Monthly Archives: July 2013

Don’t Let It Bring You Down – Neil Young

Each of Neil Young’s first five solo records (Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Goldrush, Harvest and Time Fades Away) reveals a different side to Young and his songwriting, and taken in totality they point to all the paths he’d explore in the future. Well, nearly all: there’s nothing at this stage that predicts Trans, on which Neil and Crazy Horse attempt to do Kraftwerk.

Of that initial burst, After the Goldrush and Harvest are the two most similar records – predominantly acoustic, with songs that are mainly concise (no 12-minute guitar jams). But the two albums have, in fact, significant differences in attitude, arrangement and feel. Harvest is a big-budget studio record with expensive Nashville session players and the London Symphony Orchestra. After the Goldrush was largely recorded in Young’s makeshift home studio in Topanga Canyon with a four-piece band: Young on acoustic guitar, Ralph Molina from Crazy Horse on drums, Nils Lofgren (long-time sideman for Young and Bruce Springsteen) on piano and Greg Reeves (Motown and James Brown) on bass. It’s spare, raw and dry: no echo, no delays, no solos, no frills. It takes a lot of confidence in your songs to resist the temptation to fill them up with stuff (and god knows there’s a lot of choices you can make if you’re in a maximalist, more-is-more kind of mood), but it’s been a very long time since Neil Young’s been short of confidence in himself and his art. The French horn on the title track is the only lead instrument, and one of the few overdubs. Even the cuts that were recorded in real studios* with extra musicians (Stephen Stills, Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, Jack Nitzsche) sound lo-fi and sparse.

After the Goldrush is the record where Young starts singing like the public expect Neil Young to sing, pitching his vocals up to the top of his chest range, and starts writing the songs that are most closely associated with him by casual listeners rather than Young fanatics: After the Goldrush, Don’t Let it Bring You Down, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Southern Man (to which Sweet Home Alabama was written as a response).

My personal favourite is Don’t Let It Bring You Down. I love how integrated it is; Young has a really impressive knack of making his guitar and the piano feel almost like one instrument, while at the same time making the guitar and the drums feel like one instrument; a lot has been said about Young’s noise-mongering electric guitar playing, but not nearly enough about his skill as an acoustic rhythm player. I love the rhythm of the chord changes in the intro (One, two, three, One, two, three, four, five).

Most of all though, I love how naked this song is, how much presence it has. When I listen to it, the spatial and temporal distance between him there and then and me here and now are dissolved and I’m there in that Topanga Canyon basement while Young sings in his fragile tenor and Ralph Molina bangs his cardboard drum kit.

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Neil Young, early 1970s, with a Strat this time

*After the Goldrush figures prominently in the promotional hoopla for Dave Grohl’s Sound City movie. I haven’t seen it yet, so I would guess that perhaps After The Goldrush was mixed at Sound City, as McDonough is pretty clear in Shakey that Birds, Oh Lonesome Me, I Believe in You and When You Dance I Can Really Love were tracked with Crazy Horse at Sunset Sound, and the rest were recorded at the home-studio sessions.

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More Than This – Roxy Music

I want to talk about this song’s drum track. When the Great Paul Thompson (as his fans called him) left Roxy Music in 1980, Bryan Ferry, possibly at the suggestion of producer Rhett Davies, did what most musicians in his position would have done: he called in a session player or two to fill the gap. On 1980s Flesh & Blood, one of those players was Andy Newmark. On Avalon, two years later, Newmark would drum on eight out of the album’s ten songs.

It’s hard to go wrong with Andy Newmark. If a drummer’s good enough for Sly Stone (Fresh), John Martyn (One World), John Lennon (Double Fantasy), Laura Nyro (Season of Lights) and Randy Newman (Good Old Boys), he’s good enough for you.

He’s a magnificent player, but seldom a showy one, and his work on More Than This is as unshowy as it gets. A mid-tempo groove, slightly on the brisk side, two and four, bass drum in quavers, no big fills – this is a drummer playing for the song, with just a few interjections (mainly on tom-toms, and short press rolls going into choruses), to make the track his own. Newmark’s judgement about how much to play is perfect, although it’s worth noting that his gig was to come in when the songs had been all but finished, with full arrangements built up over programmed Linn Drum patterns, and either augment or replace the Linn groove. Although playing to pre-recorded songs necessarily puts the drummer in a different position than most are used to – partly because the amount of available space in the arrangement is decided for you, but also because as in this situation the drummer isn’t the song’s engine, as the tempo is locked – it does provide unusual challenges, foremost among them being the insertion of a feel, something other than completely rigid, mechanically perfect eighth notes of unvarying velocity. How much you can swing against the track (a full arrangement, remember) and have the whole thing still work, well, that’s a big part of the game. And Newmark is a master at it.

