Monthly Archives: January 2016

Let Me be the One – Carpenters

It may seem I bring up Robert Christgau a lot on this blog. There’s a good reason. Christgau is one of the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll writers, and his archive of reviews is digitised and freely available. Now, it’s dangerous to assume that his take on any given piece of work is representative of the mainstream critical opinion of the era – he’s idiosyncratic, sometimes ornery, frequently just plain wrongheaded, just like any critic – but if you want an authentic, from-its-time reaction to pretty much any record you can think of, Christgau’s archive is the place to go. So let’s look at his take on the Carpenters’ 1973 singles collection, the only record of theirs he seems to have reviewed:

The combination of Karen Carpenter’s ductile, dispassionate contralto and Richard Carpenter’s meticulous studio technique is admittedly more musical than the clatter of voices and silverware in a cafeteria, but it’s just as impervious to criticism. That is, the duo’s success is essentially statistical: I’ll tell you that I very much like We’ve Only Just Begun and detest Sing, but those aren’t so much aesthetic judgments as points on a graph. 

Hmm.

Richard and Karen did, from the 1990s onwards, begin to win the respect they’d always deserved, and like the Bee Gees, or ABBA, they now have critical credibility in spades, with their reputations as respectively arranger and singer bulletproof. I can’t imagine anyone in 2016 willing to stand up in public and say they find Karen Carpenter’s singing dispassionate. Time has rendered the disapproval of writers like Christgau a mere footnote.

While the Carpenters deserve any praise that comes their way, this reappraisal has had a tendency to put – and perhaps this is inevitable, after her still shocking early death from anorexia-related heart failure – heavy emphasis on the melancholy in Karen’s vocals. Tragedy, after all, is a prism through which rock fans are used to relating to their musical icons.

Karen certainly had a wistful quality to her alto and she does sound at home on songs such as Goodbye to Love and Rainy Days and Mondays. But there is a goofy, corny playfulness to many of the Carpenters’ records (I’m thinking of such songs as There’s a Kind of Hush, Top of the World and Close to You) – to downplay this and to see Karen purely as a tragic figure is to do her a disservice as an interpretive singer and fundamentally to misunderstand the band’s music.

Let Me Be the One comes from a rich seam of Carpenters songs that contain elements from both poles of their music, songs that mingle the light and shade, the major and minor, to create something idiosyncratically bittersweet, something sui generis. You find it in Superstar, This Masquerade, Yesterday Once More, I Need to Be in Love, in their version of Ticket to Ride, in the song in question and most perfectly in the first-dance classic We’ve Only Just Begun.

They can be lighter (as on, say, throwaway covers of Please Mr Postman and Jambalaya), or darker (most obviously on Goodbye to Love), but it’s on these songs that they seem to me most essentially themselves, and when Karen Carpenter is at her best vocally. There was always some hope in her delivery of even the saddest material.

It would be remiss not mention Richard Carpenter’s contribution to all this. Let me just say, then, that he’s one of the most inventive arrangers ever to set foot in a recording studio, a fine pianist, a consistently strong songwriter and, crucially, an astute finder of songs that suited both Karen’s voice and the Carpenters’ sound, of which he was the sole architect.

Carpenters

It might have helped if they’d been marketed more like this and less like this:

Carpenters2

Find the Cost of Freedom – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Consider this a late entry in the harmony series. I had it written and lying around but left it out as I’d written about these guys several times before, and CSNY seemed too obvious an inclusion in a series about harmony singing. But I’ve been reading Graham Nash’s memoir Wild Tales, a Christmas present from my dad, and found myself listening to it today as if for the first time. It really is a stunning piece of work.

In May 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of students protesting against the American incursion into Cambodia at Kent State University in Ohio. They fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds. The students, needless to say, were unarmed. The shootings killed four, paralysed another and left eight more seriously injured. The US public, already polarised over Vietnam, became more divided still between those who were outraged that the state would turn its guns on its own citizens and those who thought the little punks had it coming. John Filo, a journalism student, took a photograph of a young woman called Mary Ann Vecchio (then 14 years old and visiting the campus) kneeling over the body of a dead student called Jeffrey Miller and screaming in horror. That Pulitzer-winning picture was only the most potent symbol of that divide. It was by no means the only one.

Neil Young read about the events at Kent State, and saw that terrible picture, while in the company of bandmate David Crosby. There and then he poured his disgust into a blunt D-modal outburst called Ohio: a riff, a verse and a chorus. Recorded as a band, live off the floor and without overdubs or frills, Ohio was a record too serious in its intent to bother with fripperies like ornate melody and elegant vocal harmonies, the usual calling cards of CSNY.

