Monthly Archives: November 2016

25 Years of R.E.M.’s Out of Time

Let’s break up the drum posts with something different. I’ll be back next week with more underrated drum tracks.

Spin CDs send me an email every day, a little round-up of new and upcoming stock. Their algorithms have done their job well; there is, for instance, a Grateful Dead live album in almost every email (amazingly, a different one nearly every day). Right now they’re hawking the new 25th-anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Out of Time.

We’ll skip past the 25-years stuff, as no one needs another one of my wistful gee-how-did-I-get-to-be-in-my-mid-thirties disquisitions; it’s probably only been half a dozen posts since the last one. But I will say this, Out of Time is a pretty formative album for me.

I bought it with paper-round money in, I think, early 1995, when the record was about four years old. I’d liked every song I’d ever heard by R.E.M. and while I knew more songs from Automatic for the People (Drive, Man on the Moon, Everybody Hurts and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite were all big enough hits in the UK for me to have heard them on the radio), I wanted a copy of Losing My Religion, which I knew, but not well; I guess I’d started listening more to the radio in the time between the releases of OOT and AFTP and had started to pay more attention to finding out which artists responsible for songs I liked.

Buying an album for £12.99 when you earned a tenner a week* was a big deal, so every time I bought a record, I played it to death, and didn’t purchase anything without a lot of forethought. I came to be familiar with every note of Out of Time, and it had a huge and lasting impact on my sense of what an album could be.

Out of Time stretched in all kinds of directions. It took the listener on a journey, one with unexpected digressions and tangents. The bassist sang two of its songs (one of which – Near Wild Heaven – had the temerity to be a single), while Endgame was a quasi-instrumental with a lyricless Michael Stipe vocal. Opening track Radio Song had an unlikely guest appearance from KRS One (it’s not widely loved, but I’ve always liked how they sound like they’re enjoying themselves). Low was stark, minimal and tense – not much more than Stipe’s voice, some muted guitar chords and Bill Berry’s congas. Shiny Happy People was, well, you know what it was (and I like to think it was on some level a parody). Losing my Religion was one of the great singles. Half a World Away and Country Feedback were the album’s sad, confused heart. Out of Time was by turns goofy and dark, happy and sad; up and down, high and low.

I didn’t understand when hearing it as a 13-year-old that few albums actually worked like this, that most strive for a streamlined consistency in which all the songs are good in essentially the same way. I imagined that R.E.M. were working to a formula other bands also followed. Not so. Twenty-five years later, I hear Out of Time‘s uniqueness, and love it all the more.

There’s a two-part documentary on BBC 6 Music at the moment (thanks to Sara for alerting me to it), narrated by long-time friend of the band Billy Bragg, with contributions from Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe and producer Scott Litt. Well worth a listen if you’re a fan.

r-e-m-_-_out_of_time

*I was a teenage guitarist in a band, so I needed to pay for my share of rehearsal-room hire costs and buy new strings, cables, etc. We practised more or less weekly (not that you’d have been able to tell), so typically I could afford a new record once a month.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 4 – Garoux des Larmes by Throwing Muses

As drummer for Throwing Muses, David Narcizo has held one of the trickiest jobs in popular music for thirty years. Kristin Hersh’s songs are not, and have never been, simple; they are full of twists and turns, tempo changes, time signature changes and unusual feels. Narcizo has coped with it all; he’s even made it danceable. No doubt he’s been helped by the band’s series of quality bass players: Leslie Langston, Fred Abong and Bernard Georges. But still, he’s made a tough job look pretty easy and instinctive for three decades.

The early Throwing Muses sound lasted for two albums and two EPs, more or less: the self-titled debut, the Chains Changed EP (both 1986), House Tornado and the Fat Skier EP (both 1987). Stylistically, the songs from this era are characterised by their restlessness, their abrupt changes in feel, tempo and mood. Narcizo’s drums had to find ways to live in the quiet parts of these songs without overwhelming them while driving the heavier sections along (the songs would never have felt right if Narcizo had allowed Hersh’s guitar to carry him; no good rock music works that way). It would have been a challenge for anyone, but these guys were just kids, really: 19 or 20 years old. What they achieved is remarkable.

