Monthly Archives: May 2013

Slaves & Bulldozers – Soundgarden

Soundgarden were one of the original Seattle ‘grunge’ groups, a term the bands involved would quickly come to hate and resent, but which in 1988 Mudhoney’s Mark Arm had used to describe his own band’s music: a dirty, scuzzy blend of mainstream seventies metal, late-sixties garage, and early-eighties punk. Mudhoney leaned towards the punk end of things; in fact, their biggest debt was to Iggy Pop’s proto-punk outfit the Stooges. Early Nirvana was pretty much equal parts punk and metal – plenty of Sabbath, but plenty of Flipper too. Soundgarden shared some of those influences, but in Chris Cornell had a singer with a classic hard-rock voice, which made it easier for mainstream-label A&R guys to work out where the band was coming from.

So it was no surprise when Soundgarden became the first band out of Seattle to put out a major-label record since Heart in the seventies (Mother Love Bone, whose members later regrouped as Pearl Jam, were the first Seattle band to get signed by major, but singer Andy Wood OD’d before the band had released their first LP). Badmotorfinger, released in 1991 on A&M, was actually Soundgarden’s third record, but they’d outgrown Sub Pop’s ability to distribute their records nationally. This problem had plagued the more successful underground bands for years (since Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade at least) and was a key reason why they began signing to majors – if fans can’t find your records in shops and the label can’t press enough to keep up with demand, what’s the point in staying with that label?

Badmotorfinger got somewhat left behind by the Nirvana juggernaut, but in any event it was a little too arty and dissonant for the mainstream. Chris Cornell might have had an accessible, incredibly versatile rock voice (his vocal on Slaves & Bulldozers is a tour de force: one minute he’s out-shrieking Cobain, the next he’s Ronnie James Dio, then he’s Bruce Dickinson), but Kim Thayil wrenched every conceivable noise out of his guitar except conventional ones, like a less schoolmasterly Robert Fripp. Most rock guitarists given the awesomely sludgy bass riff that Ben Shepherd plays in the intro (placed hard to the left by mix engineer Ron Saint Germain) would have chosen simply to double it while throwing their hair around. Not Thayil, God bless him. His was a cerebral take on metal. There is a guitar track that doubles the bass riff, but the listener’s ear is instead drawn to the squonky squealing noises up top. Pure Thayil.

With their frequent use of odd meters, Soundgarden were playing math-rock for a far wider audience than it ever had in the Midwest in the 1980s. They never made a big deal of it though, they simply threw in an extra beat in this measure and took one away in that measure as if it were the most natural thing in the world. On Fell on Black Days and Spoonman they’d even make math-rock into pop music. For this and much else they haven’t really received due credit. Still not enough people talk about how great their rhythm section was. Yet Matt Cameron was a monster drummer (inventive, powerful and groovy, never stiff and always musical) while Ben Shepherd’s bass playing was intense and furious – you can hear how hard he’s hitting his strings on those occasions where he’s not quite tight with Cameron’s snare drum.

Soundgarden’s next album, Superunknown, did get them the big mainstream hit that A&M wanted from them. The shift towards a slightly more commercial songwriting style felt like an evolution rather than a cynical change of direction – like Cobain, Cornell had always been a Beatles fan – and like its predecessor it’s an essential nineties rock record, but Badmotorfinger is the Soundgarden record where they sound most like themselves, the record that only they could have made.

They’re back touring and making records again, and that’s great. They’re unlikely to do anything cheesy or regrettable, but it’s also unlikely they’ll do anything to top the music they made in the first half of the nineties. I’d love to see it happen though.

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The Garden of Sound

I’m Down to My Last Cigarette – The Jayhawks

Let’s hear it for those quietly impressive, hard-working sidemen and women. Every band needs one or two. Standing behind Jayhawks singer-songwriters Marc Olson and Gary Louris for most of the 1990s was the unfortunately named Karen Grotberg, with her catseye glasses and slightly bouffant hair, looking like a small-town librarian who hadn’t quite made it out of the eighties (in my head her speaking voice is like Marge Gunderson’s but perhaps I’m just playing with stereotypes now). On the cover of her first album with the group (Tomorrow the Green Grass), she’s pushed off to the side, sitting on her own branch of the tree, looking up rather than at the camera. She was a great country pianist, enlivening even the most pedestrian moments of their occasionally lumpy career, while singing fine harmonies too. When she left the band after the not-country-at-all Sound of Lies album from 1997, the group lost something key to its identity, for sure.

On their cover of the Harlan Howard/Billy Walker chestnut I’m Down to My Last Cigarette (recorded far less frequently than one might expect for a song that sounds ready-made to be a standard, but revived in the late eighties by KD Lang), Grotberg gets a rare lead vocal and has a ball with it. The track sounds like it might have been recorded live in the studio, although this audio-verite feeling is undercut by the decision to give her voice a Sun Records echo. But it’s still a great performance, fun and spontaneous-sounding, down to Grotberg having to cue in Louris for his solo.

