Once More into the Multiverse – R.E.M.’s Monster remixed

Warner Brothers’ ongoing programme of 25th-anniversary editions of R.E.M. albums has reached 1994’s Monster. Part of the package is a remixed version of the album. Let’s see what a reconsidered 2019 mix from original producer Scott Litt can do for the band’s divisive, guitar-heavy used-bin staple.

Monster always was quite an odd-sounding record.

Coming out in 1994, it seemed like a slightly delayed reaction to the dominance of alternative rock, most of which up to that point had been based on scorchingly distorted guitars. In truth, it was more of a reaction to inter-band politics. At some point in 1993 or so, Peter Buck had put his mandolin and dulcimer in the cupboard, turned up the tremolo and distortion on his AC30, grabbed a Les Paul and rediscovered the joy of simple, swaggering rock riffs. Drummer Bill Berry had already threatened to leave the group if the next album wasn’t louder than Automatic for the People and Out of Time, and if the band didn’t go out on tour to promote it. R.E.M.’s follow-up to Automatic was going to have be a loud rock record or there would be no follow-up at all.

The band cut the basic tracks for Monster live on a soundstage, and Scott Litt’s finished mix always suggested to me a degree of overthinking. Having the guitars forward in the mix was a good thing, given how crucial Buck’s tone (and on a few songs temolo) was to the sound of the record, and I’d argue that dropping the level of Michael Stipe’s vocal was a sensible thing to do too, but on some of the songs the weight of the guitars pushed the drums so far back that they became tiny. I’ve always felt the masters contained a more energetic and more satisfying mix, with the drums a bit more prominent.

Sadly, Scott Litt’s remix isn’t quite that, and goes a long way to convincing me that what might seem “wrong” with Monster when listened to critically is actually right in a greater, more fundamental way.

We can surmise from Litt’s new mixes that he felt his original mixes left the vocals too quiet and the drums too processed and too quiet. The new mixes correspondingly give us a whole lot more Stipe, and a less polished drum sound.

For evidence of the latter, A-B the intro of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream – the EQ-ing on the toms in the 1994 mix is absent (or reduced), giving them a perceived higher fundamental, and less detail in the range of stick impact; they boom less, and they cut less. Of course, these decisions are personal, but I prefer the 1994 mix as far as the tom sounds go, and it’s not even close. On the plus side, the snare is EQ’d differently, with a less present, less hyped-sounding top end. It’s an improvement.

Unfortunately, on many songs you don’t really get the benefit of it. One of the issues with distorted guitars is the amount of sonic real estate they take up. Monster‘s guitar sound is crazy huge. This necessarily leaves less space for the drums. Perhaps the top-end hype on the snare on the 1994 mix was to try to bring it out against the guitars. In the 2019 remix, Litt goes a different way: he adds more compression, to flatten the transients, turn up the sustain of the drum and position the reshaped snare as a solid block in fixed audibility against the guitars. But he goes rather too far for me. On What’s the Frequency Kenneth, the drums actually feel like they lag behind the beat due to the heavy compression as they fight against the wall o’ Buck and the newly prominent Stipe. They have no transient left at all. I’ve never previously heard an R.E.M. record and felt like Berry was dragging. If anything, he tended towards being a little early. The new mix is, on the loudest songs at least, extremely unflattering to him. The decision to take off the little bursts of tremoloed guitar in the choruses, meanwhile, merely removes one of the song’s best supporting hooks. A strange choice.

Other weird choices abound. The narrow, possibly mono, mix of Crush with Eyeliner, and the downplaying of Thurston Moore’s backing vocal? Definitely odd. Anchoring Tongue with a tom-heavy drum track? Yep, strange again. Other choices, such as bringing out the pick attack on Let Me In, are just misguided. The whole point of Let Me In is that incandescent distorted guitar sound, presented so ambiently that actual strums were hard to make out. With only a minimum of pick attack and volume change to tell you where the beats were, the guitar sound became disortientating and weightless, but also uncanny and beautiful. The new version sounds all too earthbound, with Stipe mixed so dry it sounds like he’s singing into your earhole from six inches away. Being brutal, it almost suggests Litt didn’t get what worked about the song first time round.

Of course, this is just a bonus-disc remix, a parallel-universe version (a Bizarro World remix, if you like). It doesn’t replace the actual album mix of Monster. But it does spotlight the choices made by the band and Litt 25 years ago, and reinforce to the non-audio-engineer fan that so much of what we hear when we listen to recorded music is mediated by mix engineers and producers. When different choices are made, the result is a different album.

