the plan and the execution ride side by side. tris mccall had toyed with the idea of doing a record like this for several years, but by the summer of 1998, he was writing eighties-sounding disco songs, and trying to imagine how he might arrange them for big, philadelphia international-style orchestras. and he was tired of the sound, and limitations, of his own singing voice. he didn't want to hear compliments about it. he was actively looking for a singer brave enough to take on his wordy, deceptively complex, often polemical and pointy-ended songs.
always a technophile, tris cultivated e-mail relationships with several of his favorite musical figures. he lucked into scott miller's address when sondra russell, the loud family's longtime video director, came to the east coast to shoot a clip for "stereo," the lead track from the tris-penned *color out of space* a few months and several felicitous exchanges later, mccall and miller had developed a genuine correspondence. a little in awe of such close proximity to his musical hero -- tris will argue, at length, that miller's 1987 release *lolita nation* stands as the greatest album in rock history -- mccall was initially loath to burden the songwriter with rough demos of songs he was working on. but when tris asked him to come to new york city to help put together a new record, he was both shocked and immensely pleased that scott miller said yes.
and so it came to pass that an album of songs about new jersey was produced by a californian.
there was no such structural coherence at first. like many who have made the mistake of cracking the door open to tris mccall, miller was promptly flooded with demos and ideas. while writing *color out of space* for the favorite color, tris had shared with the band those songs that could be roughly described as alternative rock, and tabled dozens of others. now, working on a brand new project, tris scribbled out pieces and fragments in bunches of styles -- pub rock, prog-rock, techno-folk, old-fashioned protest songs, sea shanties, madrigals, etc. miller's first task was to rein in the confusion, and search for some conceptual unity. he drew tris toward the songs that discussed, or were set in, the garden state.
tris had been singing about jersey for years, and it probably could be said that any tris mccall album is in fact a set of jersey songs. but the decision to explicitly thematize new jersey on *this* album energized tris, and sent him to the stacks -- of records, that is -- to do the sort of research he loves best. he checked for other full-album examinations of place and vibe: sammy's *tales of great neck glory,* the poetic/symbolic representations of amityville of *de la soul is dead*, lyle lovett's panoramic narrative approach on *the road to ensenada,* the more concise (but no less moving) *good old boys* by randy newman, mobb deep's palpable cineramic realism on *the infamous,* the cartoon violence and immediate poetry of *straight outta compton,* the elegant detail and desiderata of london on momus' *don't stop the night,* and springsteen -- lots of springsteen.
yet the new jersey of *if one of these bottles should happen to fall* isn't the one you get on records by the boss. (mccall isn't from monmouth county, he's not exactly working class, he can't even drive). tris mccall lives on palisade avenue in union city in the occupied heart of hudson county, minutes by train or bus to manhattan's central business district. an e-street band approach, with all the hardworking camaraderie that suggests, wouldn't have been right for *bottles.* serendipitously, manic songwriter jesse fuchs had commissioned tris to add pere ubu-style synthesizer to denver zest, his angular punk act. there, tris met rhythm section jens carstensen and martin nienstedt, whose caffeinated tempos and propensity toward the shambolic fit the bill. from the detritus of the breakup of jersey city's incomparable fixations, tris enlisted the support of ambitious piano player dan madinabeitia, upright bassist matt robinson, and curator and percussionist jonathan levine.
but it is former favorite color guitar player, arranger, and mad scientist d-scribe who served as tris's principal musical collaborator. in january of 1998, tris's self-produced *straw man special* e.p. -- featuring d-scribe on electric guitar and backing vocals, and tris on lead vocals, synthesizers, and acoustic guitar --was given a limited, cassette-only release. it was meant, primarily, as a recording exercise, but it ended up being a dry run for *if one of these bottles should happen to fall*: tris imported the instrumental division of labor wholesale, expanding it only to allow d-scribe a greater range of electric stringed instruments to play with, and granting himself permission to use (or mis-use, depending on how you look at it) as many vintage synths as he could access. poetic grace generously brought this policy to culmination at an overdub session at tony maimone's studio g, where tris added actual pere ubu eml synthesizer to "had too much sugar."
did tris, along with scott miller, d-scribe, and the cast of thousands who helped put together *if one of these bottles should happen to fall* manage to capture the north hudson vibe? that's for you to decide, but we'll leave the last word, for now, to tris himself: "do you know how when you're listening to a mott the hoople record, sometimes the speed and noise will clear up for a second and reveal something beautiful? *that's* a hudson county moment. that's like walking through jersey city heights and seeing creation and destruction right there on the same block, and not knowing which is more attractive, which one makes the most sense. we made this record to be off-kilter; we wanted it to be rough, a little bit out of time and out of tune. no disrespect to those who record on computers, but to try to represent jersey with a clean sequenced sound, with pro-tools, that would have been dishonest. hudson county is a wfmu type of place, it's freeform, it's chaotic. you can travel across the country, you'll meet some unique and interesting people, but wherever you are, nine out of ten of those interesting and unique people will have new jersey in their backgrounds."