Monthly Archives: May 2016

Carolina in My Mind – James Taylor

We’re back in the musical multiverse this week – that place where two or more recordings of well known songs exist, each throwing light upon the other. This time, we’re going to Carolina. In our minds, natch.

The Beatles had a record label, Apple, and probably every young artist in the world wanted to be on it in 1968. The first eager young musician who actually was signed by Apple was James Taylor. Taylor and Peter Asher (brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher) had a mutual friend, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and he gave a tape of Taylor’s music to Asher, who was Apple’s head of A&R. Asher liked it, played it to McCartney and George Harrison, who also liked it, and Taylor was signed to Apple, with Asher overseeing the sessions for what would become his 1968 solo debut, James Taylor.

It’s a bit of a mess, a callow approximation of The Beatles’ psychedelic sound made just at the point that they’d started to move away from it. Among the songs on the record were two that became Taylor standards: Something in the Way She Moves and Carolina in My Mind, both quite different recordings to the ones you’re likely to hear on the radio.

Something in the Way She Moves is the more successful of the two. It has a rather pointless pseudo-Baroque harpsichord intro, but once that’s out the way, it’s a fairly straight rendition, with Taylor’s guitar panned left and his voice in the centre, mixed loud and dry. The rather airless mix does expose how limited a singer he was at this point, but it’s a much better record than the original Carolina in My Mind, which takes an excellent song, puts two Beatles on the recording (McCartney on bass, Harrison among the backing singers), and somehow makes a stinker. Taylor’s vocal performance can’t take the weight of the overstuffed arrangement, the chipmunk backing vocals are way too loud and irritatingly persistent in the mix, and even the tempo is off, the song taken too quickly to give Taylor any chance to do anything with the phrasing.

In 1976, Taylor re-recorded both songs for a retrospective compilation, Greatest Hits. It’s often said that this was due to rights problems with the originals, but given how much the new versions improved on the 1968 versions, highlighting Taylor’s improvement both as a singer and guitar player over the eight intervening years, it seems just as likely that Taylor was glad of the chance to take another stab at them.

Carolina in My Mind, particularly, was revealed as a masterpiece in its new incarnation. The best arrangemental idea from the original – McCartney’s bass part – was copied more or less exactly for the new version, but this time was played by Lee Sklar, who was joined by Russ Kunkel on drums, Byron Berline on fiddle, Andrew Gold on harmonium, Clarence McDonald on piano and Dan Dugmore on pedal steel – exactly the guys, in other words, you’d expect to do a great job on a song like this. All of the unnecessary fripperies of the first version, meanwhile, were excised. In the producer’s chair again was Peter Asher, and you wonder how much he felt relieved to be given a second chance to do right by the song.

The 1976 re-recording is, well, very 1976, and it contains little of the darkness and confusion and humanity that makes Fire & Rain the only other James Taylor song I really have much use for, but it’s impossible to pick an argument with a song with such a beautiful melody line, and an arrangement so perfectly realised.

James Taylor

 

 

This old world may never change: The Dolphins – Fred Neil

Bit of a flight of fancy, this one. About an artist I’ve written about before. Forgive me the indulgence: I didn’t have it in me tonight to write anything serious or weighty or that required research or fact checking. Back at the weekend.

It all comes back to The Dolphins, really. It’s not typical of Fred Neil’s other work, it sounds like nothing else he ever recorded, yet whenever listened to, it feels like the puzzle box that would allow us to somehow solve Fred Neil, this most unknowable, enigmatic of musicians, this towering figure who made few records and then one day gave music up to work in the field he cared for most, the protection and preservation of dolphins.

Fred Neil – aged 30 at the time he made The Dolphins, in 1966 – had moved sideways into folk-rock from the more traditional Greenwich folk-blues scene of which he’d been a part since 1961 or thereabouts, when he met and began singing with Vince Martin. Before that he’d been a very minor Brill Building writer, responsible for a couple of small hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and a few rockabilly-inflected pop sides he cut himself. Whether he’d genuinely been into first-wave rock’n’roll is not something I’ve ever been able to determine, but I tend to think he must have been. There’s a rhythmic emphasis in his guitar playing that sounds like it has roots in rock’n’roll, although he also hung out with jazz players and his knowledge of syncopation may have been derived in part from those associations. But rock’n’roll in the Chuck Berry sense had been replaced by Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the early sixties, and no one with discernment wanted much to do with it.

Folk-rock’s principle authors were fans of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, kids who mostly had been fans of rock’n’roll and had moved over to folk in search of meaning that Bobby Rydell couldn’t give them. Neil, older by almost a decade and something of a big brother figure to David Crosby, John Sebastian, and even Dylan up to a point, wasn’t touched musically by either. The Byrds’ version of folk-rock was derived from Dylan and The Beatles; as practised by the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful, folk-rock also took in vaudeville, Broadway tunes, light pop, jug band and country. Nothing that any of these bands produced has anything like the strange unknowability of The Dolphins.

