Monthly Archives: November 2015

Pneuma – 50 Foot Wave

In the mid-1990s, the economics of the record industry caught up with Kristin Hersh. She couldn’t afford to keep Throwing Muses on the road and the band weren’t selling enough records to justify the effort and expense of making them under the old model. Her solo albums, on the other hand, were very useful money-spinners: cheap and quick to knock out, and cheap and simple to tour behind. Have guitar will travel. Cheaply.

But eventually she reconvened the Muses for what longtime fans assumed would be one last hurrah, a self-titled record released in 2003. A belligerent-sounding effort, only marginally sweetened by the presence of Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly on harmony vocals, it contained many of the elements she would bring the following year to her new band, 50 Foot Wave: asymmetrical song structures, knotty time signatures and elliptical melodies.

Hersh has written (in her memoir, released as Rat Girl in the US and Paradoxical Undressing in the UK), that she has heard music in her head since a car hit knocked her off her bike in 1985 and her head slammed into the ground. In the mid-2000s, the songs she was hearing called for a different approach, particularly percussively. They needed greater aggression, more power, less finesse. David Narcizo, a player with impressive military snare drum skills but fundamentally a guy with a light touch, was replaced by Rob Ahlers, who plays with enormous power and what sounds like desperation, as if his drums need to be fended off with sticks lest they do him some kind of physical injury.

Golden Ocean, the band’s 2004 debut full-length, was a shock in an age when so much popular rock music aped the loose-limbed grooves of British post-punk and the first side of Low. 50 Foot Wave were all frantic energy and scabrous attack. Hersh, her voice long since abraded into an old-lady croak (a croak that, if I’m honest, limits the appeal to me of hearing her in acoustic guitar-and-vocal mode), frequently broke into raspy screams as the snare drum took a vicious beating, and fans of the light and shade on Muses records (let alone those her solo debut classic Hips & Makers) wouldn’t have found much to console them. To give you an idea of the tone of Golden Ocean, Pneuma – one of the best things on the record, but by no means the only standout – hinges on a breakdown section where Hersh drawls “You know what?” three times over guitar feedback before screaming, “Shut the fuck up!” But while the music was difficult – unvaryingly loud and confrontational, and with frequent hard left turns in structure and rhythm – it was the best record she made in the noughties, the more welcome for being so unexpected.

50ftwave1l-r Hersh, Muses/50 Foot Wave mainstay Bernard Georges, Rob Ahlers

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 10: Yeah We Know – Dinosaur Jr

Hi all. So we’ve come to the end of 2015’s Underrated Drum Tracks. I hope you’ve liked them. If you had half as much fun reading them as I did writing them, well, I’ve had twice as much fun writing them as you did reading them. I’ll be back at the weekend with something very non-drummy.

Let us now praise Murph.

J Mascis is the alt.rock guitar hero and Lou Barlow the bass player who stepped out of Mascis’s shadow to become an acclaimed songwriter in his own right, so Murph has played the stereotypical bassist’s role in Dinosaur Jr: the steady Eddie, the reassuring, dependable presence. The guy who’s pivotal in making it all happen but who you don’t always notice.

Murph left the band after 1993’s Where You Been, and Mascis took over the role of studio drummer for the last two Dino albums during the band’s first run, Without a Sound and Hand It Over. As is so often the case, you notice what a musician brings to the table most when they’re not there any more. Those two albums had some fine songs on them (Hand It Over‘s Never Really Bought It is a classic), but I miss Murph’s playing constantly. Mascis has nothing like the same authority behind the drums, he hits the brass too hard and he pushes the backbeat (hey, maybe I don’t like his playing because it reminds me of everything I worry that I’m doing wrong in my own playing).

