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VALLEY WEEKEND | CENTERPIECE

Keeping a Song From Going Wrong

The Rhyming Dictionary is a slim volume by Kevin Mitchell that helps lyricists pair words to fit with a pop sensibility.

December 19, 1996|DADE HAYES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In just a few fleeting seconds, they can undercut everything, halting conversations, disrupting workouts and intensifying already hellish commutes.

Worse, they can render beats and melodies monotonous and transform "Don't Be Cruel" from a lover's appeal to a fan's plea for leniency.

They are sickening song lyrics--and an editor at a Van Nuys publishing house thinks he has found the cure.

Identifying flawed rhymes as the source of the trouble, writer and musician Kevin M. Mitchell of Silver Lake has written the Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary, a slim volume that promises to help budding Bob Dylans "find the perfect word at just the right moment."

Mitchell's book, published recently in "essential" pocket size (Alfred Publishing, $5.95), eschews the bulky elitism of many hardcover dictionaries that are occasionally bent on pairing "splendiloquent" with "battlement." Instead, he provides a storehouse of couplets with pop-culture twists and a sensibility befitting doo-woppers, hip-hoppers and everything in between.

"When you write a good song, you go with the first word that comes to mind," said Mitchell, turning toward a piano to strike a few feeble chords and adopting a pop singer's tortured yowl. " 'You never said a word . . . I felt free as a bird.' I mean, come on. Aside from being flat rhymes, it's just so overdone."

*

As a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory and an alumnus of several "bad, bad bands," Mitchell has seen a lot of great ideas dampened by variations of "You're so fine/ you're on my mind."

"People get excited when they're writing," he said during an interview at Alfred's industrial-park offices. "They don't divorce themselves from the writing and take a look and say, 'Hmmm, you know, that doesn't work.' "

After successfully pitching the idea for the book to his bosses at Alfred, the 34-year-old Mitchell spent almost the entire summer last year in a rhyming realm, compiling a vast computer database of about 15,000 entries.

"I totally lived it. People would say something and I would go home and search through my files to make sure I had it," he said.

The abridged format--a typical rhyming dictionary has about 60,000 entries--enabled Mitchell to think of words uniquely suited to pop songs. Even words that rhyme can misfire, he points out in the book.

Consider "MacArthur Park." That 1960s chestnut, still stuck in many a listener's craw, contains the chorus: "Someone left the cake out in the rain/I don't think I can take it/'Cause it took so long to bake it/And I'll never have that recipe again." It only got worse when Donna Summer made a disco version.

For writing inspiration, Mitchell cued up discs of his favorite lyricists, including Paul Simon, the Beatles, Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello. No stickler for oldies, he also has a fondness for current stars like Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, and rebuts the notion that the quality of lyric writing has been waning since the poetic '60s.

"I believe that 95% of what we're hearing is garbage," he said. "But it's always been that way. We tend to look back 20 years and remember the good. We forget about the garbage.

"The main thing [about a song] is that it needs to come from an honest place. Even Alanis Morissette struck a chord with me because she had an essential honesty."

Glendale singer-songwriter Mark Romano agreed that heart is a key ingredient, but his hefty copy of the Random House Rhyming Dictionary--a gift, he insists--usually stays on the shelf.

"When you have an idea and you're trying to hammer it into this thing we call language and you have to go searching in a book for inspiration, you're distorting the idea," he said. "Although if someone tells you they need it by Friday, then the art of songwriting becomes the craft of songwriting."

*

Mitchell's dictionary is available mostly in music shops, since Alfred is known primarily as a music education publisher. But Mitchell says it has achieved a currency--among rappers--that a shelf at Border's could never afford.

"Friends tell me there are people bringing them to parties now," he said. "I guess they read an entry from it and get their friends to come up with rhymes. People [at Alfred] keep joking with me that it's like the Rubik's Cube of the '90s."

Soon the rhymer turned reflective,

His eyes of azure blue

Showed regret that his wee book

Appeared as a "how--to."

"I don't want to tell anyone what to write about," he said. "People are still going to write about love. All I want to do is say, hey, if you use a cliche, can you twist it?

"A clever lyric is great. But if you have a clear idea, that's what's important. Some people don't have a great sense of words. But that's OK."

* The Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary can be purchased at Baxter Northup Music Co., 14534 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 788-7510.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Rhymes With . . . Excerpts from the Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary

Flow: afro, although, banjo, beau, below, bestow, blow, bow, buffalo, bungalow, calico, crossbow, crow, depot, doe, domino, dough, embryo, escrow, Eskimo, flow, foe, forgo, fro, gazebo, gigolo, glow, go, grow, heigh-ho, ho-ho, hobo, hoe, incognito, indigo, Joe, know, long ago, low, Mexico, mistletoe, mow, no, oboe, oh, outgrow, overflow, overgrow, overthrow, owe, Pinocchio, pistachio, plateau, quo, rainbow, ratio, roe, row, sew, slow, snow, so, Soho, status quo, stow, studio, tally-ho, though, throw, tiptoe, to-and-fro, toe, Tokyo, tow, tremolo, undergo, undertow, vertigo, woe, yo, yo-yo

Nirvana: Americana, banana, bandanna, Diana, Hannah, Havana, hosanna, Indiana, Louisiana, Pollyanna, Savannah, Texarkana

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