Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

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The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 3

The Forgotten Arm was sold to the public as that most prog of things, a concept album: a story in song about two lovers, Caroline and John (a boxer with a habit – Caroline is defined by her reactions to John rather than her own personality), who meet at a state fair and leave Virginia together, only to find that John’s problems are travelling with them.

While the narrative is present throughout all the album’s songs – Mann is too disciplined a writer to drop her concept halfway through – the music that supports the text is far from prog. For The Forgotten Arm, Mann hired a new (for her) cast of studio pros and had them play mid-’70s roots rock in the style of The Faces and Lynyrd Skynyrd (or in the album’s softer moments The Band and Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John). For some of these players, this sort of meat-and-potatoes country rock was second nature; guitarist Jeff Trott, for example, who made his rep on Sheryl Crow’s second album. Others were slightly removed from their usual sphere; fellow guitarist Julian Coryell is more associated with jazz than cowboy-chord rock.

At times the wailing guitar crosses the line from authentically 1970s into schlock, with the worst excesses come from Trott. On She Really Wants You, he sounds like a wind machine is blowing his hair. His solo on Dear John, which is similar in style, tone and technique, is even more stadium; the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether Trott could possibly be being serious.

The Forgotten Arm does have some really good songs*. I’ve gone into bat on this blog for That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart, and I’m fond too of King of the Jailhouse, She Really Wants You, Going Through the Motions and I Can’t Get My Head Around It. Joe Henry’s production is, for the most part, spare and unobtrusive (that said, the wide-panned mixes of King of the Jailhouse and Going Through the Motions are love-it-or-hate-it stuff), and while the mastering is loud, the lack of steady-state noise in the arrangements means the songs mostly emerge unscathed, if a little misshapen. All in all, though, this is the least Aimee Mann-like album in her discography sonically, and while I can imagine Mann non-fans enjoying it, I doubt many of them got to hear it.

Many artists, when they have been making records long enough, reach a point where each new album is a reaction to the one before it, and much effort is expended in trying to correct the things that the artist didn’t like about the last one.

@#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, I’ll let you make of that what you will.

Aimee.jpg
Aimee Mann circa The Forgotten Arm

*On my way home I listened to the first couple of songs on The Forgotten Arm and what struck me was that while their verses and choruses are built – as the majority of Mann’s songs are – on repeating four-chord patterns over which Mann sings attractive but narrow-ranging melodies, the middle eights have chord sequences that seem to have been driven by the movement of the melody, giving the chorus more focus and punch when it comes back round.

In my own songwriting, I’ve usually felt that the strongest songs I’ve written have come when the melodies and the chords have either come to me at the same time as each other, or I can hear where I want the tune to go and have to work out what chords work best to support that movement. I’ve written decent songs when I’ve fitted a tune to a predetermined chord sequence (or riff that implied chord changes), but I’ve always felt that writing that way was essentially what rock bands do, and writing from the melody downwards was how “proper” composers write. Horribly snobbish, I know, but old prejudices die hard.

Anyhow, my hunch is that this aspect of Mann’s writing died away after The Forgotten Arm. I’ll look into this and see if it’s true. Yep, listening to songs while counting chord changes. The things I do… For now, it’s more of a side note, as the series of posts is more about engineering, mixing and arrangement than songwriting per se.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 2

Bachelor No.2 and the Magnolia soundtrack can fairly be considered one piece of work spread between two releases, especially if you’re not familiar with Magnolia the film ad can hear the songs without them being tied specifically to the movie. The albums share four songs (or three and a half, really, since Nothing is Good Enough is an instrumental on Magnolia), feature the same pool of players and were largely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, whose work here is first rate.

They were also the last of Mann’s records to feature Jon Brion in the driving seat. Brion is vastly talented – a creative arranger and producer who can play pretty much any instrument he picks up. But having said that, and for all the credit he deserves for the arrangements of Deathly, Build that Wall, Momentum and Mann’s spine-tingling cover of Harry Nilsson’s One, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there’s something facile about his work: that these sorts of fairground-organ sounds and marching-band euphoniums come too easily for him: that given any songwriter to work with, he’d reach for the same tools. Certainly, his work with Fiona Apple at the same time was in the same style, as was the cover of Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime with Beck for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a lot of his film-score work, come to that, sounds similar). And I do find, though this may just be a coincidence, that the songs that cut deepest for me from this era of Mann’s music – Wise Up, Just Like Anyone, the absolutely beautiful You Do – are the ones Brion didn’t produce. Still, Brion’s ear-grabbing work was a key reason this material connected with audiences, and it’s a big reason why he has the career he has.

