Monthly Archives: September 2014

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 6 – Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) – The Delfonics

There’s nothing I don’t like about the Delfonics’ Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time). Thom Bell’s luxurious sting arrangement, William Hart’s soaring falsetto, the electric sitar (Bobby Eli, I think, rather than Norman Harris), Bobby Martin’s French horn call that begins the song, the key change to A going in to the first verse from the intro, that rhythmically displaced chord change in the chorus – it’s all wonderful, and you can’t give enough credit to Thom Bell for his creativity. But even so, when I put the song on, it’s usually because I want to hear that drum track. And for that, we have MFSB drummer Earl Young and engineer Joe Tarsia to thank.

Earl Young is an unquestionable great of popular music, the supplier of countless great drum performances from the late 1960s and all through the ’70s. But he shines brightest on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time). Joe Tarsia, engineer and studio owner, and presumably Thom Bell (since, as producer, the decision was ultimately his) were convinced of the need for the drums on their records to be uncompressed, loud and proud. As a consequence, no matter how sophisticated, ornate and opulent the arrangement, the drum tracks on songs coming off the Philly conveyor belt meant business. Young’s studio kit had a 26-inch bass drum. On Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time), Young plays meaty, powerful rimshots all the way through (which, along with his intricate hi-hat work, is a Young trademark), his tom-and-snare build-ups in the choruses have an aggressive physicality to them and his work on the brass is decisive and authoritative. Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is a complex, conflicted song, and, to wax psychological for a moment, if the orchestra reinforces and amplifies the tenderness that the singer still feels for his love, Earl Young’s drums stand for the part of him that is delighted to be standing up for himself and finally be proving her wrong.

Young’s magnificent performance is given the sound it deserves by Joe Tarsia, recording engineer and owner of Sigma Sound studio. His philosophy was to attempt to record the session as accurately as possible and save the clever stuff for the mix, but he was not afraid of capturing real room sounds as part of that process. The drum sound on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is noticeably reverberant and big, and it’s not something that was added in mix. Indeed, Greg Milner quotes Tarsia as describing the contemporaneous West Coast quest for total separation and dryness as “ridiculous… it was the producer not willing to commit. He wanted to be able to take the guitar out later, which you can’t do if it’s bleeding into five other microphones.” Leakage was Tarsia’s friend, not something of which he lived in mortal fear, and he sculpted that live sound – and, according to Milner, the session that produced the backing track for Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) was completely live, orchestra and all – into one of the most incredible-sounding recordings ever made.

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Earl Young (photo © Andrew Small)

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 5 – Lime Tree Arbour – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Sorry for the radio silence. You catch me in the middle of a rather busy 10-day period.

Nick Cave is still doing what he does. That is admirable. But really, I checked out a while ago. After a series of what sounded to me like overpraised Bad Seeds records, Grinderman was the last straw: the sound of, what? Self-parody? A formerly vital artist unable to summon up by force of will what used to be second nature? I listened forlornly. Cave doing sleazy, bluesy and (yes) grindy rock would once have been a sure thing, a slam dunk. Yet the distance between No Pussy Blues and, say, Junkyard just made me sad.

So We No Who U R, terrible title aside, was a relief. At this point in his life and career, Cave needs to stick to ballads; he doesn’t have the voice or sensibility any longer to play the terrifying demon he did so convincingly in the early 1980s.

Yet, the rhythmic backbone of We No Who U R – the first track off the most recent Bad Seeds record, Push the Sky Away – is synthetic, so it lacks one of the key elements that appealed to me as a Cave neophyte when I first heard The Boatman’s Call (which was a couple of years old by then). Before that, I’d only heard Where the Wild Roses Grow, which I remembered primarily for how stiff and uncomfortable he had appeared when performing the song with Kylie and the Bad Seeds on Top of the Pops, and some Birthday Party stuff: Big Jesus Trash Can, which had blown my teenage mind a couple of years later when I heard it on a 4AD retrospective, and a live album I’d picked up from a record fair. I didn’t recall Where the Wild Roses Grow well enough to remember the key role played in creating atmosphere by Thomas Wydler’s brushed drums.

I love brushed drums. They’re harder to play than non-drummers might suppose. For me, anyway. I find it harder to maintain a consistent tone and dynamic on the snare with them than with sticks. If you listen to the Fleetwood Mac song Sara, from Tusk, you’ll hear even a great drummer like Mick Fleetwood struggle a little to keep his backbeat even. Played well and recorded well, though, they sound amazing, and many of my favourite drum sounds are brush sounds. Charlie Watts’s magnificent snare drum on Love in Vain might be my favourite drum sound ever.

