Pray for Rain – Pure Bathing Culture

At their current rate of evolution, Pure Bathing Culture are halfway to being a for-real pop band.

The Portland-based duo (they aren’t natives; they moved there from Brooklyn*) released their second, self-titled, album in late 2015 to moderate reviews. Critics seemed to prefer their first album, Moon Tides – a much more moody, textured, layered and atmospheric affair, one heavily indebted to the Cocteau Twins, Frankly I much prefer the songs I’ve heard from the new one; it’s a fool’s errand to try to sound like the Cocteau Twins, unless your singer actually is Liz Frazer. When they tried it, Pure Bathing Culture just sounded a bit twee and rubbish. And anyway, why try to recreate someone else’s already-perfected sound?

For their second album, Pray for Rain, PBC hooked up with producer John Congleton (Angel Olsen, Wye Oak and St Vincent among many, many others) and began to get serious. Congleton’s work sonically leaves me a bit cold. There’s something fake about the instrument sounds on all his records. Nothing sounds natural. But even despite the unlovely sonics of Pray for Rain, you have to say Congleton did a great job with these guys. The primary duty of a producer, historically at least, is to create something saleable for the record label, but the best producers are able to do this while helping the band to grow and develop, challenging and bettering themselves, and coming up with something that’s an advance on anything they’ve done before. In this regard, Congleton played a blinder.

Pray for Rain (the song, not the album) has a confident swagger that nothing on the band’s debut had. Singer Sarah Versprille is now singing in her natural range instead of half an octave above it and the effect is transformative (I can’t think of a single comparably huge one-record improvement in a vocalist. Not one). The arrangement and song structure is tight and focused, and the vocal drives the music rather than just existing within it. Daniel Hindman’s guitars are similarly emboldened – they’re still absolutely saturated in reverb, delay and all the time-domain effects contemporary indie can’t seem to do without, but the style is more idiosyncratic, less obviously derived from just one or two sources. The duo’s past musical endeavours, both in Vetiver and their early days as Pure Bathing Culture, seem a world away.

Now, when you compare them to a contemporary band that genuinely court the pop market and know how to make pop music, it’s pretty clear that Pure Bathing Culture still have work to do. Their melodies remain essentially static, and the songs don’t evolve so much as arrive, dwell in front of you and then stop. But they’ve come a long way quickly and are maybe only a record away from arriving at something really great. It’s now coming up to two years since Pure Bathing Culture was released. Perhaps that big step forward is being taken behind the scenes as we speak.

*I shouldn’t be cynical, but if you wanted to sum up the last five years in rock music in one short sentence, you could do a lot worse than “Indie band moves from Brooklyn to Portland”.

Ladybug – Sera Cahoone

In 2014, Tawnee Baird was stabbed 46 times by her girlfriend,  Victoria Mendoza, who is now 18 months into a 16-years-to-life jail sentence for Baird’s murder. The two were in a car on Interstate 15 when an argument between the pair escalated into violence and Mendoza began stabbing Baird. At the time of her murder, Baird was 21, Mendoza 22.

Sera Cahoone has been a fixture in Seattle’s music scene for around 15 years now, initially as drummer for late-period Carissa’s Wierd (sic) and early-period Band of Horses. She released her first, self-titled, solo album, in 2006, and has made three more since, most recently From Where I Started, which came out in March 2017.

Cahoone has a lovely, unaffected voice, and she uses it to illuminate without over-decorating her melodies, which on From Where I Started are universally strong. She and producer John Morgan Askew put together a top-notch band for the project, too: Rob Burger (who’s played with Iron & Wine, Calexico and Lucinda Williams among many, many others),  Jeff Fielder (Mark Lanegan, Amy Ray), Jason Kardong (Son Volt), Dave Depper (Death Cab for Cutie) and Annalisa Tornfeldt (Aoife O’Donovan, the Minus 5). They decorate her songs with minimal, sympathetic touches – nothing showy, everything for the song. A songwriter couldn’t ask for more from her collaborators.

While From Where I Started is compelling all the way through (and Up to Me, Better Woman and Not Like I are all wonderful), but it’s Ladybug, Cahoone’s tribute to Tawnee Baird, that hits hardest. Not just because the song is beautiful, with a lovely arrangement and graceful melody that’s full of empathy and regret for dreams that can never be fulfilled, but because Baird was Cahoone’s cousin.

Cahoone has talked about the process of writing Ladybug, and of her memories of Baird, in several interviews (such as this one with NPR), but still, whenever I hear the song, I find myself thinking not about how the song works on a formal level (which is what I usually do) but instead wondering how Cahoone found the strength, the grace, to write something like Ladybug in the face of such terrible events. How do you honour the memory of someone close to you who died in such violent circumstances without the sadness overwhelming you or the anger making you bitter and vengeful?

