The Sound of Aimee Mann, Part 5

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a series of posts going over Aimee Mann’s solo records, discussing how her music had developed in arrangement, production and instrument sounds over more than 20 years.

Just towards the end of that process, she previewed a couple of songs from upcoming album Mental Illness, starting with Goose Show Cone. It sounded nice enough but I’d basically listened to no one else for three weeks and I’d had my fill of her music for a while. I figured I’d pick it up at some point soon, but in the event it wasn’t until last week I actually got round to listening to it in full. I’ve listened to it maybe five times now, and I think it’s her strongest in some time, probably since Lost in Space, 15 years ago.

The obvious things first. It was trailed as being her folk-rock move, but it’s actually more of a soft-rock move. In interviews she’s talked a lot about Bread and David Gates as a reference point, and while there are no songs that particularly put me in mind of Bread, the record does seem to be harking back to that era, the early 1970s, with its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and extensive use of vocal harmonies.

It’s a modern record though, so the sounds are bigger, closer and flatter, and there’s a bit more processing on the vocals than I’d like, but overall it’s a nice-sounding album. The string arrangements by Paul Bryan and the harmonies sung by Mann, Bryan, Jonathan Coulter and Ted Leo are the defining musical elements of the album, but drummer Jay Bellerose deserves a lot of credit for his playing on the record. He allows himself to play a full drum kit on only a handful of songs, instead adding shaker, bells, tambourine and other percussion in little touches, here and there – nothing intrusive, nothing that doesn’t serve the song.

As has been the case with Mann’s last few albums, the songs chosen as singles, Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero, are not necessarily the strongest on the album. Goose Snow Cone suffers from the same malady that afflicted the singles from 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, 31 Today and Freeway, where the verses and the choruses are each composed of one melodic phrase repeated four times. The (very well sung) vocal harmonies add interest to Goose Snow Cone, but still, it’s a little repetitive over four minutes. Patient Zero, meanwhile, suffers from being a little lyrically involuted. Mann wrote it, she has said, about meeting Andrew Garfield at a party before his career had taken off and thinking he “was obviously kind of freaked out about the vibe of being in that rarefied movie star atmosphere” – which is fine, but why does that make him patient zero? I’m not sure what she’s saying by invoking the term, which is synonymous with the phrase “index case” – the first documented patient in the onset of an epidemiological investigation. The whole song rests on a metaphor that, right now at least, doesn’t reveal itself to me. Neither of these are bad songs, and nor is Lies of Summer, even if it is a musical retread of the brilliant Guys Like Me from Lost in Space, but they are a step down from the best material.

Rollercoasters is a beautiful, painful portrait of someone, possibly with bipolar disorder, unwilling to let go of their life of emotional extremes. On Good For Me, Mann gives voice to someone who knows she’s pursuing a terrible relationship, but can’t stop herself; her high notes are a little huskier than they were, but Mann’s voice is still devastating in its upper ranges. You Never Loved Me has one of Bryan’s best string arrangements, never taking the spotlight from Mann’s vocal or the lovely harmonies.

I’m pretty delighted by this record. Mann, in my view at least, peaked with the Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2/Lost in Space triptych, but that was fine as even on the downslope of her career each new album had three or four really solid songs that I could add to my Aimee Mann playlist. But Mental Illness is way better than that – Mann sounds fully engaged and genuinely enthusiastic about her art for the first time in three or four albums. If you’ve lost interest in her work over the last 10 years, do spend some time with this one.

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This week in spurious lawsuits: Radiohead sue Lana Del Rey

At the risk of making myself unpopular…

The Radiohead/Lana Del Rey lawsuit is super depressing for anyone who thought Radiohead were good guys. And, I admit, I did.

The similarities first. Creep is built on a continuously repeating four-chord pattern: G, B minor, C, C minor (or in musicological terms, I-iii-IV-iv). Get Free has the same progression in its elongated verse/bridge section. Its chorus is a different progression. The vocal melodies are quite different, but in places the phrasing of Get Free is somewhat similar to Creep – where the vocal starts and ends in relation to the bar lines.

