Monthly Archives: August 2013

Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 2

So Mark Linkous retreated to his barn in Virginia to record Good Morning Spider. This time, there was no official engineer or outside producer. There was just him, David Lowery, Sophia Michalitsianos (Sol Seppy), Johnny Hott, Scott Minor, Melissa Moore and Steve McCarthy, under the direction of Linkous and Lowery, both of whom are credited with production.

The majority of the instruments on the album (guitar, bass, keyboards, samples, drum programming) were handled by these two, with Hott and Minor playing live drums on a couple of tracks, Michalitsianos playing cello, Moore playing violin and McCarthy playing pedal steel.

Yet Good Morning Spider sounds broadly similar to Vivadixie. More of the drum tracks sound and feel – and presumably were – programmed (which is easy enough to explain: drums are hard to record well, and drum sounds tend to reveal the character of the rooms they’re recorded in, which is not usually a good thing for those recording at home), but otherwise Spider and Vivadixie inhabit broadly similar soundworlds of multi-tracked distorted vocals, low-tech drum (machine) sounds and rickety keyboards.

Probably the most notable difference for me lies in the electric guitar sounds, which are drier on Spider than on Vivadixie, and in the placements in the mix of the drums and vocals, which is fairly consistent on Vivadixie and varies wildly from song to song on Spider. It is this that makes Good Morning Spider sound like a lo-fi record, despite being a record on a big label, made by a guy who had acquired some decent, if idiosyncratic, gear and was in no sense a recording novice (and who had another old hand there to help, in the shape of David Lowery).

Mixing engineers within the context of an album project tend to create mixes that have similar densities and in which the relative levels of bass and ambiance are consistent track to track. To a practiced mixer, this becomes second nature. They put the key elements of the track in the places that they feel they need to be and fill out the picture from there. This is why mixers seem to have distinctive sonic imprints; their work reflects the way they like to hear music and will tend to be fairly consistent from project to project, even with different artists.

Linkous and Lowery on Good Morning Spider mixed each song only in terms of itself, rarely (I would guess) referencing the others to check balances across the whole album, which is why the drums stick out miles on Maria’s Little Elbows and Cruel Sun and are completely buried by distorted guitars on Pig and Happy Man. It is this lack of a consistent balance, a sonic picture that changes from song to song, that makes Spider feel like a lo-fi record, although the instrument and vocal sounds aren’t always all that lo-fi in themselves. Big-label records don’t tend to sound like this, because very few audio professionals would ever mix like this.

But would it have been a better album if it had been mixed by Andy Wallace? That’s another question, for another day.

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Linkous on a stage with pedals

A cover I’ve recorded of Happy Man, a key track from Good Morning Spider:

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Laughing – R.E.M.; or, Bill Berry takes Peter Buck to the disco without Peter even realising it*

There’s so much I could say about one of my favourite tracks off one of my favourite albums of all time (Laughing, from Murmur, R.E.M.’s 1983 debut record), but as with Roxy Music’s More Than This a few weeks back, I’m just going to talk about the drum track.

There’s a line that Peter Buck’s spun off in a few interviews down the years, when talking about the bad advice R.E.M.’s members were given by well-meaning but clueless folks who thought they were being helpful. According to Buck, they’d tell the band they should get some disco drums on their records (and girls in bikinis in their videos, and so on). To which Buck would add as commentary something like, ‘Disco drums? On Murmur? Really?’ (A variation on this now well-worn Buckian riff is at the end of this interview here: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/rem-find-a-return-to-their-religion/story-e6freomx-1226015997695)

I always wonder what Bill Berry makes of this, if indeed he’s aware of it. For, like so many other drummers in the rock underground in the early 1980s, Berry spent half his time playing disco drums.

OK, for Buck’s benefit, and maybe some readers’, the standard rock drum part divides the bar into eight semi-quavers (8th notes), which are typically played on the hi-hats or ride cymbal. The bass drum is played on the one and the three (the on beats), the snare drum on the two and the four (the backbeats). Sometimes the bass drum is played on both one and one and a half, giving a distinctive ‘boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch result’ (which nowadays I can’t help but think of as the ‘Neil Young beat’).

