Monthly Archives: November 2014

Fleetwood Mac in the uncanny valley – Marcello Carlin on Tango in the Night

Hi all. Just a quick post to apologise for there not being a proper post today. I am, once again, not feeling so great – seems like I’ve picked up everything that’s been going round for the last month or so.

In the meantime, I wanted to direct you to Marcello Carlin’s excellent write-up of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night. Marcello started his blog, Then Play Long, six years ago so if you like what he does, the archives are extensive! He seldom fails to give me a new perspective even on albums I know well.

Tango is a curious record, the more so the more you listen to it. Sounding initially like a straightforward case of a band updating its sound just enough to remain relevant to a pop audience, it reveals itself on closer listening to be an uncanny valley version of Fleetwood Mac, a simulacrum constructed by Lindsey Buckingham to disguise how dysfunctional – how simply absent – some of the musicians were:

It was a very difficult record to make. Half the time Mick was falling asleep. We spent a year on the record but we only saw Stevie for a few weeks. I had to pull performances out of words and lines and make parts that sounded like her that weren’t her.

Buckingham, in an interview with Uncut, quoted by Carlin

With tools like the Fairlight CMI allowing the sampling and precise repitching of vocals, this was more achievable than it was in the analogue age. But as well as raising sound quality issues (the Fairlight sampler was 8-bit technology), there was the simple lack of realism of dramatically repitched sounds. Some artists chose to foreground the unearthly effects they created (think of those last few ‘Cry!’s at the end of Godley & Creme’s Cry) while others tried to blend them into a more or less organic-sounding whole, as Buckingham did on Tango. But the ear is sensitive and can pick up on these things. A lot of music from the mid to late eighties (I was born in 1981, so that’s what was on the radio when I was a child) sounded threatening and weird to me then. In a way, it still does now, and I’m sure that it’s at least partly because the gap between what sounds claim to be and what they actually are can’t ever be entirely bridged.

Ritual in Repeat – Tennis

Within pop music (and we’re going to focus for this post on rock music), record-making is a skill distinct from writing and live performance. Some excellent bands have made only mediocre records. Some artists who were true masters of the studio were never all that hot on stage. For some of the first type of artists, learning to make records that contain the essence of their greatness is a process of stripping away the accumulated fashions and traditional techniques of record making in order to make the experience of recording as much like playing live as possible.

Even legendary figures aren’t immune from this. For me, the Rolling Stones would be a good example of this phenomenon – perhaps controversially, I don’t think they made records that got everything right in terms of vibe, performance and sound until they started to work with Jimmy Miller in 1968. Fleetingly before, for a song or two, sure. But not with any consistency.

Long-time readers of this blog will probably be fearing another moan about the evils of modern record production. That’s not quite what this is, I promise. I raise the issue because I’ve been listening a lot to a band called Tennis these last few weeks. It’s the kind of music I’m a sucker for – fleet-footed, airy indie, with a disarming depth to the lyrics. Imagine Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays fronting a version of Camera Obscura that had a thing for yacht rock rather than countrypolitan and you won’t be far away from sound and feel of the music. I heard the band’s single Never Work for Free on KEXP, loved it, listened to a live session on WFUV, loved it even more, went back and listened to the recorded version and loved it a bit less.

It was kind of dispiriting.

Then I heard Timothy (from 2013’s Small Sound EP) on the radio, loved it, downloaded it to listen to it properly and loved it a bit less.

By this time I’d already ordered their latest album, Ritual in Repeat, on import from the US (it’s not out in the UK until February). When it arrived, I liked it, but found it a little flat. The tempos are often just a couple of BPM below what would seem optimal. The filters and effects used on Alaina Moore’s voice are a little distracting, as is the persistent double tracking. Each song has a topline that drills itself into you immediately. Moore and her bandmates write some killer songs. But somehow they haven’t quite got the finished recordings right.