Great rock music is about drums first (sole exception: Neil Young), so Dinosaur Jr are a great band only when powered by Murph. It’s true today; it was true in 1987. In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azzerad’s survey of the American post-hardcore scene, Lou Barlow complains that Mascis never appreciated the time and effort that he and Murph put into becoming a solid rhythm section for him. The book was written during the years of Barlow/Mascis animosity, and his complaints may have been overstated, but it’s true that something did click into place between he and Murph in the gap between You’re Living All Over Me and Bug, which perhaps came from the extra time they spent rehearsing as a duo. Their finest moments as a rhythm section (during the band’s first stint) are arguably all on Bug.

Chief among them is Yeah We Know, a virtual showcase for everything that’s great about Murph. The verse part is an obbligato for toms, snare and crash cymbals, repeated in full four times, which is replaced by a straighter 4/4 rock beat in the chorus, albeit one with very tightly composed snare fills every few bars (the patterns are repeated verbatim in all choruses) and a rumbling tom fill starting on the sixth bar of each sequence that climaxes with a hugely reverberant snare flam (the most artful production touch on the whole album). Murph takes something of a backseat during Mascis’s solo, merely repeating his established chorus patterns, but then comes his shining moment: a glorious middle section where Murph plays his most powerful, but most complicated, tom and snare patterns in tandem with Mascis’s wah-wah riffing and Barlow’s grinding distorted bass. Murph calls on some of the ideas used elsewhere in the song (laying off the hats, making heavy use of the rack and floor toms, using the crash cymbals to accentuate strong beats within the snare drum pattern), but taking them as far as he can. It’s Dinosaur Jr pretty much distilled to their essence, one of the most exciting passages of rock music I’ve ever heard.

Murph is so unsung, it’s untrue.

murph_lou_jamThe indispensable Murph

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 9: Are “Friends” Electric?/Cars – Tubeway Army/Gary Numan

Even cyborg pop stars have uncles.

Gary Numan’s uncle, Jess Lidyard, was also his drummer.

It was unusual enough that an uncle would be playing drums with his nephew, but even more so that he would be playing this music, in 1979: a song with barely a scrap of melody, no chorus whatsoever and a lyric that talks baldly about sex with androids. Jess Lidyard, clearly, was an unusually cool uncle.

His playing on Are “Friends” Electric is as key an element of the track as Numan’s pained, nasal vocal and those Minimoogs and Polymoogs. While other electronic musicians were evangelical about all-electronic music (OMD’s Andy McCluskey reportedly told the members of Kraftwerk after he’d seen them perform live that he and his band were going to bin their guitars and do it all with synths from now on), Numan’s music was essentially a rock/electronic hybrid, with synths being a late addition to their sound (Numan only played a synth for the first time when in the recording studio working on second album Replicas). The rhythm section remained an analogue affair even after Numan’s conversion: Lidyard’s acoustic drums and Paul Gardiner’s bass. This digital/analogue, rock/electronic hybrid finds its most perfect expression on Are “Friends” Electric.

It’s not a fresh insight to note the influence on Numan of JG Ballard, or of dystopian science fiction generally. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that Numan’s brand of futurism felt lived in and down at heel. This music belongs to a world not white and gleaming but bodged, a world built on top of what was already extant. I’m trying very hard not to say the word “steampunk”…

Jess Lidyard provided the steam. Not only are his driving 16th-note hi hats the most apparent and persistent rhythmic element in the track, but he provides added push by reinforcing the synth bass line with his kick drum. I don’t think Are “Friends” Electric would be half as good if it had been powered by a drum machine. It was Lidyard that stopped the music from being too gleaming, too synthetic, too perfect.

Cars (from Numan’s next album The Pleasure Principle), similarly, derives a great deal of its power from its performed drum track. By this time, Lidyard had been replaced by Cedric Sharpley (Lidyard wasn’t keen on the touring musician’s life). Sharpley’s drumming is ever so slightly more elegant than Lidyard’s and he sounds more “live” on Cars than Lidyard did on “Friends”. Cars has a subtle continual lift in tempo throughout its duration, its kick-drum pattern becomes increasingly complicated and the drum fills get more frantic with every verse. Lidyard seemed to power the music from within. Sharpley fed off it and responded to it in his playing. I can imagine hearing Are “Friends” Electric and thinking the drums were from a machine. I’d be staggered if anyone thought that about Cars.

