25 Years of Adventures in Hi-Fi

On its release in September 1996, New Adventures in Hi-Fi felt like an event.

R.E.M. had just re-signed with Warner Bros. for a then staggering $80 million dollars, and had a legitimate claim to be the biggest band in the world. They’d released a five-minute single featuring Patti Smith, on which Michael Stipe recited poetry rather than sang. The cover of the record was monochrome, serious-looking – an empty landscape – a far cry from the cartoon bear and bright-orange cover of Monster. It was 14 songs and 65 minutes long. This was a clearly a Big Statement.

Album opener How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us, with its brooding, repetitive bassline and what I didn’t realise at the time was a jazz piano solo by Mike Mills (unaquainted as a 14-year-old with Thelonius Monk, it sounded to me like a cat walking across a keyboard), only confirmed it. Neither embracing and melodic like Out of Time or rocking and semi-ironic like Monster, this was, rather, Automatic for the People‘s older, more introspective brother.

Except, it’s not that. Not exactly, anyway. Because no sooner does How the West Was Won fade out than Michael Stipe launches into The Wake Up Bomb, in which – camper than ever before – he lists all the ways in which he looks good, like an alt.rock Richard Fairbrass, before expressing a desire to “Get drunk and sing along to Queen/Practice my T.Rex moves and make the scene”. It’s goofy, it’s silly, it’s a little embarassing, like your dad at a wedding disco, but it’s completely winning.

It’s also a radical hard-left turn from How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us, not just in mood but in sound as well. How the West Was Won sounds like a controlled studio recording. The Wake Up Bomb sounds like it was recorded in a hangar. In both cases, that’s because they more or less were. While touring with Radiohead in 1994, the members of R.E.M. noted how a soundcheck recording of the band playing My Iron Lung had become the basis of the final studio version, and wondered what it would sound like if they were to do the same. It put them in mind of Neil Young’s 1973 live album Time Fades Away, which consisted entirely of new material and kept audience noise to a minimum.

With those twin inspirations, they began recording their own new songs at soundcheck. The Wake Up Bomb was recorded at the North Charleston Coliseum, with touring musician Nathan December adding extra weight to the guitar attack. It’s a similar, but I think more successful, approach to the one they’d taken on Monster, for which basic tracks were cut on a soundstage then sweetened with overdubs.

Scott Litt’s mix had left that album a little too guitar-heavy, lacking drive and punch from Bill Berry’s drums. Correcting that mistake, New Adventures‘ louder songs, like The Wake Up Bomb, see Berry and Buck leading the charge together. Yes, Buck’s SG Junior* is huge, but he’s not burying everyone else with it; Berry’s toms have a lot of thump, and his pre-chorus snare flams are practically a hook by themselves.

The record continues in a similar vein, ping-ponging between the studio-recorded acoustic lament New Test Leper and the live-at-soundcheck Undertow, which was frequently played on the 1995 tour. New Test Leper is one of the album’s most successful pieces. A callback to the funereal, acoustic sound of Automatic, it features Stipe in character as a guest on a talk show, trying to communicate something serious and personal while facing down insults and hostility from the audience. I’ve always assumed Stipe had in mind the way people with Aids, particularly gay men, were treated, but I’ve not found anything online where he’s said as much. Even in 1995, though, society’s treatment of people with Aids was often one of fear and hostility, so it’s a reading that fits even if it’s not Stipe’s intended one. Either way, it’s a lovely song, with one of Stipe’s best vocals: gentle, semi-whispered, and a beautiful change of pace on a record where he’s often hoarse and grainy.

That long tour in support of Monster does represent something of a dividing line in Stipe’s career as a singer. A smoker and vocally untrained, he seems to have suffered during the 18-month tour, coming out the other side of it permanently raspier, and for me, never as a good again as he was in the early 1990s. Undertow is the sort of song that appears to have done the damage – he belts the chorus dangerously close to the top of his range and audibly struggles at times. It’s hard to hear the effort as worth it. It’s not a disaster (Mills is on good on bass), but it’s a long way from the quality of the opening triptych.

Things immediately pick up with E-Bow the Letter, though. Five and a half minutes long, with Stipe in Beat-poet mode, supported by Patti Smith’s low-register backing vocals in the choruses, it sounded unlike anything else on the radio at the time. It’s a triumph for all involved: Stipe’s lyrics are a continuation of Monster‘s explorations of gender indentity, sexuality and pop culture, while Mills and Buck are at their most resourceful as instrumentalists; Buck plays the titular E-Bow throughout, also adding acoustic guitar and electric sitar (the chorus riff is played on both instruments), while Mills handles Moog synth, organ and Mellotron (the string parts that get a little more audible with each chorus) as well as his usual bass. But familiarity with it can obscure the memory of how weird it sounded at the time, and it’s a sign of the band’s clout that Warners agreed to release it as the opening single. The chart positions don’t tell the whole story; in the UK it hit number four, but failed to find support on radio, and dropped like a stone, out of the Top 40 in three weeks.