It begins with a heavily tremoloed electric guitar, haloed with echo. Instruments are hard panned, the stereo image is massive, the sense of space is vast. Neil’s voice reaches down to the ocean floor. Pete Childs’s guitar goes to the same raga-like outer space that Roger McGuinn tried to get to on Eight Miles High, the slashing rhythm guitar sounds oddly like Television, 10 years too early. It’s the most singular concoction, it’s sound as metaphor, it’s the best record Neil ever made, one of the best records ever made by anyone.

If you’ve heard some other singer’s recording of The Dolphins, but not Neil’s oiginal, you’re in for such a treat.

Fred Neil

Live Recording

A few days ago I happened to listen to an old edition of the Mixerman Radio Show in which Ron Saint Germain talked about recording live jazz to two-track.

OK, some explanations first. Mixerman is the online alias of Eric Sarafin, an LA-based engineer and producer who got a high profile among people interested in recording for his Mixerman diaries, originally published on the internet in serial form. Sarafin set up an audio forum (The Womb) and began recording podcasts (which he called Mixerman Radio Shows) with some of his industry friends, some of whom used aliases (Slipperman, Aardvark) and some of whom didn’t (Bob Ohlsson, Ron Saint Germain).

The forum was a bit of a boys’ club, and it had its share of backbiting and general nonsense, but unlike the folks who hung out on Gearslutz, these guys all had solid track records as pros in the actual music industry, and some of them were a very big deal indeed (particularly Ohlsson and Saint Germain, who have had genuinely amazing careers).

I found this forum at a time when I was becoming obsessed with recording but had very little money, so I listened to every podcast and read every post to try to absorb the knowledge and techniques on offer. Slipperman (Tim Gilles), in particular, went out of his way to teach newbies, recording a series of podcasts in which he proved himself entertainingly foul-mouthed, hugely knowledgable about tracking and mixing heavy rock guitar and music in general, and in possession of a heart the size of New Jersey. The guy’s an absolute hero and a total inspiration.

So, back to Ron Saint Germain and his live jazz recorded to two-track.

This is recording of essentially the opposite sort to that which I described last time, with the endless tweaking and the mixes that are never quite done. Live to two-track means live to stereo tape (stereo tape has two channels, one which you hear out of the left speaker and what you hear out of the right speaker). Since the invention of sound-on-sound recording, records have as a rule been recorded to multitrack tape, and then mixed down to stereo tape as the last step in the mixing process. Working this way, you can always remix if you decide tomorrow that the vocal’s a little too loud. Collapsing the process by recording live to two-track, with no possibility of altering the balances, stereo-field placement or performances later, is for most musicians and engineers simply an obsolete way of working.

Boy, did Saint Germain make it sound fun, though. And in my limited experience, it is fun. And hugely challenging. And massively rewarding when it goes well. It forces you to up your game, whether you’re placing the microphones or having them pointed at you – and I’ve a bit of experience at both. You can’t rely on punch-ins, edits, retakes or any other staple of the multitrack world to come to your rescue if you can’t play, and if the sounds you got when you placed your mics are phasey and indistinct, how do you think the recording’s going to sound?

Maybe I’m a masochist, but it’s I think that’s great. In fact, I went through a phase last year where I tried to record all of my solo acoustic songs this way: partly to sharpen my up again as a player so I could cut it in front of an audience after a few years of not really doing many gigs, and partly because I felt like my recorded vocals were hampered by self-consciousness and lack of confidence, and that recording live while playing guitar would help. In some respects it did; it forced me to be able to truly perform a song before recording it, which oftentimes isn’t necessary when you’re multitracking and not planning to ever play a song on stage.

I’m recording with Yo Zushi this weekend and have a hunch that the session will once again include some live recording: the band all in the room together, leakage and all; maybe with live vocals, maybe without. I’m looking forward to it.


Recorded live with two microphones last year

On Recalls & Mixing in the Digital Domain

At the moment I’m working quite hard on a couple of recordings I’ve got in progress. I’m a one-man-band kind of guy, playing all the instruments, and recording and mixing the tracks myself. That necessarily leads to a certain way of working if, like me, you have a full-time day job. I fit recording and mixing work into spare hours and half-hours whenever they occur, or save up a few tasks to justify the effort of setting up a drum kit, or a guitar-and-amp rig, and placing microphones. In the past, when I was a freelancer and worked from home, I could block out chunks of time to record pretty much whenever I wanted to, and could have the recording of a song mixed within 24 hours of writing it. Nowadays it takes a few weeks usually. It’s a drawn-out, accretive process.

