Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Light Before we Land – The Delgados

At best I get to play drums a couple of times a week, at a rehearsal and subsequent gig or studio session. And that level of activity isn’t constant. It ebbs and flows depending on what the artists I work with have going on, what I can fit in. In the past I’ve played daily, but where I live now, that’s not an option. Still, I’ve played more than enough to know what it sounds like to sit at a drum set and give the snare drum what for when it’s two feet away from your ears. I know how it responds to strokes of different power, what it sounds like when it’s played softly, or firmly, or with violent intent. Recordings of drums, by and large, don’t capture it. They can’t. Mix engineers can’t bring the full dynamic possibilities of the drum kit to bear on most pop or rock material and have it work. The dynamic range of the playing has to be constrained, in arrangement, execution, then mix. Same with the voice, which has – if anything – an even wider possible dynamic range.

So we get used to it and on occasion we have to reassure fellow musicians that what seems an overpoweringly loud pattern we’re playing on the bell of the ride will sound very different in a mix than it does in the rehearsal room. We live with the more or less frequent disappointment that comes from yet another recording that doesn’t sound like we know a drum kit sounds.

But fashions in mixes change, and there have been periods in mix fashion where engineers have got close, and other periods where representing that sonic reality never seemed to be on the agenda at all. We lived through an example of the latter about ten years ago, starting in around 1999 and continuing for five years or so before it levelled off very slightly (it’s still a very dark era in the history of recorded sound).

By the early noughties, with credits on Weezer’s Pinkerton, Mogwai’s Come On Die Young, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Dave Fridmann had become a big-name producer, something of an indie-rock Trevor Horn. The sound he had deployed on the latter two records was immediately identifiable, and made those who valued transient energy in drum performances despair. As a result of what’s often called the Loudness War – broadly, the attempt by bands to have their records be louder than those of their competitors, principally through the use of digital brickwall limiting, in both the mixing and mastering processes, and often in recording too – which began in earnest in the mid-late-nineties, snare drums no longer went ‘blap’; they went ‘wap’ instead. Bass drums became muddier and more indistinct as their transients were brutally lopped off in the quest for ever-louder end product. But Fridmann’s work was something else again, so removed from a realistic representation of a drum kit played in a room that it was almost funny. Except when it was being deployed on records I cared about.

Having seen them at the Union Chapel in 2000, I can attest first-hand to how majestic the Delgados’ music was around the time they released The Great Eastern, similar in its sweep and ambition to that of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, but more intimate, grounded in observation of people and emotions, rather than wide-eyed, faux-naif magical realism. The Great Eastern was big – bigger perhaps than it needed to be – but its follow-up Hate was an atrocious-sounding record, big but thin and fatiguing to listen to due to its sheer wearying RMS levels and accompanying digital distortion. A complicated record full of ugly emotions demanded a subtler treatment than it received.

One song works, though. There have been occasions in Fridmann’s post-Soft Bulletin era (after the near-universal criticism of the sound of At War with the Mystics in 2006, Fridmann did dial down his worst excesses) when his approach coincided with the right material. His oafish work on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods is a perfect fit for the material and the aggressive commitment the band brought to it. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way, although I can’t listen to it on headphones for more than a song or two at a time. It also, and I have to assume it was by accident, fit the opening track from Hate, The Light Before we Land, which is almost a parody of Fridmann’s production and arrangement tricks: choir, strings, distorted percussion, monstrously overblown low end, furious clipping and digital distortion, unidentifiable sound effects. It shouldn’t work, it should overwhelm what is in mood a small song, but through some kind of alchemy it’s glorious. I can hear in it what Fridmann seemed to be going for, and it makes me wonder why he so frequently missed the mark.