This, though, more than any other album R.E.M. had released to date was the sound of the band doing whatever the hell they wanted, recoupable advances from Warner’s be damned. Little else explains Leave, perhaps the most sonically extreme record they’d made to date. Its minute-long acoustic instrumental opening gives way to a blaring siren effect (played on a synth, I think), a thunderous drum track from Bill Berry, and the opening acoustic melody recast for Buck’s E-Bow guitar. Stipe meanwhile is in self-flagellating mood (“I suffer dreams of a world gone mad/I like it like that, and I know it”), his desperation mirrored by that brutally unyielding siren, which plays without relief for six minutes until the end of the song. Even more than E-Bow the Letter, it’s the album’s haunted centrepiece, and it’s a final triumph for Bill Berry as a creator within the band. When he left, they didn’t just lose a drummer but also the man who’d written the music for Perfect Circle, Everybody Hurts and Man on the Moon.

The band presumably knew that the mood needed lightening after Leave, so they follow it with the driving Departure. It’s another Beat poetry-style vocal from Stipe, but this time over a heavily distorted Peter Buck riff with a tone that sounds oddly like Mark Knopfler on Money for Nothing. The band attack it audible enthusiasm and Stipe is at his most animated. He’s mainly mining a seam of word association (“Win a eulogy from William Greider/Car crash, ptomaine, disposable lighter/A bus plunge, avalanche, a vinegar cider/Free-fall, motorcycle, hang-glider”), but he ends the song on a note of (perhaps) personal revelation, repeating the line “There is so much that I can’t do”. But in context it’s not a self-reproach; it sounds more like a moment of liberation. It’s not a song I tend to revisit out of the context of the album, but whenever I do hear it, it makes me smile.

Bittersweet Me, the second single from the album, feels like a missed opportunity to me. The promising verse and pre-chorus are let down by a chorus that’s just a little too static and lacking in development. The criticism R.E.M. have come in for in some quarters that their songs lack proper choruses is overstated on the whole. But there are a couple of examples of R.E.M. songs where the chorus fails to pay off the verse in a way that lifts the song, and Bittersweet Me is one of them (the other one I would put forward is Bang and Blame, which has an absolutely belting verse). The mix, too, feels slightly off. When the disorted guitars come in (firstly on the left during the pre-chorus, then a more obviously overdubbed part in the middle for the chorus), they seem to sit on top of the track, rather than feeling like they’ve been integrated into the mix. It’s a shame, as the song could have been a great one with a stronger chorus and better mix.

Be Mine is a ballad, and in a different world could perhaps have been a hit. In some ways, it’s a warm-up for Up‘s At My Most Beautiful, which applies similarly idiosyncratic but sincere-sounding lyrics to classic ballad form. But while At My Most Beautiful is a very well-observed and executed Beach Boys pastiche, Be Mine is more like a power ballad played by a band that are a little too self-conscious to go for the sonic jugular. It’s structured like a power ballad – opening verses and chorus accompanied by solo guitar, band coming in element at a time until they all hit together for the second chorus – but the payoffs aren’t quite big enough to really satisfy. The drum sound is suprisingly small and contained, and the solo, such as it is, isn’t expansive enough. I tend to think if you’re going to underplay a song like this, underplay it more. Just keep it to acoustic guitar and voice. Otherwise, go for broke. There’s a good song here, but it’s not quite the record it might have been.

Ten songs in, the length of New Adventures in Hi-Fi starts to become a little bit of a problem. Binky the Doormat – another song played during the 1995 tour and captured on Road Movie – revisits the trash-glam gender games of Monster and The Wake-Up Bomb, but without the same panache. Mike Mills’s “go away, go away” backing vocals, which I’ll charitably describe as deliberately whiny and annoying, tend to grate, and at this point in a 65-minute, 14-song album we didn’t really need a 5-minute track of only average quality retreading stylistic and lyrical ground covered elsewhere.

What we did need is something like Zither to refresh the ears: a two-and-a-half-minute acoustic instrumental recorded backstage in Philadelphia, featuring Scott McCaughey on autoharp (sometimes known as a chord zither, hence the track name). R.E.M. were always rather good at instrumentals, and this is another nice one, slighter than Endgame or New Orleans Instrumental No. 1, perhaps, but still very welcome in context.

So Fast So Numb seems to me a bit of an overlooked gem. Taken at a brisk tempo, the music is matched by a forceful performance from Stipe. As Matthew Perpetua noted in his long-ago survey of R.E.M. songs, Pop Songs 08, much of the album sees Stipe (or, rather, whatever persona he happens to be adopting for the song) reaching out in his lyrics to people in need of some “confrontational tough love” (to borrow Perpetua’s phrase). The singer’s barely contained frustration is evident in his impatient interjections (“Listen! This is now, this is here, this is me, this is what I wanted you to see”), and his cleverly rapid-fire delivery in the choruses (“you’re coming on to something so fast, so numb that you can’t even feel”).