It’s not a question many of us are in a position to answer. I’ve been sitting on this blog for over a week, trying to think of more to say, and I really don’t think I can add anything more. The song speaks for itself, with an eloquence and humanity that amazes me. The video below is from a live session Cahoone recorded recently for KEXP. In some ways, it’s even better than the album recording.

Belle and Sebastian @ Royal Hospital Chelsea, 15/06/17

Seeing Belle and Sebastian in the environs of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea was a rather strange experience. For a group whose milieu seems to be the more down-at-heel parts of Glasgow, and whose music has always been determinedly small scale and for years had the whiff of the school-assembly-recital, a large-scale outdoor gig at a grand institution on the banks of the Thames in Chelsea was unlikely enough that every now and again I found my mind turning to the distance the band had travelled from their uber-indie beginnings twenty-odd years ago to here and now: the Royal Albert Hall last year, the Royal Hospital Chelsea this.

Last Thursday was a beautiful day, but windy, and by evening the stiff breeze made it feel pretty damn cold, and few of us were dressed for it. Sara and I had walked to the gig, and the evening seemed perfect, but by the time we took our seats, it was so cold that neither of us were sure we’d make it to the end. In the event, we did what lots of other people did, leaving the bleachers and joining the standing crowd, hoping that the chance to move around a bit, and being among a throng, would make the wind less of a problem. It worked a little, but we left before the encore as Sara couldn’t feel her feet.

After an introduction by two Chelsea Pensioners, the band came on and opened with Act of the Apostle from The Life Pursuit. The band found their gear right away, but Stuart Murdoch’s voice was rough around the edges. The song’s got some unusual chord changes and difficult intervals, and I wondered whether it would have been better for Murdoch if they’d started with a run of easier songs and he’d had time to get warmed up before tackling it.

Things took an immediate upturn, though, with I’m a Cuckoo, from 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. I’m a Cuckoo is probably the best song that Murdoch has ever written (and the best record the band has ever made), and they played a fuss-free but spirited version, Murdoch sounding much more comfortable in the lower end of his register. Unless I’m mistaken, they played the single edit of the song, which I’ve come to think is actually a better length than the 5.20 album version.

The set was a nice mix of recent tracks, including a couple of new ones, and vintage material: Seeing Other People and She’s Losing It were well received by the old-school fans, Another Sunny Day from The Life Pursuit was really pretty (and appropriate to the occasion), I Know Where the Summer Goes from the This is Just a Modern Rock Song EP was an unexpected treat (although I’d have loved it if they’d played the title track instead), and as the band moved up through the gears, The Boy With the Arab Strap, The Blues are Still Blue and Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying brought the gig to a strong conclusion, with Arab Strap the cue for the inevitable on-stage dancers and the release of some specially made Belle and Sebastian balloons.

The balloons promptly blew away. “Well, that was £1500 well spent,” quipped Murdoch. An attempt at something beautiful thwarted by something as mundane as a stiff breeze. It seemed an appropriately Belle and Sebastianish moment.

Howard Goodall’s Beatles programmes

Last week the BBC broadcast a programme about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by Howard Goodall.

Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution is well worth watching while it’s still available on iPlayer and catch-up services. Goodall’s a genial screen presence and, a composer by trade, is really good at explaining music theory and recording techniques for a general audience while going deep enough in his analysis at a compositional and technical level to make things interesting for those who already know their modes, their calliopes and their ADT.

Above all else, Goodall’s a fan, and his enthusiasm for the subject is genuine. Television’s so full of fake enthusiasm and feigned excitement that the real thing stands out a mile. At one point, having explained how Strawberry Fields Forever is constructed from two takes of the song, recorded more than a week apart, at different tempos and in different keys, and then how George Martin and his team went about manipulating the two takes in order to be able to edit them together seamlessly, Goodall plays the end result and simply comments, “Awesome”. This is not routine hyperbole of television; you’ve no doubt he means it.

This isn’t the first time Goodall’s taken on The Beatles on TV. In 2004, he made a series for Channel 4 (I think) called 20th Century Greats – an hour each on Lennon & McCartney, Bernard Hermann, Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein. As in the Pepper programme, he went deep on a handful of songs (I Am the Walrus, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Jealous Guy/Child of Nature) rather than look at dozens only on a surface level. It’s equally good. The series seems to have received a limited release on DVD (I’ve seen it come up on eBay – possibly an American import or something), but it pops up on youtube pretty regularly.