 

 

Holding On to You – Nick Frater

…and now for another post about new music.

Nick Frater, Croydon’s resident power-pop maestro, recording nerd and chord-sequence genius, has released a new record, Full Fathom Freight Train, which you can download from Bandcamp, stream/download in all the usual places or buy on 12-inch from his website.

Nick makes music in the vein of Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, Eric Carmen and Todd Rundgren, or their Gen-X disciples like Matthew Sweet and Jellyfish: expansive, frequently irregularly structured pop that’s enlivened by harmonically adventurous chord seqeuences that allow his melodies to go to surprising places. There’s always the sense that they could take a hard left turn at any moment. That makes the more straightforward pieces like the lovely Andrew Gold-like Holding On to You even sweeter, and even this one has chewy surprise chords in the middle eight. I’ll get him to take me through it one day.

When you listen to Nick’s songs, you’ve always gotten well-considered arrangements that are detailed without being cluttered, and excellent musicianship from Nick and his small cast of additional players (on this record: guitarists Paul Ryan, Ian Granton and Mike Randle, drummers Tommy Shotton and Ben Handysides, vocalists Nicolai Prowse and Alex Lewis*). Full Fathom Freight Train might be his best work yet, though, sonically speaking, with its mastering job by Simon Francis and Jon Clayton-engineered drum tracks.

Frater has been remarkably productive in the last few years. Go to his Bandcamp page to catch up with his past work, including all 18 minutes of The Sombrero Fallout Suite.

Frater
Spot the Beatles ref…

Alex Lewis, Nicolai Prowse and Tommy Shotton are former members of Do Me Bad Things. Lewis and Prowse were later in the Rosemary Works, with Frater and drummer Ben Handysides. Mike Randle plays guitar in Baby Lemonade and Johnny Echols’s line-up of Love, while Paul Ryan plays guitar in Super 8.

If the government always had to observe ASA guidelines…

The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) decision against the Department for Work and Pensions’ misleading advertising about Universal Credit is welcome, and requires amplifying by as many people in as many forums as possible.

The DWP published adverts in the Metro (a free paper available at railway stations) and on the Daily Mail‘s website that claimed:

  • People moved into work faster on universal credit (UC) than under the old system
  • Jobcentres will pay an urgent advance to people who need it
  • Rent can be paid directly to landlords under UC

The ASA looked into these claims and upheld complaints about all of them*. A government department, staffed by supposedly neutral civil servants serving more or less willingly Conservative party spads and ministers, spent taxpayer money to tell their target audience (commuters) things that are untrue about a policy that affects the most vulnerable and frequently poorest people in society. Put more bluntly, they spent public money lying to the public.

In my day job, I have the ASA and its guidelines in mind constantly. I copy-edit, word by word, to ensure the company I work for never misrepresents the products it sells. The pains we take to be transparent and honest are the reason I feel comfortable working there. If the government was forced to abide by ASA standards in the House, on TV and radio and during press conferences, rather than just when producing their squalid marketing trash, none of them would be able to say anything at all beyond “Good morning”.

This advertising material from the DWP – and it was advertising, and it was from DWP, not the Conservative party directly – was egregiously, deliberately untrue, and so very damaging for people who have genuine reason to fear for their futures. If you live with a disability or long-term illness, or even if you’ve only read about people dying of terminal illnesses after being declared fit for work and having been denied UC and had their incomes taken away, it’s mystifying how the Tories could attract any share of the vote at all when this is the depth to which they have sunk.

There is a word for knowingly telling untruths about the most vulnerable people in society. That word is evil. We must punish them for it the only way we can: at the polls.

 

*The complaints were:

  • “People move into work faster on Universal Credit than they did on the old system” – no actual evidence to support this could be found. Complaint upheld
  • “Jobcentres will pay an urgent advance to people who need it” – “urgent”, if within five weeks can be considered urgent. Upheld
  • “Your Jobcentre can pay rent directly to landlords” – misleading, because it only applies to a small number of claimants. Upheld

A complaint that the adverts were not clearly identified as adverts was partially upheld. There was a disclaimer, but in very small type.