Musically, it’s one of the most expansive tracks on the record, made up of four distinct sections: verse in D, pre-chorus in F, chorus in E minor, and a solo that’s also in F but finds its way back to D by moving up through a B flat that isn’t elsewhere present in the song. Berry is in authoritative mood on drums, and perhaps the only negative comment I might make is that if it had been recorded a couple of years later, the distorted guitar might have been deemed unnecessary. Underneath the fuzz is a rootstier instrumental bed of acoustic guitar and piano, which was perhaps all that was needed. Still, a really good piece that buoys the second half of the album.

In comparison, Low Desert feels minor. There are several things I like about it musically. Stipe takes a similar approach to the vocal as he does on How the West Was Won, singing much of it in a soft mumble then occasionally jumping up an octave to ramp up the intensity. I like the drum sound, Berry making the unusual choice of playing what’s essentially a rock song with Hot Rods. That distinctive slappy sound was so much a part of post-MTV Unplugged music, but is seldom heard today. And, speaking of things that are slappy, the track is another one of Mills’s occasional forays into slap-bass, which always seem to work better than they should, given that R.E. M. were very far from a funk band. The track, with its talk of driving through the desert, builds on the imagery of the cover and ties back into the album’s main themes: movement, travel, departure. But if we’re looking to cut some songs from the tracklisting to reduce New Adventures’ unruly length, this would be another casualty, though I’d miss it more than Binky and Undertow.

An album about movement ends with a song firmly located in one place: Los Angeles, where Stipe lived for a couple of years in the mid-nineties. Based on a piano line written by Mike Mills, the song is a paean to the city: its geography, its history and its icononography. Famously guarded in his younger years, Stipe has over time become willing to discuss his once-opaque lyrics, and he’s spoken quite extensively about Electrolite, and his initial inspiration: a trip he took up to Mulholland after his home was damaged in the 1994 Northbridge earthquake:

“Mulholland represents to me the iconic ‘from on high’ vantage point looking down at L.A. and the valley at night when the lights are all sparkling and the city looks, like it does from a plane, like a blanket of fine lights all shimmering and solid.”

The song is, of course, a farewell to the 20th century, albeit one written several years ahead of time, though it feels, too, like a farewell to the band itself, ending as it does on the repeated line “I’m not scared/I’m outta here”. And if Buck, Mills and Stipe had decided not to soldier on without Bill Berry after he left the band, it would have been the perfect note to go out on, as it is one of their warmest and most generous songs, and among their finest – certainly from the Warners period.

Musically, it’s about as countrified as the band ever got. Banjo had figured in the band’s arrangements occasionally (as had pedal steel), but there’s little precedent in R.E.M.’s oeuvre for anything quite as stone country as Andy Carlson’s fiddle on Electrolite, unless I’m forgetting something. After a record dominated by thick walls of distorted guitar, it’s a nice note to go out on – the instrumental bridge may be the most purely pretty 30-second stretch on the whole album. While reconnecting the band with the sounds and textures of their early nineties records, it sounds like the end of an era.

*

New Adventures in Hi-Fi isn’t quite the masterpiece it seemed to me at the time. Its length, which once made it seem important, now merely seems long, and I can’t help thinking a 50-minute version of the record would have been better. But it does contain everything the band could do sonically and stylistically, across a set of mostly strong songs performed with a dynamism the band hadn’t exhibited on record since the days of Lifes Rich Pageant and Document (even the muscular likes of These Days and The One I Love sound fairly puny next to The Wake-Up Bomb and Leave). But that arena-ready sound is leavened by softer, more pensive or atmospheric moments like New Test Leper, E-Bow The Letter, How the West Was Won and Electrolite. I rate it, in case you weren’t able to tell, highly.

Since I always end up doing this with long records, here’s how I’d edit it to make it slightly more streamlined**:

  1. How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us
  2. The Wake-Up Bomb
  3. New Test Leper
  4. E-Bow The Letter
  5. Leave
  6. Departure
  7. Bittersweet Me
  8. Be Mine
  9. Zither
  10. So Fast So Numb
  11. Electrolite

* It may have been a Les Paul, but Buck uses an SG Junior in the Road Movie performance of the song.
**I’d also edit out some of the repeated choruses on tracks including New Test Leper, Bittersweet Me and So Fast So Numb, as well as trim the acoustic intro off Leave, since that doesn’t really work as a fakeout and isn’t needed as a scene-setter.

Nevermind is 30

No one reading this needs to be told how good this album is. No one needs to be told how important this album is. No one needs to be told how relevant this album still is.

It may not quite be true that Nevermind changed the sound of rock music overnight. Bon Jovi continued to have hits for years afterwards. Guns N’ Roses remained enormous, though they lost their outlaw cool. Thrash bands continued to do well commercially, and Nirvana never had any beef with them anyway (they were reportedly on good terms with the guys from Metallica, and hired Andy Wallace to mix Nevermind specifically because of his work on Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss).

