Monthly Archives: June 2015

Foo Fighters at 20

Gee, I got old. Twentieth anniversaries of records I bought as a teenage will start coming thick and fast now. Some I’ll write about fondly; others I might listen to and wonder what the hell I saw in this music. But, and this I can guarantee, it’ll be with a where-did-the-time-go bewilderment.

So Foo Fighters, then. Nowadays the acceptable face of mainstream rock and professional nice guy, albeit one with enough self-regard to deem the fact that he’s making a new record worthy of an 8-part HBO series full of slo-mo shots of the band walking purposefully, Dave Grohl didn’t always have quite such an assured position in the world.

In 1995, still processing Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl didn’t know how to proceed (I assume anyone reading this knows Grohl played drums in Nirvana, right? OK, sorry. Of course). Like many musicians who go through a trauma, for a while he didn’t want to hear music, let alone play it. It reminded him of everything that had happened. And while he’d made good money from Nirvana and could afford to live quietly, take his time and see what came his way, he was still only 26, had a lot of working years ahead of him and not much idea of how to fill them.

Eventually, as the pain subsided into an ache, Grohl decided to treat himself to a week in a 24-track studio, Robert Lang’s, not far from where he lived in Seattle. If Lang’s isn’t the biggest name in studioland, with a Studer A827 tape machine and an SSL E series desk, it was still a major facility, so it was no small present Grohl was giving himself. Nonetheless, essentially he was just doing a more hi-fi version of something he’d done a few years before in 1992, when he recorded a collection of songs by himself and gave them to some friends in Virginia to release on their cassette label, Simple Machines. Pocketwatch, which has since been endlessly bootlegged, came out under the pseudonym Late! (Groh’s exclamation mark). He was planning to do the same thing again: release it under a band name, keep his own name off the sleeve and let the album find whatever audience it could.

Working with him as co-producer was Barrett Jones, his former drum tech in Nirvana. He and Grohl made the record in six days, with Grohl switching from one instrument to the next for each song, before moving on to the next one, burning through four songs a day. Jones has said since that he felt the album he and Grohl were making could be a big deal, but both were perhaps still naïve about the industry at that point and didn’t foresee the reaction his work would get among the big LA labels when they got wind of it (a process accelerated by Eddie Vedder playing a couple of songs on a radio show he hosted). Grohl was effectively able to name his own price (his own price being that he be allowed to start out small), with the labels confident that any release by a former member of Nirvana would pay for itself many times over. Grohl conceded to having the album remixed by Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock (who would later work on another old favourite of mine, Elliott Smith’s XO)

Somewhere over the next 10 years, the group slowly became one of the biggest in the world, and even now Grohl can turn out a strong single or two on each record, but I checked out a long time back.I find the sound of his albums, with the exceptions of the debut and 1999’s vintagey There is Nothing Left to Lose, extremely sonically fatiguing. The worst offenders, The Colour & the Shape and One by One, are essentially unlistenable, with the massed overdubs of guitars forcing the drums to occupy ever smaller real estate, until they no longer retain any of the shape of a real-life drum performance. This is crucial to a good-sounding, good-feeling, rock record (the Butch Vig-produced Wasting Light is a partial exception to this trend; it sounds, well, OK). And Grohl’s grandiosity and general unwillingness to challenge his audience has resulted in a lot of play-it-safe soundalike songs.

But I remain hugely fond of his debut, so distinct from the rest of the group’s music that it’s really the work of a different artist. The medium-fi recording, noticeably lacking in low end and bass guitar, is hugely charming, Grohl’s drum performances have room to breathe, and the material whether goofy (Weenie Beenie, Wattershed, This is a Call) or otherwise (Exhausted, I’ll Stick Around) is strong, and benefits from the low-key vibe. Each song sounds better in the context of all the others. It’s a great collection of songs; later Grohl records have striven to be a collection of great songs. Much harder to do the latter well. You couldn’t make this record better by adding or subtracting anything.

I should admit, too, that at 13 I found the idea that one man did all this by himself (playing the drums! and the bass! and the guitars! and singing it! and writing all the songs!) to be hugely inspiring.

Foo Fighters 02/50. Phoenix, Arizona, 1995 by Steve Double (UK)
Foo Fighters, 1995

My own one-man-band stuff (not recorded in a 24-track studio):

July – Low

It’s not the speed, it’s the space. Low’s music in its Steve Albini years wasn’t defined by tempo, but by the emptiness implied by the minimal arrangements, even as the band were gradually moving beyond basic guitar, bass and drums and incorporating subtle strings and electronics.

