Bright as Yellow – The Innocence Mission

With its soundtrack by and cameo appearances from all the big-name Seattle bands with the exception of Nirvana, Cameron Crowe’s Singles is basically the official movie of the grunge era. Reality Bites, the good-on-paper, shit-on-celluloid rival-studio response that starred Winona Ryder, Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke (and was directed by Stiller), is all but unwatched these days, and is anyway all but unwatchable.

Then there’s plucky little Empire Records. It bombed on its release, receiving universally negative reviews. When I saw it, it did indeed seem to me unexceptional, and notable only because it featured a scene where Liv Tyler sexy-danced to Throwing Muses’ Snakeface until being disturbed by the doorbell (notable not because of Ms Tyler’s performance, but because of the unlikely choice of song, you understand). Yet Empire Records has a thriving cult that still enjoys the film and celebrates 8th April every year as Rex Manning Day – Manning being a washed-up ’80s pop star whose in-store appearance on that date forms the backdrop to the movie’s events. For its fans, Empire Records is more than just a don’t-they-look-young time capsule (as well as Tyler, the film features Renee Zellweger, Robin Tunney and Anthony LaPaglia as put-upon store owner Joe – the only character who merits much sympathy); they really love it.

Empire Records the movie may not be a favourite of mine, but I have still have pretty strong memories of seeing it in college as my brother had bought the soundtrack, and knowing the tunes before I saw the film seemed to help it lodge in my memory. Likely he bought it because Edwyn Collins’s A Girl Like You was on it, but apart from that it also featured a decent cover of The Ballad of El Goodo by Evan Dando, the Gin Blossoms’ lovely Til I Hear it from You (co-written with power-pop pioneer Marshall Crenshaw) and the Innocence Mission’s equally lovely Bright as Yellow.

My first thought on hearing the Innocence Mission was that they had to have been opportunistic second stringers that the soundtrack supervisor settled for after not being able to secure a first choice. In the early 1990s, the Sundays, Mazzy Star, Belly and Juliana Hatfield were all indie favourites, and Innocence Mission singer Karen Peris seemed to owe something to all of them.

But, I think now, that was very unfair. By the time Empire Records came out in 1995 and the Innocence Mission got the closest thing they ever had to a mainstream moment, all of the above artists had seen their commercial waves crest and recede. Whatever you did to try to get big in 1995, it sure as hell wasn’t rip off the Sundays. In fact, the Innocence Mission had been going for as long as any of those artists whose sounds theirs resembled. Furthermore, they were a Christian band from a completely different milieu to those groups, and on close listening, I can’t help but feel their sonic similarity to other acts that had enjoyed recent critical and/or commercial success just had to be a coincidence. I don’t hear Karen Peris as capable of that kind of cynicism.

Bright as Yellow takes its time, builds slowly and may not sound like much initially, but each time that chorus comes around, it lands with greater force, and that middle-eight section (repeated twice) in which her singing becomes increasingly urgent and staccato is a wonderful bit of writing.

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It’s Funky Enough – The D.O.C.

Y’all ready for this?

Yeah, this is where that sample (the one enthusiastically embraced by 2 Unlimited) comes from: the Diggy Diggy Doc’s 1989 single It’s Funky Enough, the first track from his Dre-produced debut, No One Can Do It Better.

The album was an unsurprising success for Ruthless Records, as the D.O.C. (born Tracy Lynn Curry) was already a big name among deep fans of West Coast hip hop. He’d been a member of the Fila Fresh Crew in Dallas before making his way to LA, where he met and began working with Andre Young, himself not long out of the World Class Wrecking Cru. When NWA became stars, Curry’s star rose with them. The D.O.C. was never a member of NWA, but he was a frequently referenced figure in their songs, and it was an open secret that he’d written a large proportion of the group’s lyrics; he was credited on some songs, but much of what was credited to Eazy-E was actually the D.O.C.’s work, too.

It’s Funky Enough is derived from Foster Sylvers’ 1973 hit Misdemeanor, released when Sylvers was just 11 years old. It doesn’t sound to me like a sample though. Whatever the vocalist is singing (lyric sites insist on “it’s funky, it’s funky”), it’s not what Foster Sylvers sang (“Love traps, setbacks”), and the riff never appears in Misdemeanor without Sylvers singing on top. It sounds to me like, Rapper’s Delight-style, Dre had regular collaborator Stan Jones actually play the song’s riff on bass and guitar for him (either that or he added guitar, bass and drum programming on top of the sample of the Sylvers track to beef it up, then got World Class Wrecking Cru singer Michel’le to record over Foster Sylvers’ sampled vocal to bury it).  Either way, it’s a great production from Dre, with loads of interest: my favourite elements are the tinkly percussion in the right speaker and the little stuttering kick variation that appears during the “It’s getting funky!” breakdowns.