The song appeared as a B-side to their 1995 cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s Bad Time, on which Grotberg was elbowed aside in favour of lungs-for-hire Sharleen Spiteri, odd-jobbing as a session singer around LA during Texas’s mid-nineties hiatus. Perhaps Grotberg was given this one by way of an apology. She ain’t Patsy Cline, but on this evidence (and that of a even more impressive recent live recording on YouTube) she’s a better singer than the nasal Olson and hoarse Louris, who on the evidence of the 2011 reunion album Mockingbird Time still haven’t learned to sing close harmony without lapsing into doubling each other’s notes. They still do this one at live shows, Karen getting her well-earned turn in the spotlight.

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Karen Grotberg. © 2009, Steve Cohen

Rainy Night in Georgia – Brook Benton

When you’re listening to a song about somewhere, your reaction to it is inevitably coloured by whether you know the place in real life. And by how well you know it. To appreciate some songs maybe it’s better not to know somewhere too well, but just to have an idea of it. Songs glorifying London don’t work on me – I’ve lived there, worked there, studied there. I know it too well. I can get sentimental about places where important things have happened to me. I can smile at the memories of little backwaters I can pretend to myself only I know about. I can appreciate the little details noticed and included by a writer who knows whereof they sing. But for the most part, any song that finds romance in London isn’t aimed at me.

New York, though – that’s another matter. I eat up songs about New York. Never been there. One day I might, although I do worry that no version could ever be as good as the one put in my head by Odyssey’s Native New Yorker. Nothing could be that good, that sophisticated, streetwise, worldly. Certainly I couldn’t.

Laurel Canyon, Woodstock, Maxwell Street, Beale Street – I have ideas and images about all these places that songs put there. Georgia, too, a place that has done pretty well by songwriters, as perhaps any state that has given the world James Brown, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, OutKast, the Allman Brothers and R.E.M. should do.

Of course, Rainy Night in Georgia has become a standard since Tony Joe White wrote it in 1962. It had to. A cynical soul might conclude that it was designed to. It’s a song you hear often, tackled by singers great and indifferent. And Rod Stewart, too. In Britain, it seems, you’re likely to hear Randy Crawford’s 1981 version, with its plastic backing. You might hear Brother Ray’s over-egged, rather hammy version. You certainly won’t hear Tennessee Ernie Ford’s sepulchral country-baritone rendition (it’s great, though!). But the one you want to hear – and too seldom do – is the 1970 Jerry Wexler-produced recording by Brook Benton that popularised the song in the first place.

Benton had had number-one R&B hits in 1959 and 1960, and Rainy Night saw him return to the top of the R&B charts a decade later, still only 39, but with a more authoritative gravelly voice, perfect for the late-hour weariness of this kind of material.

There’s always a danger when a singer gets hold of a standard (or one in waiting) that in trying to rise to the material, they become stilted, mannered and singerly. Perhaps because the song was still just Rainy Night in Georgia and not yet Rainy Night in Georgia that Benton’s performance retains a predominantly soft-voiced intimacy, quite the best vocal anyone who’s tried to tackle the song has delivered.

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Brook Benton

Twelve-string guitars, part four

‘But Mr Songsfromsodeep,’ I hear you say, ‘I don’t have a twelve-string guitar. Is there anything I can do to simulate one?’

Well, yes. There’s one thing.

Apologies to those who know this, since this is not in any way a new or innovative technique, but you can double a part played on a six-string guitar with the same part played on a guitar in Nashville tuning. Nashville tuning is when you take the four octave strings from a twelve-string (the low E, A, D and G) and put them on a regular six-string guitar. That means the D and G strings will be higher in pitch than the B and E strings, leaving you with a guitar that sounds jangly indeed. If you can tightly double the original six-string part on a recording, it will sound very like a twelve-string. D’Addario and Martin do a ‘high-strung/Nashville tuning’ set (10-27 and 10-25 respectively), and possibly other manufacturers do too.

You don’t need to present Nashville-tuned parts in this way, though. Try panning the two parts left and right to create a stereo version of the effect. To hear examples of both techniques, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer/guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think).

You can also hear Nashville tuning on on many, many country records. Where’d you think the name came from?

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Kristin Hersh, 2006 (Dina Douglass). Guitar probably not in Nashville tuning.

Twelve-string guitars, part three

OK, another tuning for you. CGCFCE

This is a nice tuning for the keys of C, a minor and F, and not too adaptable beyond that, but what’s nice about it is the range it spans: two octaves plus a major third, which is just about as much as practical without having bass strings that are too floppy and treble strings that are too tight and liable to break.

Those of you who’ve studied alternate tunings might know this one as a favourite of Nick Drake’s – it’s the tuning behind Pink Moon, Which Will, Parasite, the two Hazey Jane songs and the Introduction instrumental. But the tuning works equally well on a twelve string, where the added octave strings make the range of the tuning even wider (two octaves plus a fifth).

The approach that Drake took on Pink Moon (and Place to Be, which uses a similar tuning with the B string tuned down to G rather than up to C) is to fret the lowest three strings and play the top three strings open: 222000, 555000 and so on. Those two shapes will give you a d minor and F respectively.

