Monthly Archives: May 2014

I Want You – Marvin Gaye

I have a little theory to float about Marvin Gaye.

If What’s Going On and Trouble Man had turned Marvin into one of the most vocal social critics among mainstream black popular musicians (Marvin’s dissent, after all, paled next to that of Gil Scott Heron or Charles Mingus), Let’s Get it On saw him turn his energies once more to the carnal. His biographer David Ritz has suggested that Gaye’s most sexual works are also his most spiritual. Five minutes in the company of Here My Dear, Vulnerable or What’s Going On should be enough to dispel that as a ridiculous myth.

As for so many others in the seventies music industry, Gaye’s interest in sex was intimately bound up with his interest in cocaine. The very sound of the Marvin Gaye albums that are seemingly most concerned with sex – Let’s Get it On and the later Midnight Love (parent album to Sexual Healing) – give away the true inspiration behind them: not eros, and certainly not agape, but coke. Trebly, bright, cold and essentially hollow, they are competent, intermittently inspired, but not much more. Efficient and easy to admire, but hard to love.

There’s a difference in the voice and in the sound. When Marvin cared, it showed in the attention he lavished on his vocal arrangements and on the warmth of the instrumentation. Let’s Get it On (the single) in comparison to, say, What’s Going On (the single) sounds tinny, the bassist and drummer are seldom together, and the wah-wah guitar part is sketchy. After the famous opening lick, the guitarist quickly runs out of ideas; by the end of the song his playing is pure wibble. Compare this to the care taken over What’s Going On, which saw him scrap the original, perfectly good, Detroit mixes and start again in LA, honing the sound until he arrived at a finished product which is unquestionably one of the greatest-sounding records ever made. As the producer of his own work, Gaye could have worked harder and called for better takes from his players. Instead he kept the performances given to him, oversaw mixes that skimped on the bottom end (maybe to hide the looseness of the playing), and went on his way, presumably to get it on again.

I Want You is a curious album that occupies a middle ground between the two extremes, containing both the best and the worst of Marvin Gaye as an artist. The title track trumps Let’s Get it On and Sexual Healing by managing to be all at once a wracked love song, full of romantic and sexual desire, and a genuinely spiritual piece, with Marvin pleading for the soul and the body of his love, not just the latter. The vocal tracks are so dense with harmony and counterpoint that they almost bury the lead vocal, which paradoxically works in the song’s favour: Gaye’s pleading surges and recedes in intensity and audibility as he puts to use all of his registers: a close and intimate near-whisper, an airy falsetto and a strident, throaty wail. Gaye’s ability to multi-track his own voice, in different registers, is unparalleled in pop music (Prince did similar things, but he didn’t need to invent any of it). I Want You would be captivating if reduced to only the vocal tracks; a documentary I saw on Gaye did just that to soundtrack one section – it was absolutely thrilling. With the jagged lead guitar and the drum track, playing the snare on every other offbeat (creating a weird, stop-start effect that seems to switch the song into half-time every half a bar), added to Marvin’s voice, the song becomes undeniable.

The rest of the album, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the title track; although it has its moments, it’s second-division Marvin, with too few ideas stretched over too many minutes. Ian MacDonald’s off-handedly damning reassessment-cum-obituary characterised him as ‘a charming muddle who hadn’t much to say’ and bemoaned the ‘supine coke-fuck aesthetic that governs much of his work’. This was on the harsh side, but I share his reservations about this aspect of Gaye’s work. Further, his closing comment about Marvin’s inner world, ‘wherein ecstasy, melancholy and ennui were entwined in troubled complicity’, seems to me an accurate encapsulation of his music, and indeed this gets to heart of why he’s so fascinating, even when he was wasn’t, um, really trying.

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Marvin Gaye, troubled man

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The philosophy of music production: or, ‘portrait painting’ vs ‘photography’; and how this applies to Yo Zushi

There’s an analogy that used to be routinely employed when discussing music production philosophy – to painting and photography. Some producers, said this analogy, were like portrait painters, more interested in getting to the emotional truth of the subject than in presenting the most detailed and realistic possible depiction of them. Some painters (Lucian Freud, say), while still doing work that is clearly representational, move a long way into the realm of stylisation or expressionism, or even abstraction.

In music, some producers – goes the analogy – aren’t interested in documenting a real-time performance of a song but instead creating a sonic artefact of which a band’s original live performance (if there was one) is just a basic line drawing. Layers of overdubs can be employed, and any number of signal processors (equalisers, delays, echoes, reverbs, compressors, limiters, modulators, pitch correctors). Acoustic sounds can be, and are, routinely remade in the service of the overall work.