 

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Indie heroine: Emma Pollock

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Sonic criminal: Dave Fridmann

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Luv n’ Haight – Sly & the Family Stone

In 1969, the outrageously talented multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart, was one of the most celebrated figures in popular music. His band had triumphed at Woodstock, their seemingly warm-hearted, outward-looking psychedelic soul making even Motown seem old hat and forcing them to change their game and turn increasingly to the visionary producer Norman Whitfield. Their late-sixties hits, calling for love, peace, understanding and integration, were made all the more powerful by the mere sight of Stone and his band on stage: they were both multi-racial and multi-gender in an era where such things were extremely uncommon. 1969, remember, was the year of Kent State and just one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

But by 1971 Sly Stone had retreated to a very strange headspace. Holed up inside an LA mansion belonging to John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, Stone sacked half of his band (the white members, supposedly at the insistence of the Black Panthers, but also master bassist Larry Graham, upon whom Stone apparently took out a contract), surrounded himself with goons, dealers, pimps and hookers, and haphazardly set about making what would be his masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Recording was undertaken at the Record Plant in Sausalito near San Francisco, in a room Stone had had installed there for his own use. Progress was glacial, with Stone playing much of the record himself, or inviting guests in at the expense of his bandmates (Bobby Womack, for example, is much in evidence on guitar), cutting tracks and recutting them, over and over. The protracted nature of the recording took its toll on the master tapes, and they completely lost their high end through wear and tear. The resulting murk – in a happy accident – suited his new material perfectly, the cracked and paranoid deep funk shocking those enamoured of his outward-looking pop hits.

Family Affair was the album’s most enduring hit (its only hit). But it’s not exactly representative. Riot is not an album of expansive, memorable melodies. Family Affair is one of the few songs to let a bit of light in. For the most part, it’s an intensely claustrophobic album; Christgau nailed it when he called it ‘Despairing, courageous, and very hard to take’. These days, Luv n’ Haight – the album opener – seems to me the most crucial track: all that Riot is, is contained in its churning groove and airless (literally – the mix is dry as a bone) swirl of vocals and wah-wah’d guitars.

 

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Sly, with Telecaster, 1969

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)

‘Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting’, allegedly

Ted Gioia’s Daily Beast jeremiad has generated a lot of eye rolling from a significant section of music fans and writers. That’s not unexpected. It’s pretty much deserved, too. If you’re going to call out the entire critical community for not doing the job of criticism, which is a serious accusation to level, define your terms and name some names. Rule number one of engaging with a piece of work is to do so on its own terms. So who are these publications and critics who should be talking about form and technique but aren’t? Why should they? Just because Gioia wants them to? Did they used to? Why did they stop? When?

It is true that lots of critics don’t talk about form, technique, structure, harmony, production. But many of the biggest names in popular music criticism never did (when did Christgau or Marcus ever talk chord progressions?). Others have engaged in more, shall we say, musicological criticism, and managed to do so for a non-specialist audience. Critics, like all music listeners, hear music in many different ways.

The internet shapes much of what goes on in the world of paid criticism, and the issue, if issue there be, here is what Chris Ott as identified as the churn: the demand placed on writers to fill a website structure every day, or every week (as Ott points out, the need to do this is ad sales-driven). Five movie reviews, 10 record reviews a 1000-word thinkpiece on something vaguely relevant to whatever story has been capturing attention in the last day or so, over and over. It takes a very special talent to say anything worthwhile about a record in 500 words when you’ve heard it just a few times, a half-dozen at most. Few critics do it well. Few ever did, truth be told. As publications are desperate to beat their rivals and get their review of a big new release up on their site before their rivals do, this problem is liable to get worse before it gets better.

But the internet gives tremendous space to writers that do have something to say, and there are loads of good writers out there with distinctive voices and opinions and ways of hearing music. Some of them are professionals, some former professionals, some strictly amateur. Not all of them are writing about contemporary music (many of my favourites – which include Chris O’Leary, Tom Ewing, Marcello Carlin, Maura Johnston, Nitsuh Abebe, Bob Stanley – write about older music mainly, allowing them time and perspective on what they’re talking about) and not all of them discuss form. But there are, as we have said, myriad ways to engage with music: you can link it to its context in chart history, as Ewing does; to broader trends in music in both pop and semi-pop contexts, as Stanley does so well; you can place it in the context of an artist’s body of work as O’Leary is doing with his retrospective of the entire David Bowie oeuvre (and it’s a truly magnificent achievement). Some can even, like Marcello Carlin and O’Leary, do all three while also being able to discuss harmony, melody, modulation, syncopation, production and any number of words that – whisper it – don’t mean much to non-trained, non-practicing musicians.