But hair metal bands did mostly try to update their image and sound in response to the rawer, more unkempt noise coming out of Seattle, and it did change who got signed, and who got played on the radio, and in those terms Nevermind exerted a heavy influence on the sound of rock music for years to come. The critics Alfred Soto and Chris Molanphy have both drawn attention to what the modern rock chart looked like pre-Nirvana – its heterogeneity, its Britishness and its absence of heavy guitars, and how that changed after Nevermind‘s success. More than the Hot 100, college radio, the Modern Rock chart and in the rock press was where the album’s influence was felt most heavily. As Soto observes, “I.R.S. Records’ promo muscle wasn’t gonna get any Kirsty MacColl on a ’95 playlist.”

But while it’s interesting to look at Nevermind‘s impact on an industry-wide scale, that story has been told and retold, and a major landmark anniversary probably deserves a more personal response.

Mine goes like this. I was nine when Nevermind came out, and was too young to hear it or really appreciate it. I became properly aware of Nirvana – other than as a band whose name I knew and whose records I’d seen in HMV – when Kurt Cobain died. By that point, I was 12. I realised then that I actually did know fragmentary bits of their songs: I’d heard Teen Spirit, Come As You Are and In Bloom, and snippets of their melodies had wormed their way into my subconscious. My older brother Mark came home with Nevermind one day, and I insisted on having a cassette copy. And then my schoolfriend Jose showed me his electric guitar (an HSS Sunn Mustang in red) and his ability to play the main riff from Smells Like Teen Spirit.

And that was that. The path ahead was clear. There are albums I love more than Nevermind these days, and there are albums I’ve listened to more. But nothing comes close in terms of life-changing effects. Would I even be a musician today if I hadn’t have a) heard Nevermind and b) shortly after realised that people like my friend, and by extension people like me, could get a guitar and play music like this? I honestly don’t know. Before that moment, I’d wanted to be a writer of some kind, a novelist or a journalist, or perhaps both. Because of Nevermind, writing is something I enjoy and happen to earn a living from, while music is something more fundamental. The blood in my veins, the fluid in my cells. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world, probably millions, can tell exactly the same story.

Life update

Hi everyone. My apologies for not having posted in a while. Things have been happening.

Yep, Melanie and I got married! I proposed nearly two years ago and we set a date for last September (2020). Covid got in the way, of course, so we pushed everything a year down the road, as a late summer/early autumn wedding was still our first choice, not just as the time to have the ceremony but also as the best season for our honeymoon in northern Italy and the south of France. The latter didn’t really work out (we pushed it to next June and went on a UK mini-moon instead in the Peak District), but the wedding was able to go ahead as planned, and it was made all the more special that we were able to see so many friends and family members in one place, and in person, after the last 18 months.

Between planning the wedding, starting a new job back in June and rehearsing for the Watertown Carps album launch show this coming Wednesday, I’ve been super-busy all round, and haven’t really had the time or the mental bandwidth to blog very much for the last few months. That might begin to change now. In the meantime, I hope you and yours have all been well, and thank you for your patience.

Smiley’s People

I’ve been watching the 1982 adaptation of John le Carré’s Smiley’s People in the last week or so, and enjoying the soundtrack by the late Patrick Gowers.

It’s a wide-ranging beast. The main title theme (called Ostrakova), the recurring Smiley’s Solitude pieces, Tatiana and the three “Journey to” – of which Journey to Hamburg is the longest and most substantial – themes are scored for lonely trumpet and wintry strings, often built on rhythmic ostinatos and using dissonance to hint at the darkness surrounding Smiley. They feel like the end of something, a winding-down – even the restless Journey to Hamburg.

The series is six hours long, though, so the soundtrack takes as many trips as its main character. Mr J Lamb, Taxi Driver interfaces with reggae (in a later scene, Lamb the taxi driver is listening to UB40’s The Earth Dies Screaming – one of the few uses of diegetic music in the whole series, and it could hardly be more appropriate to the era or mood). The Turkish Cafe evocatively underscores the scene in which Smiley and Guillam wait anxiously for Karla, Smiley’s Russian counterpart and nemesis to cross the bridge.

The interlude in Germany, meanwhile, provides Gowers with the chance to depart furthest from the mood of his main themes. Frau Kretzschmar is an amalgam of parodic polka, elevator music and game show title theme; Kretzschmar’s Barbecue adds some jazz fusion soloing to the schlager; Schläfrig Küsst Du Mir Die Haare is a breathy Weimar torch ballad; while Der Blau Diamant is accidental Birthday Party – sleazy cabaret music built on distorted bass guitar, growl-moans that suggest sex but could hardly be called erotic, and some knowingly garish soloing by Judd Proctor (guitar) and Duncan Lamont (tenor saxophone).*

The soundtrack won Gowers a BAFTA in 1983, on the strength of its orchestral pieces, you suspect. And they are where the heart of the series resides; they are, too, where the music feels most like the book. Yet the whole thing works, and is worth hearing in its entirety.