If you switch to playing the kick on every crotchet, so you’re playing four bass drums to the bar (‘four to the floor’ as it’s often known), now you’re playing disco. You’re playing Billie Jean, Boogie Wonderland and Stayin’ Alive. That’s the rhythmic basis of all disco music. It might sound even more like disco if you play 16th notes on the hi-hats (alternating left and right hands) – now you’re playing Chic’s I Want Your Love and Odyssey’s Native New Yorker.

Bill Berry plays disco figures on three out of five of the songs on the Chronic Town EP (Wolves Lower, 1,000,000 and Stumble), on five of the songs on Murmur (Radio Free Europe, Laughing, Moral Kiosk, 9-9 and West of the Fields), on four of Reckoning‘s songs (Harborcoat, Pretty Persuasion (before the final verse), Letter Never Sent and Little America), and on two on Fables of the Reconstruction (Life and How to Live It and Can’t Get There From Here, although he gets surprisingly close, too, on on the ruminative, banjo-fied Wendell Gee). After 1985, disco figures almost entirely disappear from Berry’s drumming repertoire and R.E.M. became notably less light on their feet.

Berry used his disco licks cleverly. His favourite trick was to play disco during the verse and then get propulsively ‘rock’ for choruses. I don’t know whether he picked this up from bands like Wire and Gang of Four or whether it just came naturally to him, but it’s the defining rhythmic quirk of R.E.M.’s early work, much of which ranks as their best (my pick of the later records would be Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-fi, but really my heart belongs to Murmur and Fables.

Laughing deploys all of these tricks. The intro figure vaguely recalls Stewart Copeland (as do some of the reggaeish fills at the start of each verse) before settling into classic disco, with cymbal hits along with the snare drum on the two, giving displaced emphasis to the chord changes. A notable feature is how much space the three players give each other. Mike Mills – often doubling his bass part on single-note piano – defines the song’s chord structure while Buck plays double tracked arpeggios and Mills sustains his root note. It’s all very spare. Buck only starts stumming once Berry switches to a straight rock feel in the pre-choruses. Mills stays relatively sparse (once again) for the first pre-chorus, but second time around brings in a great walking pattern, to lead into the ascending line of the choruses (which again is doubled on piano, a recurring trick on Murmur).

After the middle eight, there’s a half-chorus, where Berry plays his ace: he sticks with four-to-the-floor disco, giving the chorus a whole different kind of movement than it had before. But his final move – and it’s a triumphant one – is to switch to the ride cymbal (from the hats) for the last line of the final chorus, lifting the song to its peak. It’s a masterclass in how to arrange a drum part and shows how well considered the rhythm tracks were on early R.E.M. records, compensating for Buck’s – at this stage – slightly limited guitar work.

As Buck became a more resourceful and more accomplished player, the rhythm section had to work less hard and their standout moments became fewer and further in between, although I remain very fond of Berry’s muscular drumming on These Days and The One I Love, Mills’s bass playing on Losing My Religion, the rhythm-section arrangement on Drive and the all-time career highlight How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us, from New Adventures. If you’re only familiar with R.E.M.’s later records and have always focused mainly on the contributions of Michael Stipe’s vocals and Peter Buck’s guitar, give their early records a listen and join me in doffing your cap to R.E.M.’s covert Mr Disco, Bill Berry.
Bill Berry

Bill Berry, Disco King

*I’m being somewhat glib. Peter Buck is, above everything else, a music fan. I’m sure he recognised a disco figure when he heard one. It’s just strange that, in the light of Berry’s heavy reliance on such techniques, Buck considered the suggestion that R.E.M. incorporate disco drums to be bad advice.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to some of my music:

Small Hours – John Martyn

If one were going to create a hierarchy of British folk guitar players, Davy Graham would have to be at the top, closely followed by Bert Jansch and Nick Drake, the former bluesy and jagged, the latter jazzy and flowing, both mysterious, elusive, romantic figures.

John Renbourn and Martin Carthy would follow hard on their heels, Renbourn always slightly in Jansch’s shadow because he didn’t write Needle of Death, Carthy always slightly undervalued, having not gained a younger following of rock and indie kids the way Drake and Jansch have.

John Martyn might be considered something else again, a capricious folkie who went to the bad, abandoning his jazzy, freewheeling, alcohol-fuelled collaboration with the peerless double bassist Danny Thompson to make albums with Phil Collins or in the mode of Collins’s ballads, all tinkling electric pianos and fretless bass. Certainly Sweet Little Mystery seems a long way off, and somewhat improbable, as you listen to his earnest take on Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright from debut album London Conversation.