I’m well aware that most of the time I’m not writing for the broadest audience. I’m a musician myself so much of what interests me in music is at the level of form and technique. I tend to assume others might feel similarly. I try to explain specialist terms where I think it necessary, and I assume a knowledgeable, curious and intelligent audience. There are writers all over the internet doing the same, writing, analysing and criticising as well and as poorly as they always have done. I don’t know exactly who or what Mr Gioia was reading before he wrote his Daily Beast article, but if he doubts the vitality and usefulness of contemporary music criticism, perhaps he should read more widely. And more deeply.

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Article about music criticism – contractually obligated photo of Lester Bangs

Chad Channing, honorary Hall of Famer; on Nirvana’s other drummer not being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I’ve avoided talking about Nirvana on this blog this week. Every other site on the internet was running deep-and-meaningful Kurt Cobain retrospectives, and I didn’t want to seem like I was doing it just to get clicks. It’s hard for me to write sensibly about Nirvana, anyhow – more than any other band, it was Nirvana that made me pick up the guitar, play music, write songs. It’s because I heard Nirvana when I was, what, 12 or 13 that I’ve spent twenty years playing music, thinking about music and studying music. I can’t condense all of that into 500 or 1000 words. Every time I try it defeats me No, they’re not the best band that’s ever been, but their music was the catalyst for me. I don’t know where I might have channelled my energies if I hadn’t have been blown away by Smells Like Teen Spirit in high school. Possibly I’d be more employable.

The only way I can write about them is to go small, stick to one little issue. So here’s a post on Chad Channing, who wasn’t inducted with Nirvana to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Of course the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is unnecessary. Music fans create their own pantheons, and that’s absolutely as it should be. A surprising (to me) number of my favourite artists are in it, but an important minority are not, never will be. It’s nice when they recognise people I think are really important, and it doesn’t bother me when they don’t. The R&RHoF was founded by Ahmet Ertegun. He may have been a singularly smart businessman, but he also never stopped being a music fan, and so on the whole the HoF does a reasonable job of spotlighting the greats, even the less well-known, less commercially successful ones, and they’re pretty canny about who they pick as representative of ‘Rock and Roll’ (Popular Music Hall of Fame would have been an apter choice of name), revealing Gene Simmons as the unimaginative, dunderheaded bigot he obviously always has been. It’d have been nice to see him and his lame-ass band permanently excluded, just for Simmons’ reaction.

Inductions of band with multiple line-ups, though, is a genuinely tricky issue. Very awkward with Blondie a few years ago. No induction, too, for the Bobs – Welch and Weston – from Fleetwood Mac in 1998 (although gratifyingly the late sixties guitar trio of of Green, Kirwan and Spencer were all inducted). Inductions for vocal groups such as the Drifters, for whom Wikipedia lists 27 past or present members, are even more difficult for the Hall of Fame to cope with. The last few weeks saw a lot of back and forth over whether Chad Channing would be inducted with Nirvana. Channing was, by many counts, Nirvana’s fourth drummer. But let’s keep it simple. Dave Foster and Aaron Burckhard never recorded with the group. They’re out. Dan Peters (on loan from the then-on-hiatus Mudhoney) cut one song with them. The same as Andy White did with the Beatles. Anyone want to see Andy White added to the list of Beatles members? No? OK, Dan Peters is out too, then. Which leaves Dale Crover, Chad Channing and Dave Grohl. Crover toured with Nirvana, recorded with them too, but always on the understanding that it was a side gig; his day job was with the Melvins. Others would make a case for him. Being more hard-headed, I wouldn’t.

Channing, though, he should have gone in. It was very tough on him not to include him. He played on the majority of Bleach and a bunch of non-album tracks that ended up on Incesticide and on the With the Lights Out box set, 21 in total by my count (although I’m no completist and there may well be a bunch more I don’t know of). That’s a greater number than any drummer barring Dave Grohl. So in the absence of a proper induction for Channing, it was cool of Grohl to spend a minute of his speech talking about Chad, drawing people’s attention to the fact that a lot of the drum parts he gets most credit for are actually performances of parts that Channing devised. He handled a difficult situation gracefully, and I find it kind of hard to believe that he or Novoselic had a hand in Channing’s exclusion.