*Unsurprisingly, it soundtracks a scene where Smiley goes to a Hamburg sex club to find out what its owner knows about the whereabouts of a German agent working for the Circus. “How did you like the show?” asks the owner, Kretzschmar. “It was very artistic,” replies Smiley, deadpan. The line is a cliche. It’s Alec Guinness’s delivery that makes it golden.

Smiley in Bern

Charlie Watts RIP

Charlie Watts, who died yesterday in hospital in London with his family around him, was one of the greatest drummers in the history of popular music.

He was 80 years old, not a young man, but damn it sucks to be writing about him in the past tense. He was so curiously ageless – eternally trim, eternally dapper, grey-haired for so long you have to be a fair bit older than me to remember him any other way, and still a master of his craft – that it was hard to think of him as being old at all. Rationally, of course, he and all his generation of musicians are either in or approaching their ninth decade, but even so. When they go, it’s still a shock.

To talk about Charlie Watts as a musician is, inevitably, to rehearse the cliches. He was, as Alexis Petridis, wrote in The Guardian, the calm eye of the storm. He was, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the centre of gravity around which the rest of the band orbited. He was, as Rob Sheffield wrote in Rolling Stone, the man whose standards the other Stones always had to meet. He was, as TS Eliot might have put it if he’d ever given any thought to the Rolling Stones, the still point of the band’s turning world. He was the legendary rock drummer who would rather have been playing jazz, or watching cricket. The member of the ageing group of rock ‘n’ roll party animals who thought it was all a bit silly, really, and whose marriage stayed intact for 57 years.

Among rock drummers, he may not have been the most powerful, the most technically adept, or the most metronomic, but he was perhaps the one who swung the most. Watch Charlie play – all wrists. There was no shoulder, or scarcely even any elbow. The effort put in seemed entirely out of proportion to the sound coming out. Sometimes he could appear to be miming to the noise he was making, so easy did it look. Above all, though, he could make you move – maybe (whisper it) even more than his piratical colleague with the Telecaster.

Key Charlie texts are legion. The relentless repeated fills of Get Off of My Cloud. The pounding toms of Paint it Black. The party-starting intro of Honky Tonk Women. The dread-filled snare shots that announce his entrance on Gimme Shelter.

But his greatness doesn’t merely lie in these obvious highlights. It’s in how he single-handedly prevents the whole band careering off the road on Rocks Off and Rip this Joint, the furious one-two opening salvo of Exile on Main Street. It’s in the world-weary thump of his brushed snare on the Stones’ cover of Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain (the greatest brushed snare drum sound in popular music). It’s his shuffle-thump on Sweet Virginia, so laid back it’s basically horizontal. It’s his empathetic 12/8 on No Use in Crying, on which he could be Al Jackson Jr playing with Otis Redding.

Charlie Watts was a modest, self-effacing man, who was quick to play down his band’s importance and his own accomplishments. It falls to those of use who heard and loved his playing to sing his praises for him. Today, musicians who work in every genre of music you could think of have been doing just that. If you ever heard a Stones song and felt the need to move, Charlie was the reason why.

Nanci Griffith RIP

Few artists have straddled the worlds of folk, country, rock and pop as easily and gracefully as Nanci Griffith, who died on Friday 13 August, aged 68, with no cause yet confirmed.

The ubiquity of From a Distance, force-fed to me by the folk choir at mass every Sunday evening for a year or two in the early 1990s, soured me on Griffith for a while. I knew she’d recorded it; I assumed she had written it. To this day, I still don’t care for it, and it put me off listening to more of her music at the peak of her mainstream visibility – around the time of the release of Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1993.

The song that made me get Nanci Griffith – why musicians from fields as far apart as Irish folk, stadium rock, bluegrass, indie, and mainstream country would come together to work on her records – was On Grafton Street. But it happened slowly, and without me knowing.

In 1994, my mum was into a record called Talk to Me by Irish folk singer Frances Black. I didn’t know who wrote the songs on the record (Griffith wrote or co-wrote three), but one of them struck me and stayed with me. Black’s recording of On Grafton Street was how I first heard that song, but when I heard Griffith’s reading of it – particularly a lovely live version from a New Year’s Eve gig in 1994 – Black’s version paled a little.

Something magical can happen when the right words meet the right snippet of melody and are sung by the right voice.

“Funny how my world goes round without you” – the opening of On Grafton Street’s chorus – is one of those. Whether that chorus was written by Griffith alone, by her co-writer on the song Fred Koller, or by the pair of them together is relatively unimportant – it’s the alchemy of voice, word and tune that makes the song what it is. It’s a fine song when Frances Black sings it. When Griffith sang it, it became transcendent. Now, if someone begins a sentence “Funny how…”, my brain will immediately add “…my world goes round without you”. The words belong to that melody now.