Take Never Work for Free. Each chorus has the same slightly distracting backing vocal part, sung by Moore, mixed prominently and in fixed audibility. This is instead of, for example, introducing it in the second chorus to build the arrangement, and/or using a different singer to create space and a vocal texture with more width and depth. The lead vocal, meanwhile, is double tracked from the first line to last. The band’s done a few live sessions of late, so I’ve heard the WFUV version, the KEXP version, the UO Live version… Absent these little distractions, all in their way are preferable to the studio recording. I love the song – really love it – but the best version of it is somewhere between the WFUV version and a slightly stripped back mix of the studio take. What’s frustrating to me is that I feel the version I’d most want to hear exists on the master tape, or in the ProTools project, to be more accurate. If the song had been given to a different person to mix*, and there it would be.

The Tennis song where this distance between disappointing recording and revelatory live version is greatest is Mean Streets, where the chosen tempo sounds positively sluggish. The consistently much brisker takes they’ve done for KCRW, KEXP and live in store at Twist & Shout in Denver suggest that as they’ve played the song on stage, they’ve realised they cut it too slow. It’s pretty common for bands not to nail a song they record before they’ve had a chance to take a song out on the road, particularly early in their careers.

And Tennis are still a young band, with a lot going for them. The core duo – Moore, who plays keyboards and sings, and her husband Patrick Riley – can write really fantastic songs, and Moore is developing into a terrific singer. The rhythm section – drummer James Barone and, on record, Riley on bass – is as tight as any fan of early-’80s pop-soul could wish for. It’s just a shame that, right now, they’re not quite making the records they seem capable of yet. Get Ritual in Repeat, sure, but watch the above video too, and hit the KEXP session archives to really get a sense of what this band can do.

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Tennis: Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, preppies

 

*What’s amazing is that the mix engineer is Michael Brauer, whose work, while leaning a little to the commercial side, is usually impeccable. His mixes on Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space are all-time for me. Interestingly he was behind the mixes on that HAERTS record I was talking about a few weeks ago.

BTW, here’s a very rough demo of a new song. I don’t usually share songs when they’re at this stage of development, but I’ve got another head cold and it might be a while before my voice recovers enough to do a keeper vocal of anything, so here you are!

One Day in Your Life – Michael Jackson

Few figures in pop music are as polarising, with good reason, than Michael Jackson. I’m old enough to remember when Jackson was a much more unambiguous figure, a hero to millions of young pop fans, when the only controversy surrounding him was the ‘bad’, more streetwise, image he attempted to cultivate in 1987. Apparently he succeeded in convincing my primary-school teachers of his toughness, because a few of them came to believe around this time that he was not a good role model. But even for someone who can remember the place he held in Western pop culture before the Jordan Chandler story broke, it can be hard to listen to the music without everything else flooding in. Whether we even should, well, that’s a different matter.

While later Jackson hits seem positively haunted (“I am the damned. I am the dead. I am the agony inside a dying head” – a Cannibal Corpse lyric? No, it’s from Who Is It?, recorded and released before the Chandler story), you can still get a sense of what made Jackson the unassailable biggest star in the world by listening to his pre-Thriller music: the joy that’s perceptible in every bar of Rock With You and Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough; the warm humanism of Let Me Show You the Way to Go; the good-humoured triumphalism of Can You Feel It; the tenderness of One Day in Your Life.

One Day in Your Life hasn’t had the best critical reputation, with Robert Christgau the only major critic I’ve ever read who gave it much credit. Tom Ewing’s review on Popular was mixed, while Marcello Carlin savaged it (“unforgivably opts for sentimentality rather than genuine emotion”). Christgau, meanwhile, heard in it “a first-rate tearjerker that achieves just the right mix of autonomy and helpless innocence”, even as he expressed reservations about the general idea of a child singer being given a ballad to sing: “Because it’s possible to believe that their sincerity is neither feigned nor foolish, it’s good in theory for children to sing romantic ballads. The reason it doesn’t work is that the sincerity is so transparently manipulated from above.”

While sharing at least some of Carlin’s reservations about the arrangement (who thought the Ray Conniff backing vocals were a good idea?), I hear the same song Christgau does. OK, I’m a sucker for a ballad, and I love a good extended melody, and this is a record that knows the buttons it’s pressing when it presses them. What makes it a minor classic is Jackson. Even at his worst, Michael Jackson’s commitment to his material and his projects was total. It made him easy to mock, even before he became a big enough star for the world to notice and care about his alarming eccentricities, and it marked his recordings – for better or worse – all the way through his career. Whatever he was singing, self-composed or not, he went at it full tilt.