After around 90 seconds, Numan has said all he as to say about life in cars, and the band takes over. This is where Sharpley is really at his best, with a performance that’s urgent and mechanical and weirdly funky all at the same time. I didn’t get Numan’s music for a long, long time. Granted, his public persona had a lot to do with that, I didn’t respond to anything in the music either. As has so often been the case for me, I got into the music once I started following the drums. And while Are “Friends” Electric is the more important, and ultimately better, track, it was Cars that began the process, which is why I had to write about them both.

Some recentish work

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 8: That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart – Aimee Mann

The quality of a drum performance is inextricable from the quality of the arrangement it’s a part of. A great drum part serves the song above all else. Many, many musicians, if asked, will say it. Fewer will live it.

Jay Bellerose lives it. It’s why he’s one of the most in-demand session drummers in the world. He’s played with a dizzying array of names. High-budget singer-songwriter records are his bread and butter (Suzanne Vega, Glen Hansard, Elton John, Jackson Browne, JD Souther, etc.), but his session work takes in everyone from BB King to Mose Allison to Alfie Boe.

Aimee Mann’s been a regular employer of Bellerose since 2002’s Lost in Space (her best, and most underrated, record). It’s easy to hear why. Whether it’s a light waltz or a heavy-backbeat rock song, he’s whatever the song needs. Tasteful and unobtrusive, aggressive and dominant, or anything in between. You can trust Bellerose to size up the song, work out what it needs, then deliver it.

That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart is a particularly clear demonstration of this. The arrangement is a slow builder, which works by rewarding the experienced listener’s expectation that with each verse another element will be added until, with glorious inevitability, the drummer comes crashing in to power everything home. It’s very far from subtle, but The Forgotten Arm is Mann’s least subtle album, designedly so. She intended it to be something of a 1970s country-rock record, and producer Joe Henry put together a band to fit that vibe. Nowhere else in Mann’s discography is there anything like Jeff Trott’s cock-rock solo on Dear John (the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether he could possibly be being serious).

Bellerose, too, is atypically swaggering on this album, and his work on That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart is characteristic of his Forgotten Arm style: a fat snare sound, lots of whole-kit fills, and a general sense that he can have fun and indulge himself for once. It works particularly well on this song because the arrangement (whether Mann’s or Henry’s idea) is designed to make the listener want him to play this way. By the time the second verse has ended, you’re just waiting for him to come in with that big fill. When he finally does, it feels, as I say, glorious.

jay_belleroseJay Bellerose

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 7: Nights on Broadway – The Bee Gees

Nights on Broadway is, as much as any other song, the one where the Bee Gees become the Bee Gees that live on in popular memory, the late-seventies Bee Gees of wide collars, tight trousers, leonine hair and innumerable bad impressions.

The latter is of course the key. The first single from 1975’s Main Course was the deathless Jive Talkin’, with its squelchy synth bass, disco bass drum and the metrical tricks (in the instrumental section) of which Barry Gibb was always fond. And unlike Nights on Broadway, Jive Talkin’ is on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But Gibb sang Jive Talkin’ in a something like a conspiratorial whisper, with the falsetto in the chorus harmony coming from Maurice, until then the usual supplier of the highest vocal parts on Bee Gees records.

But while recording Nights on Broadway, producer Arif Mardin asked the brothers if any of them could scream in tune, Barry gave it a go and for ever after the Bee Gees had a new hook: not so much a scream as a piercing bleat, it could drown out traffic noise, the din in bars and clubs, any amount of general background noise. Some records just cut through in this way, seem to come out of the radio twice as loud as all the others. Thanks to Barry’s falsetto, every new Bee Gees song did this. Perhaps that’s why they became as huge as they did.

