Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Sound of Aimee Mann, Part 5

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a series of posts going over Aimee Mann’s solo records, discussing how her music had developed in arrangement, production and instrument sounds over more than 20 years.

Just towards the end of that process, she previewed a couple of songs from upcoming album Mental Illness, starting with Goose Show Cone. It sounded nice enough but I’d basically listened to no one else for three weeks and I’d had my fill of her music for a while. I figured I’d pick it up at some point soon, but in the event it wasn’t until last week I actually got round to listening to it in full. I’ve listened to it maybe five times now, and I think it’s her strongest in some time, probably since Lost in Space, 15 years ago.

The obvious things first. It was trailed as being her folk-rock move, but it’s actually more of a soft-rock move. In interviews she’s talked a lot about Bread and David Gates as a reference point, and while there are no songs that particularly put me in mind of Bread, the record does seem to be harking back to that era, the early 1970s, with its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and extensive use of vocal harmonies.

It’s a modern record though, so the sounds are bigger, closer and flatter, and there’s a bit more processing on the vocals than I’d like, but overall it’s a nice-sounding album. The string arrangements by Paul Bryan and the harmonies sung by Mann, Bryan, Jonathan Coulter and Ted Leo are the defining musical elements of the album, but drummer Jay Bellerose deserves a lot of credit for his playing on the record. He allows himself to play a full drum kit on only a handful of songs, instead adding shaker, bells, tambourine and other percussion in little touches, here and there – nothing intrusive, nothing that doesn’t serve the song.

As has been the case with Mann’s last few albums, the songs chosen as singles, Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero, are not necessarily the strongest on the album. Goose Snow Cone suffers from the same malady that afflicted the singles from 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, 31 Today and Freeway, where the verses and the choruses are each composed of one melodic phrase repeated four times. The (very well sung) vocal harmonies add interest to Goose Snow Cone, but still, it’s a little repetitive over four minutes. Patient Zero, meanwhile, suffers from being a little lyrically involuted. Mann wrote it, she has said, about meeting Andrew Garfield at a party before his career had taken off and thinking he “was obviously kind of freaked out about the vibe of being in that rarefied movie star atmosphere” – which is fine, but why does that make him patient zero? I’m not sure what she’s saying by invoking the term, which is synonymous with the phrase “index case” – the first documented patient in the onset of an epidemiological investigation. The whole song rests on a metaphor that, right now at least, doesn’t reveal itself to me. Neither of these are bad songs, and nor is Lies of Summer, even if it is a musical retread of the brilliant Guys Like Me from Lost in Space, but they are a step down from the best material.

Rollercoasters is a beautiful, painful portrait of someone, possibly with bipolar disorder, unwilling to let go of their life of emotional extremes. On Good For Me, Mann gives voice to someone who knows she’s pursuing a terrible relationship, but can’t stop herself; her high notes are a little huskier than they were, but Mann’s voice is still devastating in its upper ranges. You Never Loved Me has one of Bryan’s best string arrangements, never taking the spotlight from Mann’s vocal or the lovely harmonies.

I’m pretty delighted by this record. Mann, in my view at least, peaked with the Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2/Lost in Space triptych, but that was fine as even on the downslope of her career each new album had three or four really solid songs that I could add to my Aimee Mann playlist. But Mental Illness is way better than that – Mann sounds fully engaged and genuinely enthusiastic about her art for the first time in three or four albums. If you’ve lost interest in her work over the last 10 years, do spend some time with this one.

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This week in spurious lawsuits: Radiohead sue Lana Del Rey

At the risk of making myself unpopular…

The Radiohead/Lana Del Rey lawsuit is super depressing for anyone who thought Radiohead were good guys. And, I admit, I did.

The similarities first. Creep is built on a continuously repeating four-chord pattern: G, B minor, C, C minor (or in musicological terms, I-iii-IV-iv). Get Free has the same progression in its elongated verse/bridge section. Its chorus is a different progression. The vocal melodies are quite different, but in places the phrasing of Get Free is somewhat similar to Creep – where the vocal starts and ends in relation to the bar lines.

I suspect this latter detail is what their case will hinge on because the idea of Radiohead suing anyone for writing something harmonically similar to Creep when they themselves were sued by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood for Creep’s harmonic similarity to The Air That I Breathe (made famous by the Hollies) doesn’t pass the laugh test. Or, rather, it shouldn’t if the judge has any musical literacy at all.*

For what it’s worth, I think the idea of a songwriter suing another over shared chord sequences is inherently bullshit, and analogous to suing over similarity of drum pattern. Chord sequences have been used and reused thousands of times by thousands of songwriters. At what point do you say a chord pattern is well known enough to not constitute one writer’s intellectual property? The very common sequences ii-V-I and I-V-vi-IV seem to be safe. I-IV-V (the basis of the vast majority of blues songs) is definitely safe. So why is I-iii-IV-iv so (fucking) special that Thom Yorke thinks he owns it (or rather co-owns it with Hammond and Hazlewood)?

As for the melody, there’s a bit of a resemblance, but it’s not so marked that you’d be able to pick out the similarity if someone sang you the two tunes a capella, one after the other.

Comments in the press have been predictably depressing, with loads of people taking Radiohead’s side just because they’re Radiohead and Lana Del Rey is a pop singer. Which is no less depressing just for being predictable. Accidental resemblances to other people’s work are bound to happen within pop songwriting when tens of thousands of new songs get written every year. There are two responses possible – everyone can sue everyone for everything all the time. Or, everyone can acknowledge that they themselves have at some time written something that’s a bit like something else without realising, and therefore choose not to be obnoxious about enforcing copyright. Take the high road. Be a grown-up.

A curse on Radiohead’s house if they don’t call off their lawyers. Or perhaps David Byrne can teach them a lesson by suing them for 100% of all past and future earnings for ripping off the name of one of his songs for their band name.

*Judging by the history of copyright-infringement suits, few judges do have any musical literacy. Expect Radiohead to win.

One More Cup of Coffee – Bob Dylan

Desire, the album Bob Dylan made after Blood on the Tracks, is his newly-single-in-New-York-City record. After he and his wife Sara split up, he moved back to New York, living in the Village and carousing at night with a mix of buddies old and new. One night he saw Patti Smith play at The Bitter End and, impressed by the chemistry she had with her band, decided that he should work with a regular band himself in order to get something similar.

He pulled together a motley selection of old pros and youngsters to be in his group (violinist Scarlett Rivera he picked up while he was being driven through the Village in a limousine and she was walking down the road carrying a violin case, which seems borderline predatory today) and went in the studio with a view to recording a new album. At the first session, he had 21 musicians in his band. Nothing usable was recorded, and nothing would be until he took the advice proffered by every experienced musician on the session and attempted the songs again with a much smaller band.

The album was notable in many ways. The lyrics for the songs were written by playwright Jacques Levy rather than Dylan himself; Bob scholar Yo Zushi hypothesises that Dylan had gone to the well so deeply for Blood on the Tracks that he had nothing left to say (at least, nothing about his failing marriage), and was comfortable with the idea of singing someone else’s words. It broke with the studio orthodoxy of the era in its reverberant, big-room sound, and the prominence of Howie Wyeth’s drums in the mix (compare these songs to the very controlled, small-sounding mixes on Blood on the Tracks). Its come-join-the-party beginnings, with 21 musicians on hand for the first session, presaged Dylan’s next wheeze, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which saw him gather everyone from Joan Baez to Mick Ronson (from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) to barnstorm up and down the East Coast, playing impromptu gigs in whatever theatre or gymnasium would accommodate them, and bringing famous friends up on stage to join in when playing their home city or if they happened to be in town. A recording of Isis from Montreal begins with Dylan roaring “This is for Leonard if he’s still here” – the “Leonard” in question was indeed that Leonard.

However, the album (and the music from that era of Dylan’s career generally) was only successful in parts. One More Cup of Coffee, which featured Emmylou Harris, was one of the better ones, succeeding on atmosphere and the exotic vocal melody. Allen Ginsberg, whom I assume recognises Jewish singing when he hears it, spoke of Dylan’s “Hebraic cantillation” on this song; to me it sounds more like a muezzin’s call to prayer. But either way, it sets a mysterious and compelling mood that as Ginsberg noted is distinctly non-American – a rare and notable thing in Dylan’s music, considering that he began his career as an impersonator of wandering Okie Woody Guthrie.