The Boatmans’s Call is high up on the list of albums that made me fall in love with that sound. It’s probably Flood’s most organic-sounding production, lush and deep and spacious, without being distant or unfocused. Into My Arms is a stand-out song, of course, and it starts the album strongly, but the second track, Lime Tree Arbour, is the first to feature Thomas Wydler’s drums in tandem with Martyn P. Casey’s deep, warm bass guitar, so that’s the one I’m picking. It’s a simple part, but it’s empathetically played, it’s perfect for the song and it sounds wonderful, and sometimes that’s all a drummer needs to do. The key is to realise it.

THOMAS_WYDLER

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 4 – San Geronimo – Red House Painters

Anthony Koutsos used to have one of the most thankless jobs in popular music: he was Mark Kozelek’s drummer in Red House Painters.

Thankless because Red House Painters songs were long and slow. Very long and very slow. Often with no dynamic shifts at all, or with only a barely perceptible rising intensity. Playing them was an exercise in self-abnegation. Drummers that don’t have a tendency to push the tempo a little over the course of a long, slow song are rare. Drummers who don’t push the dynamic either, and who are happy to play for two or three minutes without a single fill, they’re even rarer. Anthony Koutsos is not a one-off in rock & roll, but he’s pretty close.

By the time the Red House Painters cut Ocean Beach in late 1994, Koutsos had been occupying Kozelek’s drum stool for five years, during which time he’d patted and rimshotted his way through several Kozelek epics – Medicine Bottle, Down Colorful Hill, Katy Song, Funhouse, Mother, Evil and Blindfold – some of the slowest, darkest, most intense songs in the alternative rock canon (seriously listen to Funhouse. It ain’t the Stooges).

How did he do it? Well, the only thing I can think of, as a part-time drummer (unfortunately, very part-time at the moment), is that Red House Painters songs often had pretty cool drum parts, distinctive rhythmic patterns that belong definitively to the parent song (what do I mean? Well, think of, say, Ringo’s drum part on the verses of Come Together. Ever heard that exact part in any other song?). Anthony Koutsos did this kind of thing frequently, only at 16rpm, and quietly, which is actually quite an achievement. Listen to his patterns on the drum versions of Mistress and New Jersey, the Katy Song lick in the verse that misses out the second backbeat, causing the song to feel like it’s turning around upon itself every two bars. These drum tracks are distinctively Koutsos’ own – belonging to these songs and these songs only – and if he needed motivation to remain in a band that forced him to play slow and quietly all the live-long day, that would probably be enough.

San Geronimo was his big moment on Ocean Beach, and it’s one of my favourite Koutsos parts. By this point in the Red House Painters’ career, their music had begun to open up a bit and was no longer so intense and claustrophobic; by the standards of, say, Medicine Bottle, San Geronimo is almost breezy.

Underneath a tapestry of chiming and semi-distorted guitars, Koutsos keeps time on his toms, laying off the snare drum until the stuttering pre-chorus section, during which the interplay between his drums and a guesting Carrie Bradley’s violin first establishes itself. It’s a neat lesson in how a drummer can provide a supporting base for a song and leave room for a little push in the choruses without turning the song into Smells Like Teen Spirit. And frankly, I’m a sucker for using a rack tom in lieu of the snare. Radiohead’s Let Down, Talk Talk’s The Rainbow – a lot of my favourite songs do it.

But Koutsos’ best moment comes in the half-time middle section, where he and Bradley take over. The rest of the band play the changes on the one and sustain them but otherwise let Bradley’s harmonised violin line duet with Koutsos’ ride cymbal and snare fills. It’s a beautiful, weightless little passage, the most pretty to be found on any Red House Painters record. Kozelek’s songwriting was always passionate, but the Red House Painters’ delivery of it had always previously been chilly. San Geronimo, though, is earthy and warm. Bradley’s violin is like gulls calling on a late summer’s day, and Koutsos gets the tasteful, simple little instrumental section to show how crucial he’s been to the band’s music all along.

After RHP broke up, Koutsos continued to play drums with Kozelek in Sun Kil Moon while building a real-estate career in San Francisco. He’s made of stern stuff, then, even if you now hate him on a point of principle.

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Red House Painters, Koutsoson right in hat and shades

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 3 – Lido Shuffle – Boz Scaggs

Session players will play on a lot of crap. It’s part of the job. You’re hired, you go in and play the songs to the best of your ability, you accumulate credits and you get more work. The quality of the material you play on is almost irrelevant. Unless you’re at the very top of the A list, you can’t afford to turn anyone down, and folks who are at the very top of the A list, well, they didn’t get there by turning down opportunities. If there’s a player on the session you’ve never hung with, or a producer who you’d like to connect with in future, who cares if this particular song is a no-hoper? This is a career, after all. You have to play the long game. If you want to understand the session player mentality, consider Matt Chamberlain, once the drummer in Edie Brickell’s New Bohemians, who was asked to do a tour with Pearl Jam in 1992, just when they were blowing up. The tour went well enough that he was offered the slot permanently (yeah, Pearl Jam weren’t Mudhoney; being a former New Bohemian didn’t disqualify you). Yet Chamberlain turned it down to play in the Saturday Night Live band. He was 25 years old. Call me an unreconstructed punk rocker if you will, but being in the SNL band should be no 25-year-old’s dream gig.

