado, the great Jack Bennett, Peter Case, and Larry Drake. And of course, thanks to Sonya and Freya for inspiration and collaboration, as well as understanding on the nights when music takes me away from the family.
Andrew thanks Beth and Katie, Carl and Anna, Elizabeth for helping to start and keep the bass notes rolling, and Philipp W. for being a man.
And Brûlée thanks the two Mikes (Monseur and Harvey) who both seemed to have never-ending patience, humor, creative energy late into the evening, and faith that the songs were worth the effort. When we become rich and famous, we will buy Mike Monseur the most beautiful 80-year-old banjo we can find, and Lou will personally mix a lifetime supply of pharmaceutical grade milkshakes for Mike Harvey.
Finally, we would like to thank crème brûlée for being so delicious that we were able to agree on a band name without breaking up.
Andrew rescued his flat-backed upright bass from a flea market in Vienna, Austria, for about $100. It's over 150 years old, and he refurbished it himself. He can also build guitars and kitchens. Learn more at www.awbmusic.com.
Lou played six guitars on these recordings. If you want to know which guitars were used on each song, he will happily tell you in great detail. The four primary guitars were all single-pickup archtops: a December 1957 Gibson ES-175 (with a PAF), a January 1965 Gibson ES-175, a 1961 Epiphone Sorrento (Royal Olive, with a mini-PAF), and a 1959 Gretsch Anniversary (with a Filtertron). Two other instruments came out of the guitar closet for overdubs: an acoustic blonde 1941 Gibson L-4 and a mid-80s Rickenbacker 360. The two main amps were a 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb and a late 70s Fender Princeton Reverb. For some overdubs on Change it Down and Byrdsong, Lou borrowed a 1959 Fender Tweed Deluxe amp from Bias Studios.
Lex plays Gretsch drums made in 1981. He says that the sound of this kit, along with some choice cymbals including a couple of K. Zildjians made in Istanbul in the early 70s, has been about the only thing able to inspire a lifetime of commitment. On three songs, he plays a Musser vibraphone that he bought new in 1973 (which makes it at least one year older than Aura). On Driftin’, you can also hear Lex’s Deagan marimba, affectionately named “Betty,” made in the 1930s.
Aura wears red boots acquired from a thrift store on Georgia Avenue, and she pushes a matching red City Mini stroller.