Both programmes are essential viewing for Beatles fans. They don’t contain anything you couldn’t learn by reading Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive accounts of the band’s recording sessions or Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, but Goodall’s love for the music is not poisoned, as MacDonald’s was, by the conviction that nothing could ever be this good again. For non-fans, or outright sceptics, Goodall might just get you to hear The Beatles the way he hears them.

 

 

 

Tennis @ Omeara, 02/06/17

And so to Omeara in Borough for the first time.

Omeara was announced with much fanfare last autumn. It’s owned by Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons and consists of a live-music space, a gallery and a couple of bars, halfway between Southwark station and Borough High Street. It’s part of the Flat Iron Square development, which is an attempt to create an insant foodie hub in some formerly under-utilised railway arches on Union Street. Judging by the number of people who were there when we arrived at just after 7pm last night, it’s working pretty well.

It’s easy to be cynical about all this, especially since my beloved Gladstone Arms around the corner was forced to close by an owner who priced the leaseholder out because he wanted to build flats, and then, when the council showed some kind of resistance to the idea, sold the lease to some young and deep-pocketed entrepeneurial types who had the briliant idea to reopen the Gladstone as Pegz N “Frazes” (yes, really*).

The message is clear: yes, we can have live music in London, but not as part of any grassroots community – it has to be imposed from above by a businessman musician like Lovett and come accompanied by bars and “street food” vendors, serving overpriced drinks and food in an attempt to make up for the crippling rents they’re paying to be there in the first place.

Ah, the modern city.

None of this, of course, is Tennis’s fault – they just happened to be playing there, and Omeara happened to be the right kind of size for them right now. I’m cynical enough, or not enough of a puritan, to swallow my distaste and go anyway.

Besides, I’ve been looking forward to Tennis playing in London for three years, as I first heard their single Never Work for Free about one week after their last London show in 2014. From having seen/heard their live sessions on WFUV and KEXP, I knew these guys could play their asses off, and despite the lushness of the material on Ritual in Repeat, I actually prefer the more stripped-down live versions of songs like I’m Callin’ and Needle and a Knife to their studio-recording counterparts.

On the night, though, Tennis’s set was disappointing.

I harp on a lot about live sound mixes, I know, and it is a difficult job. I’ve done it myself. The engineer may have been contending with a load of technical problems none of us know about and could have been doing an amazing job to get things sounding acceptable out front. That said, the vocal was quiet to the point where no words were discernable. The kick drum was twice as loud as the snare so the drums had no punch or presence in the crucial midrange. Patrick Riley’s guitar was too loud and stepped on the vocal as a result, and Alaina Moore’s keyboards were far too quiet – barely audible, in fact.

Worse, I think the band had their own mix problems on stage. The set started with In the Morning I’ll be Better, and after the intro, which featured Moore’s pre-recorded voice in harmony, Moore began singing live on mike, only to find her microphone wasn’t actually on. It took a surprising amount of time for this issue to be fixed. Whether that threw them, who knows, but their performance seemed hampered, a bit tame – as if they were having to concentrate too hard on the technicals to let go and really get into the music – so perhaps the dead microphone was just the most obvious issue among many. Near the end of the set Moore talked about things being pretty crazy up on stage; since there was no visible craziness, I can only assume she was alluding to sound issues.

There were some fine moments, despite that. At the end of Needle and a Knife the band played a short outro jam where things seemed to click for them after a few listless songs at the start of the set. Suddenly they seemed to be playing twice as loud, and it was the first time in the set Riley and Moore looked like they were enjoying themselves. Mean Streets was a touch slower than ideal, but had a sexy swing nonetheless. The crowd loved Marathon (their very early material is a bit twee for my tastes, tbh). My Emotions are Blinding (another from the new record, Yours Conditionally) and Young and Old‘s My Better Self were both great and overcame the limitations of the mix. At the end of the set, the drummer and bass player left the stage and Moore and Riley played Bad Girls on their own, guitar and vocal. It was great, and put the spotlight on Moore’s vocal in a way that hadn’t been possible earlier in the set and hinted at what could have been.

Bad sound at gigs happens, and Tennis are pros and they got through it graciously. But the band wasn’t playing at the level they usually reach, and that was definitely a bummer, especially at a venue that’s only been open eight months and is meant to have a state of the art sound system.


Sanity intervened, and after the new leaseholders’ preferred name was exposed to much public mockery, they announced the Gladstone would reopen under its old name. The spirit of the Glad, meanwhile, has flown and can now be found at the Spit and Sawdust.

I Wish that I Knew What I Know Now When I Was Younger

I hate that Faces song, by the way. The tense of the lyric in the chorus should be conditional.

This last week, an old high school friend of mine posted some photos and even a video clip of some of our teenage musical endeavours. The earliest of these photos is 20 years old. A sobering thought, indeed.