I’ve said before, I think, that I feel the standard of the average US drummer compared with the average drummer from the UK is higher, which (just hypothesising here) you could put down to the disciplines of marching-band snare drumming on one hand and jazz drumming on the other. In the UK, you have to go much further out of your way to learn these skills, so many don’t.

I’m not sure whether David Narcizo ever studied jazz, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he played snare drum in the school band, as 16th-note march-time feels make up about 50% of the drum parts on the band’s early records. My favourites are early single Fish, Reel (from Chains Changed), a Tanya Donelly song in which Narcizo switches between heavy tom patterns in the verses and his trademark snare march in the choruses (making both sound light and agile and funky through the addition of a stomping kick drum); and the rather gonzo Garoux des Larmes, from The Fat Skier.

Garoux des Larmes has probably the most intricate patterns of all Narcizo’s marching parts. The sticking is constant 16th notes, but the pattern is played over snare and toms rather than just snare drum (as it is on Fish and the chorus of Reel). Maybe highly trained drummers would consider this no big deal, but how you play intricate 16th-note patterns for several minutes at a time, with power, precision, steady tempo and a good feel, without ever getting your arms in a tangle, is completely beyond me. There’s a live audience video from 1987 that gives a good idea of what’s involved in playing this stuff. If you’re really familiar with the record, you’ll note the extra hi-hat work that Narcizo throws in here.

The band reached something of a crossroads on 1989’s Hunkpapa. Mania is an absolute career highlight, and for that alone the album is essential, but Hunkpapa had fewer marches and a heavier two-and-four sound overall; the band was evidently changing. The Real Ramona, the only record the band made with Abong on bass, was magnificent, and when Narcizo plays that huge opening fill on Counting Backwards at the start of The Real Ramona, it’s an amazing moment, but it’s also the moment that signals the end of the band’s phase one; the frantic march-time rhythms never did return. Red Heaven, University and Limbo saw Hersh turn up the guitars, and while Narcizo still played unmatched grip, he’d turned into a backbeat drummer, as the music demanded he should. All the records they made between their debut and Limbo have great moments (University’s my big of the Bernard Georges era), but Muses’s early music, thirty years on, remains immediately identitfiable, absolutely inimitable and still astonishing, and David Narcizo deserves just as much credit for that as Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly.

muses
Throwing Muses mk I: l-r David Narcizo, Tanya Donelly, Kristin Hersh, Leslie Langston

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 3 – Marquee Moon by Television

In 2004, I was playing guitar in a band called Great Days of Sail, led by Yo Zushi (with whom I still play today). Our first show was supporting Lach at the Barfly in Camden. Lach was, even then, a veteran figure, and a biggish name for a new band to be supporting. He’s a New York songwriter and the originator of antifolk*, and is responsible for nurturing a host of like-minded artists at The Fort, the night he ran at the Sidewalk Cafe. On stage with him that night was Billy Ficca, the drummer from Television.

I was way more stoked about playing on the same stage as Billy Ficca than Lach, if I’m honest. Antifolk is not really my thing, but from the time back in high school I bought an issue of Total Guitar with a full transcription of Marquee Moon in it, Television have very much been my thing.

The glory of Television is the lucidity of their arrangements. There is no padding, just drums, bass, two guitars, a vocal and that’s it. Everything is mixed and recorded dry, tight and close. You can hear every single note that is played, and, more importantly for our purposes today, every nuance of the drum performances.

Billy Ficca is one of the best. His playing is powerful and authoritative, yet also full of subtle details. He gives you a solid backbeat and so many cool hi-hat licks that it takes dozens of listens to absorb them all (especially when you’ve got Tom Verlaine’s and Richard Lloyd’s superb soloing to take in, too). My favourite Ficca performances from Marquee Moon are Elevation and the title track, which features career-high performances from all involved, Ficca not least.