A more mature or detached singer might have found the sentiment of One Day in Your Life excessively sentimental or uncool, with more in common with Broadway than with Norman Whitfield, but the 16-year-old Jackson’s performance is engaged and therefore engaging. He soars his way through a difficult melody – a range of an octave and a half, to be negotiated both piano and forte as the dynamics of the song demand, a couple of unexpected changes (the shift to C#major7 under the word “face” in the first verse is sure to catch the unwary karaoke singer), a key change, ritardandos… Credit to the producers for getting him through it, for sure, but few are the 16-year-old aspiring pop singers with the technical facility to do it in the first place. Sure, you’ll have to make some allowances for One Day in Your Life, but the song stands as an early indication of how incandescently gifted its singer was.

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Jackson at 16

Still Crazy After All these Years – Paul Simon

It probably says a lot about me that I think this, but one of the greatest pleasures in being a music fan is having the opportunity to help a fellow fan find their way into a favourite artist’s body of work. Especially a long-standing favourite. It helps you hear their songs with fresh ears.

There’s no longer-standing favourite for me than Paul Simon. I’ve been listening to the man since I was about five years old. My parents had Greatest Hits Etc. on cassette and it accompanied virtually every long car journey we made. Why jazz harmony and songs about life as a divorced man in New York City should connect so strongly with a five-year-old British child is maybe a matter best left to a psychologist, but for whatever reason, Paul Simon became – and remains – my guy.

Mel asked me to put together a CD of Simon tunes she’d listened to on YouTube after I’d put Something So Right on a mix for her. This I did, but wanting to fill in the blanks and use up the remainder of the CD sent me scurrying back to my Simon albums, to hear these old songs as I imagined she might. I am, of course, knocked out by these songs all over again.

It’s the high points of Simon’s mid-seventies output that still hit me hardest: Something So Right, American Tune, Still Crazy After All these Years, I Do It For Your Love, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Slip Slidin’ Away. They’re spread over several albums, rather than concentrated into one record. If you’re not a Simon obsessive, the records to get are his solo debut album (Paul Simon, written about here), Graceland and a good compilation to fill in the gaps (Greatest Hits Etc. was the best but is out of print – the double-CD Paul Simon Anthology will do in its stead). Simon rewards a conscientious compiler.

The question is, why? Was this stuff too complicated to be able to bash out 10 similar tracks for one LP in any abbreviated time frame? Did it take too long to write a Still Crazy After All these Years or an American Tune? Did he feel that to make a palatable album, he had to lighten things up with some faux gospel (Loves Me Like a Rock is terrific, by the way; Gone at Last is significantly less so). It’s hard to tell. But it’s interesting to me that, when I listen to the Still Crazy album, the gap between the peaks and troughs is fairly huge: Night Game comes off bathetic; Have a Good Time, which is elevated in the context of Greatest Hits Etc., sinks on the second side of Still Crazy

As dark, as idiosyncratic, as spotty, as Still Crazy After All These Years Was, it connected hard: it reached number one on the US Billboard Album Charts, it won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1976, it went gold. But long term, it hasn’t been embraced as its more outward-looking peers in Simon’s discography have. It never went platinum in the US. That staggers me. Perhaps listeners realised that the best songs off the record were on the radio plenty and they didn’t need the album. Perhaps that CBS compilation did away with the need to have whole albums, despite not including My Little Town, the much-ballyhooed reunion with Art Garfunkel (better than it could have been, but more than a little out of place, sandwiched between Still Crazy and I Do It For Your Love – the muscularity of the drummer’s performance comes off rather startling).

I can’t help but feel Simon’s jazzy 1970s output will in time come to matter less and less in the reputation he has among younger fans; his career will likely be reduced to Bookends/Bridge Over Troubled Water and Graceland. Those sounds and arrangements are more copyable and are more copied by younger artists, allowing new fans a gateway to the original. And plenty of people my age and younger grew up with Graceland as their car-journey record. It’s a phenomenal album, as are Bookends and Troubled Water – don’t get me wrong for a second – but they have never left me gasping the way I Do it For Your Love or Slip Slidin’ Away do.

