Monthly Archives: January 2015

State of Independence – Donna Summer

Donna Summer was among the original crop of artists to sign to David Geffen’s new Geffen label, along with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John and John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Geffen was perturbed that, Double Fantasy apart, the first records by his chosen signees all flopped. This was an intolerable state of affairs; the artists had all received large advances that would now not be recouped in one album cycle, but more importantly, they had harmed the reputation of his new label in its very earliest stages. Asylum had been a boutique operation, an artists’ label (“I don’t think that every record we make is a hit or that every artist we record is going to be a star but I think that all the music we put out is very valid”, said Geffen in a TV interview); Geffen Records was about making money, and being seen by the industry to be making money.

When Summer was working on the follow-up to The Wanderer, that flop first Geffen record, David stepped in, cancelling the project and insisting that she work not with her usual collaborators, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, but with Quincy Jones instead. It may be no exaggeration to say that Summer, Bellotte and Moroder had changed the course of recorded music when they made I Feel Love, but for Geffen this was not enough. Jones’s involvement, Geffen felt, would guarantee a hit (after all, Quincy had made Off the Wall and Give Me the Night) and Summer needed a hit. Geffen needed a hit.

Recorded between late 1981 and early 1982, Donna Summer was the last record Jones worked on before commencing Thriller and tells us quite a bit about where his head was at, particularly in regard to rhythm tracks. For Thriller, Jones made use of the new drum machines that had come on to the market (his engineer Bruce Swedien namechecks the Univox SR55, but it’s safe to assume the ubiquitous Linn LM1 was in there too) as well as his first-call session drummers (John JR Robertson, Jeff Porcaro).

State of Independence got there first. The herky-jerky swing of Summer’s Jon & Vangelis interpretation foregrounds its mechanical qualities and doesn’t pretend to have been played by people. Jones:

We started with a Linn Drum Machine, and created the patterns for different sections. Then we created the blueprint, with all the fills and percussion throughout the whole song.

From the Linn, we went through a Roland MicroComposer, and then through a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers that we lock to. The patterns were pads in sequencer-type elements. Then we program the Minimoog to play the bass line.

The programs were all linked together and driven by the Roland MicroComposer using sync codes. The program information is stored in the Linn’s memory, and on the MicroComposer’s cassette.

Interview with Recording Engineer/Producer magazine

The question becomes, how do you add humanity, soul, to this kind of production? Fortunately Summer was adept at this kind of thing. She had done it ever since I Feel Love. Jones was moving into her territory on this tune, not the other way round.

I’d love to know if Summer handpicked State of Independence for her record. Jon & Vangelis’s original is, politely, all over the place. Anderson’s vocal is staccato, playing up the abstract, disjointed nature of his lyric and downplaying the gospel. Only in the “Sounds like a signal from my heart” does he seem to relax in his phrasing. Summer takes this as her starting point. The track’s early-days sequencing be as Brian Eno pointed out in a BBC documentary “crudely mechanical”, but Summer’s vocal is as sinuous as Pharaoh Sanders tenor solo.

But what truly puts the song over the top is the all-star chorus, described by Jones as a dress rehearsal for We Are the World: Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. Jones and Swedien created the most glorious-sounding vocal texture in recorded-music history. Nothing else sounds like it. Every time, every time, I hear this song, the chorus give me goosebumps. But Summer earns the right to bring so much heavy-duty vocal power to bear in the preceding section with her own performance; there’s so much spirit and joy in her own interjection of “hey, hey” after the “holy water to my lips” line, and when she insists “his truth will abound the land”, it’s hard not to believe her, whatever you believe when the record finishes.

Not a big US hit, State of Independence did much better in Europe and still gets airplay in the UK. It deserves it. Outside of his Jackson work, it may be Quincy Jones’s finest production; outside of I Feel Love, it may be Donna Summer’s finest record.