D minor you say? But it’s got a G in it! And a C and an E! Bu that’s really the point of alternate tunings. You can create these wide, harmonically open chords that would be impossible to play in standard. In the context of Pink Moon (and Place to Be), the ear hears that as a minor chord built on the second degree of the scale. Which is to say, it hears d minor. The beautiful ambiguity of this kind of chord is what made Drake’s guitar playing so expressive and what attracts so many of us to alternate tunings in the first place.

If you play these kind of shapes on a twelve-string it won’t sound earthy and intimate, as on Pink Moon. ‘Earthy’ isn’t what twelve-strings do. Instead it will sound bright, airy, ethereal. But that’s good, too.

Two more chords: 000200 (C major). x20200 (a minor7).

Enjoy.

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Nick Drake. Just imagine that his guitar is a twelve-string

Things to do with a twelve-string guitar, part two

Actually, I lied: I’ll get back to the tuning stuff tomorrow. Today I’d like to talk very quickly about double-tracking acoustic guitars.

All the reasons that you might double electric guitar parts can apply equally to acoustic guitars parts: you could do it to provide width, to blend different voicings of the same chords, or to blend the tones of two different instruments to create a sound that wouldn’t be obtainable any other way, and so on. The practice of mass acoustic overdubbing is somewhat rarer than it is with electric guitar parts, though, which might be for no other reason than the fact that it’s more difficult to do well.

Acoustic guitar is an extremely percussive instrument. When you record two of them (whether you personally record two parts or the two guitarists in your band record one track each), it becomes very important that the two parts are in time with each other and in time with the snare drum. The further out the strums are, the more the ear is likely to hear them as flams. This can get distracting for the listener pretty quickly.

If you’re undeterred, though, here’s a couple of tips. Blending a standard-tuned part with an open tuned part can be fun. Imagine using one of the C tunings I talked about yesterday in the context of a song where the main progression is something like C/dminor/aminor/G: you can create a rich, resonant blend that wouldn’t be possible from two standard-tuned parts, really taking advantage of the drone strings and the low C bass. And of course, the effect of this will be even greater if the open-tuned part happened to be played on a twelve-string.

Another tip, particularly if you don’t want to get involved in open tunings, is to use a capo to track a second part using different chord shapes to the first part. Take the progression from the previous paragraph. How about putting a capo on the third fret and playing A / bminor / f#minor / E? Yeah, that’s right: it’s the same sequence as the guitar is sounding a minor third higher than concert pitch because of the capo. Once again, this can be used to create a tone, a richness of sound, that simply can’t be drawn out of one instrument. Again, if one of these parts is played on a twelve-string, the effect is amplified still further.

All of these ideas are time-honoured, copper-bottomed arrangement techniques that have been around for decades. I’d like to be able to tell you who did it first in order to give them their due credit, but I simply don’t know who we have to thank. So give them a go yourself, practice until you can double acoustic parts tightly (there’s no shortcut: you have to earn it through hard work, I’m afraid), and then go crazy in a 1971 George Harrison, All Things Must Pass stylee.

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George, contemplating another guitar overdub

Things to do with a twelve-string guitar, part one

OK, so you’ve got yourself a twelve-string guitar, so you’re obviously willing to suffer for art. That’s a good starting point. But what if you’re actually a crazy masochist and want to go beyond strumming chords in standard tuning?

Here’s a couple of tuning ideas for you.

One, CGDEAD

This is my favourite tuning. In fact, it’s my de-facto standard tuning. My main six-string acoustic is left in this all the time, pretty much, and has been set up specifically to accommodate heavy-gauge strings and a low C. But it sounds great on a twelve-string too. One problem with twelves is that in standard tuning the high G string is prone to snapping, because it’s just a top E, tuned a minor third higher. This tuning gets round that by tuning the G string down to E and extends the overall range of the guitar downwards, by tuning the low E to C.

For a taste of what you can do with this, play this shape: x 0 0 3 2 0, low to high. That’s a G major. Now this shape: 0 0 2 3 3 2. That’s C major. You getting it?

Two, CGCDGC

Now we go lower. This is a less all-purpose tuning than the previous one. There are things that you can’t sensibly play in this tuning and it really only makes sense in C, A minor and maybe F. But you can get very droning and modal in this tuning if the mood takes you – I’ve used it to play Lady Margaret with my folk-rock band Carterhaugh: six minutes or so without any chord changes can be quite daunting, but this tuning lends itself very well to noodly modal explorations around a theme.

A chord shape or two? All right. Try this (C): 0 0 0 2 0 0. Or this less droney C major shape: 0 0 4 5 5 4. Here’s an A minor: x 2 0 2 0 0. Here’s an Fadd9: 5 5 0 3 0 0. And slide that up two frets for a G: 7 7 0 5 0 0.

More tuning madness tomorrow!

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Be bold with your tunings. You’ve nothing to lose but the skin on your fingers and hours you’ll never get back.