In any generation, only the most technically gifted players get to make that choice. Only the very few can make a living as a recording drummer, particularly since the advent of drum machines and drum programming software. Rock fans tend to lionise favourite players in favourite bands, but usually these guys would be the first to admit that they’re stylists, not technicians. If you want to know who the best drummers of this generation are, ask some record producers. Look at the credits for recent big-budget singer-songwriter albums: you’ll see people like Chamberlain, Joey Waronker and Jay Bellerose.

Once upon a time, you’d have seen Jeff Porcaro.

Porcaro’s credit list is a fascinating read. Reading down the list, you see him muscle his way to the very centre of the LA-based rock-soul interface in the mid-1970s when barely in his twenties by playing the hell out of some fiendish Steely Dan charts and grooving like a mother through Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees. His performance on Lido Shuffle is a favourite of mine. It’s an all-time-great drum track. It’s as tight as can be, yet it feels ridiculously good. There’s a half-hour instructional video of Porcaro’s on YouTube (and watching it gives you an insight into why he was so continuously employed; he put a lot of care into his bass drum patterns and his approach to both to choice of hi-hat pattern and employment of dynamics within that pattern is eye opening). He picks apart his Lido Shuffle groove for the benefit of dullards like me. On the hat he plays the first and last note of the triplet on each beat of the bar, while the second note of the triplet is played as a ghost on the snare. He plays the backbeats (two and four) on the snare. On the kick, he plays first and last note of the triplet on the first beat and the last note of triplet on the second beat, repeating that pattern for the third and fourth beats. It’s intricate, for sure, but it makes a lot of sense when he plays it. And his ability to jump in and out of it – to play his fills at the end of each verse, just before the line ‘One for the road’ – is really impressive. This guy, clearly, was a hell of a player. Yeah, he was a member of Toto. So what? He played on Bad Sneakers and Lido Shuffle.

Yet getting an overview of his career by reading his credit list is overall a dispiriting exercise. As you get further down the list into the late 1980s, the artists who employed him get ever more washed-up and irrelevant, further and further from anything you could defend artistically. I’m sure he got paid a shedload for playing on Michael Bolton’s Time, Love & Tenderness and Richard Marx’s Rush Street in the early 1990s, and sure, he was at an age where Pearl Jam wouldn’t have been calling him up to occupy the drum stool anyway, but there were genuine artists working in the major label system too, and to actively choose Bolton and Marx seems such a waste, given how abruptly his life would end in 1992, when he had an allergic reaction to pesticides he’d used in his garden.

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Mr Porcaro

If you’d like to hear some of my recent work, here you go!

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 2 – Call Me on Your Way Back Home – Ryan Adams

When I first heard Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker I was more impressed than I’d have been if I’d been familiar with the artists he was cribbing from. At that time, I didn’t know that many records by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John, Alex Chilton, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt or Bruce Springsteen, or any of the other acts that Adams was stylistically in hock to. Nowadays, while I can still remember the emotional charge I used to get from My Winding Wheel, My Sweet Carolina and the sparse, charged Call Me on Your Way Back Home, most of the time when I listen to Heartbreaker I find the obviousness of his borrowings crass.

Which says at least as much about me as it does about him. No one said pop music had to be original. A lot of the time the joy of it is precisely its lack of originality, its willingness to repeat the formula exactly, to conform perfectly to expectation. But I had something invested in the idea of Adams as an original talent of the order of Dylan, Morrison or Young, which is absurd, but at 18 I knew know better. If I’d known twice as much then as I actually did, relatively speaking I’d still have known dick all.

So the magic faded somewhat, and when it did I was left with a record that was admirable for the way it replicated the sound and feel of certain rock-history glory moments, most notably producer Ethan Johns’ uncanny reproduction of the sound of Dylan’s mid-sixties work, most notably Blonde on Blonde. The devil is in the details where this sort of thing is concerned, and Johns has a record producer’s ear for detail; an ear schooled by his father, Glyn Johns – producer and engineer for the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin – from an early age

His drum tunings were key to pulling this off. Tune the drums correctly, then leave enough space in the performances for the resonances to really add to the overall sound. Then set the band up right in the room and allow the leakage of the drums into the guitar and vocal mics (yeah, live vocals – scared yet, you Pro Tools kids?) to dictate the overall sound. Johns was the drummer, the producer and the engineer for all this, so there is really is no overstating how important he was to the finished product (he also played bass, organ and Chamberlin – a precursor to the Mellotron).