A readily identifiable sonic signature sure helps a band to become huge, but if you want to play R&B music – and it can’t be stressed enough that in 1975 that’s what the Bee Gees thought they were doing: Jive Talkin’ was not custom-built as a disco song – you simply have to have a great rhythm section.

The Bee Gees did. Maurice Gibb remains an underrated bass player, but the drummer they had in their glory days, Cardiff-born Dennis Bryon (a veteran of Amen Corner), is criminally overlooked.

Sometimes it’s easier to hear why one version of a song works by comparing it to a performance that doesn’t. When the Bee Gees played Nights on Broadway live in the late 1980s in Melbourne on their One for All tour, it was all wrong. The tempo was too quick, and the drummer pushed both kick and snare until he sounded half a bpm ahead of the band. Contrast that with Dennis Bryon’s masterly studio take and an excellent live version on the Midnight Special. It’s a busy performance – complicated kick drum pattern, 16th notes on the hats, frenetic whole-kit fills – but a tasteful one, full of little details, in the hats especially. Listening to his drum track soloed allows you to hear how he accented certain strokes and underplayed others, giving the 16ths on the hats a rising and falling feel within each bar. 16th notes of unvarying dynamic would get really boring really quickly. The groove just wouldn’t be the same.

Bryon’s abiliity to insert a shape to an 8th- or 16th-note hi-hat pattern was key to what made him so perfect for the Bee Gees during their disco years, when a great deal of their songs were built on top of the same basic 120bpm, four-to-the-floor chassis. While Nights on Broadway wasn’t a disco track rhythmically, it shows all the qualities he brought to that kind of material while also displaying his ability to play more complex patterns with the same easy musicality.

Dennis Bryon
Dennis Bryon, funky Welshman

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 6: Cattle and Cane – The Go-Betweens

The Go-Betweens’ music, taken in totality, is the story of songwriting talent eventually overcoming initial technical limitations, of a band whose members wanted and thought they deserved wider success working slowly towards a sound that might have brought it to them, only to disband at the moment it might have been within reach.

While they’d go on to produce some minor pop masterpieces – several per album on Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane in the 1980s, and then again on The Friends of Rachel Worth, Bright Yellow Bright Orange and Oceans Apart from 2000 up to singer-guitarist Grant McLennan’s death in 2006 – the Go-Betweens’ early music was a knotty thing indeed, speaking loudly of their punk and post-punk influences as well as their inability to play smooth.

The group’s second album, Before Hollywood, is where they begin that journey towards lasting pop greatness (and step out of shadows of their early heroes), with two haunting songs from MacLennan: Dusty in Here and Cattle and Cane, which in the 30 years since its release has garnered huge acclaim in the band’s native Australia. Yet this most Australian of songs was written in London, on Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar, and recorded in Eastbourne, of all places.*

Drummer Lindy Morrison explained the song as being spurred by McLennan’s intense homesickness and his pre-occupation with his childhood, which must have seemed a long way away to a young man living thousands and thousands of miles in a bohemian demi-monde in London with characters like Cave and the rest of the Birthday Party providing company and role models.

Grant was incredibly homesick for the first couple of years we were in England and he spent those first couple of years thinking about his past. He was obsessed with it. A lot of those songs on Before Hollywood have the imagery of Australia. I think Cattle and Cane is a master song.

This is a generous repsonse from Morrison. Not because she’s overrating the song, but because her relationship with McLennan was never easy. Not long after joining the Go-Betweens, she began a relationship with the group’s founder, Robert Forster, McLennan’s best friend. McLennan tended to treat her pretty condescendingly, despite Morrison’s relative maturity (she was seven years older than Forster and McLennan, already 33 in 1983 when Cattle and Cane was released), and the interaction between the two was seldom comfortable. McLennan, for his part, recognised that Morrison did great things with a very tricky song.