Well, I love Nick Drake and Bert Jansch. Perhaps no other guitarist has had such an influence on the way I play music, write music and think about music as Drake. Jansch blew my mind when I heard Anji for the first time, and blew it again when I saw him play Blackwaterside live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, seeming determined to reshape the song entirely, or pull it apart in the attempt.

But John Martyn’s musical imagination, his ability to absorb and incorporate influences from outside the traditions he grew up in, his obvious love for all this music, his refusal to let himself get stuck – for all of this, no one beats John Martyn in my book. His musical imagination dwarfed Bert’s, it even dwarfed Nick’s. Would either of them have been able to throw themselves into playing reggae sessions in Jamaica and make themselves useful? Would either of them even have wanted to?

The ultimate testament to Martyn’s protean musical talents is to be found on One World, from 1977, an album produced by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, recorded by Phill Brown (whose CV is staggering but to pick just a few names: Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Little Feat, Talk Talk), and featuring Danny Thompson and Dave Pegg on bass, John Stevens and Andy Newmark on drums, Steve Winwood on everything (but most notably on synth), Rico on trombone, and Lord Rockingham himself, Harry Robinson, arranging strings.

(Harry Robinson was behind Hoots Mon. Harry Robinson arranged River Man. Harry Robinson is therefore a very good thing indeed.)

If One World were any ordinary album that started with Dealer and took in Big Muff (a Lee Perry co-write), Couldn’t Love You More and the title track, it’d be an album from which it’s hard to pick a highlight. But One World isn’t an ordinary album. One World finished with Small Hours, and Small Hours can bend time and distort space.

Picture a house almost entirely surrounded by water, a house on the edge of a disused gravel pit which had been flooded to become a lake. This was Chris Blackwell’s house, where One World was recorded. One of Phill Brown’s recording techniques for the album – at Blackwell’s suggestion – involved installing a large PA system outdoors and setting the monitor stacks up on the far side of the stables, pointing out across the lake, then using two microphones on the opposite side of the house, to mike up the outdoor PA sound coming back off the lake, and two more close to the water’s edge, to pick up the water lapping at the shore, as well as the distant, extremely ambient guitar sound coming from the PA.

It was this set-up that captured the otherworldly Small Hours, live vocals and all, early one morning in July 1977. Wave after gentle wave of Martyn’s Echoplex guitar lap at your speakers as a faint rhythm from a drum machine keeps time (turn it up, though, and feel what happens to the bass drum sound), until, three minutes in, Martyn’s tenor-saxophone voice slides in.

In a career filled with highlights (Fine Lines, Solid Air, Don’t Want To Know, Spencer the Rover, Angeline, So Much In Love With You, Head and Heart, so many more), Small Hours might just be his masterpiece. Ornery, aggressive and self-indulgent though he could be, no amount of praise and adulation from his fans and peers will ever be enough to do justice to the man and his extraordinary musical journey.

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John Martyn, 1973ish?

Some of the author’s own music

Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider; or less hi, more fi, part 1

The way country people kind of, being so isolated, they have to kind of improvise with things they have access to. I always thought that was a really admirable trait of country people, you know. I think that’s why a lot of music seems really boring and sterile to me now because a lot of it’s just, seems like most of its being made in LA or New York, or Seattle or whatever. And you have, you know, a guy who’s the engineer, and that’s his job, or a producer and his job is a lot of times to stand over the musicians and say – like standing over a painting and saying, you know, ‘Use green now!’ And one good thing about owning your own studio is that you’re not on the clock and you can experiment all you want, so this record was mostly done at home in Static King, alone, because I bought my own little baby studio.

Mark Linkous is Sparklehorse, Lotje Ijzermans, Lola da Musica, VPRO, 1998

Mark Linkous in 1998 was a man convinced of the upsides of home recording. His first album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, had been partly recorded at his own Static King studio in Virginia, but Dennis Herring had been on board as a producer and much of the work on the record was done at Richmond’s Sound of Music and Seattle’s Bad Animals, owned by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart (and a proper A-list studio in which virtually every major 1990s alt. rock band had logged time). The above quote makes it clear that working in this way, with Herring at least, was not an entirely happy experience for Linkous. We can reasonably infer he didn’t like taking outside direction from a producer, and he comes right out and says he didn’t like working to an externally enforced schedule. Maybe it’s going too far to suggest he was unhappy with the way his record had sounded, but nonetheless Good Morning Spider, Linkous’ second album as Sparklehorse, was entirely recorded at his own studio, which by now was a sixteen-track facility equipped with an arsenal of old, clapped-out and discarded equipment: organs, keyboards, samplers, drum machines, intercoms from a dentist’s office and a CB-radio microphone. Not lo-fi, in the hiss-ridden-Portastudio sense, but certainly not state of the art by the standards of the late nineties, and more than a little eccentric in equipment choices. Image
Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous)