I can’t claim encyclopaedic knowledge of Griffith’s music. I’ve heard Flyer*, Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Last of the True Believers. But even that much – two albums of mostly original songs, one of covers – is enough to know that we lost a major songwriter when Griffith passed last week, the kind that don’t come along that often.

*It’s not easy to hear Flyer. You’ll look for it in vain on Spotify. If anyone needs an object lesson in why Spotify is the enemy, not just of dedicated archivists but anyone with more than a passing interest in music history, well, there you are. A Grammy-nominated album by a substantial, major-label artist – not available, presumably because of rights issues.

New Watertown Carps single Wait and See – out now!

I’m hoping to finish up a short post on the late Nanci Griffith in a day or two. In the meantime, here’s something.

When The Fisher King was released, I mentioned in a post that while most of the songs on forthcoming album Mermaids were written by Yo and subsequently sent to me as voice-and-guitar recordings to build arrangements upon, there were a couple of songs that began as demos I sent to Yo for him to write melodies and lyrics.

Our new single, Wait and See, is one of these Palmer/Zushi compositions.

Wait and See started off several years ago as a song called Spring Like November. As sometimes happens with me, during the process of tracking it, I began to have doubts about its fundamental worth as a song. I liked the recording I was building on a musical level, but the actual top-line melody and lyric weren’t really all that thrilling to me. So I let it go. But I kept a rough mix of the instrumentation and actually listened to it from time to time, hoping that the dam would break and I’d get the inspiration I needed to reshape the song into something better.

It never happened, so when Yo suggested last summer that if I had any music lying around that he could write to, I should send it over to him, what was then still called Spring Like November was the first piece that came to mind.

The difference between Wait and See and Spring Like November is that Yo took advantage of the slow tempo to write something lyrically dense. At times, particularly the second verse, the vocal feels like it’s in double time relative to guitars. I really like that effect – it makes the vocal feel a little like a stream of consciousness, and moves the song away from the sad-core kind of thing it was before Yo worked on it. It also gives the song an extra rhythmic push that it lacked before, which I tried to compensate for with a double-time shaker to partial success.

A guitar solo with a bit of a country rock feel was also part of Yo’s vision for the song – originally I’d gone for something more based around the vocal melody, slow and clean. The solo we went with in the end has more of an overdriven tone for a contrasting texture, and was a good call on Yo’s part.

One interesting note is that, at this point, i have no memory of how I played the main electric guitar riff. I’m thinking it had to have been a G-based tuning with a capo on the 4th fret, but whether it was straight open G, or had a C bass, or was my favoured acoustic tuning of CGDEAD, I honestly don’t know. It was several years ago now, and I kept no notes. That’ll learn me.

Listen to Wait and See below:

Mermaids, our debut album as Watertown Carps, is out on 9 September on Rose Parade Recording Co.

Do You Believe in Magic – The Lovin’ Spoonful

Apologies for my elongated absence. I’ve started a new job and have been busy with stuff for our wedding next month. Busy times! Today, the debut by a band that should get more love. I’ll be taking on their second and third albums in subsequent posts.

Way early on in the life of this blog, I wrote about Never Going Back, an underrated country-rock song from the post-John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky lineup of the Lovin’ Spoonful. (It’s not very good but you can read it here.) I commented at the time that the band seemed underrated and quasi-forgotten to me, and were ripe for reassessment. Well, nothing has changed in the eight years that have passed and, since no one else has done it, I figured I’d do it myself.

So, this week I’ve been listening to the first three Spoonful albums, recorded and released within 12 months of each other, along with a soundtrack album to What’s Up Tiger Lily. That might seem like an extraordinary bout of productivity, but it was in fact pretty common practice in an era where labels assumed bands would have a short shelf life, and needed to be milked dry while people were paying attention.*

In the case of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the band’s not-quite-readiness as a songwriting unit is apparent on its debut, Do You Believe in Magic, which leans heavily on folk-blues warhorses and features only four solo John Sebastian compositions, with the blues instrumental at the end of the album credited to all four members equally.

The album does feel a little slight, it’s true, but it’s hugely charming. The fact that it starts with the title track – one of the greatest of all pop singles – certainly helps in this regard. Key to Sebastian’s art was his seemingly total sincerity. Granted, he was only in his early twenties himself, but few men in rock could write lines like “Believe in the magic of a young girl’s soul, believe in the magic of rock ’n’ roll” without coming off as unattractively cynical or disgracefully lecherous. Coming from Sebastian, such sentiments seem neither. It is instead utterly disarming.