Cattle and Cane is a metrically complicated song. Morrison explained that she counted it as a bar of 5, then a bar of 2, then a bar of 4. A musicologist might simply say it’s in 11/4 time, but Morrison’s approach acknowledges the strong beats and chord changes that MacLennan plays on guitar, and feels more intuitive and natural to me.

She keeps a tight rein on the song, staying off the snare until it’s well underway, giving the impression that the song is speeding up (there probably is also subtle ratcheting up of tempo as the track goes on), simultaneously making the irregular metre feel entirely natural. Her approach is wonderfully appropriate, since the song’s lyrics are presented to us as McLennan’s reveries when returning home on a train to visit his family at their cattle station. We actually feel like we’re on the train with him. Even without the music, even without the words, Morrison’s drum track would evoke movement, a train journey specifically. It’s an incredibly evocative performance, the one for which she’ll always be remembered.

go-betweens-2
The Go-Betweens: l-r Robert Forster, Robert Vickers, Grant McLennan and Lindy Morrison

*Eastbourne is a seaside town in East Sussex with a large population of retirees. Brighton, 20-odd miles down the coast and a spiritual world away, would seem a far more appropriate venue for a band to make a classic record. My grandparents lived in a town called Seaford, located between Eastbourne and Brighton, but closer to Eastbourne. So while Brighton was only half an hour’s drive away, I’ve been there maybe five or six times at most, while Eastbourne would be more like 20 or 30, which is more than enough.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 5: Backseat – Juliana Hatfield

Not so much underrated as unrated. Never heard. Unknown.

Even in 1998, Juliana Hatfield’s moment had passed. Her moment, a brief one, came with the release of My Sister and its parent album Become What You Are in 1993. When Bed came out five years later, it was on a new, smaller label, and to respectful reviews but commercial indifference.

Her time at Atlantic had ended acrimoniously after the label nixed several versions of a proposed release to be called God’s Foot. They let her out of her contract one record early, at the cost of the songs recorded up to that point remaining the label’s property (recording costs reported to be around $180,000 had already been spent). Her next release, Bed, was recorded in six days for new label Zoe, and was left purposely rough around the edges. She had a couple of strong supporting players in drummer Todd Philips and the late Mikey Welsh on bass (a Weezer veteran), and the performances from the pair are strong throughout. The songs are a spotty bunch, though, and the album sags badly after a strong first half.

Philips, an ad exec by day these days, has had a long and varied career. He played drums with Bullet LaVolta before working with Hatfield in the 1990s, Nowadays he plays in a reformed Juliana Hatfield Three and the Lemonheads (of whom Hatfield is also a veteran).

He was rock solid all the way through Bed, playing intelligent and musical kick drum patterns throughout, and taking advantage of the spare arrangements to make every element of his drum performances count. With mixes and arrangements as sparse as these, it matters when you hit the bell of the cymbal or play a ghost on the snare. Philips knew it, and filled his parts with telling details.

My favourite track on the album is weary ballad Backseat. OK, I love half-time feels generally, and Hatfield’s clean guitar sound is gorgeous, but it’s Philips who puts the song over. The short pre-choruses benefit from his tom-and-snare build ups (authoritative but not heavy-handed – Philips knew he wasn’t in a stadium), and the choruses see him displacing the backbeat to emphasise Hatfield’s chord changes, while adding further accents on the cymbals.

Hatfield’s worked with a lot of drummers and made a lot of records now, but nowhere else in her discogrpahy has a drummer paid such close attention – and given such sympathetic support – to her songs. Hatfield’s in the news this week because of her just announced new band with Paul Westerberg (the I Don’t Cares), but even so, this is unlikely to change.

Todd Philips at a JH3 reunion show at the Black Cat in Washington, DC, earlier this year

Todd Philips at a JH3 reunion show at the Black Cat in Washington, DC, earlier this year