This way of working is dependent on the ability of DAW software to recall every aspect of the audio project for me. I load the project file in my DAW of choice (Cubase), and every channel is the way I left it: all the inserts are there with exactly the same settings I was using before, the tracks are all routed to the same busses, all my automation data is the way it was last time. What would take hours of work in the analogue realm is reduced to the 30 seconds or so my laptop and edition of Cubase require to load a complicated project.

The implications of this technology for the way music is mixed and the way it sounds when you hear it on the radio are enormous, and are probably only truly understood by recording engineers, especially those who learned their trade during the analogue era.

Almost any record you care to name from the pre-digital era (digital recording that is, not digital playback) has flaws or idiosyncrasies in it that could have been ironed out with one last recall session, but which weren’t worth the time and effort required to do the recall. If you were working on analogue tape with a console, doing a recall to make a couple of tweaks to the vocal level was an expensive luxury few could afford. To allow the tweaks to be made, the engineer or the engineer’s assistant would have to reconstruct the mix on the desk, using notes and snapshots taken during the previous session. Hardware audio processors would have to be re-inserted over the correct channels, tracks bussed appropriately, EQ settings precisely dialled in. It took time, and it wasn’t always easy to get everything exactly the same. An engineer skilled at quickly and accurately recalling a mix was worth his or her weight in gold to a producer or mixer.

Even so, a band was unlikely to get the producer to consent to a recall unless the producer felt the tweaks the band wanted were justified. A recall meant 3-4 hours’ work, and time is money in the recording studio, as it is anywhere else. Digital mixing consoles began to include some recall functions in the 1990s, which sped up the process a bit, but these desks rarely sounded as good as the real analogue deal, and they only went so far: no console can actually plug in an LA2A for you.

It was the DAW that allowed the situation we have now, where any mix can be perfectly recalled, tweaked and printed (that is, mixed down to stereo) whenever the band or producer want. As with anything else, it’s a double-edged sword. When listening to other people’s music, I may decry the primped sterility of the end result: recordings that have been airbrushed to within an inch of their lives, where every instrument and vocal performance is in fixed audibility at all times in a way that could never happen in a live performance captured to tape, and with no technical flaws or blemishes, no matter how tiny, allowed to make it through to the master. Yet I’m dependent on that same technology to make any recordings at all, and I’m as guilty as the next man of stewing over a mix for several days before going back in and systematically fixing all the things that bugged me about the last version.

So what else is new? Replace “digital mixing” with “CGI” and let a movie buff give you their cri de coeur on the superiority of in-camera practical effects work. This is simply the world we live in. When you next hear a brand-new recording straight after a classic on your iPod or on the radio, listen to the differences. Feel them. I know which I prefer to listen to, and sadly, I also know which kind of recordings I’m making.

recall
Doing a recall in 2016

Oh Lori – Alessi Brothers

The Alessi Brothers (or Alessi as they are sometimes billed) are not one-hit wonders. They had two hits, albeit different ones in the UK and the US. Oh Lori was their big British hit, a number eight in 1978 (Savin’ the Day, from the Ghostbusters soundtrack, was their US hit. No, me neither). Oh Lori is one of those songs I feel like I’ve always known, as it was an inescapable part of the BBC Radio 2 playlist for a couple of decades at a time when the music I heard was governed by what my parents wanted to listen to. My mum’s choice, Radio 2 was then home to voices I only dimly remember now, those who (unlike the late Terry Wogan and the still on-air Ken Bruce) didn’t survive James Moir’s cull: John Dunn, Derek Jameson and Jimmy Young.

Billy and Bobby Alessi were signed to A&M in the label’s 1970s heyday. It was an appropriate home for them, as A&M was not, and never has been, a hip label. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss were good guys, but they were constantly behind the curve of music fashion and their rock roster has rarely been better than embarrassing. The quintessential A&M rock band (on their books during the label’s 1970s peak) were the Police – a band that comprised a jazzer, a progger and a schoolteacher in punk drag, a little too old to be convincing, a little too dextrous to be authentic, with identical bleach-blond haircuts. Alpert especially (a successful recording artist in his own right with the Tijuana Brass) was one to put his trust in old-fashioned virtues like graft and instrumental ability. Yet despite this, perhaps in a desperate effort to contemporise, they signed the Sex Pistols when EMI dropped them, famously letting them go a week later, after Sid Vicious had smashed a toilet in their offices and Johnny Rotten had harrangued the employees.