Billy’s playing on these songs is seriously inventive. Elevation features super-cool triplet fills on the hats, and an absolutely savage push in the choruses. Marquee Moon, meanwhile, features, well, everything. In its 10 and a half minutes, Ficca plays pretty much every conceivable idea on the drums. The verses are driven along by his funk-infused hi-hat work. The pre-chorus guitar-melody sections are lifted by his creative emphases on the cymbals. The choruses see Ficaa throwing in rapid-fire snare fills before bringing the band back round for another verse with whole-kit fills. During the long instrumental section that follows Verlaine’s solo, Ficca knows just when to swap from the hats to the ride, from the ride to the toms, from the toms to snare and from the snare to the brass. It’s compelling as all hell, and when it all breaks down after the “seagull” section and Ficca launches back into the verse groove, joined at first by Fred Smith’s bass and then Lloyd’s and Verlaine’s guitars, it’s a glorious moment.

A lot of attention is paid to Television’s guitarists, and rightly so: Verlaine and Lloyd were magnificent players, both technically accomplished and allergic to blues-rock cliche. But every great rock band from the Beatles and the Stones onwards have been built on a great rhythm section, and Television’s was one of the best. After the band ended, Ficca played with the Waitresses (yep, that’s him playing on Christmas Wrapping) – another great rhythm section.

television0.jpgTelevision: l-r Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, Fred Smith

*Antifolk was briefly a big noise in above-ground publications. To the uninitiated, it may sound like lo-fi folk, or like folk played by punk musicians, and that’s not far wrong in many cases. But it’s easier to define as an attitude than an identifiable style of music. Lach began his antifolk nights after being unable to get shows at established folk clubs in New York in the mid-1980s and deciding that if no one else would give him a gig, he’d have to do it himself, so the key element of the genre name isn’t “folk”, but “anti”. That is, it’s about not fitting in and being proud of it, rather than striving to sound a certain way.

Yo’s music at the time had more to do with country and Leonard Cohen, but the antifolk association was certainly useful. My involvement with GDoS lasted about eight months, and the band crashed and burned within 18, but those were rarefied circles we moved in for a while, huh?

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 2 – Luka by Suzanne Vega

Music fans can get pretty hung up on constructing taxonomies – making connections between artists, giving a name to every genre and sub-genre, and fitting everyone neatly into their boxes. Bookshelves groan under the weight of literature telling the story of popular music through the prism of scenes (be it Merseybeat, Brill Building, Chicago blues, Motown, Laurel Canyon, grunge, or whatever). The problem with taking the scene-based approach to pop music history, though, is the tendency to overlook musicians who don’t fit easily into a sonic, chronological or geographical category. They get forgotten.

Take Suzanne Vega – a huge fan of both Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, whose first recordings were released through Jack Hardy’s Fast Folk magazine, also a vehicle for the much more obviously rootsy likes of Lyle Lovett, John Gorka and Shawn Colvin (all were regulars at Hardy’s Greenwich Village Songwriter’s Exchange). Vega’s early work was produced by Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, and her later, more electronic work would see garner her US Modern Rock hits (number ones, even, in the case of Blood Makes Noise), yet she has always been an essentially mainstream figure, one whom my grandparents recognised and approved of. It’s a strange space she occupies, or so many spaces that she ends up in a sort of non-space.

Her famous early recordings aren’t much help as we try to work out what kind of music we’re listening to. There’s something a little prissy about Small Blue Thing and Marlene on the Wall, in both sonics and arrangement, that doesn’t sound alt. or indie; the Suzanne-in-a-cavern reverb of Small Blue Thing, meanwhile, immediately dates the recording to the mid-eighties, and tells us we’re not listening to a straightforward folksinger record, which typically are recorded and mixed drier, closer and more intimate.