Ohio’s B-side was a Stephen Stills composition called Find the Cost of Freedom. Stills, a southerner with a military-school upbringing, was a more conservative figure than his bandmates. He would later suffer from delusions, fuelled by his insane cocaine intake, that he had served in Vietnam, earning himself the mocking nickname “Sarge” from his road crew. His own thoughts were, accordingly, harder to gauge.

Its presence on the flipside of the explicitly condemnatory Ohio cast Find the Cost of Freedom as a sorrowful response to Kent State, whether or not Stills had actually written it as such*. But Find the Cost of Freedom, contemplative and ambiguous where Ohio was declamatory and furious, never identifies the dead it mourns. Who is being hymned here? US troops? Vietnamese civilians? Student protestors? All three? Its power lies in this ambiguity.

I’ve said before that I’m not all that big on Stills’s work generally, preferring the Crosby & Nash duo albums to any CSN or CSNY record. But even to a Stills sceptic like me, Freedom is a tremendously powerful record. Like Ohio, it features little of the bombast and posturing that characterised CSNY’s music in 1970. Instead its simplicity and brevity are stunning. It stands on equal footing with Ohio, which is a highlight of Neil Young’s catalogue. The transition from four voices in unison to four voices in harmony**, spread wide across the stereo image, may be the most spine-tingling moment on any CSNY record.

CSNY

*In his memoir Wild Tales, Nash hints that other songs were under consideration to be on the B-side of Ohio, suggesting that Find the Cost of Freedom had been written before Kent State, though he doesn’t come out and say it in so many words.

**Recorded, says Nash, live with the four band members sitting in a square and facing each other.

It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference – Todd Rundgren

I hoped that Todd Rundgren was going to be one of my guys. I absolutely loved I Saw the Light from the first time I heard it, years before I knew who’d made it or what else he’d done, so eventually I purchased Something/Anything? thinking it was going to be the place to get started on Todd properly, confident that he was going to become one of my very favourite songwriters.

Unfortunately, Something/Anything? wasn’t the front-to-back Laura Nyro/Carole King tribute I hoped it’d be. Something/Anything? is a bit of a mess, and if you go into it looking for a double album of 20 or so songs like I Saw the Light – the early girl group sound filtered through The Beatles (Rundgren’s slide playing is pure George Harrison) – you’ll be disppointed. It hops all over the place, from bizarre Gilbert & Sullivan spoofs to ill-advised cock rock.

So I never found it an album I could fall in love with in its entirety. But we’re talking about Todd Rundgren, and Rundgren is some species of genius, even if its not a consistent species. So as well as I Saw the Light, Something/Anything? gives us Sweeter Memories, Marlene, Torch Song, Hello It’s Me and, more than anything else, It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference, a song so beautiful and aching in its sadness it goes a long way beyond melancholy, stopping short of desolate and ending up in striking a note that’s comforting. It’s a warm kind of sadness, regretful but not bitter, illuminated by some of the most gorgeous chord changes this side of Laura Nyro herself (those unexpected changes under the line “But those days are through” absolutely make the song).

Rundgren famously recorded the bulk of Something/Anything? on his own, playing all the instruments on sides 1 to 3 himself. His resourcefulness is impressive, and goodness knows he can sing, play guitar and write as well as anyone in pop music, but some of the songs suffer for not having been placed in the hands of really capable players; Couldn’t I Just Tell You, for example, is ill served by its author in its Something/Anything? incarnation, with its numerous feel and tempo changes utterly defeating Rundgren-the-drummer.

It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference hits that sweet spot, common to so much successful lo-fi/one-man-band records, where the tension between the quality of the writing and the just-slightly-amateurish execution of it is charming and endearing. It makes you invest more in the song’s feelings and emotions somehow. It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference just wouldn’t be the same if without its slightly unsteady rhythm track (drums centre, congas and tambourine on the left, chimes and other percussion on the right). The charm is how it plays against the lush backing vocals (again, all Rundgren) and Todd’s effortless lead vocal. Rundgren really was an exceptional singer in his youth.

It’s a shame that the rest of Something/Anything? doesn’t really match up to its first two songs, but when those songs are I Saw the Light and It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference, to expect it to would be asking for the damn near impossible.

Todd Rundgren in 1973
Todd Rundgren, 1973

Todd’s not the only guy who’s ever done the one-man-band thing:

Their Back Pages

So it seems we’ve slid out of talking about harmonies and back to regular programming. Sorry about that, if you were enjoying the series. When doing those 10-part series, I rely a lot on momentum to keep me thinking about music from whatever specific angle it happens to be. It’s been busy enough that I haven’t been able to post that regularly and I’m afraid I couldn’t keep my mind on that one long enough to crank out the usual 10 posts. My apologies.