Low’s approach to record making was bold in its early years, too, but with Albini at the desk and a slightly bigger sound born of more hi-fi instrument sounds, the group were confident enough to widen their sound further than ever before. July sees Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s voices mixed hard left and hard right respectively and the centre of the stereo spectrum occupied only by Parker’s distant-sounding drums, Zak Sally’s bass guitar and Sparhawk’s warmly distorted electric.

While I admire Low’s aesthetic and their consistency, I admit that I don’t usually find their work as thrillingly powerful as I do on July, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I think it comes down to something I’ve written about before in the context of Rickie Lee Jones’s On Saturday Afternoons in 1963:

I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

July works the same way. The lyrics, on the page, look like nothing, a 5-minute, bung-it-down job:

Wait — it’s late
We’ve missed the date
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July

Now — at last
I hear them pass
Gone, I guess
With the rest, the rest

They’ll never wake us in time
They’ll never wake us in time
Maybe we’ll wait ’til July
Then August, September
October, November or December

Yet when Sparhawk and Parker intone “They’ll never wake us in time” in solemn harmony (a similarly vague, elusive phrase as Jones’s “Years may go by”), it becomes incredibly powerful. It’s a perfect marriage of melody and meaning, as if the melody, just played on its own, without words, would mean the same thing, and all the band have done is make explicit what the tune itself is already saying. And while it may seem lazy to write lyrics that raise questions but provide no actual answer, July gets away with it because those bare statements in the chorus are sung in such beautiful harmony. Who are “they”? Who are “us”? Wake from what? In time for what? The marriage of words and music is strong enough to make you care.

This is the best they ever did. If you’re new to the band start with parent album Things We Lost in the Fire and work forward if you want to hear them add more stuff, or backward if you want to hear them at their most minimal.

low

A new song – it’s good clean alternate-tuning, fingerpicking fun!

Lady-O – The Turtles

On my way home from work tonight I was listening to the Turtles. They are, in truth, not a band I know all that much about. You can summarise my knowledge of them thusly:

  • The two singers – Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman – became Flo and Eddie of the Mothers of Invention, and sang backing vocals on a bunch of T. Rex songs and Springsteen’s Hungry Heart
  • Happy Together is a deathlessly great single; Elenore may be a rather smartarse parody of Happy Together, but is actually an even better record
  • Drummer Johny Barbata played with various CSNY folks (Neil Young, Crosby & Nash, and with CSNY themselves – that’s him on Ohio, for example)
  • They signed Judee Sill to their publishing company when she was living out of a car, gave her a weekly wage and recorded her song Lady-O

It is, of course, the last item on the list that’s going to detain us right now. If you’re new to this blog, I’ll just say in brief that I think Judee Sill’s first record is the best album ever made by anyone ever; at the very least, it’s my favourite. So the fact that these guys played a part in her story makes them interesting to me, even without the other good work they did.

(Although by god they were responsible for some insipid folk-rock mush too – was someone holding them at gunpoint to force them to record Eve of Destruction? Who suggested that tempo as the right one for It Ain’t Me Babe?)

Their recording of Lady-O, cut in 1969 (two years before Sill’s was released) and featuring Sill’s acoustic guitar and string arrangement, is a wholly creditable effort, even if it neither jump-started her career nor revived their own flagging one (it would be the band’s last single).

Lady-O, as sung by Sill, is a multi-layered text. Sill’s lyrics often fused erotic and spiritual love in a Song of Songs type of way, and as its author was bisexual, a song such as Lady-O opens itself up to several various, and overlapping, potential meanings. A love song to a woman? A hymn to Mary? A love song to Mary? A hymn to a lover? Lady-O is all of these things when Sill sang it.

When the Turtles performed it (I assume the lead vocal is Howard Kaylan, but if it’s Volman, my apologies), it’s necessarily missing these potential meanings. But Kaylan and Volman do a great job with a winding melody spanning a very wide range, the song in their hands is no less graceful melodically than it is in Judee’s, and the descending bass in the chorus is still heartbreakingly beautiful. In fact, given that the double tracking of Sill’s delicate falsetto softens her voice to the point where it becomes a little weak and warbly, there is at least one way in which the Turtles’ version may be superior. Nevertheless, Sill’s reading, in its rich textual ambiguity, is the definitive one.

turtles
The Turtles – um, yeah. Looking good, guys

A new song for you here:

Give some to the bass player, part 10 – Sympathy for the bassist

In an era where many people routinely listen to music on built-in laptop speakers or the leaky standard-issue iPod earbuds, the poor bass player (particularly the electric bass player in the guitar-driven rock band), can feel like he or she is on a hiding to nothing.