I suspect this latter detail is what their case will hinge on because the idea of Radiohead suing anyone for writing something harmonically similar to Creep when they themselves were sued by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood for Creep’s harmonic similarity to The Air That I Breathe (made famous by the Hollies) doesn’t pass the laugh test. Or, rather, it shouldn’t if the judge has any musical literacy at all.*

For what it’s worth, I think the idea of a songwriter suing another over shared chord sequences is inherently bullshit, and analogous to suing over similarity of drum pattern. Chord sequences have been used and reused thousands of times by thousands of songwriters. At what point do you say a chord pattern is well known enough to not constitute one writer’s intellectual property? The very common sequences ii-V-I and I-V-vi-IV seem to be safe. I-IV-V (the basis of the vast majority of blues songs) is definitely safe. So why is I-iii-IV-iv so (fucking) special that Thom Yorke thinks he owns it (or rather co-owns it with Hammond and Hazlewood)?

As for the melody, there’s a bit of a resemblance, but it’s not so marked that you’d be able to pick out the similarity if someone sang you the two tunes a capella, one after the other.

Comments in the press have been predictably depressing, with loads of people taking Radiohead’s side just because they’re Radiohead and Lana Del Rey is a pop singer. Which is no less depressing just for being predictable. Accidental resemblances to other people’s work are bound to happen within pop songwriting when tens of thousands of new songs get written every year. There are two responses possible – everyone can sue everyone for everything all the time. Or, everyone can acknowledge that they themselves have at some time written something that’s a bit like something else without realising, and therefore choose not to be obnoxious about enforcing copyright. Take the high road. Be a grown-up.

A curse on Radiohead’s house if they don’t call off their lawyers. Or perhaps David Byrne can teach them a lesson by suing them for 100% of all past and future earnings for ripping off the name of one of his songs for their band name.

*Judging by the history of copyright-infringement suits, few judges do have any musical literacy. Expect Radiohead to win.

One More Cup of Coffee – Bob Dylan

Desire, the album Bob Dylan made after Blood on the Tracks, is his newly-single-in-New-York-City record. After he and his wife Sara split up, he moved back to New York, living in the Village and carousing at night with a mix of buddies old and new. One night he saw Patti Smith play at The Bitter End and, impressed by the chemistry she had with her band, decided that he should work with a regular band himself in order to get something similar.

He pulled together a motley selection of old pros and youngsters to be in his group (violinist Scarlett Rivera he picked up while he was being driven through the Village in a limousine and she was walking down the road carrying a violin case, which seems borderline predatory today) and went in the studio with a view to recording a new album. At the first session, he had 21 musicians in his band. Nothing usable was recorded, and nothing would be until he took the advice proffered by every experienced musician on the session and attempted the songs again with a much smaller band.

The album was notable in many ways. The lyrics for the songs were written by playwright Jacques Levy rather than Dylan himself; Bob scholar Yo Zushi hypothesises that Dylan had gone to the well so deeply for Blood on the Tracks that he had nothing left to say (at least, nothing about his failing marriage), and was comfortable with the idea of singing someone else’s words. It broke with the studio orthodoxy of the era in its reverberant, big-room sound, and the prominence of Howie Wyeth’s drums in the mix (compare these songs to the very controlled, small-sounding mixes on Blood on the Tracks). Its come-join-the-party beginnings, with 21 musicians on hand for the first session, presaged Dylan’s next wheeze, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which saw him gather everyone from Joan Baez to Mick Ronson (from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) to barnstorm up and down the East Coast, playing impromptu gigs in whatever theatre or gymnasium would accommodate them, and bringing famous friends up on stage to join in when playing their home city or if they happened to be in town. A recording of Isis from Montreal begins with Dylan roaring “This is for Leonard if he’s still here” – the “Leonard” in question was indeed that Leonard.

However, the album (and the music from that era of Dylan’s career generally) was only successful in parts. One More Cup of Coffee, which featured Emmylou Harris, was one of the better ones, succeeding on atmosphere and the exotic vocal melody. Allen Ginsberg, whom I assume recognises Jewish singing when he hears it, spoke of Dylan’s “Hebraic cantillation” on this song; to me it sounds more like a muezzin’s call to prayer. But either way, it sets a mysterious and compelling mood that as Ginsberg noted is distinctly non-American – a rare and notable thing in Dylan’s music, considering that he began his career as an impersonator of wandering Okie Woody Guthrie.

2017 Clip Show Post

Hi all. And a happy new year to you.