The Alessi Brothers were a far more typical signing: cute identical twins singing in jazzy falsetto. Like the brothers Gibb, to whom they owe a substantial debt, Billy and Bobby Alessi are consummate hacks, in the nicest possible way. They’ve maintained a career over 40 years as recording artists, songwriters, vocal arrangers and jingle writers, constantly employed, not often in the foreground, but always somewhere to be found if you look hard enough. Their hackwork is barely distinguishable from their best days at the office. Whatever they’re doing, they turn it out to a high standard.

But Oh Lori finds the brothers at the top of their A game. They may have broken the needle on the twee-o-meter with this song but they’re so damn sweet and doe-eyed about it – their idea of romance seems to have come from the same era as their chord changes: ‘I want to ride my bicycle with you on the handlebars’ indeed – that all but the most cynical listener forgives the shamelessness of the manipulation.

Somewhere on his farm in Scotland, I suspect, Paul McCartney – no stranger either to the jazz pastiche or to doe-eyed audience manipulation – heard this and nodded his approval.

Alessi
It was the seventies. Hair like this was acceptable then

Demos revisted – Two versions of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl

Consider this a late follow-up to the post from last week on demos and alternate versions

Gillian Welch’s Revival was a pretty astonishing debut, but in the light of the records she’s made since – particular her masterwork Time (The Revelator) and 2011’s The Harrow & the Harvest – it sounds a little studied, a little produced. There’s a good reason for this. It was.

Welch’s first two albums were produced by T-Bone Burnett. On their later releases, the producer’s credit would be Rawlings’s, and he and Welch would pare things back to the simplest presentations possible: two guitars and two voices recorded live with the pair sitting just a couple of feet apart. But when making Revival, they’d not yet settled on this as the best means of presentation for Welch’s songs, and anyway, Burnett was calling the shots.

Now, T-Bone Burnett is not that intrusive a producer. Not in the grand scheme of things. I’ve said some critical things about his reproduction of the Daniel Lanois formula here, but the guy does a good job most of the time. So while Revival shows some accommodation to the mainstream in the relative bigness of its sounds compared to those of their later work (the acoustic guitar sound is closer, so to speak, and a good deal sparklier), the production is still mostly sympathetic to the songs.

Demos for Revival are floating around the internet and they make fascinating listening. The album tracklisting emphasises the old-timey, character-study aspect of Welch’s songs, and in light of the flak she caught from some over tracks like Annabelle*, I wonder how different the response to Revival would have been if the album had included the charming We Must Look Like We’re in Love or I Don’t Want to Go Downtown.

Of the songs that made the cut, the most different in arrangement was probably Orphan Girl, something of a signature song for Welch after it was covered by Emmylou Harris, before her own version came out. The demo features prominent Rawlings lead guitar, harmonica, brushed snare and subtle double bass. It could have been recorded in the 1970s or even the 1950s with no changes whatsoever, and is rather lovely. The only slight mark against it is the harmonica, which works well during its solo but is a little too perky and intrusive elsewhere. Mixing desks do have faders and mute buttons, though.

The Burnett-produced Orphan Girl is, while sparser, more produced. The tempo is slowed down pretty significantly. The band-playing-in-a-room vibe is replaced by two acoustic guitars (I’m assuming it’s two tracks of Welch, as Rawlings is not credited with acoustic on the song) and a bunch of atmospheric stuff (Optigan and 6-string electric bass) by Rawlings and Burnett. This stuff runs throughout the song, welling up under the final chorus for a big finish. It’d cross the line into just being crass if it were any more prominent, but even as it is it’s a blot on the song, which simply didn’t need such flourishes to heighten its emotion.

What’s different between the two Welch versions of Orphan Girl, ultimately, is self-consciousness. Really good demos frequently come to light on reissues and expanded releases these days, and when they do it’s not unusual for fans to prefer them. It’s usually because there’s something a little stilted about the final version, with the artist feeling the pressure of having to nail the song, and becoming conscious of their performance in a way they wouldn’t be normally. Orphan Girl is a case in point. For her fans looking back on it, Revival may feel like a simulacrum of what Welch and Rawlings do best, but at the time we had no way of knowing that, unless we’d been fortunate enough to see them play in a small club or theatre. When they acquired the clout to simply do their own thing, they did, and they began making records that match the greatness of Welch’s songs.

Welch
This is how they do it.

*The accusations of fakery against her in-character storytelling were never levelled against Randy Newman or Robbie Robertson when their songs took a character’s perspective, whether that character lived in the 1860s or 1960s. It said way more about the prejudices of certain reviewers than it did about Welch. But nonetheless, Welch’s writing did take a step forward when she abandoned old-timey language and themes, and began writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible “now”; when it became harder to separate the “I” in the singer’s songs and the singer herself.