While the low-end content of a lot of EDM is frankly insane, that’s not always evident except in clubs or in cars with subs in the back: that sort of content is extremely low frequency and can’t be adequately reproduced by small radio speakers or earbuds. In a lot of people’s usual listening environments, that stuff isn’t really apparent. Within rock mix, the tendency towards louder, shallower mixes often results in indistinct low end where the kick drum has been square-waved into indiscernability and the bass guitar is inseperable from the low end of mid-range instruments like acoustic guitar and piano. An unhappy state of affairs, but a very common one.

Life in the club or theatre is little better for bassists, either. Depending on the venue, the bass may be overpoweringly loud but with no clarity, or barely audible in among the clanging, reverberant din. Both extremes are equally common.

It all contributes to the relatively unappreciated status of the bass player. Indeed the stereotype of the bassist is the one who quietly takes care of business, is not the most accomplished musician in the band but certainly isn’t the least, keeps the drummer in check and provides a cool and unflappable, steadying presence. It’s one with more than a bit of truth to it. And as a bassist for 20 years, initially as a way of joining a band in high school that already had two guitarists, I’ve got a natural sympathy for my brothers and sisters in four strings. Hence this series, celebrating the unsung providers of the low end, which I hope has been at least moderately entertaining. We’ll be back to normal programming later this week. Take care now.

Give some to the bass player, part 9 – Dreams by Fleetwood Mac

To be John McVie is to be Fleetwood Mac’s That Guy. Not the instantly recognisable 7-foot-tall drummer who’s on the record covers, bald on top, long at the back, with the nose. Not one of the two crazy, glamorous American singer-songwriters. Not the other singer-songwriter who gets her turn alone at the piano. The other one.

To be John McVie is to have an unerring sense of the right thing to play, all the time. To be able to take a two-note heartbeat pattern and make an instantly recognisable signature out of it.

To be John McVie is to be a yeoman, whose qualities are possibly only properly realised by that lanky drummer, the guy who’s been with you through good times and bad for 48 years now.

The sweetest moment in the excellent Classic Albums documentary on Rumours is when Mick Fleetwood is sitting next to the album’s producer Ken Caillat while the latter picks apart the mix of Go Your Own Way to highlight Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing. Fleetwood suddenly hears McVie’s bass as if with fresh ears.

“Listen to John! Listen! It’s like a whole orchestra going on. He’s creating the whole counter—”

“It’s that magic,” says Caillat, shrugging.

Fleetwood then does what I can only assume is a McVie impression, sort of singing along with his bass line before adding his final word on the subject.

“You’re a monster, John!”

Monster or yeoman, McVie is crucial to the band’s sound and no bass pattern is more synonymous with John McVie than the heartbeat pattern he plays on crucial Mac track Dreams from Rumours (as well as Sara from Tusk, Say You Love Me from Fleetwood Mac, and Gypsy and Hold Me from Mirage and probably more that I’m not thinking of right now). Locked in tight with Fleetwood’s bass drum, the string is picked on the one and the three, and on the quaver before the three and before the next one, like this:

heartbeat

It’s undemonstrative, it doesn’t call attention to itself, it supports the vocal while giving the song a subtle internal push, and at some point most bassists have found themselves playing this pattern along with the drummer. Yet when Fleetwood and McVie do it, it just cooks. These guys could never do anything else and I’d still want to hear them do it.

John McVie
John McVie, yeoman bass player

A new song!

Give some to the bass player, part 8 – Gloria by Laura Branigan

The endearing thing about Italo disco is how unashamed it is. It’s totally committed to the idea of being pop music. While never hugely popular in the US or UK, several Italo or Italo-derived records did hit big, Ryan Paris’s Dolce Vita from 1983 and Gloria (originally by Umberto Tozzi), but covered by Laura Branigan (with English lyrics by Branigan and Trevor Veitch) in 1982 among them.

Made in California her version may have been, but Gloria retains its Italo ethos: from the endlessly repeated three-note synth hook to the trumpet fanfares in the coda, no idea is too obvious and no hook is too crass. Branigan, 27 when the song hit and a one-time backing singer for Leonard Cohen, sings it with throat-tearing commitment. It’s a big excitable dog of a song.