With such a strong track to work off, the D.O.C. can hardly contain himself. His exuberance is completely infectious. His delivery is forceful rather than elegant, but you can’t help getting swept along with him, and he drops more than his share of quotable lines. My favourite is probably:

Enunciate well
So that you can tell
I am not illiterate
No, not even a little bit
Nothing like an idiot
Get it?

But there’s gold in every verse; his delivery of “I want all chairs off the floor/And if he stands to the wall/Show him the door” is worth the price of admission on its own.

Calling your first album No One Can Do it Better was a boast, a youthful provocation; the D.O.C. was still only 21 when the album dropped in August 1989. Sadly, he never got a chance to prove that it was really true. Later that year he fell asleep behind the wheel of his car (he was by his own admission drunk and high; that same night he was let off a DUI by police who’d seen the gold records on his backseat). He slammed into a central reservation barrier, was thrown through his car window and ended up in a tree. His teeth were nearly all knocked out and he was taken to hospital, where his vocal cords were severely damaged while the doctors tried to insert a tube in his throat as he struggled with them. A later operation to remove the scar tissue, aimed at enabling him to return to performing, made the situation worse, with his voice left permanently weak and raspy.

Today, Curry claims that, the way he was living at the time, he probably wouldn’t still be alive if it hadn’t been for that accident. This may be true. Yet the damage to his larynx was a huge blow to his career. His damaged voice, robbed of its power and malleability (and physically painful for him to produce), was only really workable in certain sonic contexts: while it sounded appropriately creepy and sepulchral over a Cypress Hill-style backing, it no longer worked for the style of music that had made his name and in which he excelled so effortlessly. Nearly thirty years later, he has the rep and the money from his work with NWA, but his story remains a sad one, a story of what might have been.

Disturbing music

The Quietus published a piece yesterday in which contributors wrote about the pieces of music they find most disturbing. There’s some good choices in there, some interesting discussions, and some properly creepy stuff.

Inevitably, there’s lots of black metal – not my thing, but as long as neither the fans nor the bands are killing anyone or burning any churches I bear it no ill will. There’s lots of avant stuff: Nurse With Wound and Residents and Diamanda Galas. Unfamiliar with the latter’s oeuvre, I listened to all 11.44 of This is the Law of the Plague from her Plague Mass live album. It’s hard work, but it is undeniably powerful in its intense sincerity. Her brother died of Aids and Galas’s fury at the moralising of the Catholic church (and its recourse to Old Testament authority to justify its callous disregard for the suffering of Aids victims), is evident in her every word and ululation.

There are some idiosyncratic choices, too. I mean, I get finding What’s New Pussycat distasteful. I get finding it annoying. But disturbing seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Lists like these are often pointless clickbait, and contain little insight or depth. This one’s good, though, because the subject is interesting, because the contributors bring mostly interesting insight to their nominations, and because its something many music fans will have spent time thinking about themselves.

Like many people, I have strong emotional reactions to music, and I can definitely think of music that has disturbed me. That moment where the Mellotron voices come in at the end of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me still sends a shiver up my spine. It’s the way their inhuman blankness and mechanical vibrato supplant all the warmth and humanity of Gaye’s preceding performance, ending the song on an ambiguous, doom-laden note. Some of the more extreme moments on Radiohead’s OK Computer unnerved me when I first came into contact with them: the brutally distorted and compressed bass guitar that gatecrashes Exit Music; the eerie noises of Climbing Up the Walls, and Thom Yorke’s feral screams that bring the song to an end. When I first heard Nirvana’s In Utero at, what, 12 years old, it was all too much for me: I could put no name to the emotions the songs expressed. I put it away in a drawer for about a week before coming tentatively back to it and slowly coming to understand it, as best someone who’s never shared those experiences ever could, anyways.

But if asked what music I find most disturbing now, I’d have to, like Bob Cluness in the Quietus article, plump for György Ligeti’s Requiem.