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New recording by the author. The author cannot sing like Donna Summer or produce like Quincy Jones

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Mark Lanegan at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 28/01/15

Mark Lanegan – his music, his voice, the whole bit – is one of my favourites. Dying Days is my Freebird, only better and shorter. I’ve written about him a couple of times before here, but I saw him live at Shepherd’s Bush last night, so you’re going to hear about him again, I’m afraid.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve seen him headlining before (at the Astoria, in maybe 2001) and he was in spectacularly grumpy form that night. His set was barely an hour long, there was no encore. He sang well, but seemed bored. Last night, arriving late with Mel and finding the place rammed, I was worried that maybe the lack of attention being paid to his chosen support act – his friend and collaborator Duke Garwood – would set him off, and it’d be the Astoria show again.

Instead Lanegan played an extensive, expansive, generously proportioned set that ranged widely through his solo career. It leaned heavily on his two most recent albums of original material – 2012’s Blues Funeral and 2014’s Phantom Radio – but contained highlights from as far back as Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1994) and three killer tracks from his 2001 mid-career highpoint Field Songs.

I’ve said before that Lanegan’s acoustic records are my favourites, as they are the ones that give his voice most space to shine, showing off the rough grain of his knotted baritone and the ease with which he can still move up into his tenor range. So Dead on You, Low, One Way Street and Resurrection Song were probably my favourites from last night (Mel liked One Way Street the most). But there were other highlights: a clattering Gravedigger’s Song, startling in its volume and punch after an opening run where Lanegan sang with just one clean electric guitar for accompaniment; Hit the City, which I never liked much in its recorded form, but which Lanegan tore to shreds last night; Harvest Home and Torn Red Heart from the new album. His band acquitted themselves well on every song, the drummer especially across a set that require everything from jazzy brushed snare to sample-augmented disco, and the sound was adequate, with the vocal plainly audible throughout.

I’d love to see him play with an acoustic band at a small sit-down gig (the gothic-revival Union Chapel would seem an appropriate venue), and if he could find it within himself to do something from The Winding Sheet (Mockingbirds, please!), that would probably be my ideal Lanegan gig at this point. But in terms of playing a career-spanning set with an electric band in a biggish theatre show, with all the possible acoustical gremlins that entails, last night’s show was just about perfect.

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Photo by Siamik Amini

New recording alert!

 

Would? – Opeth

Jerry Cantrell knew more about the layering of guitars than any of his contemporaries, maybe with the exceptions of Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins and Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine. But whereas Shields (and often Corgan) made heavy use of overdubbing to create a wall of sound that was soft and dreamy – an aural comfort blanket – Cantrell wanted his guitars to smash your face in. They were huge and aggressive. They dominated the mix, crowding everything else out, leaving Layne Staley and Sean Kinney having to fight to be heard. The reunion album that AiC put out in 2009 attempted to give the vocals and drums a little bit of extra focus while making the guitars even bigger – the results proved the old audio engineer’s saying: If everything is big, nothing is big.

Opeth are a Swedish group who started out playing death metal, but have got more multi-dimensional (and to my ears more interesting) as time has gone on. Most of their recent music foreswears death grunts, double kick-drum rolls and blastbeats in favour of acoustic guitars, twisty time signatures and a haunting, more pastoral vibe. Opeth’s main man Mikael Åkerfeldt is in the tradition of guitar layerers that runs through Cantrell, Shields and Corgan, back through Bob Mould, Tom Scholz and Lindsey Buckingham and all the way back to Les Paul, so it’s no surprise he’d be an AiC fan. Opeth’s version of Would? (a B-side from 2008) is mighty fine and extremely well played, particularly by drummer Martin Axenrot, who can drum rings around Sean Kinney, or anyone else. But it’s great in a different way to the original, in a way that leads you to appreciate the original more.

Opeth’s version is precise and clean, and sounds like it was probably played to a click track. As much as a record like this can, it grooves. Alice in Chains’s version is a barely restrained race to the finish, with an ear-grabbing tempo increase over the course of the first verse and chorus. This is not necessarily a negative thing at all; listen closely to some Led Zeppelin if you think rigid adherence to a fixed tempo is necessary for good-feeling rock music. Åkerfeldt sings the song calmly; he sounds like a man taking a detached, almost scientific, interest in his physical and emotional disintegration. Layne Staley sang it like he sang everything else: like a man in agony, someone in way too much pain to be able to get any kind of distance from or perspective on himself. Similary, Åkerfeldt’s guitar sound is heavily distorted but clinical and cleaner than Cantrell’s, which has more midrange content and is a little “messier” and less controlled tonally.