By the time Mann released Lost in Space in 2002, Brion was gone*. Most of her regulat cast of players were, however, still there: Clayton Scoble, Buddy Judge, Michael Lockwood and Michael Penn (her husband), and they outdid themselves.

Lost in Space is my favourite Aimee Mann record. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it’s her most consistent collection of songs in mood and texture. Produced principally by Michael Lockwood, who stepped into the Jon Brion role (playing many instruments as well as producing and arranging), Lost in Space is an album about disconnection, and it derives its strength from how strongly and empathetically the music supports the text.

The guitarists (Lockwood and Mann) make heavy use of time-domain effects (reverb, echo and delay) to create a sense of space in the music, particularly during verses, while tinkling electric pianos and synths, as well as bursts of static and white noise, are used to evoke outer space and vast distances, both physical and emotional. Mix engineer Michael Brauer (one of the most reliable guys in the business) backs the players up astutely with his work, filling the picture with detail but never cluttering it up with anything unnecessary. It’s rare to hear a record where the songs are so sympathetically and imaginatively served by everyone involved, in production, arrangement and mix. All this, and some of Mann’s very best writing, too: the title track, Humpty Dumpty, High on Sunday 51, Guys Like Me, Pavlov’s Bell, This is How it Goes and Today’s the Day are some of her very finest songs.  Lost in Space is so underrated, it’s untrue.

Next time, the pendulum swingeth, first one way, then the other. Pendulums do that.

lost-in-space

Something Mann said about the end of her working relationship with Brion in one interview was intriguing: “I just don’t really see him much any more. I  think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It’s really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn’t really help me develop myself as a musician.”

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 1

We’ve talked before how the sonic trends we identify as belonging to a given decade don’t magically spring into being fully formed when the ball drops and a year ending in 0 begins. Forgive me for a lengthy self-quote, but this extract from an old post summarises my argument better than I can manage right now:

[Boz Scagg’s] Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before), came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town at the Record Plant New York and Damn the Torpedoes at Sound City in Van Nuys, and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure, Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums. That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave.

Aimee Mann’s solo debut, Whatever, sounds like it wants to be a 1990s album, but can’t quite let go of the eighties. There are some really strong songs on it – Mr Harris and 50 Years After the Fair are as good as anything she did before or has done subsequently. But Bob Clearmountain’s mix* still has some of his 1980s big-room sheeniness, which was old hat in 1993, and some of the instrument sounds are a little unfortunate, particularly on album opener I Should Have Known, which aims for Posies-like power-pop heaviness but lacks the gargantuan drum sound the Posies had, and has pretty wimpy guitar sounds, too.**

Don’t let me put you off investigating Whatever, though; these are nitpicks. If you’ve ever liked any of Mann’s work, Mr Harris, 50 Years After the Fair, Stupid Thing, Say Anything, Could’ve Been Anyone and I Should Have Known are songs you should hear.

I’m With Stupid (1995) is an intriguing mess of an album, her least coherent, but still one I’d recommend over some of her later more streamlined and tidier records. The obvious things first – this is the album where Mann got comfortable with singing mostly in the middle and lower reaches of her register, it makes extensive use of drum loops, and it’s also her most Anglophile record: Mann lived in London in 1995, during which time some of these songs must have been written. She became friendly with the late Tony Banks MP, cowrote Sugarcoated with Bernard Butler (it’s about his departure from Suede) and reportedly penned You Could Make a Killing about Noel Gallagher.

Like her next two records,  I’m With Stupid features numerous collaborators: co-writers, instrumentalists, producers, engineers and mixers. But unlike the Magnolia soundtrack and Bachelor No.2, I’m With Stupid is a little weakened by its variance in texture, feel, mood and sonic topography. Unlike Whatever, it definitely sounds like a ’90s record. Unfortunately it sounds like two or three different ’90s records, with the feel and textures changing from song to song, despite being mixed mainly by one engineer: Jack Joseph Puig.

Quality-wise, it’s a little up and down, too. Long Shot and Choice in the Matter begin the record well, but most of its rock moments veer between forgettable and regrettable; it’s tough to think of a less essential song in her discography than Superball, and All Over Now and Frankenstein are similarly nondescript. I’m With Stupid‘s best moments, largely, are its quietest moments: Amateur is one of Mann’s finest songs, and You’re With Stupid Now and You Could Make a Killing are both first-rank, too.