Like many, I was first exposed to Ligeti’s music when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much about the film disturbed me. I find the idea of space oppressive, bordering on terrifying. The idea of nothing – of nothing on a cosmic scale – is close to unimaginable, and whenever I come close to imagining it, it scares me all the more. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, moments like that shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL and his oxygen supply severed, are just horrifying.

And to add to the dread, Kubrick chose to set some of the heaviest, tensest moments in the film (the encounters with the monoliths on the moon and near Jupiter, and the stargate sequence) to Ligeti’s music: Lux Aeterna, Requiem and Atmosphères.

These pieces are exercises in micropolyphony. Polyphony (“many voices”) is the simultaneous use of two or more independent lines of melody (as opposed to a melody with supporting harmonies, whether vocal or from accompanying instruments). Micropoyphony (a technique developed by Ligeti) is the use of many independent lines, each moving at a different speed or in a different rhythm, so that individual melodic lines themselves become hard, or impossible, to discern, instead creating a kind of cloud of sound, resembling a cluster chord except for the fact that it constantly moves. Ligeti’s music is disturbing on a second-by-second basis because it’s amorphous, because its shape is impossible to discern, because we can never get a handle on it: try to follow one voice and you’ll be defeated as others swarm around it, merge with it, transform it.

Technically speaking I have always approached musical texture through part-writing. Both Atmosphères and Lontano have a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina’s or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!)

György Ligeti, quoted in Jonathan W Bernard’s article Voice Leading as a Spatial Function in the Music of Ligeti

I am in awe of Ligeti’s ability to create this music. It’s is the closest music has come, maybe the closest any artform has come, to grasping and properly invoking the infinite, or God, or whatever you want to call it. I wonder if listening back to his creations unnerved even him.

Grant Hart RIP

It’s not just that Turn on the News deserves to have been heard by a bigger audience than it has by virtue of its sheer quality. It’s that it, like other songs I can think of, doesn’t make sense as a cult song. It’s just bigger than that.

If it had been written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA rather than by Hüsker Dü for Zen Arcade, it would now be a rock ‘n’ roll standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it’d be up there in the band’s catalogue with London Calling. It’s Rockin’ in the Free World, five years early, and Neil Young would have been mighty happy to have written that riff and that chorus. It has the melody, the power, the drama and the timelessness of any classic rock warhorse you care to name.

Turn on the News was written by Hüsker Dü’s drummer, Grant Hart, who died yesterday of cancer. Hart wrote a huge number of the band’s greatest songs (Pink Turns to Blue, Keep Hanging On, Green Eyes, Sorry Somehow and Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely – just to name the first five that come to mind), and his songs are just as treasured by the band’s fans as those by Bob Mould, even if Grant never got the mainstream exposure in the years since Hüsker Dü broke up that Bob enjoyed with Sugar.

He recorded less prolifically than Mould and his records tended to only turn up on little indies without any promotional budget, but from the EP version of 2541 (a song covered by Marshall Crenshaw and Robert Forster, who both know a thing or two about writing good alterna-pop) to the rather bonkers but occasionally inspired The Argument from 2013, an album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, he never lost his way with a melody.

Ultimately though, it’s his time in Hüsker Dü that he’ll be remembered for, and that’s only natural; to say that rock music wouldn’t be the same today without Hüsker Dü is such a commonplace observation as to be a cliche. But if you want proof, just take a look at social media today and see your favourite musicians talking about what the band’s music, and Grant Hart, meant to them.

Walter Becker RIP

I was away last week and read about Walter Becker’s passing in the New York Times. They gave him a full-page obituary – indicative, I thought at first, of the band’s  higher profile in the US compared to here, until I opened up the BBC News app on my phone and saw that his death was a top story there, too.

I’m no different from any other pop fan, and can’t keep the music and the artist entirely separate. It requires a particular cast of mind to do that, and I don’t have it. My thoughts about the character of the musicians whose work I admire (none of whom I know) feed into my understanding of that work.

But with Walter Becker, I had to make an attempt to consider the music as separate from the man, as he was always something of an enigma. His partner Donald Fagen made a somewhat autobiographical solo album (The Nightfly) in the 1980s, and published a book a few years ago detailing his teenage art-cultural obsessions. Moreover, he was the singer, and it’s hard not to hear the words being sung as a reflection of the singer, even when you know that he didn’t write all of them.