Other producers, goes the analogy, work more like photographers. The camera doesn’t lie; neither does the microphone. These producer-engineers set up microphones in a room and have the band play in front of them. And it’s true that early in the history of sound recording, this was the only way to make a record: musicians would be arrayed around a recording horn and, as sound waves travelled down the horn and moved a stylus, inscribing an ‘analogue’ of the sound wave into a wax disc, every record was a document of a single performance.

Since the advent of multitrack recording, this production philosophy has become less and less widespread, to the point of scarcely existing today. Even engineers famed for the liveness of their sound would probably admit that they create effects (such as a drum kit presented with a wide stereo field) that the listener couldn’t experience if they were in the room with a band during a performance.

But the analogy starts to break down here. It’s true that long after the recording engineer had 24 or 48 tracks to play with (and a potentially even greater number if bouncing tracks together), the photographer still only had one camera and a very limited palette of after-the-fact effects. But this is a long way from the reality today. Multi-camera rigs are, if not common, certainly far from unheard-of, and the same information theory that underpins the science of digital recording and mixing also allows for huge levels of post-production tweaking of photos.

It’s as well to assume when you see a photograph in a magazine today that fair amount of work has gone into editing and processing it after it was taken. Similarly, the vast majority of recordings you hear will have been layered from the ground up, likely with no live performance to use as a foundation. Many recordings don’t dissemble their artifice so much as advertise it boldly.

Some people, occasionally, make a record the old-fashioned way. Yo Zushi, for example. Over the last few years I’ve been working on and off with Yo on his songs, recording 20 or so them in that time. Recently, he picked a bunch of them to finish off and make into an album, and the new record will be coming out in July. On Thursday last, I played with him at his single-launch gig. The song in question, Bye Bye Blackbird, was a late addition to the album. It comes from a session we did last autumn at One Cat in South London, with the excellent Jon Clayton engineering. Yo was enamoured of a couple of songs we’d recorded where his basic guitar track had been recorded live while I or Dave Brown (Lazarus & the Plane Crash) played drums. He wanted to do more like this, but take it further, go properly old-school in approach.

We put together a band (Kit Joliffe on drums, James McKean on guitar, me on bass) and went to One Cat to record live, all together, in the room. This was very different from most sessions: recording drums in the same room as acoustic guitar is a scary process, because drums get everywhere. If you solo the guitar tracks, Kit’s performance is clear as a bell.

When it came time to mix, the possibilities open to me for independent processing of channels was limited by the amount of bleed. Changing the guitar sound would change the drum sound and vice versa. The record, so to speak, mixed itself. Put the faders in a line, 90% of the mix is done. There are very few ways to change the balances without making the overall result sound worse. The vocals and lead guitar were overdubbed, I grant you, but the vocals were recorded as performances (the backing vox by James and Hana Zushi were done together) and the number of edits on the vocals is super-minimal by modern standards. There are no edits on the instruments. Not one.

One song from the session (Green Briar Shore, also on the album) even includes live vocals, recorded in the same room, at the same time, as the drums, acoustic guitars and bass.

Bye Bye Blackbird is not a photograph. But it’s just about as close as anyone ever gets these days.

Yes, this has been an 850-word plug.

Go here to hear Bye Bye Blackbird. Go here or here to download it. Go here to hear it played by Steve Lamacq on BBC 6 Music.

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Bye Bye Blackbird cover by Zoe Taylor

 

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At One Cat: l-r James McKean, me, Jon Clayton (seated, obscured), Yo Zushi, Kit Joliffe. Photo by Hana Zushi

Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime – Beck

The original Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime was by the Korgis, a group formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a 1970s prog band. The Korgis, then, in 1980 were a little too old, a little too bald, a little too paunchy for their new wave suits. They were far from the only group shedding their old fanbases and trading in student union worship for mainstream acceptance (at this point, Gabriel and Collins were already huge stars, Fripp was producing Daryl Hall and playing guitar for Bowie and Talking Heads; in two years Asia would have the best-selling album of the year). But still, even in times that were sympathetic to their cause, the Korgis were made to be forgotten. Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime hit big (number 5 in the UK, number 18 in the US) and still gets radio play, but no one remembers who made it, and everyone has their own favourite version, often not the original. The song, sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is nothing more than pastiche), is ideal for cover versions. It’s been done as breakbeat house by Baby D, as adult-contemporary dance-pop by Yazz and by Italian rock singer Zucchero (a typically over-the-top reading). The song is almost a blank canvas.

Beck cut it with Jon Brion for 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It starts out with him alone at the electric piano, singing in his deepest, most mournful register. The bass and electric guitars slide in almost unnoticed, joined by a drummer at the first chorus. The drums are muffled, damped, it’s very seventies. All the bells and whistles of the Korgis’ version (the delays and echoes on the piano and voice, the electric sitar playing the riff at the end of the chorus, the icy synths that play the three-note hook in the chorus) are gone: we get strings instead. The prankster Beck of 10 years before is nowhere to be seen. He’s playing the straightest of bats. He sounds invested in what he’s singing.

