Singled Out: Rebel House Radio's Can't Say No
"Can't Say No" is one of many great examples of how the collaborative dynamic between Mike Mangan and Mike Blumberg works in REBEL HOUSE RADIO. In this instance, Mike Mangan brought the basic song structure and lyrics/melody to the table, and then Mike Blumberg helped produce, refine, add invaluable ideas, and last but not least...add guitar, to the song. Since both Mikes are also session musicians on their respective instruments (guitar and keyboards), they are a selfcontained songwriting/instrument recording/producing package.
The song was written about the inner turmoil of a guy who has completely fallen under the spell of a beautiful girl who recently came into his life. She is angelic, yet mysterious and elusive. She is chased after by many other men. She gives the impression she cares about him, but then unexpectedly does not show up to dates they plan and often disappears for days at a time. He has a hard time concentrating on anything else when he doesn't know where she is. His mind wanders into dark places, worrying she is with someone else or has lost interest. The pendulum swings from anger to sadness. But no matter how furious he gets, how hurt he is inside, how much worry and frustration has burdened his soul, when she DOES show up and he sees her, he "can't say no" to her charms. He knows he should just walk away, but he can't, so he just "waits and waits". It's an emotional prison.
The song has surprisingly few lyrics, as much of it is repeating the line in the chorus. Lyrics sometimes come quickly, but often in Mike M's case, there is a scratch pad full of crossed out ideas before reaching the final product. Some throw away examples for this song include: "Cos you can't say no when you're comin' down"
"Cos I'm never gonna stop til it come around" "But it feels like somethin' gonna break me out"
Songwriting approach: The approach to the song began with a desire on the part of Mike Mangan to write a faster tempo tune. At 138 bpm, it's actually the fastest song on the album. Once the tempo was decided upon, Mike M began working on rough melodies, for both verse and chorus, recording many different options. We even recently listened to the first chorus melody that turned into CSN. It was recorded into Mike M's phone, amazingly 2 years ago. It had no lyrics (just mumbling things to sound like words), and had slight differences from the exact line that eventually became the chorus melody. Since Mike M is first a Hammond Organist, Pianist/Keyboardist, he often writes with a keyboard. It was recorded while playing a cheap Yamaha PSR keyboard so Mike could keep the tempo with a drum loop and work on the chords underneath at the same time. Sometimes a melody tells you what it needs, and it became clear
that 4 chords would work best, and the particular chord changes were implied by the melody. There's actually a little bassline Mike is playing underneath that melody which turned into the chorus chord changes. It's fascinating to go back and see how much thought and refining had to go into sculpting a melody. It's like chipping away at a stone until you finally reveal the sculpture inside. Some songs come quickly, some are developed over time.
The nah nah melody emerged when trying to write a bridge. It really started as an organ riff, and hey, why not throw in a few vocal nah nahs instead.
Music and Production: We had a lot of fun producing this song. Mike Blumberg and Mike Mangan both got to showcase their bread and butter, which is guitar and Hammond Organ respectively. Mike M came up with the verse riff on organ, but it was handed off to guitar for the recording.
Mike B also initially suggested an organ solo for the song. However, one night when recording a rough version of the song, Mike B laid down a completely improvised scratch guitar solo. The solo was so perfect and burning, that Mike M was instantly blown away, and became convinced that exact guitar solo is what needed to be there instead. The final recorded version of the guitar solo isn't too much different than the first thing Mike B improvised on the rough recording.
Regarding the chorus chords, Mike B took them and adapted them seamlessly to guitar phrasing. He can also utilize his perfect pitch to fine tune details such as the 2nd last chord of the chorus (Eb) needed to be a major chord. This little nuance makes a huge difference in the feel and impact of the melody.
Mike B also came up with the tippy guitar riff in the verses, which adds a great "stressed" vibe to the verses due to its dissonance. This helps sonically illustrate the confused emotional state behind the lyrics.
Another aspect we loved was the backup vocals in the outro chorus. Mike B had the idea one day to layer a melodic "round" interweaving around the lead vocal melody. (If someone is not familiar with a "round", it's the same technique used in "Row Row Row Your Boat"). The effect is fantastic, and adds another layer to help crescendo the outro chorus. It is actually one of the unique trademarks of this song, and sets it apart from many other tunes out there these days, as this approach isn't used too often in rock music.
The outro chorus is also just a repetitive melodic theme that is enhanced by other dynamics to help it build. This may be an unexpected comparison, but Ravel's "Bolero" is the same kind of approach: a repetitive ostinato that repeats, and it is the instruments added as it goes along
that creates the buildup, even though the melody stays exactly the same for an extended period of time...
Mike M also got to add what he has lovingly nicknamed "Thunderclaps". It's the explosion sound in the intro and outro. There is one, and only one, instrument that can make that sound: The REAL vintage Hammond Organ. The sound is produced by turning the reverb up all the way and smashing the top of the organ with your fist. It shakes the spring and produces the thunderous effect. This was used by many rock legends of the organ, including Jon Lord from Deep Purple and Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Also, in the 2nd verse, Mike M got to add effects to the organ (some delay etc.) and create those little underwater submarine sounding "plunks". Both these organ tones are not utilized by many bands these days.
Overall this song, and all of our songs, are written from a genuine place deep in our souls, and when a listener truly connects with one of your songs, that's what makes being a musician such a special experience.
We have an amazing music video coming out for this song in the next few weeks. It is currently in the final stages of editing, and we had a great opportunity to tell this story in a very artistic, amazing way. The people working, directing, editing and producing it are some of the best in the business.