Next time: Mann hits Hollywood and gets Lost in in Space

*Quite why Whatever sounds the way it does is something of a mystery. Clearmountain’s work on, say, Crowded House’s Together Alone in the same year was stellar, and pretty much bang up to date sonically.

**All Fender top end, no Gibson meat.

Day of the Dead, Disc Five – Some Thoughts

And so we come to the last disc of Day of the Dead. Making myself familar with over five hours of music has been a pretty big undertaking, and I’m looking forward to getting back to smaller one-off posts for a while. Hopefully within a day or two.

The first three songs on Day of the Dead’s fifth disc all feature the house band backing solo artists: Phosphorescent, the Tallest Man on Earth and Bonnie Prince Billy.

Standing on the Moon is a highlight of Built to Last, the Dead’s ill-favoured 1989 studio swansong. Garcia’s lyric is one of his sweetest, and the line “Standing on the moon but I’d rather be with you” obviously connected hard with Garcia, who often stretched the coda out so he could repeat the line over and over again in live performance. Phosphorescent & Friends (ie Phosphorescent & the National) do a creditable job with one of this late Dead highpoint, but where Garcia’s tremulous vocal spoke of wisdom and awe, Matthew Houck’s tremulous vocal speaks mainly of tremulousness.

The Tallest Man on Earth’s early music was so beholden to early Dylan vocally that it was very hard to take seriously. Thankfully he’s dropped the worst of those excesses over time, but even so, it’s amazing how much better Will Oldham sounds coming after him and Houck. Whether you like his vocal tone or not, Oldham is his own man; he sounds fully formed.

Brown-Eyed Women is one of those songs, like Jack Straw and He’s Gone, that was a highlight of the dazzling Europe ’72 live album yet was never recorded in the studio; it would have been nigh-on impossible to better the versions from the live record. Hiss Golden Messenger capture something of the fleetness of the Dead’s version instrumentally (they sure sound light on their feet after three consecutive tracks of the National’s rhythm section) and the gang vocals in the chorus are a nice touch. A hit.

Here Comes Sunshine by Real Estate is appropriately sunny and pretty. Six minutes of it is about a minute and a half more than I needed, though full marks to Alex Bleeker for giving one of the most convincing Phil Lesh impressions of any bass player involved in this project.

Charles Bradley and the Menahem Street Band give an Electric Mud treatment to Cumberland Blues. The groove the band cooks up is compelling and Bradley’s souldful rasp is committed. However, Cumberland Blues does lose a lot by being slowed down and having its rhythms and harmonies simplifed. I’m not sure about this one. I like it well enough, I suppose, but I love Cumberland Blues as the Dead play it, especially the magnificent version on Europe ’72. In comparison, Bradley’s is all a bit simple and I wonder whether I’d get much from it if I didn’t know the lyric inside out.

Next, a couple of real outliers. Man Forever is the experimental-percussion project of Kid Millions, drummer from Oneida. Sõ Percussion, who we met back on Disc Three’s Terrapion Station, are a percussion troupe usually performing work by Steve Reich. On Drums/Space, several minutes of slack-tuned toms and marimbas are followed by some chintzy electronic noises of the sort that will gladden the heart of any Mickey Hart fans. Out of nowhere, a couple of uber-distorted guitars crash the party, paying no heed to each other (it sounds like Saturday afternoon in a guitar shop), before the track finishes with a couple of minutes of alternately rumbling and squalling feedback.

Cream Puff War is possibly the Grateful Dead’s most garagey track, at least during its verses, with Garcia’s voice unrecognisable to anyone who might have got into the band later and worked backwards; he hollers his way through the track and sounds more like Bob Weir than himself as we usually knew him. Not many Dead tracks would be a natural fit for Canadian punk band Fucked Up, but Cream Puff War pretty much makes sense. Jonah Falco on drums makes the straight 4/4 beat groove nicely (the dynamics of the hi-hats, I think), and the band handle the sudden switches to 3/4 well. There is something a little absurd about this vocal style being deployed on a Grateful Dead song, but in this case the vocal comes over to me as exuberant rather than aggressive, and actually works pretty well.