I’m writing this in my den – the study/studio/mix room I’m building in the house I bought with Mel. With the move taking up so much time, I’m aware that things have been slow around here of late, and with much home-making/furniture-building chores still to do, I’m only cautiously optimistic that’s going to change in the immediate future. But still, I love doing this and I enjoyed it this year, particularly until around September when things started to get stressful, so there’s no danger of me stopping any time soon!

Once again, here’s a round-up of some favourite things from the blog this year. Some of these have gotten some decent traction, others less so, but I’m picking on the basis of what I enjoyed writing and what I’m still proud of now. If some of these passed you by at the time, you might find some of them interesting.

Day of the Dead, disc one

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part two

Give Some More to the Bass Player , Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was – Radiohead

OK Computer is 20 Part 2 – Guitars

Ladybug – Sera Cahoone

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – Joni Mitchell (because no year is complete without something by Joni)

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

More Thoughts on Tim Hardin

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

Stella Blue – Grateful Dead

Have a great new year, whatever you’re doing. See you soon!

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Five: Streets of Philadelphia – Bruce Springsteen 

Hi there. Hope you had a good Christmas!

In the early 1990s, the Boss went through something of a trough, with the Human Touch and Lucky Town LPs both critical and commercial misses, and an MTV Unplugged set failing to hit the mark, too. Bruce had temporarily parted ways with the E Street Band and was using LA session players on his records – another source of fan ire. So when those fans heard Streets of Philadelphia, it was received as something like a 1990s version of Nebraska – Springsteen throwing out the trappings of stardom and big-time rock’n’roll to make something hushed and intimate alone in his house. And if the record featured synth and drum machine rather than acoustic guitar, so be it. Better a drum machine than the drummer from Toto.

Me,  I had (have) no real attachment to or fondness for the E Street Band. They’ve always been a little too gaudily showbiz for my taste. Not lean enough, not hard enough. Much of my favourite Bruce music (Brusic?) doesn’t feature them at all. And I loved the sound of Streets of Philadelphia. The warm synth and drum machine* sounded perfect to me – and completely emotionally appropriate to the song. The artificiality of the programmed beat puts me in mind of the kind of devices (pacemakers, LVADs, artificial hearts) that allow the weakening body to continue to live. The drum machine thus provides the song’s pulse in both a literal and figurative sense.

The key thing about drum machines is that they aren’t people; try to make a programmed drum track stand in for a human drummer and you’re on a hiding to nothing. But allow the drum machine to be what it is – a metronome that can play something more than just quarter notes – and they can be wonderful tools for writing and recording. In the case of Streets of Philadelphia, the feel provided by the drum machine just wouldn’t have been achievable with a human drummer – not without editiing the performance to the point where it would have been much quicker simply to program the beat.

The song’s instrumental backing, steady and unobtrusive, was an ideal accompaniment for Sprinsteen’s heart-rending vocal, so full of empathy and humanity – much needed at the time. Streets of Philadelphia was written for the soundtrack to the movie Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. In the movie, a lawyer with Aids, played by Tom Hanks, is fired from his firm, and though dying enlists a former colleague, played by Washington, to represent him in an unfair-dismissal suit. That kind of thing did happen (indeed the story was the subject of a legal case brought by the family of Geoffrey Bowers, whose story inspired the film) – and probably still does, though the prejudice underlying it would have to be more carefully disguised.

In 2017, it may be hard to remember the ignorance and fear that surrounded Aids in the 1980s and 1990s, or the prejudice that attached to those with the disease. But at the time, even the existence of Philadelphia attracted controversy. It is reported that director Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for the soundtrack specifically in the hopes that Springsteen’s presence would reach out to audiences who may not otherwise be receptive to the movie’s message. In that sense, Bruce probably never wrote a more important song. In my view, he never wrote a better one. And it’s impossible to imagine that all the players in the world and all the fanciest technology could have produced a more moving result than Springsteen cooked up at home. For those purists who disdain the programmed or looped rhythm track, Streets of Philadelphia is a powerful rejoinder.

 

*I’ve read in one biog that during this period Springsteen was actually writing using premade loops from a CD he’d bought. Most writers and fans discussing the song have assumed he used a drum machine (no one seems confident which one though), so I’ve gone along with that for the purposes of this post.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Four: Fool (If You Think it’s Over) – Elkie Brooks

Apologies for my elongated absence. I moved house last week, so it’s been crazy busy.