While it’s likely that Dave Jerden (the producer and engineer on Facelift, Dirt, Sap and Jar of Flies) had input into the structure of the songs, Cantrell is nevertheless recognisably a master of song structure (try to think of any similar rock song as tightly wound and economical as Them Bones). Åkerfeldt inadvertently proves as much by removing the last repetition of the chorus in order to double the length of his solo; without that last vocal chorus, the sense of unstoppable momentum that we carry into the killer last section (‘Am I wrong?’ with its huge, disorienting plunge from C to F#) is reduced, and with it goes a little of the song’s emotional wallop. And that’s what I dig about AiC – for all the distortion and dissonance, they were a rock band with great, tightly written songs, not riffs for riffs’ sake. If you’ve never given them a go (and for years I didn’t – they seemed “too metal” to teenage me), you may be surprised.

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Alice in Chains (left), Opeth (right)

New song (that is, a song that I wrote in 2012 re-recorded)

Preaching the End of the World – Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell’s Bond theme (You Know My Name from Casino Royale) is quite the best of the three Daniel Craig-era theme songs so far and brought him to an audience who never heard Soundgarden or the skyscraping vocals of Cornell’s youth (seriously, Slaves & Bulldozers. Go listen to it. There’s nothing like it. It’s a tour de force. Cornell does everything with his voice that a rock singer can, from Kurt Cobain shrieking to Bruce Dickinson wailing). But perhaps even You Know My Name won’t be Chris Cornell the solo artist’s legacy track.

A little over two years ago, a film came out called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley – a spectacularly miscast pair, given Knightley’s lack of comedic talent and the 23-year age gap between the two, which is just creepy (recalling the days when Hollywood thought nothing of casting Grace Kelly opposite Bing Crosby in High Society). Its plot was based on a little-known song from Cornell’s forgotten solo debut, Euphoria Morning, called Preaching the End of the World.

It is, by Cornell standards, a subdued piece. The first time I heard it (courtesy of Mel) I didn’t even recognise him singing until he started doing that Chris Cornell thing in the choruses; it might actually have been nicer if he’d sung the whole song in the soft, sad quasi-falsetto voice in which he begins the verses. Sadsackery suits him.

Soundgarden songs were notable for eschewing simplicity. They tended to be structurally knotty, with odd time signatures and counterintuitive feels. Preaching the End of the World takes Cornell’s love of stretching out musically within the context of a tight, through-composed pop song and applies it to harmony rather than rhythm. It’s a treat for fans of a good chord change. I rather like the Bmin7b5 in the verse under the line ‘Feeling the same way as me’ and the diminished seventh chord formed by raising the bass note of a standard D7 shape a semi-tone under the words ‘feeling just the same’ near the end of the bridge. The C6 in the chorus under ‘You can’t hide’ is pretty sweet too. When did Cornell learn all these Beatles-play-Gershwin chord changes? It’s impressive.

But the really impressive thing is the amount of pathos Cornell wrings out of his goofy sci-fi premise. The lyric has to establish character and premise, and make us care. It succeeds on all three fronts, in four and half minutes, rendering the film it inspired unnecessary.

Soundgarden perform at The Palladium in Worcester, MA on May 15, 2013
Chris Cornell – signature 335, sensible knitwear

One of my own recent recordings

First world problems: Gaucho & Third World Man – Steely Dan

Third World Man is the bleak conclusion of the bleakest album of Steely Dan’s frequently bleak discography. Bleak, I say? I’ll go further. It’s horrifying.

The cynicism they displayed throughout the seventies curdles into something rank and foul-smelling on their last album Gaucho. Their previous album Aja had been perhaps their warmest effort: Peg, Home at Last, the title track and Deacon Blues are hymns to the companionship of a good woman or, in the latter case, of jazz music. What mockery is evident is light-hearted (I Got the News) or regretful (Black Cow). More than on any other Dan album, you sense that the songs’ first-person narrator and Donald Fagen are the same person, or at least that Fagen and Becker have put themselves into their lyrics more than before.