Johns sits out almost three-quarters of the genuinely mournful-sounding Call Me on Your Way Back Home, finally coming in when Adams’ vocal drops out, allowing the sound of the room – captured in the guitar and vocal mics as well as in his drum mics – to supply a beautiful reverb, taking full advantage in his big, simple tom fills, which owe a lot stylistically to Levon Helm. Nowadays, when I think of Heartbreaker, I think of Johns’ drumming on the album: of the five-stroke intro to Come Pick Me Up; of the pattering brushed drum fills on Sweet Carolina; and of course of those authoritative and strangely uplifting thudding toms at the end of Call Me on Your Way Back Home.

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Ryan Adams

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 1 – What Makes You Think You’re the One? – Fleetwood Mac

Lindsey Buckingham did not want the follow-up to Rumours to sound like Rumours. That much we can say for sure. He infuriated the band’s engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat by asking for sounds completely alien to his sensibilities (literally so: whenever Caillat dialled in a sound on a piece of equipment, Buckingham would insist the knobs be turned 180 degrees from wherever they were set before he’d start recording a take) and bemused his bandmates by playing them the Clash’s first record and trying to convince them that this is what they now needed to sound like. If his bandmates were unconvinced by Buckingham’s insistence that they change with the times, history has proved him right – their generation of artists either had to come to terms with the new music and changed fashions or wait a few years to start playing the nostalgia circuits. The majority of the band’s peers at the top of the industry accordingly updated their haircuts and wardrobes, bought synthesisers and drum machines, pushed up the sleeves of their pastel sports jackets and tried their best to make post-new wave pop hits.

For all his good intentions, though, he couldn’t really make Fleetwood Mac into the Clash. But what the band came up with in the attempt was much more interesting than if they’d have succeeded. The appeal of Tusk lies in the tension between his aims for the record and the band’s failure to quite get there, between his own nervous, fractured songs and the material given to him by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. Lacking the woody warmth of Rumours (partly perhaps due to being recorded on an early digital system called Soundstream, rather than to analogue tape), Tusk’s Buckingham-penned songs turn away from mainstream LA rock, only for those written by Nicks and McVie to attempt to return to it. The attempted fusion of slick, albeit heartfelt, West Coast AOR with this raw and ragged new music resulted in a record that was uncategorisable: Fleetwood Mac gone askew, covert punk rock on a superstar budget.

Buckingham had recorded demos for his own songs in his house and, enamoured with the sounds he got by recording in his bathroom, had a replica of his bathroom built in the studio. Some songs (for example, the beautiful, woozy Save Me a Place) saw him playing all the instruments himself, painstakingly Xeroxing his lo-fi demos in a hi-fi studio. What Makes You Think You’re the One?, fortunately, was one song that he let Fleetwood and John McVie play on.

Buckingham has remarked that something about hearing the goofy drum sound in his headphones, with its clangy slapback delay, turned Mick Fleetwood into an animal, and Fleetwood’s unhinged performance is hilarious, the highlight of the track. He beats his snare drum brutally, mercilessly, switching his patterns seemingly at random, sometimes playing two and four, sometimes crotchets, switching to double time for two and a half bars and then switching back unannounced – there’s a childlike glee to his performance. It’s a joy to hear such a tasteful musician play so uninhibitedly, throwing away all restraint, while Buckingham bashes out incongruously chirpy piano quavers and cackles maniacally.

Critics seemingly didn’t know quite what to make of all this, and neither did the public: Tusk sold ‘only’ four million copies in the US, less than a quarter of Rumours’ figures. Yet Tusk’s critical reputation has soared in recent years, in tandem with the band’s own – overtly West Coast-influenced artists (Midlake, Best Coast, Jonathan Wilson et al.) have resurrected the old FM sound and made them a ubiquitous reference point again, while hipster kids are content just to blast Everywhere at any opportunity. All this was hard to envisage fifteen years ago, but it’s nonetheless welcome and deserved for a group whose work was never less than sincere.

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Mick Fleetwood, punk rock monster

 

For the curious, some of my music:

On into the Night – Ross Palmer

Hi everyone.

I’ve uploaded another new song to Bandcamp and Soundcloud. It’s a song I wrote recently in a dream. Really.  I had this really lucid dream where I, along with my girlfriend Mel and a few of the musicians I play with regularly, were working on this song I’d written. When I woke I could remember the chords and the lyrics to the first verse, so I wrote the song off those. I’m not sure the first verse lyrics make much literal sense, but they came about serendipitously, so it seemed only fair to work with what I’d been given.