We often associate disco with complicated, funk-derived bass lines (Chic’s Good Times and I Want Your Love, Teena Marie’s I Need Your Lovin’, Narada Michael Walden’s I Should Have Loved You, that kind of thing). When hi-NRG appeared in the wake of Donna Summer’s epochal I Feel Love, it did away with much of the funkiness in the low end which had been one of first-wave disco’s calling cards. Before long, root-octave basslines at brisk tempos (130-140, as opposed to the classic disco tempo of 120 – try walking down the street Travolta-style to Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel and see how long it takes you to keel over), had been normalised within dance music. Hence, when Branigan and her producer Jack White picked up Tozzi’s 1979 track Gloria, they substituted the original’s straight-eight bassline for an eighth-note root-octave line.

There are two bassists credited on the album Branigan, Bob Glaub and Leland Sklar. I always assumed the player on Gloria was Glaub, as Sklar is primarily known as bassist from the section, the LA studio band who backed Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other such 1970s singer-songwriters of the mellow school. Tonally it doesn’t sound like Sklar as I recognise him (it sounds like it was played with a pick). But more than one article I’ve read about Sklar has credited Gloria to him, so who knows.

Whoever it was, it’s a great performance. It sounds suitably machine-like in the verses, with a clear debt to Moroder’s pioneering I Feel Love bassline (created with a delay – if you want to hear the original line, listen to the left channel only), but in the chorus sections (“You really don’t remember”), the line becomes more fluid and melodic, with scalar passing notes providing a marked contrast to the roots and octaves that dominate the verses. All of which, we should again stress, is played at a pretty damn fast tempo.

Branigan’s discography contains one other unimpeachable classic, Self-Control from 1984 (a song I really should write about in more depth), but she’ll always be remembered for Gloria and her Tiggerish performances of it. She died in 2004 from a cerebral aneurysm when she was just 47.

LauraBranigan
Since I don’t know who played bass on Gloria, here’s Laura Branigan instead; she’s definitely on it

Give some to the bass player, part 7 – Promised Land by Bert Jansch/Outside In (live at Leeds) by John Martyn

One of the chief pleasures of Bert Jansch’s Birthday Blues is hearing musicians whose work you’ve loved in other contexts playing together in a combination you’ve not heard before. On his 1969 album, Jansch teamed up with his Pentangle rhythm section – drummer Terry Cox and the genius double bassist Danny Thompson – and added saxophonist Ray Warleigh and Duffy Power (a 1950s rocker from the Larry Parnes stable), on harmonica, to the team. Warleigh’s alto sax had haunted the street corners of Nick Drake’s At the Chime of a City Clock from Bryter Layter and it’s a treat to hear him and Jansch react to each other’s playing on the bluesy Promised Land (not the Chuck Berry song).

The busy playing of Warleigh, Jansch and Cox, as well as the brutally simple two-chord structure, necessarily casts Thompson in something of a supporting rule. While not familiar with all of the records Thompson played on as a for-hire session man, I’ve heard a fair bit of his work, and it’s a bit of a novelty to hear one of the most dazzlingly inventive musicians relegated to the sidelines of anything, although it speaks well of his judgement that he stays out of the way of Warleigh and Jansch and lets them have at it, simply holding down the riff and occasionally adding small variations.

To get a sense of what Thompson capable of, there’s only one place to go: his work with John Martyn. Thompson played with Martyn through most of the 1970s and the pair developed a sensational musical chemistry (although the tales of their boisterous on-the-road behaviour has overshadowed that somewhat). Their partnership is best illustrated on Martyn’s two finest albums (Solid Air and Inside Out) and the jaw-dropping Live at Leeds, recorded in 1975 with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s John Stevens behind the kit.

The 19-minute version of Outside In that opens the concert makes the album cut sound like a mere rehearsal demo (albeit one that features absolutely thunderous drumming from Remi Kabaka, outdoing Stevens for ecstatic release if not subtlety). While Martyn’s Echoplex guitar work is at its most fevered and exploratory, it’s always Thompson that my ear keeps getting drawn to. The speed and imagination with which Thompson reacts to every nuance of Martyn’s and Stevens’s playing is dazzling. In contrast to Jansch’s Promised Land, where Thompson played a supporting role, on Outside In from Live at Leeds its Stevens who steps aside and lets the two guys who’d played with each other night after night and developed a sort of telepathy venture into the songs darkest corners. As with everything else they did, they go fearlessly.

Thompson is a mighty presence in British music where folk and jazz meet. There’s no one else like him.

dannythompson2
Danny Thompson and Victoria, his 1865 bass