Reticent though Fagen is next to his rock’n’roll peers, Becker was even less forthcoming. Photographs of him suggest a stern character, or perhaps a supercilious one (his friend Rickie Lee Jones said in her tribute to Becker that he hated to be photographed, which may explain why he could look off-putting in photos). His work suggests a bottomless sarcasm and cynicism. In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he’s gimlet-eyed and brutally dismissive about the faults he hears in recordings and performances that appear faultless to we ordinary mortals. Yet those who knew him speak of a gentle, patient man, generous with his time, but shy and affected by a difficult childhood and some troubled adult relationships.

What we know for sure is what we know from his work. Like Fagen, he was a studio perfectionist. He was egoless in pursuit of the best record possible, handing over tracks to trusted players whenever he thought someone else would do a better job than he could – despite being a crackerjack guitarist himself. For years, I didn’t know that he played one of my favourite ever guitar solos (the one on Aja‘s Home at Last), simply because he so rarely allowed himself the luxury of taking a solo when Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler were a phone call away. Think about that: a guitarist working in rock music who was self-effacing to the point where he was willing to not play on songs off the last two albums at all (songs that he wrote) in pursuit of the best possible records.

That kind of musical humility deserves applause. But really, everything he did as part of Steely Dan deserves applause.

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks. I’m off to New York and Boston on Sunday, and will be away from home for nine days. See you soon!

For years I avoided Iron & Wine. Plenty of people told me I’d like Sam Beam’s music, but I’m a stubborn little so and so, and so the more I was told I’d like him – the more I was told my own music sounded like his – the more determined I became not to give him a fair shake.

I listened to a couple of songs long enough to confirm that he sounded exactly like I thought he would (hushed, almost whispered vocals; delicately picked acoustic guitar; brushed drums), and then put him in a box where I didn’t have to revise my preconceptions. Derivative. A revivalist. Fine, but not necessary in a world where I could listen to the originators of this stuff. Who needs another bearded singer-songwriter? Not me, and I’m a bearded singer-songwriter myself.

To be fair to pig-headed 25-year-old me, there was more than mere stubbornness to this. I’ve always been concerned with not being tediously derivative in my own songs. When you’re a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, you have to do everything you can to cultivate your own voice, or what the hell is the point of you? I felt I should widen my listening as much as possible, inviting influences to seep in from everywhere else, to stop me becoming a pale facsimile of the music I love most. This didn’t preclude listening to singer-songwriters, but it did mean not actively studying them, and it made me especially fearful of artists who wore their own 1960s and ’70s influences too obviously, lest I just become a copy of a copy.*

And so, 10 years or so after first hearing of him, I actually sit down and listen to the new Iron & Wine album all the way only to find it’s absolutely lovely and I’ve been missing out on a guy who does great work. Sure, Beast Epic owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake – Song in Stone sounds like a Pink Moon outtake being played by the band Drake had for Bryter Layter – but the songs are strong enough that Beam gets away with evoking his heroes.

The songs, in fact, are great. They’re built on mostly simple, comfortingly familiar chord progressions, are played with delicate assurance by Beam and his excellent band, and are full of solid, subtly hooky melodies. Helpfully, his soft voice has acquired depth and warmth in the last 10 years. He’s a proper singer now, not a hushed, Elliott Smith-style whisperer. Even better, the record sounds good too: warm, earthy and woody. I can’t overstate how important this is to doing this kind of music well.

My favourites so far include Call It Dreaming, which has a glorious change to the relative minor in the chorus that induces an instant rush of nostalgic warmth in me (I’m not able to place what it’s nostalgia for, yet), the aforementioned Song in Stone, and Right for Sky, in which Beam’s melody winds its way through the well-chosen chords of the chorus, observing the piquant change to the parallel minor. Only Last Night, with its pizzicato strings and plinky percussion (like a much gentler, much more rustic Tom Waits) differs markedly from the album’s sonic template, and it’s initially a bit of a surprise, but the clever arrangement works as it takes the textures that are present in the other songs anyway, and just uses them a bit differently.

That said, it’s very early days for me with this album, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up preferring other songs to the ones I’m most drawn to now. Anyhow, I love it when that happens; it shows an album has depth. I think I’m going to be listening to it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

beast epic
*25-year-old me was also scarred by 20-year-old me’s brief Ryan Adams fixation. I heard his stuff before I really properly listened to Dylan, Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Van Morrison, and once I knew the originals, it was hard to be impressed by Adams as anything other than a talented mimic. A very talented mimic, to be sure, but self-evidently not as talented as the people he was mimicking.

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian