Monthly Archives: December 2015

Holiday harmonies, part 3: Them Bones – Alice in Chains

Yes, I am serious.

Alice in Chains are heavy rock’s foremost vocal harmony group.The harmonies sung by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are as fundamental to AiC’s sound as the harmonies sung by the Beach Boys were to theirs.

Cantrell’s songwriting accomplishments are far vaster than is widely acknowledged. Of his generation and in his locale, only Kurt Cobain was a more inventive melodist. The difference is that while part of Cobain’s genius was to have his melodies acknowledge and emphasise the key notes from the non-tonic chords he often used in his idiosyncratic progressions, Cantrell wrote expansive melodies with prominent vocal harmony lines over heavily chromatic riffs where the harmonic sands are constantly shifting under the listener’s feet and it’s never entirely clear what key we’re supposed to be in.

How do you write a song like Them Bones? How do you decide what notes to sing? How do you then decide where to harmonise? Them Bones is unsettling from the start. It begins suddenly and violently in 7/8 time, with pummeling drop-tuned guitars and Layne Staley howling in pain. His cries only get more desperate and anguished as the song goes on.

The verse is dominated by Staley and Cantrell’s ear-jangling harmonies. They sing wide-open fifths (Staley an A, Cantrell a D on top*), but over a riff constantly cycling upwards in semi-tones, the D5 that the singers hold feels very unsettled. The whole thing song is unsettled, almost unbearably tense, only partly relieved by a chorus (once again sung in close harmony) that temporarily finds the song in 4/4 time and, relatively, stable harmonic ground.

Cantrell and Staley repeat this trick throughout Dirt, the band’s masterpiece. Think of the “She won’t let me high” section of Rain When I Die, or the verses of Would? – Cantrell seemed to have access to a store of creepy minor scales only he knew about, making an Alice in Chains song instantly recognisable, for all the claims made at the time about their dubious grunge cred. The re-formed version of the group, with Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall replacing the deceased Staley and Cantrell’s voice now the dominant element of the vocal blend, still pull this trick off. Note the single Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi sitting in with Fleetwood Mac.

That’s the thing with AiC: vocal harmonies are seldom a foregrounded element in darker, heavier rock music, being more associable with pop metal à la Def Leppard and their ilk. Nobody else has quite done what these guys do, and I don’t think they’ve ever got due recognition for that uniqueness.

* I’ve discussed the song in the key as written and notated in most music books. The band are tuned down half a step, though, so while they play in D, it sounds in C# minor.

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Holiday harmonies, part 2: I Know You Rider – Martin & Neil

What is it that makes for a good vocal harmony blend?

When you think of the some of the most famous vocal harmony groups, it’s quickly apparent that while there were many that had a certain similarity of vocal tone (sometimes genetically assisted*), many more wonderful harmony groups have resulted from bringing together vastly different voices and finding that somehow or other they worked with each other. Heard solo, there’s no mistaking Graham Nash’s voice for Stephen Stills’s, or Stills’s for David Crosby’s. Levon Helm is an instantly recognisable vocal presence on even the tightest harmonies sung by the Band.

When I first heard Fred Neil (thanks to James McKean, who played me The Many Sides of Fred Neil when we shared a house in our second year at university), it seemed improbable to me that Neil had ever been part of a harmony-singing group. How could that instantly recognisable, deep-as-an-ocean baritone blend effectively with any other singing voice? Surely it would swallow up any other singing voice that tried to harmonise with it, or worse, become an indistinct rumble, obscured by whoever was singing tenor?

After bagging my own copy of The Many Sides, I found Neil’s other two complete studio albums (his is a slim canon) on one CD and snapped it up. Bleecker and MacDougal was Neil’s first solo effort, on which he was backed up by Felix Pappalardi on guittarón, John Sebastian on harmonica and Pete Childs on guitar. Like Fred Neil and Sessions, it contains no harmony vocals at all. Tear Down the Walls, on the other hand, is a vocal-harmony record, the sole album made by Neil and his one-time singing partner Vince Martin.

The pair began singing together in 1961, and even then were not newbies. Martin had sung lead on the Tarriers’ 1956 hit Cindy, Oh Cindy; Neil had been working out of the Brill Building for a few years, writing smallish hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and cutting half a dozen singles under his own name, to little notice. They had been refining their duo act for a few years before Elektra producer Paul Rothchild saw them at the Gaslight and asked them to make a record.

Tear Down the Walls is a treat for anyone who wants to pick apart two-part harmonies. Neil’s voice is mixed hard right with Martin hard left, so you can listen to the record on one headphone only and just follow one voice or the other. If you want to hear result rather than process, keep both headphones on and hear how they took two voices with such different timbres and made them work together. Neil’s baritone was low, rich and warm, but kept its form when he found himself in more of a tenor range. Martin’s tenor was itself a pleasingly rich instrument, with a slight light-opera feel to its precise, correct enunciation, but he could be hoarse when pushing hard, as he does on I Know You Rider; sometimes you could almost imagine him a rock ‘n’ roller.

Whenever one of the singers takes a solo verse, which happens pretty regularly, you’ll be reminded once again how crazily different their two voices were, but when they sang together, through some kind of alchemy, it just works.

“It’s hard to sing with someone who won’t sing with you,” sang the Jayhawks’ Mark Olsen on the timeless Blue (and there’s another band whose two singers had pretty dissimilar voices) – perhaps that’s the only secret to great harmony singing. It’s less about whether the voices have a similar timbre and more about whether their owners are working towards the same emotional goal.

martin neil
Vince Martin & Fred Neil at The Flick (Neil nearest to camera)

*(The Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Jacksons and the Everly Brothers in the rock era, the Andrews sisters, the Staples and the Carter Family from the pre-rock, to take a few examples from different points of the musical spectrum)

Holiday harmonies, part 1: Silent Night – Modern Folk Quartet

Hi there. Merry Christmas. I hope you’re having a great festive period. I’m going to look at some harmony groups over the next week or so, starting today with something appopriate to the season.

Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. New Edition. Modern Folk Quartet. Bands that are just perhaps more famous for giving a start to the people that passed through them on their way to bigger things than they are for their own accomplishments.

The first three you probably know about, as those groups were all successful in their own right.* Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay (later of Poco) and Jim Messina were all members of the Buffalo Springfield. David Crosby, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons were Byrds veterans. Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv Devoe and Ralph Tresvant between them comprise around 50% of the noteworthy new jack swing artists.

The Modern Folk Quartet, though, were not hugely successful in the US or Britain, though they retained a big following in Japan. Its members, though, are all noteworthy for their accomplishments away from the band. Cyrus Faryar went on to make solo records and played on Fred Neil’s magisterial Fred Neil and Sessions albums. Jerry Yester worked as a producer with the Association, the Turtles, Tim Buckley and Tom Waits, also moonlighting as a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful after Zal Yanovsky left. Chip Douglas joined the Turtles on bass, and produced hits for the Monkees, including Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer. Henry Diltz became one of the finest photographers in all of rock ‘n’ roll.

The members’ individual achievements, then, are hugely impressive, so much so that they overshadow those of their band. But the Modern Folk Quartet (who became the Modern Folk Quintet when drummer Ediie Hoh joined) deserve to be remembered as one of the great harmony groups.

They sung complex, jazzy four-part, and they have what so few harmony groups can honestly claim: a really excellent voice on the bottom. Cyrus Faryar, whom I’ve written about on this blog before (at a time when I wasn’t familiar with the MFQ), had a gorgeous baritone, deep, rich and agile. He was a lead singer in his own right. They all were.

Singing together, they blended the earnest folk harmonising of the Brothers Four (same instrumental line-up of acoustic guitars, double bass and 5-string banjo, too) with a jazzy sensibility seemingly learned from the Four Freshman, the same vocal group that had a profound influence on the young Brian Wilson.

The Modern Folk Quartet made two albums in its initial early-1960s run, the first slightly heavier on trad. arr., the second leaning more towards contemporary writers including John Stewart, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. They remained very popular in Japan, though, and reformed several times to tour and release records over there. In 1990 they cut an album of Christmas carols, MFQ Christmas. Their vocal arrangements are imaginative and beautifully performed. My favourite is the brief reading of Silent Night that closes the record. The magic happens at the bottom (unmistakably Faryar)  and on the top (Diltz, I think). It’s just gorgeous.

MFQThe Modern Folk Quartet: l-r Jerry Yester, Henry Diltz, Cyrus Faryar, Chip Douglas

*Very successful really, but when was the last time you heard anyone talking about “Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield”?

2015 Clip Show Post

I’ve been pretty busy this last week or so with work and Christmas preparations, and I haven’t really been able to find the time to write anything. So I thought a good way to plug the gap would be to bring forward this year’s clip show post.*

I did this last year, too, and enjoyed the process of putting it together. I’ve gone through what I’ve posted this year (100 posts thus far) and picked out 10 favourites, with a bit of a bias towards posts I liked rather than ones that got a lot of hits. Some of them are brief little throwaways, others are long and rambling, but I like them and they seem to include most of whatever it is that keeps me still doing this.