Gaucho, in contrast, is populated with losers, cheaters, stalkers, dealers, users. Fagen and Becker have their fun with all of them. The narrators of Glamour Profession (a drug dealer who thinks he’s a Hollywood star in the making), My Rival (obsessive jilted lover), Gaucho (middle-aged gay man with unfaithful younger lover) and Hey Nineteen (incorrigible pussy-hound falling headlong into an age gap) all deserve his contempt, and they’re the targets of some of his funniest one-liners, while spinning off some good ones themselves: ‘Bodacious cowboys such as your friend will never be welcome here,’ says the narrator of Gaucho to his boyfriend, having found him and the Gaucho in a compromising position. Yet the sum of all this is an album dripping with contempt, a record that surveys the last days of the Me Decade with evident disgust.

That is, until we get to the ambiguous subject of album closer Third World Man, the only character in the whole album whom Fagen treats with any sympathy or compassion, the only one who deserves any.

Who is Johnny? Is he a veteran with PTSD? Is he an immigrant driven mad by the disparity between his circumstances and the privilege taken for granted and squandered by the sort of people who appear throughout the rest of the album? Fagen declines to specify why the sidewalks aren’t safe for a “little guy” like Johnny, or why he wears a disguise, or why the fireworks start (or whether the fireworks and disguise are metaphorical or literal). And surely no one in the narrator’s world had ever tried to find out.

Third World Man is the album’s conscience – the conscience of Steely Dan’s whole career really – and yet it only made the cut because some hapless tape operator recorded test tones all over the master tape for The Second Arrangement, a track Becker and Fagen had previously deemed the best thing they’d ever recorded. TWM (an Aja outtake?) was pulled from the vaults and completed by the addition of Larry Carlton’s guitar solo, the most nakedly emotional playing I’ve ever heard from him, a career highlight for a supremely technical but sometimes bloodless player.

Fagen was dumbfounded by the loss of The Second Arrangement; it was yet another setback in what had already been a tough project, during which he had been shouldering the load almost on his own. Becker had been mired in a heroin addiction, before being hospitalised with a broken foot sustained in a freak car accident. Then he suffered the death of his girlfriend from an overdose. Her family sued him for, they claimed, getting her hooked in the first place (Becker was eventually found not guilty). Left on his own and weary of the work and the responsibility, Fagen’s use of Third World Man in place of what he saw as the band’s ruined masterpiece was an admission of defeat, a rare “will this do?” shrug of the shoulders from a guy for whom no amount of work in the studio had ever been too much. Yet had he chosen to persevere with re-recording The Second Arrangement, we’d have been denied one of the greatest, most humane Steely Dan songs and one of the most affecting album closers in the history of popular music.

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Walter Becker, Donald Fagen

The future of the 12 Bar Club

Writing last month about the closure of the 12 Bar Club in its Denmark Street location in St Giles, I said:

This is a terrible shame for London’s music-playing community. With Enterprise, the 12 Bar (and across the street the Alleycat) and the retailers, Denmark Street has been a real community, where musicians played, rehearsed, bought and maintained their gear, and hung out. That will end now. Nothing they could put in its place there will ever replace that.

Nothing, that is, that the property developers behind all of this, the Consolidated Property Group, put there will ever replace it. If you’re having trouble imagining what that will be, take a walk through the alleyway next to St Giles in the Fields, past the Phoenix Garden, across Shaftesbury Avenue, down Mercer Street and into St Martin’s Lane. Continue until you see a Jamie’s Italian on your left hand side. That’s the western entry to St Martin’s Courtyard. Give it five years or so, and in all likelihood that’s what Denmark Street will look like: a privately owned piece of defensible space, monitored discreetly by private security, comprising a spa, some expensive (though not exclusive) retail and some upper-middle-price-range restaurants.

Feel like we have enough of these places already and don’t need another? Me too.