Memory Cassette – Hurtling

Here’s the first of a couple of posts about some new music…

If you were lucky enough to have gigs playing additional guitar for Graham Coxon, Charlotte Hatherley and My Bloody Valentine, what kind of band would you form as a vehicle for your own music?

Jen Macro, faced with exactly that decision, went with a power trio. I mean, you would, wouldn’t you? However satisyfing, however much a privilege, it might be to get called in to provide extra firepower for celebrated guitar wranglers like Coxon, Hatherley and MBV’s Kevin Shields, when playing your own music you’d want all that sonic real estate for yourself. To just go out there and blast without worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes.

Hurtling’s debut album, Future From Here, came out a couple of weeks ago, and has already gotten some strong reviews and good airplay. Rightly so: it’s a top-to-bottom solid record of guitar-heavy pop songs in the vein of Last Splash-era Breeders and Bakesale-era Sebadoh. Which is, to say the least, my kind of thing. Especially when it features an awful lot of that guitar.

Memory Cassette, the band’s new single (I assume it’s a single, as it has a video), is my favourite track on the album, and there’s nothing I don’t like about it. It’s all brilliant: the sparing but well-chosen use of vocal harmony to lift key lines, the whisper-to-a-scream quality of Macro’s delivery when she sings “Get set, go!” as the band drop out for a brief second then pile back in, the “From here” backing vocal by Simon Kobayashi, whose bass playing might be the band’s secret weapon, Jon Clayton’s drum part, which knows exactly how exciting a four-stroke snare fill can be when the band’s going headlong into the chorus, and – most of all – Macro’s absolutely enormous guitar sound.

Future From Here is a great-sounding record generally, but the guitar tones are particularly cool, a product of both the tones Macro dials in (a function of instrument, amplifier and pedal choices) and the way drummer and recording engineer Jon Clayton captures them. Jon runs a studio called One Cat near Brixton (if you’re a London-based musician and don’t know about One Cat, you’re missing out), and he’s an excellent engineer I’ve had the pleasure of working with several times over the last five years or so*. On Memory Cassette, with the arrangement stripped down to drums, bass and a single guitar track (the bass and guitar are panned off left and right), Hurtling are at their most primal and exciting, and the quality of the sounds and playing is clearest.

I’ve not seen them play live yet, but I can’t wait.

Here’s the video for Memory Cassette.

*Jon recorded basic tracks on some of the songs on James McKean‘s and Yo Zushi‘s recent albums. More recently, he recorded all the drums, bass and scratch guitar tracks for the upcoming third James McKean record, and being a multi-talented, Captain Manyhands kind of guy, played a beautiful cello part on one of my songs from the EP I’m working on with Melanie Crew, which I absolutely cannot wait to share with you.

 

Woodbine

In, I would guess, early 2000 I went to the Garage one weekday evening to see Cinerama supported by Woodbine (it is, I should point out, possible that I’m conflating two different gigs, but I think I saw those two there on the same bill). The friend I went with was a regular John Peel listener at the time, and kept much more abreast of contemporary indie than I did. He played me the first album by Woodbine, a band signed to Domino and featuring a former member of Cornershop, and asked if I wanted to go and see them live.

I found the record interesting and it fit with a developing fondness I had for lo-fi music. So I was up for going to see them play, supporting a band who at the time I hadn’t heard and knew only a couple of things about: they’d recorded with Steve Albini, and their singer and songwriter, David Gedge, had been in the Wedding Present, who were some kind of big deal in the eighties. (I was so young!) My friend and I were by some distance the youngest there. Woodbine hadn’t really drawn their own crowd, and the Cinerama audience skewed towards Gedge’s own age, which was a good 15 years older than we were.

Woodbine had a hell of a job making themselves heard. They remain the quietest band I’ve ever seen play live, I think. It didn’t help that they were all drunk (their drummer was really drunk – falling-down drunk. He was half asleep in charge of a drum kit), but I doubt they’d have been particularly together even if they’d have been sober. Even at on their best day, they weren’t a band suited to a club gig. Not particularly skilled or confident as performing musicians, insisting on playing as quietly as possible, then getting hammered before going on – these are not the ingredients of onstage greatness. Frankly, it was a bit of a trainwreck. As a support act at a small boozer (the Crown & Anchor down the road, maybe), it might have worked, just about. But at the Garage, in front of a crowd who were enjoying a pint or two of their own and having a chat before their old indie hero came on, not a hope.