The recording isn’t quite the one-man effort my songs usually are. This one features a very talented double bassist named Colin Somervell. The rest of it is me in the usual fashion.

It’s probably destined to be on an EP in the nearish future. In the meantime, you can download an advance mix from Bandcamp (pay what you like) or stream it on Soundcloud.

https://rosspalmer.bandcamp.com/album/on-into-the-night

Inside Out – John Martyn

There can be no mistake there
Can be no mistake there can
Be no mistake
It
Must
Must
Must
Be love

Outside In

In late 2001, my friend, former housemate and long-time musical collaborator James McKean played me John Martyn for the first time. We’d known each other for a year by this point and he’d already introduced me to the music of Fred Neil and Big Star. Over the years there’d be much more to come. But John Martyn was a big moment.

We lived in a large household — six housemates plus the girlfriend of one of the actual tenants — but James and I often seemed to be the first home, giving us the run of the house for an hour or so. We’d put CDs on the DVD player in the front room, using the TV for speakers, and hang out. I imagine it sounded terrible, but I don’t remember that being a problem. What I do remember is hearing Fine Lines and being close to bursting out laughing. I’d never heard anyone sing that way, and I’d heard a lot of people sing a lot of ways. Fine Lines is the first song on Inside Out, the album where Martyn really developed and explored the outer reaches of this vocal style. The title track of Solid Air had seen him slurring his delivery in a way that initially sounds drunken but that you soon realise is imitative of a saxophone and allows him to bend his phrasing and delivery to get inside the lyric and explore its potential for musical and verbal meaning. But Inside Out was something else again. My incredulity soon gave way to fascination. Fine Lines was beautiful, and unlike anything I’d heard before. But the rest took some more work. By the next year, when we’d moved from our big rambling Lewisham house to a smaller one on an estate in Stepney (behind the George, then run down and on the point of closing), we were listening to Inside Out and Solid Air, which I’d purchased, regularly, and it was then that I began to get a handle on this singular pair of records.

To this day they still seem like two sides of the same coin to me: Solid Air is the focused, concise and accessible heads; Inside Out is the digressive, rambling and exploratory tails. While Solid Air has wonderful songs (the title track, Don’t Want to Know, Over the Hill, May You Never), Inside Out marries killer songwriting (Fine Lines, Make No Mistake, So Much in Love With You, Ain’t No Saint) to jazz improvisation and sonic experimentation, containing both Martyn’s definitive Echoplex track (Outside In) and mutant arrangements of traditional melodies (Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill).

It took longer to get but it hit me harder, and I still come back to it, most recently this week. It’s an incredible, utterly idiosyncratic, piece of work. I’ve still never heard anyone else make music that sounds like Ain’t No Saint and Look In. They just crackle with tension and clenched-jawed, barely restrained aggression, yet the rhythm section on both tracks eschew the traditional rock drum kit, instead featuring Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka and Indian tabla player Keshav Sathe (from John Mayer’s — not that John Mayer — Indo Jazz Fusions). Outside In, meanwhile, is just astonishing, eight and a half minutes long, in two distinct sections: the first is a full-band Echoplex jam in the vein of Glistening Glyndebourne and I’d Rather Be the Devil. Two and half minutes in, though, it collapses into a freeform dialogue between Bobby Keyes’ unusually tender and lyrical saxophone and Danny Thompson’s bass, with Steve Winwood adding atmospheric keyboards and Kabaka punctuating the track with outbursts of astonishing power on the drums. Then out of nowhere, six minutes in, Martyn – off-mic but getting closer – roars ‘Love!’ and the track’s vocal passage reveals the song as what it is: an 8-minute exploration of the idea of love, the conceptual and musical centrepiece of a record that takes love as its very subject. It’s quite a moment. The 18-minute version that opens his Live at Leeds album from 1977 is, if it’s possible, even more astonishing.

Make No Mistake and So Much in Love With You continue the theme. If So Much presages the cocktail-jazz sound that Martyn would adopt for Grace and Danger in the late 1970s, it cuts deeper than the bulk of that album (strong though much of it is) by retaining its rough edges and including an edge-of-the-moment solo from Martyn. He’s such an underrated guitarist: not only a great acoustic picker and a trailblazing experimenter with loops and delays, but a highly effective electric lead player too. Tell Jack Donaghy the news: John Martyn’s work on electric guitar is a real-life third heat.

Make No Mistake, meanwhile, is the album’s third showstopper. It’s always dangerous to assume a performer’s work is reflective of their own lived experience, but in light of his well-documented problems with alcohol (and other substances), it’s safe to assume Martyn knew whereof he sang on this song: “Do you know how it feels / To be dead drunk on the floor / To get up and ask for more? / To be lying in the dark crying?” The song fades out, and back in again, and out again, as the band embark on another jam, the snatches we hear every bit as compelling as those elsewhere on the record. It’s a spine-chilling moment.