If you didn’t know anything about Middlesbrough’s Chris Rea, born into an ice cream-making family, or Salford’s Elkie Brooks, formerly an English Tina Turner-style screamer in Vinegar Joe and latterly an MOR Pebble Mill at One regular, you could easily hear Fool (If You Think it’s Over) as a species of yacht rock. Especially in Brooks’s version, it’s smooth, opulent, adult and eminently yachty. Have JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair claimed it as one of their own? Maybe they have.

Fool (If You Think it’s Over) was first cut by Rea for his 1978 debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini. It’s an undeniable song, but I always feel like his version’s a little too slow, and as a result doesn’t feel quite as effortless as it could do. Elkie Brooks’s 1982 cover, from her album Pearls, picks up the tempo by a few bpm, and this makes a world of difference.

The same producer, Gus Dudgeon, was in the chair for both recordings, so it’s instructive to compare the two, even if we need to be a little careful in suggesting that the differences between the two versions amount to Dudgeon “fixing” the flaws he heard in Rea’s version. Especially as so much of it is the same. While the tempo is faster for Elkie’s version, the basic layers of the drum track are constructed in the same way, and it’s an excellent construction. Both recordings begin with drum machine, which runs throughout the track. The rhythm box on Rea’s recording is notably more lo-fi than on the Brooks version, but they sound like the same machine to me: the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78. You’ll have heard this classic drum machine on countless recordings from the late seventies, including In the Air Tonight, Heart of Glass and I Can’t Go For That.

With the drum machine in place to give the song a steady four-square chassis, on top are laid some sort of shaken percussion (shekere, I think) congas and then full drum kit. On both versions, the drummers are almost heroically understated*, just playing two and four with a good feel and keeping fills to an absolute minimum. Brooks’s drummer plays the odd pssst on the hats, a little double tap on the snare going into the chorus and a few gentle cymbal crashes.

It’s beautifully simple, but the effect when all the layers are added together is an ultra-smooth, great-feeling rhythm track (aided by some superlative bass playing) that has a machine-led tightness and a very human sense of power kept in reserve – and if you’ve heard Brooks belting her way through Proud to be a Honky Woman or Pearl’s a Singer, you’ll know how much vocal power she keeps on reserve during this song, too.

I almost never do a post like this when I don’t know the identity of the drummer on the recording, but unfortunately, since Pearls is a compilation album, three drummers are listed on the sleeve, and no resource I could find online breaks down who plays on which song. So the drummer was one of Trevor Morais, Graham Jarvis or Steve Holley.

The lay of the land, 6 December 2017

Five years ago today, I had a pacemaker fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. The year before that I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At that point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. My diagnosis was idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

*

Time moves faster than I ever could have imagined as a child, 25 or 30 years ago. I’m nearly 36 now, closer to 40 than 30, and finally doing the adult stuff that for the longest time I didn’t think I ever would – buying a house, getting a mortgage, making plans not just for retirement but for death (by making a will, you understand.  I’m not planning on hastening the end).

Most of the time when you’re doing this stuff, the process itself just sweeps you along with it and doesn’t leave much time for reflection. But every now and again, it occurs to me how unlikely this all is, and the fact that Mel and I have a financial commitment that’s going to last till more or less the end of our working lives in 30 years’ time is in many ways the biggest symbol of my recovery yet: inconceivable six years ago, massively unlikely five years ago, but now a reality. We move in next Tuesday. It’s daunting as we’ve still got so much to do, but it’s also hugely exciting.

Many of my friends are in similar positions and it’s nice to look around and see how many of them are happy and settled: buying houses, getting married and having children. I wonder, though, if any of them feel the same way I do: that they’ve been enjoying an elongated adolescence that is only now coming to an end.

I already have plans for next year. Setting up a studio den in our new house is first on the list. A new record with James McKean is in the works, and my own much-delayed album is finally – finally – recorded (I just plan to press an EP first as essentially a trial run, so I can make all my mistakes on a low-stakes release), but I’m not looking too far beyond those things at the moment. Compared to this year, next one should be quieter, and less stressful. There may even be more time for blogging! I doubt I’ll ever again get to the more-than-once-a-week schedule I maintained in 2013-2014, but at least once a week would be good.

I’ll be back later in the week if time permits, but you know, moving house and all. I’ve got a couple more drum posts planned, so if you’re into those, stay tuned.