This was a wake-up call of sorts: being lo-fi and pure and real and putting your emphasis on songs rather than fancy arrangements and showmanship and instrumental prowess was all very well. Avoiding rock-show clichés was unarguably a good thing, too. But it was obvious to me even then that Woodbine were making something essentially pretty easy look hard. I saw them upstairs at the Garage (the venue now called Thousand Island) later that year, they were much more together and it was a much better show. I talked to singer Susan Dillane afterwards and she seemed rather embarrassed about the Cinerama show, so maybe it was a bit of a turning point for them too.

For all their weaknesses live, their first, self-titled, album (I haven’t heard the second and so far only other Woodbine record) remains an appealingly wonky listen. It’s a vibe record – the songs come and go without seeming to leave much of an imprint on you, but together they create a hazy, narcoleptic mood which is quite specific to them; I’ve never heard another record that feels like it’s coming from quite the same place as this. The songs’ sleepiness is accentuated by the weird mix, by Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux, which places the (frequently mumbled) vocals about as far back as is workable and then saturates them in reverb. Occasionally, out of the murk, will leap a guitar part (as on Neskwik) or a manually-ridden delay (as on Mound of Venus).

This willingness to be surprising – to be untidy – is integral to the feel of the record. The same arrangements, recorded to hard disk and mixed in a DAW, with all the possibilities they provide for editing, compression, equalisation and automation, wouldn’t feel the same at all. Would be all wrong, in fact. There is a rightness to the analogue wrongness of Woodbine.

Woodbine are undoubtedly a minor act, all but forgotten. But if you’re curious about slowcore, late-nineties indie or lo-fi music from the analogue era, Woodbine is a record worth hearing. It should really be listened to as a whole, but if you want to just track down a few songs, Mound of Venus, Neskwik, I Hope That You Get What You Want and Tricity Tiara* will do you.

tricity tiara
This is a Tricity Tiara, or more correctly a Tricity-Bendix Tiara. Not many of these about any more, but a landlord’s favourite cheap oven for donkey’s years.

 

Sweetheart of the Rodeo – The Byrds

My Byrds kick continued last week…

At first, the idea was a concept album – a double album, no less – charting the history of American music, beginning with bluegrass and jazz, taking in folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll and rock, and going forward into the world of electronic, Moog-based music. The problem was that after the dismissals of David Crosby and Michael Clarke, the Byrds were down to a two-piece: guitarist/vocalist Roger McGuinn and bassist/vocalist Chris Hillman. They needed reinforcements, and since they were going to attempt to play jazz, they needed a quality drummer and preferably a pianist, as McGuinn’s 12-string arpeggios didn’t exactly speak the language of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

The man who got the nod was Gram Parsons, a songwriter, guitarist and pianist of Chris Hillman’s acquaintance. I’m not quite sure what Parsons played that convinced McGuinn he was a proficient jazz piano player (what solo piano work I’ve heard by him suggests a decent country player with some gospel licks, but not McCoy Tyner), but that turned out to be irrelevant. Once in the Byrds fold, Parsons immediately began selling Hillman and latterly McGuinn on the idea of an entire album of country rock, along the lines of the work he’d done with the International Submarine Band.

McGuinn took some persuading (producer Gary Usher interceded on Parsons’ and Hillman’s behalf), but eventually consented to follow Parsons’ vision for the album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘s influence, in a hard-headed analysis, does outstrip its quality; it’s credited as being the first country-rock album, but that isn’t quite right, as mostly the band plays country as country, and drummer Kevin Kelley plays rock beats only on One Hundred Years from Now and the choruses of Nothing Was Delivered. But nonetheless, this was a famous rock band diving headfirst into country music (making a whole record of it, and appearing at the Grand Ole Opry to promote it), whereas for the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield and Lovin’ Spoonful, country was just one flavour of what they did.

It’s not hard to pick the weak points of the original album – they’re the songs where Parsons’ recorded vocals were covered over by Roger McGuinn doing a southern accent rather badly (The Christian Life and You Don’t Miss Your Water). But thanks to the inclusion of perfectly good Parsons-sung outtakes on the expanded addition of the album and sundry box sets, that defect is remedied quite easily. The version of One Hundred Years from Now sung by Hillman and McGuinn in harmony is different in feel from the Parsons-fronted outtake, but it’s still pretty good and I don’t think Parsons’ vocal improves it hugely.