Elliott Smith’s first two solo records (January)

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 – Rickie Lee Jones (February)

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis (April)

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20 (April)

No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai feat. Aimee Mann (May)

Holst’s Neptune (July)

The Sound of The Band (August)

Sail On – The Commodores (August)

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth (September)

Singer-songwriters in 2015 – is genuine originality possible any more? (December)

I hope that some of these are new to most of you and you find something to enjoy here. I’ll be back in a few days – Christmas itself is likely to be a fair bit quieter than the last few weeks have been! Hope you’re having a great time. Take care.

*Do they still make clip shows? You know, like in a sitcom, where characters sit and reminisce about something that happened in an old episode, then they show a clip? It’s been years since I saw one.

 

How I See It – Carina Round (repost)

Hi folks. Christmas is a busy season. The chances of me posting anything this week were looking slim, so I decided to go back into the archive and pull something out that was originally posted a couple of years ago. Hopefully this’ll be new to some of you!

Carina Round’s debut album was released in 2001 with little fanfare on Animal Noise. It got some enthusiastic reviews, which tended to concentrate on Round’s voice and what she could do with it, but these tended to note her as one for the future, rather than as a fully developed talent. The Sunday Times reviewer, though, was less circumspect: ‘One of the most extraordinary debut albums I’ve ever heard – absolutely brilliant.’ I suspect it was this review that I read and that convinced me to track the album down.

The First Blood Mystery is nothing if not striking. Round’s voice may seem like a standard-issue ‘UK singer singing jazz with US accent’ kind of thing on some songs (she’d had a residency at Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham before making her first record) but she could take it out to places where PJ Harvey, Kristin Hersh, Robert Plant and Corin Tucker were more comfortable: wailing, howling, screaming, paint-stripping kinds of places. Ribbons and On Leaving, the album’s last two tracks, were extraordinarily emotionally raw, uneasy pieces of music. When listened to in the right mood, they can be overwhelming. At other times when I hear them, they seem gauche, over the top. The emotional climax of On Leaving is also marred by a horrendous flub from the drummer, one I’m surprised they lived with. I’ve edited around it – replacing the affected half-bar with one from a later repeat – to be able to listen to the song without being taken out of it right at the crucial moment. Frankly, it was a shoddy piece of record making to allow it to survive to the master.

The album’s key stretch is the 3-song run from track two to track four: Lightbulb Song, How I See It and The Waves.This is where the album’s at its most adventurous in terms of texture and arrangement, while retaining some of the shock and awe of Round’s voice. Flutes, subtle electronic touches, electric guitars and vocal harmonies go to some seldom-explored places. Round channels Diane Cluck after the first chorus in Lightbulb Song and ear-catching use is made of harmonised flutes. One track later, How I See It uses Cousteau singer Liam McKahey’s lugubrious voice for some wordless moans and it’s a fine match for the song, which somewhat recalls the band’s Your Day Will Come, How I See It, though, is a more idiosyncratic work than Cousteau’s scotch-and-fine-tailoring revivalism. Spooky folk jazz with muted trumpet suited her well, and How I See It is the song I come back to most.

But this aspect of her first album didn’t make it to her subsequent work, which got bigger, louder, shinier, rockier, more adolescently gothic and progressively more dull. She moved to LA, played the Viper Room and made her third album with Glen Ballard. She toured with Annie Lennox. Her fourth record featured Dave Stewart. The jig was up. Who was giving her career advice? Why did no one stop her?

Listening to The First Blood Mystery is a strange experience, 13 years after the its release. I can’t think of another debut record that had so much promise where the author went on to do so little of worth afterwards. I don’t like writing about records about which I can’t be more or less unambiguously positive, but so many of my reactions to How I See It, and to The First Blood Mystery more generally, are complicated by its author’s failure to develop artistically from such an impressive starting point. What should have been the beginning of something really important is instead a 30-minute one-off, seven songs that could have led anywhere and instead didn’t really lead anywhere.

carina
Carina Round

Trance Manual – John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice is a recording engineer, producer, singer-songwriter and studio owner. He occupies a space people like me would love to be in: able to follow his own artistic muse (he’s released 10 albums under his own name), while helping others to follow theirs in his capacity as a producer and recordist.

His own albums display all the best qualities of his work as a writer and his work as a producer and engineer. His “sloppy hi-fi” approach to recording (that is, using the best, most hi-fi equipment he can find and afford, then using it to record parts in just a few passes, rather than worrying it to death with endless retakes) is, he theorises, that of the old school: the approach that the Beatles, Kinks and Stones as well as legions of jazz players before and since were able to take in their very different eras.

It’s not necessarily evident, though, from Pixel Revolt‘s Trance Manual that this is how he works, given how layered the recording is, with its twinkling, delay-echoed synths and overdubbed Mellotron. Halfway through the track, out of nowhere, pizzicato strings make an entrance, as if sundry members of the Penguin Café Orchestra just happened to have wandered into the session and sat in on a whim. It’s a gorgeous arrangement, which the song’s extraordinary text fully deserved.