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Paul Simon, mid-seventies
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Spoon @ Shepherd’s Bush, 07/11/14

I’ve written before here about how much I love Jim Eno, the drummer from Texan indie-rock veterans Spoon. Watching them from a decent vantage point at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire last night gave me a little bit more insight into how he does what he does, and why it hits me so hard. But that was the least of it. It’s the interplay between all the members of the band that makes them so vital. Britt Daniel’s songs are elliptical and sometimes seem like fragments of bigger works, with changes that seem arbitrary the first few times you hear them, so it’s the band that supply the connective tissue that keeps it all together and functioning.

Firstly to deal with Eno, he’s got a few cool tricks. The maracas-as-drumsticks thing I’ve got to try; it gives a subtle 16th-note feel to an 8th-note pattern when he does it. Maybe it’d just be messy in the hands of the unpracticed. He played at least one song open handed, hitting the hats with his left hand (Rent I Pay). When he plays 16th notes on the hats with one hand, he’s got a great feel. The more I watched him, the more I thought of Charlie Watts. Ringo Starr’s key drum was the snare. John Bonham’s the kick. Charlie Watts’s and Jim Eno’s is the hi hat. Surprisingly, given the huge drum sound he often has on record, Eno’s playing is fairly light. He doesn’t use rimshots to choke the snare and get more volume and top end. He doesn’t hit from the shoulder; it’s an economical movement of the elbow and wrist, nothing more. His bass drum work suggests and R&B and soul influence.

Notably, he was the only band member not introduced by name by Britt Daniel, who just commented at one point to the audience, “Jim’s good tonight, isn’t he?” – Spoon members come and go, with Eno and Daniel the only ever-presents, and the other guys probably a bit younger (Eno’s 48!). Probably Daniel felt that Eno needed no introduction.

But he’s only one part of the collective, great as he is. There’s a lot of talent on the stage when Spoon play. Rob Pope, the bassist, is always in the pocket, providing solid low end without swamping things or getting in the way. Any contribution he makes beyond the obvious is always telling. OK, sure, that makes him the archetypal bass player, but every band should be so lucky as to have one.

Meanwhile, Alex Fischel and Eric Harvey both switch between guitar, keyboards and percussion, sometimes in the same song. Both play all three with a sure touch, whether playing squonky guitar solos, a pseudo harp solo on the keys or a Motown tambourine pattern. Their versatility is key to the band’s on-stage power, which was sometimes more telling on the quietest songs. The touches the band added during the second half of The Ghost of You Lingers made it one of the evening’s most thrilling moments, proving the group are just as effective playing off Britt Daniel’s surprisingly adept falsetto vocal as they are stomping through the Motown-esque You Got Yr Cherry Bomb or the late-Beatles-ish Don’t Make Me a Target.

If it sounds like I’m minimising Daniel’s contributions, I don’t mean to. Obviously they’re his songs and it’s his voice that puts them over, but Spoon are a band I love because of the ensemble playing, and last night – on the last night of the tour, at their biggest ever headlining show in Europe – they tore it up. It was great to see.

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Britt Daniel, some other show

 

Sebadoh @ Dingwalls, Camden, 04/11/14

Until yesterday the only Lou Barlow gig I’d ever been to was a New Folk Implosion show at Reading 2001 where the trio played mostly older songs (Dare to be Surprised-era stuff). It was great, and it was a surprise to me how bloodless the New Folk Implosion’s record was. So I was looking forward to Sebadoh, but with no real expectations. They’re not young guys anymore. They never really were about reaching out and trying to convert a young, mass audience, and anyway, I’m more than aware of their reputation in the 1990s for being shambolic and inconsistent, albeit with the potential to suddenly transcend their limitations and become spellbinding. Whatever was going to happen would happen, and I was cool with that,

So the first half of the set was a surprise. The frequent swapping of guitar, bass and lead vocals that Barlow and Loewenstein have always had to do at Sebadoh shows has been replaced by extended mini sets, with each songwriter taking six or seven tunes in a row before passing off to the other. At the beginning of the gig, with Barlow stage right at the lead vocal mic, guitar in hand, the band tore through their songs without pausing for breath, heavy on tunes from Bakesale and Harmacy, with a few highlights from new record Defend Yourself (such as album opener I Will).