Mina Tindle (stage name of singer Pauline de Lassus Saint-Geniès) has what Mel and I, in our less patient moments, describe as an old-lady voice, the female version of the white dude in the old man hat voice. Not that an old-lady-voiced singer couldn’t make great music, but I’m personally not a fan of that kind of voice, and I think the music would have to be spectacular to overcome my irritation with the singing. Mina Tindle, then, starts with a huge disadvantage, even given that she’s got a beautiful song to work with. The Dessners do interesting things with synth and Mellotron – there’s a piercing, needling harmony line played on the Mellotron’s flute setting that is by far the best thing about the track – but Tindle’s vocal sinks this for me.

Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear play High Time so much faster than the Dead that their version clocks in 58 seconds shorter without trimming away any of the text. They also replace Bill Kreutzmann’s waltz-time sidesticks with a rather intrusive tom- and cymbal-based drum track. Rossen’s vocal is fine, but the tempo and the music swamps him. The great thing about High Time on Workingman’s Dead is the space the band give to Garcia to deliver the twists and turns of Robert Hunter’s lyric. Here, some of that is lost. I’d have loved to hear Rossen sing it solo, slowly.

I saw Luluc a couple of years ago supporting J Mascis and found them rather inert and one-paced. Here they team up with Xylouris White (Giorgios Xylouris, singer and Cretan lute player and drummer Jim White) to take on Til the Morning Comes, from American Beauty. Zoë Randall’s voice is calm teetering on affectless, but the outro jam between Xylouris and White is really good. White is an objectively really good drummer whose playing I don’t often like that much (too busy? too echoey? Something of both, I guess), but given the general echoey sound picture, his favoured reverby drum sound makes sense, and his busy style meshes well with Xylouris.

Next up, something of a shock. Winston Marshall, banjo player from Mumford & Sons, in collaboration with Kodiak Blue and Shura, does a fine job with Althea. Marshall’s American accent is a bit of a joke, but the music – tinkling marimba-like synths like raindrops on a pavement late at night – more than makes up for it. I think I’d like the track more if Shura sang all of it, but credit where it’s due: I am extremely dubious of all things Mumford, but this is actually very creditable.

Attics of My Life is one of Hunter and Garcia’s very finest songs and the track above all others where the guys put everything they’d been learning about harmony singing (some of it absorbed from hanging out and jamming with David Crosby and Stephen Stills) down on record. In the Classic Albums documentary about Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Phil Lesh took in their work on that song was clear. Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and Hunter’s lyric deserved no less. Still, there are rough edges, and that’s part of the recording’s power. There’s a palpable sense of self-discovery in Attics of My Life; you can hear that the guys are pushing themselves to a place they’ve never been before, growing and evolving even within the song’s 5-minute running time.

Attics of My Life is so perfect that a cover of it has to mean something different to be worthwhile. So Angel Olsen taking a different approach to the vocal harmony arrangement is not of itself a problem. But it doesn’t work for me. Olsen’s voice floats above the male voices and the never blends with them, with becomes needling and annoying over the course of the song’s running time, even as it’s 90 seconds shorter than the Dead’s American Beauty take. Then there’s the cavernous reverb. I’m just so over it. Angel Olsen has almost universal critical cred, but I fear her just isn’t my thing.

We haven’t talked much about Bob Weir over the course of these five discs. Let me say then how big a fan I am. I really like his voice and think he’s an overlooked guitar player; his rhythm playing is great and you don’t get to spend an entire life in the Grateful Dead without being able to take a solo or two. Weir is the only official member to appear on this album (as we noted about a month ago when we took on Disc One, Bruce Hornsby played over a hundred gigs with the Dead, but was never a full-time member), appearing on the final two cuts, both recorded live: St Stephen with Wilco, and I Know You Rider with the National.

Guitarist Nels Cline is suprisingly rocker-dude on St Stephen – lots of sextuplets, not much lyricism – but it’s likeable nonetheless. I Know You Rider sees the National playing faster than I’ve ever heard them (I associate them purely with slow- to mid-tempo). Weir gets to dominate the vocal on this one (Tweedy sings much of St Stephen) and the band works up a head of steam – the Devendorfs audibly excited to be on stage with a hero. It’s a fine end to the project, and they and the Dessners deserve a huge amount of credit for all their work on this thing. They had to record an ungodly amount of music to make it happen.

This is definitely the least essential disc for me, but my keepers are Bird Song, Brown-Eyed Women, Cream Puff War and Althea (I know. I’m still trying to get my round the latter).

day-of-the-dead

Some recent free-to-download music