Things become a little clearer on Solitude Standing, Vega’s second album – the record that gave us Tom’s Diner and her breakthrough hit Luka. Rather like contemporaneous records such as Crowded House’s Don’t Dream it’s Over or Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, Luka’s sound is inflated a little bigger than it needs to be, and the guitarist’s tone is regrettable (that quacky out-of-phase Strat tone was already a cliché in 1987), but the sensibility of the production isn’t at war with that of the writing on Luka (everyone seems to agree that they’re making pop music, whereas no one seemed really to know on her debut) – and while Stephen Ferrera’s drums are a little on the big side, he delivers a performance that’s just as musical as it is muscular.

Ferrera assumes more than just a timekeeping role on Luka. From his opening snare fill, he provides a sort of commentary on the song as it progresses, responding to Vega’s vocal with emphases on the toms, anxious snare fills and cymbal crashes. When the guitarist comes in with his first quacky solo, Ferrera begins to vary his kick drum pattern to provide more lift and propulsion. It’s a clever detail that gives the song a push without actually shifting the tempo.

The most notable element of the rhythm track is of course those huge tom hits that are used as punctuation at the end of every second bar in the verses. As Ferrera’s hi-hat maintains steady eighth notes at the same time, and as most drummers who play the song with her live forsake those tom hits,* I guess they were overdubbed. Possibly their being recorded in isolation from the rest of the kit accounts for how huge they are in the mix; they make a pretty mighty thud. Either way, they’re really integral to the arrangement; the song always loses something, for me anyway, when I hear a live performance that doesn’t feature them.

Ferrera’s ear for detail eventually took him from studio drummer to producer to A&R to record executive. He landed the American Idol franchise for RCA, helping to launch Kelly Clarkson’s recording career, before becoming Senior VP of A&R at Columbia. He died of lung cancer in January 2014. As a drummer, he was the very definition of underrated.

stephen-ferrera
The only photo I could find of Stephen Ferrera from his drumming days

*One exception was Anton Fig, when Vega played the song on Letterman. I assume it was Fig, anyway. That performance was 1987, and he joined in 1986, so it’s him unless someone was depping that night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 1: Sad But True – Metallica

It’s back, again. Fourth year running. Let’s talk drums.

Lars Ulrich has been a figure of fun for so long I can’t actually remember a time when anyone took him seriously. He’s the doofus who took a very public anti-Napster stand when his audience didn’t want to hear it; the wound-up little guy who roared “Fuck” for about eight seconds right into James Hetfield’s face, on camera; and, of course, the drummer in the world’s most famous metal band, known among drummers everywhere for his virtuosic, almost heroic, near-total lack of swing. Listening to Lars, it’s as if disco, funk and R&B happened in another universe. Years before snapped-to-grid drums were the norm, Ulrich paved the way.

None of this was really apparent when Metallica were a thrash band. By virtue of tempo, thrash doesn’t swing. At 200 beats per minute, it’s enough work just keeping it together. Ulrich did that. He played fast, he played aggressive and he played double kick. What he couldn’t do as a drummer only became obvious or problematic on the Black Album, when the band slowed down and Hetfield’s started bringing along riffs that allowed for syncopation in the drum track, particularly in the kick drum pattern, only to be greeted by Lars’s patented my-first-drumbeat boom-bap-boom-bap. I remember listening to Enter Sandman with my friend Rob and the pair of us roaring with laughter at Ulrich’s drumming.

Which is all great fun, and in the context of the heavy editing that was employed to create that metronomic end result and Lars’s corresponding deficiencies on stage, not entirely unfair. But in the end, Ulrich doesn’t get enough credit. His playing is instantly recognisable, and on the Black Album‘s Sad But True it was completely perfect for the song.

It’s another one of his big, smacking two-and-four performances, but it’s briliantly composed. The first time you hear him play that iconic snare fill to lead into the first verse, you know you’re listening to one for the ages. The track is full of cool little details – those snare-shots-with-cymbal-smashes that respond to Hetfield’s “Hey”s and “You”s; the kick drum variations; the huge tom fills; the reuse of that five-stroke snare fill to follow the “Sad but true” triplet. It’s a drum part that’s obviously been thought about (perhaps some of the ideas came from producer Bob Rock), but it’s still got loads of attitude and aggression, and is the song’s defining musical element. Anything less would have been not enough; anything more would have been too much.