So, Chad Channing, honorary Hall of Famer, then. Let’s get a handle on him by taking a look at some of his parts.

In Bloom
I’ve been telling people for years that In Bloom was a Chad Channing drum part played by Dave Grohl. OK, Grohl might have played it tighter and more powerfully, but credit where it’s due. Bootlegged versions of the Smart session (also known as the Sheep session, recorded in Madison, Wisconsin, with Butch Vig, before Grohl joined the band) are out there if you want to hear them. Channing plays very well.

It’s an intriguing part. The hats are played in 16th notes, the kick mirrors it with its stuttering two-beat pattern at the start of each bar of the verse, while the snare is in quarters. In effect, the right hand and right foot are continually pushing the song forward, while the left hand pulls it back. Channing’s also responsible for the mighty tom fills in the intro (16th notes again) and for the inspired 8th-note triplet snare rolls in the choruses. Grohl brought the mighty snare roll (a full bar of 16th-notes) that takes the song into the chorus to the party – in Channing’s version, it’s only half the length, so the part is somewhat collaborative, but basically it’s Chad’s.

It’s a truly iconic part among drummers. The song would be immediately identifiable to most listeners from the drums alone. That’s a really hard trick to pull off while also playing for the song and refraining from showboating. But everything about the drums on this track is integral to the overall effect. For this alone, I’d have seen Channing inducted with the rest of the band.

School
There’s already bootleg footage of J Mascis sitting in with the surviving members of the band on this one the other night. It’s great.

School is typical of Channing’s playing on Bleach: loose, swinging and full of little details. He had a behind-the-beat style, sometimes at odds with the playing of Krist Novoselic, who’s more likely to ahead of the beat than behind it, but it’s all part of the signature feel of the album, which is claustrophobic and heavy in an oddly precarious way, like it might come apart at any moment.

School is not a simple part. After a 16th-note verse, with two kick patterns that alternate, bar by bar (and which Channing played with a double pedal, I think, although Grohl used to play it with a single pedal), the savage switch to a half-time feel would defeat many drummers. Channing switches to it via a triplet snare roll – a good choice for such a big change. His Bonham-esque whole-kit roll halfway through each chorus is a highlight, as is his increasingly frantic playing in the song’s middle section, before and during Cobain’s guitar solo. Not coincidentally, the tempo begins to speed up wildly here. It’s not particularly controlled, but it’s hugely exciting.

Negative Creep
More double-kick fun in this one. In truth, I’m not a big fan of double kick playing generally. Too often it tends to lead a sort of martial stiffness, leaving the music very straight and rigid. Negative Creep is not rigid. Channing didn’t base his whole style on double kick. He used it for little touches in grooves that otherwise could have been played with a single pedal (Grohl adapted the part, missing out the mini rolls on the kick). It’s cool and quietly inventive.

Between Channing’s galloping kick drum, and Cobain’s increasingly hysterical vocal, it once again sounds like it’s about to fly off your turntable at any moment. But that’s part of its charm. The abandon was a key part of what attracted a lot of people to this band.

 

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Nirvana, 1989, l-r Kurt Cobain, Jason Everman, Chad Channing, Krist Novoselic

You’re Not the Only One I Know – The Sundays

It’s spring. Springtime means jangle.

I do a lot of my music listening on the way to and from other places (work, chiefly), on an iPod. Certain times of year tend to push me in the direction of specific artists and styles of music. I always seem to have a period of intense British-folk-revival listening in the autumn (see here, here, here, here, here, and here); shorter days, colder nights, crisper mornings and teeming rain just seem to suggest jazzy folk-rock to me and then only double basses, fingerpicked guitars and woody low-tuned drums will do.

In the spring, I tend to find myself listening to lighter, airier music – no coincidence, that, I’m sure – and so I always seem to end up spending a couple of weeks revisiting the Sundays. This year is no exception. They’ve scarcely been off my iPod all week.