Wilfully eclectic and free-ranging, Inside Out only feels coherent as an album when you get to know it. Its unity is in concept and attitude, not in the sonics or the arrangements from track to track. But when you do come to know it well, few albums are as rewarding.

I should admit that hearing Martyn’s “classic trilogy” of albums backwards has surely impacted the esteem I hold them in; I’m sure I’d have got far more out of Bless the Weather if I’d heard it first (veteran Martyn fans reading this will note that I didn’t mention Bless the Weather above when I described Solid Air and Inside Out as two sides of the same coin). As it was, instead of having my mind blown by Glistening Glyndebourne, I heard it as a slightly weak-brew warm-up for Outside In from two years later. A record containing songs as good as Bless the Weather and Head and Heart deserves better from me, but it’s really a tribute to the power of those later records. If you’re a Martyn newbie, do yourself a favour and listen to Bless the Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out in chronological order. But remember when you’re listening to I Don’t Want to Know that, hard as it may be to credit, the best stuff is yet to come.

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John Martyn, early 1970s

Turnham Green – Colorama

I should acknowledge upfront that I would never have heard this song if it hadn’t been written about by Pete Paphides in the Beside the B-Side blog he and Bob Stanley wrote very sporadically between 2010 and 2012. Possibly it’s not dead and just sleeping. I hope one day it comes back.

Woodwind, percussion, a sitar drone. When it starts, Colorama’s Turnham Green sounds cut from the same cloth as the Portico Quartet’s Life Mask, which I think I’ve written about here before. But the moody, free-time intro is actually an 80-second fake-out. When the song begins, it has two obvious precursors: in mood, it strongly recalls the sun-drenched psychedelia of Donovan in his Sunny Goodge Street phase, a whimsical, light psychedelia with just the merest hint of late-afternoon shadows; while in rhythmic feel (and in its chords too), it’s a dead ringer for Tim Buckley’s Strange Feelin’.

This sort of bucolic English acousticism – and for all that Turnham Green is self-evidently set at the point where inner London starts to bleed into Outer London, it is a bucolic song, and for all that Carwyn Ellis is self-evidently Welsh, it is an English song – was a staple of 1970s progressive/alternative music. EMI’s Harvest Records imprint, home to such artists as Kevin Ayers and Barclay James Harvest, was its ground zero, and Witchseason (Joe Boyd’s management/production stable) an important forerunner. This kind of music is somehow durable. It might disappear for a few years (the coked-up 1990s were an inhospitable decade for it), but it always seems to return, with a faraway look in its eye and a joint in its pocket.

I like the idea that there’s a form of music just floating out there on the breeze, ready to be plucked out of the air by any songwriter who reaches for it. Indeed, Turnham Green is not all that indicative of Colorama’s usual style, which is as likely to feature vintage monophonic synths as jazzy piano and strummed acoustic guitar. Sometimes Ellis’s work recalls the smashed and slightly scary Beach Boys of Smiley Smile. Sometimes Ellis is a Les Cousins troubadour. Sometimes he’s a Super Furry Doppelganger. Turnham Green, such a perfect little moment, sounds as if he just reached out his hand and found it resting there. And if it’s not quite of the same mood and feel as the rest of the band’s debut album (Cookie Zoo), I don’t think it says anything negative about Ellis to say that, at least early in Colorama’s journey, he didn’t quite know what he wanted to be. Stylistic consistency is overrated, anyway: the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Carwyn Ellis
Carwyn Ellis of Colorama, live in 2009

The aesthetic of classical music recording & mixing

This week I’ve been thinking about the different places of pop and classical musicians within their respective record-making processes.

Dr Amy Blier-Carruthers’ 2013 paper about orchestral players’ dissatisfaction with the studio experience, “The Performer’s Place in the Process and Product of Recording”, details the tensions classical musicians feel about recording:

[There are] many examples of early recorded performers approaching the recording horn with trepidation and anxiety. But what is striking is that even after over a century of commercial classical recordings, many of the same issues are still in evidence today – distrust of the technology, dislike of the process, doubts about whether you like what is captured, disillusionment with the editing process, the thought of your performance going somewhere where you are no longer in control of it, the thought of a disembodied performance existing at all. […] Basically, even the biggest and best orchestras are in a way victims of the status quo: they are not getting the time and money and support necessary to give them the opportunity to get something that they are really happy with down on record.