I’ve been doing what I do a long old time now; long enough that, of the guys I was in that high-school band with, I’m the only one still playing music seriously – writing, recording and gigging – and that’s been true for a decade now. It’s still a huge part of my life and I don’t imagine I’ll ever stop.

Which means, I guess, I see something different to what the other guys see when they look at these old photos. They see something they used to be; I see a younger version of the thing I am now. And blimey, there are some things I could tell younger me that might have helped him (other than just, “For god’s sake, sort your hair out”).

I probably couldn’t persuade younger me to ditch his ambitions to be a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter producer and recording engineer in order to just focus on doing one thing and doing it as well as possible. Trying to bite off more than can be chewed is too big a part of who I am. And besides, playing drums is fun. Recording is fun. Mixing is fun.  I wouldn’t want to give any of it up.

The one thing I’d tell him, I think, that he might actually listen to is play less, play it clean, play it in time. When I listen back to recordings I made before around 2007 or 2008, what bugs me about them is the lack of attention I paid to tempo. My voice-and-guitar recordings from back then can fluctuate pretty wildly in tempo, and are generally speaking too fast, with subsequent guitar flubs I’d never live with today. I could have benefitted hugely from taking the time to experiment with tempo before trying to record the song – working out what was best by playing it at different speeds, then practising at the tempo that felt best and committing to it.

Similarly, my rhythm guitar playing and bass playing often sounded rushed and ahead of the drummer. It took seeing my tracks on screen (something that comes from recording digitally and is not always a great idea to focus on, though in this case it was) for me to realise that I had a pattern of being ahead of the beat, especially when playing bass with fingers – it took several years to correct that to the point where a bass track I put down might be listened to soloed against the drums without causing me acute embarrassment.

Of course, when you’re playing in a kid band, it’s unlikely the drummer is putting the one in the same spot every time anyway, but I wasn’t even aware that it was an issue and wouldn’t have been able to tell you who the guilty party was.

The older I get, the more I’m impressed by players who play what’s required with a good feel and nothing more. Maybe one day I’ll be one of them. If I’d have learned the lesson in my teens rather than my mid-twenties, I might have been already. But it’s a journey, and getting to the destination is all that matters.

Mesh

1997 (on bass, to the right)

CFF live

2017 (on guitar, to the left)

Chris Cornell RIP

A lot has been written about Seattle and grunge over the years – too much, probably – but something that really doesn’t get remarked upon enough is how unlikely it was for so many great vocal talents to emerge from that one city at the same time: Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan, Layne Staley and Chris Cornell, to say nothing of transplanted Californian Eddie Vedder, or those harmony-singing maestros Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies, or of charismatic, characterful yowlers like Mark Arm and Andy Wood. All of them, all at the same time.

It wasn’t an unprecedented flowering of talent or anything (Detroit and Motown provides an even more staggering example of the same phenomenon), but it’s not recognised and celebrated in quite those terms. Nowadays we remember the heavy guitars, the drugs, the media hype and if we’re lucky we remember the great songs, but not enough attention is paid to how much sheer vocal talent came to the fore in the service of those songs.

None of these singers, not even Chris Cornell, emerged fully formed, but once he hit his peak on Badmotorfinger, Cornell matured into one of the absolute greatest rock singers ever. He could do anything. He could outscream Cobain and outwail Gillan and Dickinson. He could sing with a vibrato-heavy operatic intensity that Freddie Mercury would have envied. The sound of Cornell really going for it was addictive. On Rusty Cage, his slide up to the high note on the word “cage”, which he held with a powerful vibrato, is the main hook of the song. It’s why Johnny Cash’s cover – cute as it was as a concept – was so disappointing in practice. Cash couldn’t do the thing that made everyone love the song.

As time went on, as we heard Seasons, Black Hole Sun, Blow Up the Outside World, Preaching the End of the World and the wonderful When I’m Down – on which Cornell proved that Mark Lanegan wasn’t the only singer from Seattle who could conceivably make a move into jazz and blues – it became clear just what range this guy had, not merely in terms of pitch, but it terms of range, mood, feel, timbre.

Chris Cornell died today aged 52. We don’t know yet how he died, and it would be impertinent to speculate when the facts will make themselves known soon enough. Compared to his friends Andy Wood, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, he lived a long and productive life. Hopefully it was mostly a happy one too. What’s certainly true is that his music made an awful lot of people happy, me included.

Like most any other day, today I listened to KEXP’s morning show, and it was pretty much wall-to-wall Cornell. What a body of work the man leaves behind. It will be remembered, and so will he.

Soundgarden perform at The Palladium in Worcester, MA on May 15, 2013