With its origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the tradition of inverting the normal order of things thrived in mediaeval and Tudor Britain.
For a number of days in December, a person of low rank would be appointed ruler of the midwinter festivities, and would orchestrate all manner of bizarre and irreverent goings-on.
Those who normally held power were obliged to follow the commands of the Lord of Misrule.
It’s a great subject and it became possibly my favourite song on the album. Here we had licence to include quirky lyrics, unexpected harmonic twists, rhythmic playfulness, and a splash of something sinister – and we got them all in.
It starts with an instrumental chorus, and possibly the first thing to strike the listener as odd is the rhythmic jerk that occurs just two chords in. The second chord has a beat missing, so it lasts for seven beats instead of eight. The drum part obligingly drops a beat too so it stays on track with the guitar and bass, but the sleighbell is playing only on the odd numbered beats, and continues defiantly to do so, producing a little warp which is then corrected when the next chord also misses a beat and everything falls back in sync.
This rhythmic ‘phasing’ – or polyrhythm, is something one can study in great depth. For its own sake, it interests me as a mathematician, but as with many of the more complex aspects of composition and arrangement, it’s used best if it adds something to a song without drawing too much attention to itself. (It could be argued that I’ve crossed my own line in this case.)
While the chorus uses nothing more obscure than Eb, Bb, and Fm, the verse asserts its individuality by modulating three times in each cycle and employing a couple of inversions along the way to give the bass a more comfortable path through this harmonic briar. We have Cm, Fs2/A, Bb, G7, Edim7, Bb/F, A7. Hack your way through that lot!
The first sung chorus has the female voice starting a fifth above the male, but in the second chorus the gap is widened as the male voice takes the female line down an octave and the female takes the male line up an octave, so the starting interval is now an eleventh.
The two singers are panned fairly far apart and they sometimes move around to surprise the headphone listener. There are little bursts of woodwind here and there to punctuate certain moments, and a triangle for a playful feel. There’s even a bit of birdsong in the background because I recorded the nylon-string guitar on a beautiful spring morning with the studio doors open.
Before the last chorus there’s the very simple execution of a key change – one tone up – just to give a little lift to the end section. All of these tricks and devices serve to conjure an air of unpredictability, of mischief, of engineered strangeness teetering on the edge of chaos – just as the Lord Of Misrule would wish.
To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.