During Loewenstein’s turn at the mic (even heavier on Bakesale tunes – Careful, Not Too Amused, Shit Soup and Drama Mine all appearing), though, the evening lost its focus. The tuner pedal the bass was plugged into began playing up, a fact which the band and the sound engineer struggled to diagnose for several songs, and Loewenstein abandoned the set list (literally crumpling it up and throwing it away). The band played the rest of the show off the top of their heads, taking requests, swapping guitars and retuning them more frequently, and doodling between songs. They did it in such good humour that they mostly got away with it – that Loewentsein gives good stage patter didn’t surprise me much, but Barlow’s levity was more unexpected – but the pace of the set slowed noticeably and my attention began to wander at times.

Dingwalls is a good venue for them: small enough to be sold out and buzzing, big enough to feel like a for-real gig. The group are pretty well preserved — despite Barlow’s current resemblance, pointed out by my friend Sara, to Jerry Garcia, all curly mop and facial hair and glasses — and played with a level of power and commitment that many younger bands would struggle to emulate. Sebadoh in the 1990s, with the erratic Eric Gaffney and then the barely competent Bob Fay behind the drums, couldn’t play their way out of a paper bag, but with Barlow an improved guitarist and always a solid bass player, Loewenstein competent at any instrument he turns his hand to, and new drummer Bob D’Amico a hard-hitting, no bullshit rock drummer, the latest line-up of Sebadoh was tight and powerful, and far, far louder than I’d been primed for.

I don’t want to be one of those guys always moaning about sound, but it would be nice if more live sound engineers worked from the vocals downwards – as in, if the vocals are this volume, how loud can the drums be without stepping on them? As opposed to, how loud can I make the drums and guitars while still having the vocals be just about perceptible? Indie rock is not blessed with many talented vocalists, but Barlow is one of them. It was a shame his voice was often so hard to discern. As it was, my ears are still ringing from the harsh cymbals and guitar sound, 24 hours after the show ended. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have worried. Nowadays, I curse myself for not having taken earplugs. Yet this was not a balanced mix that happened to be loud, so it’s not just me being a fuddy-duddy; the drums and guitars were too loud.

A bigger issue, and one that I feel like a bit of a heel bringing up, is that Lou did comparatively few of the songs I most wanted to hear. He’s been forthcoming in interviews and in song about the end of his marriage, and given that the majority of the songs I talk about (if not all of them) are love songs to his ex, I can see why he might prefer the bouncier or more aggressive songs from his archive right now, but Beauty of the Ride and Too Pure did hint at what the gig might have been if we’d had just a little more Soul and Fire, so to speak.

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Sebadoh, July 2014: l-r D’Amico, Loewenstein, Barlow

 

Podcast #4 – Stereo miking of the drum kit

Hi folks. A bit later than planned, here’s another downloadable podcast on recording drums. This time we’re discussing stereo miking the kit using what’s often called the ‘Glyn Johns’* method. Johns is a veteran engineer producer who recorded Let it Be, Let it Bleed, Who’s Next, the first couple of Eagles records, the first Zeppelin record… so you can surmise from that that this is a technique that works. Employed well, it will allow yout to pick up a really clear focused drum sound with a good amount of detail and a stable, mono-compatible stereo image, and use your close kick and snare mics to add focus and low end to those particular drums.

It’s a good choice if you’re recording drums in the home or rehearsal space and you don’t have an awful lot of channels and/or microphones at your disposal.

*Interesting historical note. I’ve heard a veteran engineer or two over at the Womb forumsdiscussing this and saying that the Glyn Johns method was the same way every engineer who trained at a studio in London in the 4- or 8-track era recorded drums. Not everyone panned their kit mikes in stereo the way Johns did, though.