For a musician like me, working in the field of popular music (and more specifically, rock, folk, pop and country), these issues are of very little concern. In an earlier post, I talked about the portrait-painting-vs-photography analogy to demonstrate a couple of prevalent record-making philosophies within pop music. To restate this as briefly as possible, most producers and engineers who work with popular-music artists are comfortable with the idea that, like portrait painters, their job is to construct a representation of reality in which aiming for exact adherence to the measurable world is only one possible approach; that is to say, a painting may capture the emotional truth of its subject without being anything close to a photo-realist depiction (as in, say, the works of Lucian Freud).

Or to put it another way, “To me, the evolution of the recording studio has made possible the record as a piece of self-contained art. A good record is a piece of art in itself, not just a document of some other ‘more valid’ art form” (Jack Endino, recording engineer famous for his work with Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden).

Think about this for a second. When you record a relatively small sound source such as a drum kit in a modern studio, most likely you’ll use multiple microphones (say, 8 or more) hung both close and at a distance, and an arsenal of sound-processing tools. As a result, the scope you have for presenting that sound source in different ways is immense. You can use mainly the close mics and present a tight, dry version of the performance. You can lean on the ambient ones and blow up the sound. Or you can blend the mics together to present something that cannot be experienced live: a drum performance with all the attack and nuances that the player hears from their stool that also has all the size and bloom that you would hear if you were standing 10 feet away. This isn’t achievable in real life unless you’ve found a way to exist in two positions at the same time (in which case, you’d better give Stephen Hawking a call). And you can also hear the drums in massively exaggerated stereo, with preposterous amounts of wave shaping from compressors and equalisers. In effect, you hear the drum kit turned into a cartoon of itself. Yet this is the aesthetic we’ve grown used to over the last hundred years of recording, and so it doesn’t sound weird to us. And when we see a band play in a pub and hear what a drum kit really sounds like, that doesn’t sound weird either. In this sense, if in no other, popular music exists in a state of grace. It is not hung up on notions of fidelity to the original sound or performance and it intuitively understands that the record and the live performance are separate and not interdependent

Blier-Carruthers argues that classical music has never really come round to this way of thinking. When recording, she says, performers “carry the live aesthetic with them into the recording session”. The majority of listeners share this aesthetic with the players, expecting recordings to present the music as they would experience it at a live performance, but to be without blemish, which a live performance by any group of musicians playing challenging music for 60 minutes or more never will be.

But there are several things to unpack here. Irrespective of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the audience would not hear a mistake (unless it was a soloist dramatically blowing a note, say) during a live performance, performers are aware when they’ve made one, and it’s only natural that this would be unpleasant for them to hear over and again while listening to a recording. Blier-Carruthers quotes some students as believing that the insistence on perfection in recording is hurting not only the recorded product, which tends to become sterile, but also the musicians’ ability to perform effectively in the concert hall, as they become concerned more with minimising errors than with playing expressively.

However, Blier-Carruthers seems to me to assume that classical listeners and players are an entirely separate breed to their pop music counterparts, which I don’t think is really true. There is a huge overlap. I’ve played folk and rock and country with numerous musicians whose training and background is concert hall and conservatory rather than pub and rehearsal room like my own, and the ability of most of them to move seamlessly between the two worlds is a defining quality of what makes these people great musicians. Not only are these players catholic in their tastes and repertoire, they’re technologically literate, too. They understand software editing of takes, and they know what is achievable using the modern tools of audio recording. They know that the recording is not a simple presentation of a one-off musical event; that it hasn’t been for a long time; that a producer employing an edit is not a condemnation of a player’s musical proficiency; and that the fact of your having been edited during recording is in no way a judgement on your ability to go out and play in an orchestra in front of an audience, doing so both expressively and technically correctly.

Indeed, it is often forgotten that throughout the history of recorded music, huge technical and theoretical strides in the recording of music have been achieved in the service of classical, rather than pop or rock, music. One thinks of the conductor Leopold Stokowski’s experiments in the early era of electrical recording with engineers from Bell Labs, searching for ever-greater volume and impact in recorded music; of Jack Somer’s work producing stereoised versions of mono recordings of Mussorgski and Dvorak for RCA in the early 1960s; of Thomas Stockham’s Soundstream recorder (the first digital recording system) being employed by Telarc’s Jack Renner for recordings of Holst and Tchaikovsky; and even of the oft-repeated (but still unverified) story about the CD being created to hold 74 minutes of music so that it could accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth.

In the early 1960s, the pianist Glenn Gould argued controversially for the need for classical music to develop an aesthetic of recording separate to that of the live performance:

The generation currently being subjected to the humiliation of public school solfège will be the last to attain their majority persuaded that the concert is the axis upon which the world of music revolves.

It is not.

