I spent the evening for our first overdub session with two string players who came in and did new parts for "Eli Whitney." I had thought there would be time to record more afterward, but that didn't happen, so I will have to go back and do some more at a later date.
The bass player came first, per my request. He was very professional and came in and nailed the part. As he started, I kept thinking, "A real bass player is playing our song! Wow!" I told him he could change the bass line to whatever he wanted, and he came up with a completely different part. It changes the groove of the song considerably. What he played would not work as well on electric bass, so I'm not sure if I would change what I do, but it is the first and smaller way that "Eli" will be a different listening experience on this record from what anyone has heard before.
The question arose while he was playing whether we were recording a sweeping string section or if the bass was acting as part of the rhythm section. I had envisioned a sweeping string section, but that would mean him recording another part and considerably more parts to record. We recorded additional bass for the song in case we wanted to go that way later, but in the end we decided that the bowed upright bass would still serve sonically as part of the rhythm section and the violin would serve as a lead instrument over the chorus. The effect is similar since both are bowed instruments playing at the same time, but it's good to have an important mixing decision made early.
The violinist came in next. She's a high school student who has been playing ten years and has a good ear for melody and harmony. I think she might have been a little nervous to be recording a session with just me and Daniel Reekay there, so I tried to keep it light and encourage her so that she would be comfortable. I thought about adding documentary footage of her saying how Kelly kept hitting on her or how she's in love with Kelly, but I never felt quite like I knew her that well.
Her parts came with much discussion. The bass player came in and did his part and knew what to do, but the decisions that had to be made for playing her part kept getting more complex as the session went on. Aaron would come down with the baby and give input when he could.
I had given her R.E.M.'s "Electrolite" as a reference piece for the solo, and Aaron had given her the rough practice cut of the song we had done on the day of the first band tracking session, which she took to her instructor and learned the first part of Daniel's solo note for note (which is really cool to hear). As she was starting, I also gave her one of my favorite pieces, "Ashokan Farewell" as another reference to what she could do. She could play that famous violin piece easily and it may have made her more comfortable to get started.
The bass player took about an hour and forty-five minutes to record his part, and she took probably two and a half hours on top of that, and the result was quite a bit different from what I imiagined they would do. I had a certain part in my head for the strings to play, but in the end the sessions musicians were so smart with what they did that it left what I had envisioned behind in the dust. They both thought it was a great song and were interested in the whole concept album, making me happy that we can impress strangers who are also musicians.
The question then arises now that the strings are on "Eli" is whether or not this acoustic symphony (the original concept for the song, I might add) doesn't come too far out of left field for the rest of the record. I could easily envision a similar treatment to "Dear Abbey" to give another counterpoint to this song and alleviate that, but time and money and the fact that it's the band's decision ultimately may keep that from happening. I guess we'll decide once we start to hear more of the record all together.
But at the end of the day, having listened to the rough cut once since hearing it on their awesome mixing speakers, the changes to this song are extremely positive. The argument could be made that "Eli Whitney" is itself the history album and that the other 12+ songs are just buffers to fill out the concept captured so well on what could easily be our finest song ever. What we did yesterday ensures that if anything, the song we've paid the least attention to in preparing to make this record (as it was worked out in our minds long before we started) will stand out among the rest of the tracks as the classic song it is. The whole record could revolve around or hinge upon this one great song, perhaps the best song Kelly's ever written, and it also presents the interesting and frightening challenge of making sure that the other songs can top it or at least come close to it in some arena.