What I have been thinking about, once again, is David Bowie. And other artists of his stature and with his breadth of work.

In the Times, Caitlin Moran asked readers to imagine Bowie without a past, that Bowie was a Beckenham primary school teacher who’d recorded Earthling in his shed. “Do we really believe that record companies would eagerly sign up a 50-year-old man with no new ideas, wonky eyes, manky hair, LA teeth and a tartan suit, who talks like an animatronic statue in Picadilly’s Rock Circus?

From Chris O’Leary’s piece on Little Wonder at Pushing Ahead of the Dame

I liked Caitlin Moran as a music writer, but I confess to not remembering the piece that Chris O’Leary is quoting from. The answer to Moran’s question is fairly obvious (of course they wouldn’t!) and not hugely interesting unless considered in a larger context. I’m sure Moran was asking the question rhetorically, on the way to telling us why that question wasn’t relevant.

But we’ll return to Mr Bowie in a second. Let’s talk about fans instead.

Let’s assume there’s two extreme versions of the extreme music fan. On the one hand, consider the Deadhead, shelves collapsing under the weight of box sets that document every show on every tour the band ever played, waiting for Deadnet to send out the new 30 Trips Around the Sun 80-disc box set, whose life is dedicated to the elliptical paths taken by Jerry and the guys. On the other, the blogger who keeps abreast of every new development in every micro trend, who considers marginal commercial forces like Grimes lost to the mainstream, who’s always in search of the latest thing, never stopping to look back. Who has a track or two by tens of thousands of artists on a series of groaning hard drives.

These are the extreme figures. Most of us are somewhere along the continuum between the two. At various times I’ve felt a bit like both. Ultimately, though, I have my favourites – those artists I come back to again and again. I wouldn’t call myself a completist fan of anyone, but there are people whose every record I’ve heard, and whose artistic failures are just as fascinating to me as their masterpieces, in terms of what they add to the overall story.

Bowie is the kind of artist who rewards that kind of listening. Much of Earthling was, as O’Leary put it, dated the second it was released – the last time Bowie would try hard to stay abreast of contemporary underground pop music and bend it to his purposes. No one has been talking about what a seminal moment Earthling was in Bowie’s career this last week, but the record remains, for what it says about Bowie-the-songwriter and Bowie-the-pop-star, a fascinating partial failure.

Let’s talk about some other records that would never have got their authors signed by a record company but which are as compelling in their weird and various ways as the ones that did.

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog, a record bringing together the diverse and thirterto uncombined talents of Rod Steiger, Thomas Dolby and Wayne Shorter, is similarly compelling, in a slightly more car-crash fashion. What was going on here? Boredom with tried-and-trusted methods of composition? A desperate attempt to stay au courant?*

John Martyn’s Sunday’s Child is 40 very pleasant minutes of Martyn spinning his wheels, unable to push himself anywhere close to the peaks of his classic trilogy (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out), and not yet finding his way to the dub- and soul-inflected work of his suit-wearing years. His readings of Spencer the Rover and Satisfied Mind – that is, the songs he didn’t write – are easily the best things on the album. I’d not be without them.

Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves is a “better” album than, say, Old Ways. But there’s nothing on it you’ve not heard him do better on After the Gold Rush or Zuma. Old Ways – a straightforward countrypolitan record – is a headscratcher from first note till last, even more so given it came hard on the heels of rockabilly-reviving Everybody’s Rockin’ and the Tron-isms of Trans. I love Trans. I think it has some of Young’s very best writing on it, but even when the writing isn’t there, it’s a brave record and I hear him pushing himself hard.

In fact, Young’s Geffen period, with each record being such an extreme reaction to the one before it, is kind of an Exhibit A in how rewarding it can be to spend time with the minor records in a major artist’s discography. Not one of those albums is close to being as strong a set of songs as After the Gold Rush, On the Beach or Everybody Knows this is Nowhere (insert your own favourite Neil Young record here). But, to travesty Rudyard Kipling**, what do they know of classic Neil Young who only classic Neil Young know?

trans
This is classic Neil Young. I promise.

*A phenomenon I’ve referred to elsewhere as dropping the pilot and charming that snake. **Who deserves no better.

Then Play Long is No More

Over the last eight years the most consistently acute and compelling music writing has come from Marcello Carlin at his blog Then Play Long*.