In “The Prospects of Recording”, he details how he achieved this in his own recorded work, giving an example of edits made when recording the Fugue in A minor from Volume I of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier*. It’s easy to fool yourself that you can hear the tape splice at bar 14, but given shift in the mood of the music – which was why Gould chose that moment to make his edit – the release of the pedals and the move up the keyboard of the right hand, I think the temptation to interpret that briefest of silences as an audible edit point would be a mistake; rests of that nature occur in music on all instruments with extreme frequency. As an engineer, I know all too well the experience of listening to a soloed vocal track, hearing a shift of timbre and assuming an edit between two takes occurred, only to look in the media pool in Cubase and find no such edit occurred and that that change of timbre was part of a live performance.

Gould, then, was extremely prescient:

When the performer makes use of this post-performance editorial decision, his role is no longer compartmentalized. In a quest for perfection, he sets aside the hazards and compromises of his trade. As an interpreter, as a go-between serving both audience and composer, the performer has always been, after all, someone with a specialist’s knowledge about the realization or actualization of notated sound symbols. It is, then, perfectly consistent with such experience that he should assume something of an editorial role.

He constructs an analogy to the work of Van Meegeren, who in the 1930s began producing Vermeer-like works that had an uncanny stylistic resemblance to the paintings of the master, which he then sold as Vermeer originals to German private collectors during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Later charged with collaborating and selling national treasures for profit, he revealed they were not the work of Vermeer but his own work, but was nonetheless imprisoned.

Gould claims Van Meegeren as a personal hero, and argues he was treated unjustly – “The determination of the value of a work of art according to the information available about it is a most delinquent form of aesthetic appraisal. Indeed, it strives to avoid appraisal on any ground other than that which has been prepared by previous appraisals” – and goes on to conclude that:

As the performer’s once sacrosanct privileges are merged with the responsibilities of the tape editor and the composer, the Van Meegeren syndrome can no longer be cited as an indictment but becomes rather an entirely appropriate description of the aesthetic condition in our time. The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture. And when the forger is done honor for his craft and no longer reviled for his acquisitiveness, the arts will have become a truly integral part of our civilization.

This was extraordinary stuff for a classical musician to be writing in 1966, and Blier-Carruthers’ work interviewing young players tends to suggest that the world has not yet come around to Gould’s way of thinking. Young musicians are still being taught that the recording of a work shall be a representation of a concert performance of that work, and while all sorts of tricks are employed to produce the blemish-free representation supposedly required by producers; Blier-Carruthers does report producer Stephen Johns’s contention that he routinely gets asked by musicians to perform edits he deems unnecessary, as the musicians can’t live with releasing anything that could be judged not “perfect”.

As the world of classical music hasn’t yet established its own recording aesthetic separate to that of the concert hall, its critics, its listeners and many of its players remain babes in the woods where modern production techniques are concerned. A Joyce Hatto scandal could not happen in any field of popular music (and maybe not even in jazz). Pop music fans and critics do not as a rule care about such notions as the integrity of an individual musician’s performance, and even if they did, would not have bought William Barrington-Coupe’s cover story about splicing in tiny fragments of other recordings into otherwise genuine Hatto performances recorded in a shed in the bottom of their garden simply to cover mistakes and extraneous noises – how could a recording made in that environment sound anything like one made in a much larger acoustic space on an entirely different instrument with much more (and much better) technology employed in production? The willingness of some critics to entertain this possibility even for a second suggests a merely rudimentary understanding of what is possible today, even in the world of digital post-production, and a disconnect between the levels of recording literacy, so to speak, possessed by the older generation of fans and critics and the younger generation of fans and players.

I raise all this not to criticise the classical music industry and the way its musicians and critics are trained. Yet as I read back this week through Greg Milner’s magisterial Perfecting Sound Forever about the accomplishments of Stokowski, Thomas Stockham and Jack Renner, it’s striking that the most recent of these advances was still the better part of 40 years ago. It’s fascinating that an academic such as Dr Blier-Carutthers still needs to argue for “musicians and producers to work out new ways of conceptualizing, capturing and disseminating recorded music”, and even more so to wonder what might be accomplished if a record label decided that to try a method of recording and mixing that didn’t aim to replicate the real-world concert-hall listening experience. Are opportunities being missed, leaving today’s musicians caught unsatisfactorily between two worlds?

concert hall

*The next time you’re listening to a recording of a recording of a piano-led piece, listen hard to the stereo image of the piano. While anyone who isn’t sitting inside a Steinway grand facing the pianist will hear the piano as essentially a mono sound source within a stereo environment (the room – at least, as long as the listener can hear in both ears), it is, like the drum kit I discussed earlier, routinely recorded and presented in perceptible stereo. This is an example of a way in which classical music has taken a small step away from a prevailing naturalist aesthetic, but to nothing like the extent of rock and pop music, which, as noted above, often treats acoustic instruments in a wildly exaggerated and cartoonish fashion.