Jon Brion, it has to be said, lets the side down a little bit. Listening to this, it’s small wonder that Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple had ended their partnerships with him by this time – he’s on autopilot. The song’s said all it really has to say by around 2.30. But instead of wrapping things up, we get three minutes of The Jon Brion Show: every analogue keyboard, every guitar pedal, every fairground noise in his collection is pulled out of the cupboard and strewn over the studio floor. There’s not an idea here he hasn’t already worked over past the point of diminishing returns on Mann’s Bachelor No.2 and Apple’s When the Pawn… A carnival-esque soundworld was not what was called for here. Some attention to the mood of the song proper would have been infinitely more desirable.

I’m sure Beck had some input into the long instrumental coda, and he’d sung the song so well that that the record finishes with plenty of money in the bank. Perhaps, too, if you hadn’t heard Jon Brion’s other work, you could find his work here charming, or moving, or compelling. I find it a little bit redundant; it takes over and spoils the mood. Beck’s reading of the song, though, is excellent.

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This is Beck

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This is Jon Brion

Judith – Heather Duby

Let’s fast-forward 10 years from the heyday of the Pixies.

More cynical souls than me might deny that there ever was such a thing as an alternative rock movement, but if it ever did exist, by the late nineties it was done, and its signifiers – dirty guitars; long hair; a general, to quote Jack Endino, ‘loud intent’ – had been put to bed. Distorted guitars were now the preserve of nu-metal bands. Pointy guitars with Floyd Rose vibrato units were back. 7-string guitars were selling in thitherto unknown quantities. Light-grunge records still did pretty good business, but Pearl Jam aside, the big beasts of a few years before were all defunct.

Artists with one foot in singer-songwriter world and another in the world of alternative rock music who might, a few years ago, have looked to dirty up their music with a Les Paul and a Marshall, now looked to other means to add a bit of edge. And there are always other means. Dirty basslines and thumping drum loops were one way, some electronic flourishes, different textures. A little bit of what Soul Coughing were doing. A little bit like what Folk Implosion were doing. I don’t know who had the thought first, but suddenly these arrangemental ideas started turning up in all kinds of places. PJ Harvey’s A Perfect Day Elise and Smashing Pumpkins’ Ava Adore, for example, were pretty successful singles demonstrating a lot of these production tics, but they were far from alone. Electronica and big beat were big business, and presumed by rock writers to be much more forward-looking than the heavy guitars of a few years before, which were just updated Black Sabbath.

In 1998, then, ambient noises on top of a dirty groove seemed like alternative rock’s future, and it came about partly as a function of fashion, partly out of a development in technology. The year before, Digidesign had released the first 24-bit, 48-track iteration of their digital audio workstation (DAW), Pro Tools. Pro Tools had begun life in the late 1980s as Sound Tools, and at that time was only capable of handling a mono or stereo signal, but Digidesign’s ambitions for it had always involved it becoming a multitrack recording environment. The limitations of the era’s computers and audio convertors simply didn’t allow it yet. This new version of Pro Tools not only allowed direct-to-disk multitrack recording, but in-the-box mixing as well. As a fully fledged production environment, it was expensive – beyond the means of any home recordist who didn’t work as a Wall Street trader – but seemed to many pro musicians an obvious road to go down. And this started affecting the nature of the music you heard on the radio pretty quickly. Loops and samples started to replace live drum tracks on records at a rate of knots. After some years of frankly undanceable music, this wasn’t unwelcome.

Steve Fisk was Washington-based engineer, producer and musician. He’d been a producer on Soul Coughing’s second album, Irresistible Bliss and his own project Pigeonhed was in the same sonic ballpark. But he’d been active during the grunge boom years, too, engineering Nirvana’s Blew EP sessions, the Fopp EP by Soundgarden and much of the Screaming Trees’ SST-era output, as well as records by Girl Trouble, Negativland and Beat Happening. He had, in other words, been around a while and was a respected figure in the Seattle music scene.

So when he expressed an interest in working with Heather Duby, a young songwriter, still at college in Olympia, this was a significant break for her. It guaranteed her that influential local figures would hear the results, and pretty much ensured the record would get at least an indie-label release. When it did, it was on Sub Pop, a label trying hard to shake off its past and establish a new identity for itself.

Her first single was a song called Judith, and it exemplified almost all the trends we’d identified above: programmed drums, augmented by live drums for the choruses, spacey keyboards, soft, high-register vocals (the sort almost always described as ‘ethereal’ by hack writers) and a huge bass line, in this case an enormous, surging synth part in the choruses, double tracked and panned hard left and right, placing you right in the middle of it. It’s a pretty amazing moment the first time you hear it on a good pair of headphones.