The scenario is a simple one: prostitute visits embedded war reporter in the Middle East. But the level of detail that Vanderslice includes, the sheer unlikelihood of using words and phrases like “Mujahidin”, “aqua mirabilis”, “bullhorns and sleepy 47s” in a chamber-pop song, is astonishing. That’s before you get to phrases like “Dressed like that, you are a flag of a dangerous nation”. Vanderslice’s lyrics on  this song and others, he has disclosed, were edited and added to by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (and what an unusual, il migglior fabbro arrangement that is in this day and age), but that takes nothing away from Vanderslice’s achievement here; even if he only wrote 10% of the lyric, that’s still an extraordinary accomplishment given the track’s musical richness.

There were great moments on his records before Trance Manual’s parent album Pixel Revolt, among them the deathless Me & My 424, from The Life and Death of an American Four Tracker and Cellar Door‘s spine-tingling Promising Actress. But Pixel Revolt is the album where Vanderslice’s writing and vocal delivery asecnded to the same level as his recording and arrangement chops. For a few years afterwards, he hardly put a foot wrong.

JVDSJVDS

The Lay of the Land, 6 December 2015

This was mostly written last Sunday but wasn’t published at the time – halfway through writing it, I yawned, stretched and pulled a muscle in my shoulder, then spent the rest of the day lying on my back in a world of ow. I’m better now.

Three years ago today I had a pacemaker fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. The year before that I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At the point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. My diagnosis was idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

*

I started this blog in spring 2013, so this is the third “Lay of the Land” post I’ve written. The first was a kind of round-up of all the changes that had happened in my life in the previous six months – starting a new job, moving to London, beginning a relationship with Mel – and how amazing it was to me that any of that had happened, given the place I’d been in. Last year’s was a very different piece, easily the angriest thing I’ve ever written on this blog. It was about a subject I care about very much (how the language we use around illness shapes the way we think about it, in a profoundly negative way). I haven’t changed my opinions on any of that stuff; indeed, I’ve seen some terrible, inexplicable things happen to good people this year. It’s not a comforting thought to us that a life-threatening illness could overtake any of us at any time, no matter how cleanly we live our lives, or how “strong” we think we are. But we must realise it, about ourselves and about others. It’s the only way we might develop empathy and a fair and just social policy. We sure don’t have one now, and as a nation we don’t vote as if we want one. I won’t get into that again now. I said it all last year and would just be repeating myself.

So 6 December 2015 – the third anniversary of that pacemaker procedure – finds me tired, but happy and looking to the future. I played a gig with James McKean last night, drumming at the Harrison Arms, and so I’m pretty shattered from having lugged a set of cymbals, a snare drum, and a kick pedal around all day. Which explains the tired, but I’ll be fine tomorrow. As for the future, let me tell you about that. First up, I remain healthy. I go for check-ups and scans and pacemaker tweaks at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, and at a scan earlier this year the cardiac physiologist told me that according to their classification chart, my heart is now within the “normal” range; I’ve improved from “severely impaired”, through “moderately” and “mildly” impaired to normal. My next trip to St Thomas’s is in a week or so. Let’s see what they say.

In the last few months I’ve begun working full time at my copy-editing job. I’ve been there two and a half years now, and still enjoy it. Mel and I have been together for over two years and we continue to make plans for our future, and not just in terms of holidays and trips. I’m blessed with friends who understand and care about me, and who for reasons better known to themselves than to me seem to like having me around.

I continue writing, recording and playing, both on my own and with Mel, James and Yo. Mel released her first EP this year, Yo his third album. I did my usual jiggery-pokery on both. James’s second album is pencilled in for March (my work on it is done; it’s just mastering, artwork and manufacture to go now), and I’m looking to release a proper full-length CD album soon, too, which is a long-held ambition but not something I’ve ever done before. Nearly finished on the music, but then that too will need artwork and so on. I was hoping it’d be ready to come out in February, but it might be a few months yet.

That’s what’s going on with me. But that’s only a small part of a wider story. More importantly, the lives of my friends and family members continue to change and develop, mostly in good ways, too. Just one small, happy example: I’m now the uncle of a nephew as well as a niece.

No life is perfect. No world is perfect. This is not the best of all possible worlds. There are things that I would change if I could in my life and in the lives of those closest to me. But I look around at the people I know and see folks who are mostly happy, mostly fit and well, mostly getting quietly on with whatever lives they have found themselves in, mostly fairly content with those lives. And speaking for myself, I have everything to be thankful for, much to look forward to, and lots to be getting on with.

I’ll be back on Sunday.