Of course, session drummers had existed almost as long as there’d been a recording industry (and certainly since rock’n’roll bands started showing up whose songs and/or star quality ran ahead of their musical chops), but in the studio environment of the 1980s, the session drummer suddenly had this whole new avenue of work open up for them (it started with disco really, as consistency of tempo was a big deal in that style) – it wasn’t just about solo artists calling a drummer up to play on their record because they didn’t have a regular band.

The successful ones, like Newmark, adapted themselves brilliantly to this new environment. But evolution was forced on all musicians in the brave new world of automated consoles, polyphonic synths, drum machines, samplers and sequencers. This is a Roxy Music track where Bryan Ferry is dominant almost to point of elbowing out his bandmates completely. Phil Manzanera is present in the intro but is almost immediately pulled right back in the mix, and thereafter pops up now and then to play little variations around his main riff, and only returms in the long fade. Andy MacKay, meanwhile, plays all of seven notes throughout the whole song, all sustained, all easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Whether it was his choice, Ferry’s or Rhett Davies’s, it’s another admirably disciplined and selfless performance on what for my money is the finest song Ferry ever wrote and the best record Roxy ever made.

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Andy Newmark, one of the very, very best

Blossom Dearie

Late last year I snapped up a box set of Blossom Dearie’s Verve albums for a laughably small sum of money. Since when, I’ve found no other music as consistently rewarding. Compared to her, everyone else sounds gauche, boorish, overstated.

Blossom Dearie’s self-titled first American album (and her first for Verve) from 1957 is a straight-up masterpiece. A sterling set of songs, with fantastic accompaniment from Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Jo Jones, and her own elegant and lyrical piano-playing, it’s the highlight of a run of records containing hardly a single misstep.

It takes sky-high confidence to be as softly spoken as this. The danger for interpretive singers is the desire to go big, to make the act of interpreting visible (kind of like certain actors who indulge in capital-A ‘Acting’ – I won’t name names). Dearie never succumbed to this malady. She simply sang songs in her small, quiet voice, breathy, intimate, with just the merest hint of vibrato.

Dearie’s good-natured, witty music seems to come, in terms of attitude, from the pre-bop era. She wore her musical training and technical accomplishment as a pianist lightly, she had little interest in provoking or challenging her audience, and there was something about her singing that was often gently ironic, almost conspiratorial. Yet she was capable of great emotional depth too: just listen to her amazing recording of Someone to Watch Over Me (from My Gentleman Friend, 1961), a version all the more moving for the dignity with which Dearie admits her vulnerability. There’s no shortage of fine recordings of this song, but none moves me nearly so much as this one.

While there’s nothing as powerful as that recording on Blossom Dearie, that first record remains the best for those looking for a quick introduction to her music. It’s an acquaintance you really should make if you haven’t already; perhaps she wasn’t hip, but with Blossom Dearie the world becomes a cooler place.

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She’s cooler than you – Blossom Dearie, 1957

A slow week?

My apologies for the lack of posts. It’s not because of a lack of things to say. For a couple of weeks I’ve been planning a special Bass Week, and a special Drum Week, and a few standard posts on songs and stuff, as well as a long post on a two-part episode of St Elsewhere called Time Heals, and oh, loads of other stuff.

But this week I find myself busy as a bee with a very long to-do list.

Last week I got a new job, and next week I start said job. I’m going to be working a few days a week – as a copy-editor still – in London for a multinational internet media company in the travel, leisure and entertainment fields. So the plan is to move to London in the near future. Which means that this week I’ve begun flat-hunting while trying to prepare for next week and clear up all my outstanding editing work so I don’t start this new job while mired in a backlog of old work. I’m pretty good at time-management and prioritising workloads and such, but some things had to give and this blog is one of them, unfortunately, as I still wanted to do some musical stuff in the evenings as time allows.

I’m hoping to post something tomorrow once I get back from my south-London flat-hunting adventures. In the meantime, take care y’all.