The sonic world the parent album exists in – Post to Wire – is a weird mix of stuff that still sounds really cool and stuff that sounds very much of its time; the faux-fi crackle effect on A Healthy Fear of Monsters, for instance, is pretty risible, an example of what could be achieved very quickly with a couple of cheesy filter plug-ins, but would have been better off not achieved at all. You Loved Me’s low-register grind and lo-fi drum loop, however, sounds vital today, and For Jeffrey’s mix of eastern-sounding vocal harmonies, harmonium-style drones and tablas is still ear-grabbing.

The more gothic aspects of her music would recede over time and by the time of the Latency EP of January 2011, her music was a lot drier and closer, more organic-sounding and built on what seem to be live-band basic tracks. Judith remains an awesome single, and the moment when Duby’s songwriting approach meshed most seamlessly with Fisk’s production.

Sadly, Duby was involved in a bike accident in 2011 that seriously damaged both her hands and left her unable to play music. It could apparently have been a lot worse; her doctors were at one stage considering amputation. A benefit was held in Seattle to raise funds for treatment and physical therapy, but what information I could get online suggests she hasn’t yet been able to return to making music. Let’s pray that in time she can.

Update (23 January, 2017): The year after I wrote this, she did! Duby was credited with both piano and vocals, so it seems her injuries were repaired well enough to give her good use of her hands. Great news.

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Heather Duby, 1999

Pixies: Indie Cindy, Death to the Pixies, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and so on

Judge the artist by their best work. It’s only fair. In turn, artists might consider judging themselves by their worst work, or at least their average. It’s a good way to keep humble and looking to improve.

If you judge an artist by their best work, there’s no need to get upset about their current output if it’s a long way below their best stuff. I doubt I’ll ever hear more than a track or two off Indie Cindy, the new Pixies ‘album’ (a repackaging of three recent EPs). Bagboy was of no consequence to me, nor a decade back was Bam Thwok. I saw the Pixies movie a few years ago, thought it reflected pretty poorly on two members of the band (Thompson, Lovering) and well on the other two (Deal, Santiago), but whatever. I don’t need to like Charles Thompson or like what he’s doing now to appreciate what he did then.

I’m not that old, though, in case you’re wondering. I was too young to have seen them the first time round. I first heard the Pixies’ music in early 1998, a few months after the Death to the Pixies compilation was released. Those first few songs – the cover of the Surftones’ Cecilia Ann, Planet of Sound, Tame, Here Comes Your Man, Debaser – were all I needed to know to get them. Despite the over-representation of Doolittle and the corresponding neglect of Surfer Rosa, I still think Death to the Pixies was well compiled and a really good introduction to the Pixies. The range of music piled into those opening songs, some of it a little strange, some of it knowingly straightforward, was huge. If you replaced Tame with Bone Machine, you could pretty much encapsulate the Pixies entirely with those five songs.

Nowadays, if I’m going to listen to a Pixies record, it will be Surfer Rosa. I don’t hear the same thing in Doolittle that a lot of people seem to. To my ears, it’s thin-sounding, a little hemmed in, not exciting on a visceral level. The drums are at once too loud and lacking impact and body. The guitars don’t have that desperate feral edge to them (was there ever a better match of guitar player and recording engineer than Joey Santiago and Steve Albini?). Doolittle scores highly for songs you can lift off the record and play for people who don’t know the band, and I’d not want to be without Debaser, Here Comes Your Man and Gouge Away, but I’m not so struck on Tame, Monkey Gone to Heaven and Hey (maybe that’s unfair on Hey – it’s a good song, if not quite a masterpiece); the run from Mr Grieves to Number 13 Baby, meanwhile, is a huge lead weight dragging the record down. It’s a 15-song album that’s begging to be 10. Its reputation does seem to me somewhat inflated. Surfer Rosa may be much less, to use (Doolittle producer) Gil Norton’s term ‘portable’, but is a much more cohesive, satisfying whole.

The last two albums are only worth mentioning in passing. Bossanova’s very shiny, shorter on aggression. Its greatest moment are Cecilia Ann and Velouria; the rest, well, the band was getting short of ideas (not Deal, as Pod, the first Breeders album from 1990 shows, but this is where her marginalisation began). Trompe le Monde is mostly a bore.

The Pixies reuniting seemed unlikely to me ever to produce good music, when Charles Thompson hadn’t written a song worth spending time with for years anyway. Ultimately the band’s reputation rests on their debut EP and the first two albums, which are both classics, even if we have to agree to disagree over which are the best bits. Yeah, perhaps it would be nice if Thompson only recorded music when he had something to say, but Surfer Rosa makes a loud enough noise to drown out Indie Cindy this week, and by next week no one will remember the latter even existed. They’ll all be listening to Gigantic and River Euphrates.

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Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, David Lovering, Charles Thompson (oh, all right then, Black Francis)