Partly it’s a matter of the sound fitting the moment. Brisk tempos, jangly guitars, melodic bass, near constant 16th notes on the hi-hat from drummer Patch Hannon – I feel like I’ve needed this airiness and forward momentum to get me through the week. But there’s more to it than that. Most characteristic of the Sundays’ music – particularly on their debut, Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (which is, among many other things, a pun on their hometown of Reading) – is a sense of potential, and spring is all about potential, rebirth, what might happen.

The Sundays were a young band, recent graduates, in 1990 when R, W & A was released. Harriet Wheeler and guitarist David Gavurin had met at university, and written many of their early songs there. It shows. I Won is about the politics of flatsharing. The now-famous chorus of Here’s Where the Story Ends (‘It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes my eyes feel sore/And I never should have said the books that you read were all I loved you for’) is archetypal student-in-love stuff. You’re Not the Only One I Know will for ever sound to me like the song of a slightly lost undergraduate, too proud to ask for attention from someone they like or admit that they might be floundering, if only a little, in this new and unfamiliar world.

My own university years were pretty trouble-free, and while I had friends who went through the mill a good bit more, no matter how rough times may seem when you’re going through this stuff the key thing about being 20 is that you’ve got nothing but time ahead of you. Basically nothing you can do at that age is irrevocable; nothing can’t be fixed in the nearish future. That knowledge – and I think we all do know it even as we go through it – lends a different character to our experiences, and if we happen to write songs, a different character to our writing too. A woman in her late forties singing, ‘It’s perfectly fine to sleep in a chair from Monday till Saturday, and what is so wrong with talking out loud when I’m on my own?’ would come off very differently to the way it does when Wheeler sang it on You’re Not the Only One I Know in 1990. The song recognises this, plays on it. It’s aware that, left unchecked for too long, this kind of willed isolation could lead to a life that is no life at all, but just for now, it is perfectly fine.

It’s a lovely song, the saddest, most doubt-filled moment on a record that is otherwise confident and animated by the promise of tomorrow. The Sundays were not particularly sonically adventurous and their early music doesn’t seem to have too many reference points other than the Smiths and the Cocteau Twins, but this song adds another element to the usual sound: a melodic bassline from the Peter Hook school, played with a pick and a lot of chorus in Hookian fashion. It’s this sound – brightly strummed guitars, subtly addictive 16th-note drums*, sinuous basslines – that brings me back to the Sundays whenever the days get longer and brighter, but its the quality of their songs and the idiosyncratic moods they create that keep me listening over and over again.

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The Sundays, early 1990s

*I can never decide how much of the drumming was programmed. I suspect at least a few songs were: the drums on I Won sound a lot more live than the ones on, for example, Can’t Be Sure. But Here’s Where the Story Ends and You’re Not the Only One I Know? Still can’t decide. Hannon could play these songs live, no sweat, so could have been live, but they are remarkably consistent, and a little hemmed in, in a way that could easily be programmed.

Sulky Girl – Elvis Costello & the Attractions

It doesn’t sound like an oldies band. I couldn’t believe it when they cranked up behind me.

Elvis Costello

Sulky Girl was the UK single from Brutal Youth, the 1994 Elvis Costello album that reunited him with the Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and, rather surprisingly, bassist Bruce Thomas (surprisingly because Bruce and Elvis had famously not got along for some years by this point, with Thomas’s 1990 memoir and its unflattering portrait of Costello a key source of friction). Fans were delighted, critics were split on its merits (too long, said many) but, significantly, it got Costello back in the public eye in a way he hadn’t been for some time. He’d had a heavily bearded wilderness period around the time of 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, and 1993’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, hadn’t exactly thrilled a lot of old fans of his spleen-venting late seventies output either. In an era when lots of mainstream music was relatively raw and unvarnished and a significant majority of bands openly looked to the past for their inspiration, younger listeners were potentially receptive to veteran artists if they could make a record that sounded alive and vital. With Sulky Girl making number 22 (his first top 30 single in 10 years), Costello even got back on Top of the Pops, singing a spirited live vocal over a pre-recorded radio edit while the band mimed dutifully along.