In 2008 Carlin set himself the task of writing about every UK number-one album in chronological order, starting from the very first, Elvis is Back! – the sort of foolhardy task only someone utterly besotted with music would ever set themselves. There have been times when Carlin’s labours were obviously bringing him little pleasure, as he slogged though the Black & White Minstrels records, or 101 Strings, or the Top of the Pops series. And yet he carried on, buoyed by the prospect of writing about the good records, or finding something unexpectedly commendable about a record that seemed unpromising at first.

It takes little away from Carlin to say that, while he’s strong on the records’ context (both social and in the context of the artists’ body of work), his great strength as a music writer is that he can combine formal analysis with a more subjective, associative response. Put more simply, he can tell you how a record makes him feel, and then have a good stab at explaining what it is in the music that makes him feel that way.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago after Ted Gioia’s jeremiad about modern music writing on The Daily Beast, and pointed out that the sort of criticism Gioia was calling out for was in fact alive and well and living on the internet. Taken together, Then Play Long, Chris O’Leary’s David Bowie blog (Pushing Ahead of the Dame, now published in book form as Rebel Rebel) and Tom Ewing’s Popular were my exhibit A. (Cards on the table, those guys’ work was my model when I started this blog.)

Problem is, O’Leary’s work always had a built-in end date, and after this week’s sad news, we know what that will be. Blackstar, a mopping up of whatever live and/or previously unreleased stuff the Bowie estate sanctions for public consumption, then that will be it. Reliable, dependable Popular rumbles on, often with long hiatuses while Ewing gets on with the business of everyday life, but over the course of the next few years, I’ll find myself reading more and more pieces about songs I never knowlingly heard. I lost contact with pop in the early noughties, and never really found my way back to it.

Today, Carlin announced that he’d written the last Then Play Long entry (he fast-fowarded to Blackstar, currently topping the UK album chart, and many others worldwide, I suspect), and would now be putting the blog to rest. This saddens me a lot, as there’s no one else out there who can do what he does, but the job of work he undertook when he started that thing was immense, and no one should feel beholden to finish something just because they started it. As he says, there’s 600 records between today’s entry and the Carpenters compilation he covered in the previous piece. I wouldn’t take that on, and can well understand why he doesn’t want to either.

So this is a thank you to Marcello, whom I’ve never met, for all that wonderful writing, all that insight and analysis. I hope he still continues to write about music in some form. In the meantime, if you’ve ever read one of my pieces and enjoyed it, head over to Then Play Long to see how it’s really done.

Then Play Long

*Many entries were written by Carlin’s wife Lena Friesen, but Carlin started the blog and wrote probably half a dozen or so entries for every one of Friesen’s, so I’ve always thought of it as primarily his blog. And really, it was Carlin’s writing that spoke to me. Nevertheless, he always acknowledged when an idea or association in one of his pieces came from her, and it’s clear that fans of the blog owe a large debt to both Marcello and Lena.

 

Holiday Harmonies Part 7: My Old School – Steely Dan

Steely Dan weren’t a harmony group in the Everly Brothers sense. A few tracks on Can’t Buy a Thrill aside, Donald Fagen always sings lead. The other voices are always subservient to the lead, and few songs have sustained two- or three-part harmony sections other than in choruses, though we’re looking today at a song that does. The band members were there for their musical chops rather than their vocals.*

That said, the band’s first line-up had three strong voices in it beside Fagen’s, in drummer Jim Hodder, bassist Walter Becker and kinda-sorta lead singer David Palmer.** Betweem them, those guys are responsible for all the male backing vocals on Can’t Buy a Thrill (including some stratospheric high parts on Dirty Work), so when they bring in (female) session vocalists on Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me) and Kings, it has a very different effect.

And achieving different effects was always the thing with Steely Dan. They used harmony vocals in just about every way conceivable, and they cast the parts unerringly, always making the right call on whether it should be a female trio*** or multitracked Michael McDonalds, or covered by the guys in the band.

My Old School is from the second Dan album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Countdown doesn’t enjoy its creators’ favour all that much, but I’m very fond of it. Recorded during breaks from touring, and featuring songs that were written to be played live (and presumably tried out live on stage before they were cut in the studio), it’s the group’s most “rock” album. That it’s heavy on Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar playing just seals it; Skunk was always a rougher, noisier player than the clean, precise and more jazz-inflected Denny Dias.

Famously, My Old School is about a drug bust at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, during which Becker, Fagen and Fagen’s girlfriend were arrested, along with some 50 other students. Dismayed that the school was complicit in this, Fagen nursed a grudge for years, even refusing to attend his graduation.