There are plenty of strong moments, too. Hickory Wind, obviously, even if Gram Parsons possibly plagiarised it*. Chris Hillman sings I Am a Pilgrim with a winning sincerity, his vocal abetted by John Hartford’s excellent fiddle playing. Parsons romps his way through Luke McDaniel’s You’re Still on My Mind, supported by Earl P Ball on piano and JayDee Maness on steel, and McGuinn’s two Dylan covers – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Nothing Was Delivered are typically excellent.

Contemporary country music at the poppier end of things does not come from the same branch of the family tree as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. No matter how much pop and rock it contains, it’s a product of the Nashville industry, not of interlopers, like the Byrds were in 1968. As I said when writing about Younger than Yesterday, I hear no Byrds influence in much indie music right now, and no one seems to talk about the band, but young fans of country fans might find a lot to please them in this record. Along with Workingman’s Dead, it’s the pre-eminent early country rock album.

*I should say, if he did indeed steal it from Sylvia Sammons, it was a despicable act, but with both dead and Parsons also the writer of enough good songs to make it totally feasible he did write it, I guess we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

 

My Back Pages & Younger Than Yesterday – The Byrds

Younger than Yesterday saw the Byrds pulling in every direction they knew how to: Beatle-ised Dylan covers, embryonic country rock with psychedelic touches, lysergic folk-rock, a jazzy torch song, driving rock ‘n’ roll with jazz trumpet, another one of Roger McGuinn’s rather goofy sci-fi songs, a ’65 Beatles pastiche and, in the shape of David Crosby’s much-maligned (rightly maligned) Mind Gardens, Indian raga.

The predominance of Chris Hillman songs (he has four solo writing credits and a co-write on So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star) does make Younger than Yesterday a bit of an outlier in the Byrds’ canon, but those songs are actually pretty strong, Have You Seen Her Face and Time Between especially, and Younger than Yesterday is by a nose my favourite Byrds album. I do love Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo too (at least if you programme it so that you use the outtake recordings with Gram Parsons’ vocals, rather than the ones with McGuinn’s impression of him), and I’d perhaps agree that nothing on YtY is quite as breathtaking as Goin’ Back or Hickory Wind, but what Younger than Yesterday has in its favour is My Back Pages.

Among the very many things they were, the Byrds were the finest interpreters of Bob Dylan’s music, covering more than 20 different Dylan songs, with few clunkers among them. The band’s opening statement, its recording of Mr Tambourine Man, stands not just for their own career, but the entire genre of folk-rock. They – even before Hendrix transformed All Along the Watchtower – raised the Dylan cover to an artform.

The band’s best Dylan interpretation isn’t Tambourine Man, though, nor Chimes of Freedom or You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, nor even the two separate versions of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (though I’m very fond of the 1969 recording – the slow one that’s on The Very Best of the Byrds). It’s their recording of My Back Pages from 1967’s Younger than Yesterday.

The decision to cut My Back Pages was contentious within the band. The group’s manager, Jim Dickson, suggested the song, and Roger McGuinn approved of the choice. David Crosby, though, argued against it; the Byrds had already covered Dylan six times on their first two albums, and their previous record, Fifth Dimension, hadn’t featured any Dylan at all. Returning to Bob’s songs when he, McGuinn and Chris Hillman had all written a clutch of strong songs for their next album was a step backwards, he argued.

It was a rare occasion when both men were right. It was, viewed hard-headedly, a backward step to return to the Bob Dylan songbook; adding electric guitars and a 4/4 beat to Dylan’s songs had been done already (not least by Dylan himself), and could never be revolutionary or transformative again. But McGuinn was also correct; the song fitted the band like a glove, playing to the strengths of Michael Clarke, their rather limited drummer), and he had a knack for editing Dylan’s songs for the pop audience, knowing just how much he could leave out and still get away with it.

Crosby, outvoted, sulked, and the song contributed to the deteriorating relationship between him and the rest of the band, but My Back Pages was a masterpiece, on a record that already had in its favour So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star (featuring Hugh Makekela’s trumpet), Everybody’s Been Burned and Time Between (to which Vern Gosdin and the great guitarist Clarence White contributed).

I bought Younger than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a three-fer at the start of my last year at university and played all of them to death. They’re all fine albums, and rather underrated at the moment I think. Does any young band rep for the Byrds? Why not? If you’re not familiar or have them pegged as one-trick ponies, go have a listen. Start with My Back Pages.