It’s a difficult thing to craft an instantly recognisable drum part – one that would be recognisable to anyone (not just drummers) just from hearing the drums, without any vocals or other instruments – while serving the needs of the song and not overplaying. On Sad But True, Ulrich did this, and many of his more-lauded drumming contemporaries frankly never have.

larsSubtle, tasteful. Lars Ulrich

*Ulrich has always maintained his argument was about control, not money. But to his band’s fans, Ulrich’s criticism of Napster sounded like a guy who had been made very rich by the old system trying to defend that system at his fans’ cost.

Leonard Cohen RIP

And so we say farewell to another great. If the very first song on his new album contains the line “I’m ready, my lord”; if his letter to Marianne Ihlen – made public a few months ago, and remarkable for its tenderness and wisdom – suggested that Cohen knew he was dying (“our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”), it doesn’t much lessen the sadness. This after all is a year in which we’ve lost too many, and some far too early. Leonard Cohen going too just feels like the universe aiming another kick into 2016’s stomach as it lies prone on the floor.

In light of the week’s really big news, the blows will continue to come for some time yet.

Leonard Cohen, Canadian singer and writer of Englibmid-70sc1980sdrecent

A cover I recorded of A Thousand Kisses Deep:

 

Sunday – Sonic Youth

I was 15 in 1998, and with a morning paper round and a summer-holiday lifting-and-shifting job at Westminster Cathedral (that’s the Byzantine-looking Roman Catholic one near Victoria station, not the Gothic Abbey at Parliament Square) I had money to spend on records. For whatever reason, I concentrated my spending on contemporary albums, some by bands whose music I already knew, others who I’d just read about and thought sounded cool. To this day, I probably have more records from 1998 than any other year.

The most forbidding of these albums (if I don’t count the 1986 Throwing Muses debut, reissued as part of the In a Doghouse double-CD set that autumn) was Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves. Sonic Youth were an acknowledged influence on some of the bands I loved most, so when they brought out a new major-label record out after a 3-year gap – enjoying the single Sunday and eager to pay my respects – I picked up a copy.

It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t quite the squonkfest I’d been readying myself for; and anyway, at this point, I could deal with noise. What made it forbidding to a youngish kid was the sheer length of the thing: 73 minutes, with three songs clocking over nine minutes each. I had heard a lot of noisy and agressive music, but songs that distended or abandoned conventional verse-chorus structures were a new territory. Consequently, I got on much better with the relatively concise Sunday than anything else on the record.

Sonic Youth had released shortish “pop” songs before (their early-1990s singles: Kool Thing, Dirty Boots, 100%, and so on), but Sunday was different in its autumnal melancholy. In their long career, Sonic Youth had been provocative, gleeful, mischievous, silly, funny, angry, flirty, all kinds of things. For the first time, on A Thousand Leaves in general and on Sunday in particular, Sonic Youth sounded sad, and old (less so on Kim Gordon’s songs, to be fair).

Partly this is due to man-of-the-match Lee Ranaldo’s guitar, which sighs during the verses and screams in the obligatory mid-song freakout, and partly it comes down to the mix, which (typically for them) places much more weight on guitars than drums; the energy of Steve Shelley’s Krautrock-ish drumming – the song is suprisingly brisk – is obscured (negated, even) by Thurston Moore’s draggy Jazzmaster strums.

In the context of the thoughtful lyric and resigned delivery, what does a mid-song guitar freakout mean, anyway? It’s pretty short, lasting only 30 seconds or so, and avoids the more challenging harmonic territory they explored elsewhere, but it feels integral to the song to me as a sort of internal commentary on the ennui professed by Moore’s vocal; this is what’s really going on, it seems to say. This is how it really feels.

Sunday, fittingly, avoids coming to any kind of strong conclusion, and doesn’t even fade out. It just sort of stops, with no resolution reached and nothing likely to change. Sunday never ends, indeed.