Musically, Do You Believe in Magic shows Sebastian’s magpie tendencies. He adapted the intro chord sequence from Martha and the Vandellas’ Heatwave, with Sebastian explaining that, since that song’s intro was so exciting, taking the chords and changing them twice was quickly would make it twice as exciting.** It worked, and illustrates what the Lovin’ Spoonful were at their best. Hugely versatile for such young players, they took elements from the folk revival, blues, country, jug band music, Motown and the British Invasion beat groups, and melded it all together. They had an ability to play any of those genres (except perhaps Motown-style pop-soul), basically straight, or – as with Do You Believe in Magic – blend them together, while always sounding like themselves.

For me, they tended to work least well while playing straight rock music. Steve Boone and Joe Butler were a more-than-competent rhythm section, able to turn their hand to pretty much any style of music, but aggression didn’t come naturally to the band – just on a temperamental level, and none of them had a voice that suited heavier material. Consequently, On the Road Again sounds pretty unconvincing compared to the Beatles’ rock ‘n’ roll material, or Creedence a year or so later.

But, that said, they could do a creditable cover of a folk-blues warhorse like Sportin’ Life. Sebastian was an adept blues harmonica player, who’d learned from the very best – his father, also called John Sebastian, played classical harmonica and the younger John Sebastian learned to play blues harp by sitting in with Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry in Greenwich Village. By the time he wailed all over Fred Neil’s Bleecker and MacDougal in 1965, he was already a practised veteran at the age of 21. He sings it well, too. The band might not have been able to double for Fred Below and Willie Dixon on a Chess side, but they’re not callow young boys either.

As one of the finest white exponents of folk blues, Fred Neil is a key influence on the album, and not just in the group’s choice of covers. The band actually recorded a Neil original, Other Side of this Life, and while Sebastian had a lighter, less authoritative voice than Neil (who doesn’t?), his phrasing and note choices on the bluesier material bears a strong resemblance to Neil’s vocal approach.

As much as Sebastian is key to the Lovin’ Spoonful, though, they were a band – not a frontman and three other guys. Zal Yanovsky is crucial to the arrangements of the folk rock material, his guitar bubbling away joyfully through Do You Believe in Magic and Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind. He and Butler were a very useful pair of harmony singers and occasional lead vocalists, too. And as I say, the rhythm section were able to move from one style to another seamlessly and allowed Sebastian the freedom to write in whatever idiom he chose.

A brief glance at Do You Believe in Magic’s tracklisting suggests it’s – Do You Believe in Magic, Younger Girl and Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind apart – a warm-up for bigger and better things to come. It’s actually a hugely likeable record in its own right, far stronger than any debut album of white kids playing Jimmy Reed and Brownie McGhee songs should ever be. It’ll surprise you.

*In a recent interview with Richie Unterberger, bassist Steve Boone had this to say about their treatment by label Kama Sutra: “So we were a) worked to death and never had the chance to really breathe deep and spend time on the cuts, and b) the label and the way they got records on the air had nothing to do with somebody sitting back and putting on FM 101.7 and smoking a joint and listening to eleven, twelve, ten cuts, maybe with some kind of a sequential order to them. That was so alien to them that I don’t think they could even handle it if they were asked to experience music that way. All they could think was wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Get it on the air, get it in the top of the charts, get it off the air, and get the next one up there.”

**Sebastian’s public good humour and commitment to good-time music can make him seem a bit of a bumpkin, which I suspect is a knowingly created facade. Nonetheless, some have taken him at face value. Witness this Robert Christgau review: “So what happened to John Sebastian, anyway? […] Figure the reason no one was better at translating the flowery optimism of the middle ’60s into folk-flavored pop song–“Do You Believe in Magic,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Summer in the City,” “Rain on the Roof,” just look at those titles–was as much spirit as talent. Figure he was so eager, so well-meaning, so fun-loving, so warmhearted, such a simpleton, that when the times demanded cynicism this John–unlike natural-born reprobate Phillips or designated reality principle Lennon–didn’t have it in him.”

A Life in Guitars, part 3 – Basses and Other Things

The unsung hero of most of my recording work is a Fender Modern Player Jazz Bass from about 10 years ago, purchased with the proceeds of a tax rebate. In keeping with my preference for finishes that show the grain of the wood, this one’s in translucent black (that is, it’s a dark grey stain).

The Chinese-made Modern Player series was a bit like the Vintage Modified series that Squier did until recently, or the current Fender Player series – subtly contemporary takes on classic recipes. What makes it a “Modern” Player Jazz is a pair of humbuckers, rather than the usual single coil pickups you’d get on a Jazz bass. The sounds are still traditional (it’s a passive instrument, after all), but they’re slightly more present and high-output compared to the tones you’d get from the usual Jazz single coils. It’s a good bass to have if you only have one bass, as it will do old-school tones perfectly well, but the extra power and projection on tap is very handy if you’re playing something a little heavier. I’m only an occasional bass player, admittedly, but I’ve not thought about getting anything different in a decade. It’s all the bass I need.