A cover I recorded of Happy Man, the centrepiece track of Good Morning Spider:

Upcoming Board of Fun fanzine

Over the last couple of months, a new Board of Fun fanzine has been in its early stages. This time, the hook is that participating musicians are covering songs by artists who are sadly no longer with us. We’ve had a few submissions so far from reliable BoF Singles Club old hands, but we could use a couple more, if anyone out there is interest in submitting (particularly London-based folks who’d like to attend/play at the launch night). Let me know through the contact form on the About page.

There’ll surely be another post on this in the next few weeks.

Little Differences, Something New, Wave Upon Wave – The Board of Fun Singles Club

A few months ago I participated in the Board of Fun Singles Club project, contributing my song Little Differences. Yo Zushi made an arty conceptual video (which he had to explain to me, because I’m visually illiterate), and my good friend Christopher Martin (not the singer from Coldplay, but a far better singer who I’ve been playing music with since the Bronze Age) sang lead on the B-side, Can You Explain.

It’s been a few months since I rammed these down your throats, so I thought I’d just let newer readers know and remind older ones that these songs exist, and that they can be downloaded (for any price the downloader chooses, starting zero) from Bandcamp.

Previous Board of Fun Singles Club songs include Yo Zushi’s Something New and James McKean’s Wave Upon Wave. Some folks listening to Something New might twig that I had something to do with the recording!

Some thoughts on Tim Hardin

What did Bob Dylan do when we retreated to Woodstock after his motorcycle accident? Well, we know that he wrote and played with the Band, painted and edited Eat the Document, but what else might have been doing? I reckon he was listening to Tim Hardin.

Hardin, a marine veteran who had come back from Vietnam a heroin addict (and dealer; he brought back enough to make himself a tidy sum of money), was signed to Columbia in 1964 but was later dropped and picked up by Verve (best known for their strong jazz roster) in 1965, who released his first four albums, 1, 2, 3 Live in Concert and 4 on their Verve Folkways imprint. On these four records nearly all his best work is contained, and the first record in particular struck Dylan hard enough for him to proclaim Hardin the greatest living songwriter in an interview around 1966 or ’67.

It was an overstatement (anyone who wasn’t Dylan himself or Burt Bacharach or Lennon or McCartney had no business being cited as the greatest living songwriter in 1966), and until recent years Hardin has been reciprocally undervalued – one hears covers of If I Were a Carpenter and Reason to Believe relatively frequently, but Hardin’s own recordings never get played on the radio and he rarely seemed cited as an influence by contemporary writers. He should have been; he has much to teach a young writer. But now it seems that he is getting his due. Smoke Fairies, Okkervil River, Alela Diane and Mark Lanegan all contributed to a recent tribute album, and general interest in Hardin seems higher than at any point I can remember. It’s a little late, but it’s well deserved.

From the covers I’ve heard, though, there’s one, almost intangible, element missing. Hardin wasn’t just a fine writer and singer. He was a great recording artist. He had faith in his songs and felt no need to arrange them elaborately. When one considers the starkness of his work in the context of its time (the psychedelic mid-sixties), it can only properly be considered as revolutionary. Hardin, after all, was not really a folkie but a pop songwriter, albeit one with the confidence to speak quietly when everyone else was shouting. And as stark as they are, his records would have been more sparsely arranged still if Hardin had had his way, without any orchestral overdubs. Only some recording artists can communicate atmosphere (and not being able to do it doesn’t necessarily invalidate an artist’s recorded work); Hardin was a master at it. When I listen to a good Tim Hardin performance (and there are many but I think of Speak Like a Child and It’ll Never Happen Again most particularly), the spatial and temporal distance between him there and then and me here and now are dissolved and I’m there in the room with him while he sings in his sleepy baritone and picks his spare, syncopated acoustic guitar.

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