But this is a digression. As I said, nothing that Consolidated (what a hateful, foreboding name!) put there will be an adequate replacement for what the musician community of London is losing. That’s why we have to replace it ourselves. The glory of the 12 Bar Club was that it was one of the few really great central London venues, in a place that was a destination already. Denmark Street had been a musicians’ hub long before there was a 12 Bar Club; musical folk wanted to spend time there, and all of us living in this sprawling city were at an equal disadvantage getting there. It wasn’t in anyone’s neighbourhood, so it was in everyone’s neighbourhood. And it was readily accessible to those coming in from outside the city, too, who naturally enough gravitate to the West End.

I live in Lewisham, south-east London, 10 miles from Holloway. If the 12 Bar had reopened in Brixton, it would be 9.5 miles away from a musician living in Leyton. That’s the scale that London is built on. Those of us who live south of the river, or out in the west, must resist the temptation to start thinking of the 12 Bar as a “north London venue” and forget about playing there, hanging out there. If we do, it will likely fail. And we will all have lost something special. The continuance of a London music community is entirely dependent on the effort we put in to maintaining it.

12 Bar Club

A recent recording

 

Some more thoughts on Tennis’s Ritual in Repeat/Where Dreams Go to Die – John Grant

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Tennis’s new album Ritual in Repeat. I was a little disappointed by the album at first, and I still think that a couple of tracks (Timothy and Never Work for Free) could have had better, more dynamic and less cluttered, mixes. I mentioned how surprised I was by this, given that the mixes were by the normally reliable Michael Brauer.

But if the record isn’t quite the straight-up indie pop classic I wanted it to be when I first heard it – a sort of 21st-century Reading, Writing & Arithmetic – and ordered it from the US, further listening has convinced me that Needle and a Knife and I’m Callin’ are more or less perfect in their studio-recording incarnations, that Bad Girls (engineered and produced by Jim Eno and powered by his inimitable drumming) isn’t the kitsch throwaway it seemed to be at first, that James Barone (who drums on all other tracks) grooves like a dream, and that this band are maybe one album away from doing something truly great.

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I bought Uncut this week, for the first time in years. Ten years probably. Really this was because the new Yo Zushi record, It Never Entered My Mind – which I mixed, played a bunch of stuff on, and co-produced and engineered – has been reviewed in the current issue. This is the first time a record I did engineering work on has got a review in the national press so it’s a bit of a milestone for me, and I wanted the magazine as a keepsake.

Uncut comes with a CD. Early in the magazine’s history, these used to be rather good. The new one isn’t awful, but there’s some dreck on there for sure. I’m not sure why Uncut are going for Matthew E White in such a big way, but for those of us who remember how much they got behind Ryan Adams and everyone who associated with him in the early noughties (“Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Adams), their championing of White’s protégée Natalie Prass looks unwise. Guys, Van made Moondance in 1970. Go listen to that if you want to hear white people singing soul music with country chord changes and horns. It’s better.

But there is one treat on the CD: John Grant’s live version of Where Dreams Go to Die from his new live album, recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at MediaCityUK. I bought that record for Mel, a Grant fan, for Christmas and heard half of it at low volume last weekend. It sounded good, and I found myself enjoying it more than I did the live set I saw in Oxford when he was touring with Midlake about five years ago. A lot more.

I’ve never been too sure about Grant, but this is a bit of a revelation. Firstly, he turns in a superb vocal performance (deeper and richer than on his studio version – he sounds like Nick Cave, if Cave could actually sing) on one of his best songs. But that’s not all. Fiona Brice’s orchestral arrangement is grander than on record but still sympathetic and humane, and the sound of the thing is astonishingly good. The BBC has long had a reputation for giving its audio technicians a thorough training; this still seems to be the case, thankfully. The drum sound is glorious – big in a tasteful, large-room kind of way – and the strings have both clarity and woody richness.

A word, too, about drummer Kristinn Snær Agnarsson. If you can judge a drummer by how well they play a straight 4/4 rock beat on a moderately slow ballad (around 70bpm, say) – by the timing of their backbeat placement, by the dynamic and timbral consistency of those snare shots, and by how good it feels – then Agnarsson is top class. Earl Young or Jim Keltner couldn’t have played it better.

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John Grant, intense sidelong stare

A recent one-man-band recording of one of my songs