Modern Player Jazz bass close-up, with me and the light fitting reflected

Also in the house are Mel’s guitars. She has a Yamaha classical electroacoustic, another classical that was originally her mother’s, and a Squier Jazzmaster that I gave her. I originally bought it for myself in 2012, as a treat after my pacemaker procedure and to mark surviving a year after my diagnosis. Mel had donated her own Squier Strat to a raffle that her neighbour was running to raise money to support stroke patients, and I felt she shouldn’t be without an electric guitar and that her good deed deserved another, so to speak.

It was at her flat for a couple of years, but since we moved in together it lives in my den, along with the other guitars, and I make use of it sometimes on recordings – especially as it’s the only guitar to hand with a working tremolo, and sometimes you do need to be Kevin Shields or J Mascis.

Finally, and these aren’t even at my house but with my dad until I work out how to safely transport them and where to store them, are my mother’s old classical and my grandfather’s jazz guitar, which he gave me when I was a young pup, just starting out.

It’s a Hondo Fatboy, which is a copy of the Gibson L5 – a (very) large-bodied archtop with F holes, first made in the 1920s. The Fatboy was made from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, but this one appears to be from around 1980 or 1981. The model was manufactured in Korea by Samick, and was one of the first (or perhaps the very first – sources vary) production guitars to feature DiMarzio pickups, which may surprise some of you who associate DiMarzio only with super-high-gain pickups for metal dudes.

Hondo Fatboy – a big beast of a guitar

When my grandfather gave it to me, it had been in a cupboard for some years, which had taken its toll on the neck. It had a super-high action for years, because that was the only way I could get all the notes to play without choking. Eventually, I realised that meant something was definitely wrong with it, and even more eventually I realised that it could probably be repaired, so I took it to Bob Johnson of Legra Guitars for his expert view. Diagnosing a severe case of warping, he took the neck off, took the fingerboard off the neck and straightened them both (at this point, I can’t remember how – I imagine by heat-pressing them). He also replaced the knackered old wiring. For my part, I swapped the original uncompensated saddle with a tune-o-matic style bridge – precise tuning being more important in my world than historical accuracy, though I do still have the original bridge.

And so that’s it. To non-guitarists, that probably seems like an abundance – a vast, indulgent collection. I know guitar collectors, and they wouldn’t recognise me as one of them. Serious collectors could buy all my instruments by selling just one battle-scarred 1970s Telecaster. What I do have is a toolbox with some very usable tools in it. Each instrument serves a purpose and earns its keep. I use all of them.

That said, if I had to pare it down, I could. The bare-bones version of my collection would be one electric, one acoustic and a bass. The acoustic would be the Takamine, obviously. Equally obviously, the bass would be the Jazz (it would have to be). The electric – despite how much it would pain me to lose the Casino and Les Paul – would be the Strat, though I’d have to modify it by putting a humbucker in the bridge position. Strat single coils just don’t give that heavy distortion sound I sometimes need. A coil-tappable humbucker would be the best solution. I’m not a fan of the HSS configuration on Strats visually, but it would be a sonic necessity.

I imagine a good percentage of people who read these blatherings are guitar players. If that’s you, I’d love to know what’s in your collection. Do tell me. Better still, show me. I could look at pictures of guitars all day.

The Fisher King – Watertown Carps (out now!)

Last year, when I was furloughed (and therefore not working) and the UK was in lockdown (meaning I was at home at least 23 hours a day), I got quite a lot of music done.

First up, I finished mixing Borders (Cruel Expectations), the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album. Then I moved on to Away from the City, the first joint release by Melanie and me. After that, I began working with Yo Zushi on some of his songs. We had tentatively started recording the previous November, but lockdown was when things began in earnest, and only one song begun at the late-2019 session made it to completion.

Since we couldn’t work in the same space, Yo would send me guitar and vocal recordings he made at home, and I’d build arrangements for them. On a couple of occasions, I sent him a completed backing track I’d written and recorded, and he wrote a melody and lyrics. It became enough of a partnership that Yo felt it was appropriate to release it as a collaboration, not as a Yo Zushi solo record. So we became Watertown Carps, and soon had a whole album.

I’m delighted to say that the album, Mermaids, is due to be released on 9 September by Rose Parade Recording Co., a Cardiff-based independent label run as a community-interest company. That makes them unusually democratic and collaborative, and it’s really cool to be working with people who so transparently care about what they do, who they work with, and how they do it, and who have been putting out great music too (TJ Roberts’ Love, Loss and Other Useless Things from last year is an absolute indie pop/power-pop banger – my choice cut is Somebody’s Someone, because I’m a sucker for that kind of washy guitar sound and a vocal harmony, but there’s something there for everyone).

Our first single proper, The Fisher King, is out now: it’s a Willie-Nelson-meets-Pavement lo-fi indie-country song that’s actually on some level about fishing. You can listen to it on Spotify, or whatever your favoured streaming platform is: https://open.spotify.com/track/3yesAZYPKjRwZrG9HhwPc7?si=122502f563cd44f7

I’m really excited for September. We’re hoping (praying) that we’ll be able to do a launch gig.