Accordingly, Fagen sings My Old School in a tone of sustained mock outrage, and the harmony voice, whoever it belongs to****, matches it note for note, getting truly querelous at times by going up on the last syllable of the line (“doing what she did be-fore“; “tumbles into the sea“). In the choruses, the backing trio come in and, as so often, the band milk all the humour they can from the incongruity of the soul revue-style vocal arrangement and the lyrical content – “Woah, no,” the singers interject. “Guadalajara won’t do now,” answers Fagen. It’s tremendous fun.

Steely-Dan
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker

*And after a few albums, most of the band were regular session players rather than official members anyway.
**David Palmer sings lead on Dirty Work and the amazing Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me). He was brought in on Skunk Baxter’s recommendation because Fagen wasn’t a confident vocalist, particularly on stage. But Fagen’s vocal persona was so crucial to the songs that he was eventually persuaded to handle the job full time and the band asked Palmer to step aside. He went on to write Jazzman with Carole King.
***Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews were Fagen and Becker’s go-to trio, when available. And why wouldn’t you get them on board if you could?
****And who is that harmony singer? I wish I knew for sure. Judging from his vocal contributions to Turn that Heartbeat Over Again it’s very possibly Walter Becker, but it could be the album’s credited male backing singer, Royce Jones. Or it could even be a second track of Fagen, but the vocal sounds less warm and round than 1974-vintage Fagen.

Holiday Harmonies Part 6: Keep the Customer Satisfied – Simon & Garfunkel

Oh yeah. These guys.

Paul Simon gets a lot of love on this blog, but I’ve never really talked about Simon & Garfunkel. So here goes.

I think I’ve said before that when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel parted ways in 1970, Simon was set free as a writer of melodies. He no longer had to make the need to sing, breathe and phrase with a vocal partner a prime concern in how he wrote his tunes. Not only did he hit new heights as a writer as a result of this, he blossomed as a singer too. Add to this his deepening exploration of jazz harmony, and it becomes pretty easy to explain the startling quality of his early 1970s solo work.

All that said (and I can’t really apologise for rating solo Simon higher than Simon & Garfunkel; I absorbed Greatest Hits Etc. before I ever heard an S&G song, and my dad had to explain to me that this Simon singing Homeward Bound was the same as the other Simon), it’s undeniable that Paul & Artie could sing harmonies like few before or since, and their exalted status means we’ve actually found out a fair bit about how they did it. Journalists have taken the trouble to ask them.

In The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon, Garfunkel and engineer-producer Roy Halee discuss the duo’s vocal layering tricks. Simon & Garfunkel sang their vocals into one mic, live, and then overdubbed a double track of each of their parts, separately, and ghosted them up underneath the live performance when mixing, to fatten and clarify. It’s a glorious sound.

Having multiple vocalists sing live into one microphone is a staple recording technique.* Indeed, in some styles of music (old-time and bluegrass), the reverence for this everyone-around-the-microphone trick borders on a fetish. The reasons for doing it are – should be – musical and to a lesser extent technical, not aesthetic.

Singers who are used to singing together, who’ve spent hours practising in a room together unamplified, will probably give better performances if you record the room that they’re singing in rather than them individually. If you try to get the best of both worlds and have two singers singing live in the same room but with a microphone each, you add the complications of bleed and negotiating the phase relationships of the two mics, and you probably don’t gain much sonically on just doing it with one mic.

What S&G did with Roy Halee allowed them to get a huge, fat vocal sound that blended all the excitement, energy and animation of a live take with the warmth and control of close-miked overdubs. You can hear the technique in use on any of their two-part-harmony classics: Homeward Bound, The Sound of Silence, I am a Rock, America, The Boxer or The Only Living Boy in New York.

One of my favourites, though, is the uncharacteristically stomping Keep the Customer Satsified from Bridge Over Troubled Water, where the duo’s voices are fattened up still further with tape delay (I think – sure sounds like). The vocals are amazingly tight, breath for breath, terminal consonant for terminal consonant, all the way through the track, with Joe Osborn (bass) and Hal Blaine (drums) driving them on and one of the finest-sounding brass sections I’ve ever heard trying their best to wrest the track away from the singers. On an album full of amazing harmony singing performances, this might be the finest. It’s certainly the most fun.

Simon+Garfunkel.png
Simon, Garfunkel and a single microphone

*In the early days of sound recording, the only way you could make a recording was to get all the musicians in to a room together to play into a recording horn. The sounds waves going into the horn would vibrate a stylus at the other end, which would cut an analogue of the performance into a wax cylinder. So all the musicians playing into one transduction device is the most venerable recording technique there is.