I was one of those young listeners, having never previously given a thought to Elvis Costello one way or another in my 12 years. I’m sure I knew who he was, may have known a song or two other than Oliver’s Army (Watching the Detectives, possibly), but he wasn’t on the radio all that much, he wasn’t someone either of my parents liked, so I didn’t know anything about him. But he was right in his assessment – this didn’t sound like an oldies band. The compilation album I had with Sulky Girl on it contained nothing else with as much energy, not even from the youngsters (Blur, Oasis, Suede – this was 1994, after all).

Sulky Girl has most of the hallmarks of a classic Elvis Costello tune, both the good and the bad. Starting with the bad, the lyric is considered but perhaps not quite as clever as it would like – ‘He’ll pay for the distance between cruelty and beauty’ is a terrible way to close the final verse, contorting both the previously established rhythm of the line and the natural cadence of the word ‘beauty’. Hard to know what he was thinking with that one. And while the sulky girl does come off better than other women in EC tunes – she is unambiguously portrayed as the intellectual and moral superior of men she encounters, and of her family too – Costello can’t resist a final section, telling her that, unlike everyone else, he sees through her.

Still, Costello is usually at his best when he’s telling someone else what they’ve done wrong, and the band do everything possible to drive him along, to wind him up further. Pete Thomas, a real drummer’s drummer, plays a particular blinder in this respect. His verse groove (half-time feel, tom on the backbeat, filtered/distorted by Mitchell Froom – or possibly the groove is the combination of a loop and some live drums from Thomas) is nicely atmospheric and ominous, promising an explosion, which duly comes with an eighth-note build-up on snare and floor tom under the final line of the verse, taking us into the chorus.

Thomas’s snare drum, as it is on most of the album, is undamped and ringy (this same snare sound is beloved by fans of reggae and hated by fans of Metallica). It’s never going to be appropriate for everything but that unruly sound is perfect for Sulky Girl and adds another dimension to Thomas’s energetic fills, which are a career highlight, particularly the ones in the first bridge: ‘It’s like money in the bank [good fill] Your expression is blank [great fill] But when the chance appears [really great fill]…

Thomas has a fantastic feel throughout the song, animating even the sections when he’s merely playing two and four in a supporting role. He’s right in the middle of the beat, powerful and authoritative, never sounding rushed and never sounding lazy either. What’s really impressive though is that he can do this on any song, at pretty serious tempos, when other drummers would lose their form and get inconsistent. His explanation of his practice regime in Drum! magazine gives a clue as to how he does it:

I play eighth-notes with each hand for 20 minutes in unison. I like the idea of being balanced and ambidextrous even though I never actually do it. I do eighths counted out to 100. Then I do a shuffle in unison. Then I play double paraddidles, triple paradiddles, then triplets – three on each hand. Then single-stroke rolls, another 100. If I have a demo of the song I am going to record, I set the metronome to the song’s tempo and practice everything at that tempo. Then when it comes to fills in the session I don’t rush. It makes me more confident.

I also use that as a warm-up exercise, three times a day: when I awake, at lunch, and before the show. I don’t always want to do it, but when I hit the stage I don’t get that awful feeling, like, ‘My arm doesn’t want to play this!’ I hate that worse than anything. With Elvis it’s one song quickly into the next, often five fast ones in a row, so I can’t have any cramping.

While he is well known for busy playing and some iconic fills (Watching the Detectives; I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea, with its Mitch Mitchell quotes; Radio Radio), it’s Thomas’s backbeat placement that’s key to his greatness, and a major part of what I think made the song stand out to me as a kid. He was on similarly solid form on Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 (Junk Bond Trader, Can’t Make a Sound, and my favourite, Wouldn’t Mama be Proud), which is where I first had the opportunity really to study him, and became aware – listening to the difference between Smiths sketchy playing on, say, LA and Thomas on Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud – of what difference a great drummer can make when they simply play for the song. But when I want to hear Thomas show off a little bit, Sulky Girl is what I put on.

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Pete Thomas