Monthly Archives: March 2018

Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King

Shame is one of those rare things: a disco song without a disco beat.

The essence of disco is the bass drum played on each beat of the bar: one-two-three-four, boom-boom-boom-boom. This straightforward rhythmic chassis is what made disco so successful, so appealing and so democratic; with a beat that simple, just about anyone could dance to it. It’s what also made it possible to produce for enterprising and/or cynical souls to knock together a disco version of pretty much any piece of music, from Walter Murphy’s ingenious rearrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth to Ethel Merman singing There’s No Business like Show Business over a thumping 4/4 beat, any piece of common-time music could be underpinned with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and, just like that, instant disco.

Many producers, writers and performers surely felt this rhythmic simplicity to be a creative straitjacket, but few of them were brave enough to buck the trend when disco was such big business and DJs were in constant need of new records. Evelyn “Champagne” King and her team – songwriters John H Fitch Jr and Reuben Cross and producer Theodore Life – were up for the challenge though. Shame forgoes that standard four-to-the-floor kick drum pattern in favour of a “heartbeat” rhythm more usually employed in rock music (it’s a Fleetwood Mac signature, particularly associated with Dreams, but you hear it frequently).

This rhythm, playing constantly underneath the bassline, would undoubtedly have made the song feel different on the dancefloor, even if the dancers weren’t necessarily aware of what exactly set the track apart. But that’s not the only thing that the song does differently to its peers. It also goes without the orchestral arrangement that disco routinely employed to create a lush, luxurious and aspirational sound. Shame is small-band music: bass, drums, guitar, a tambourine and a saxophone. King herself sings all the backing vocals. Were it not for the glorious depth of sound – Raymond Earl’s bass guitar as deep as an ocean – you’d almost call it lo-fi disco.

This depth, notably, is not present in the standard album mix, but was created by remixers Al Garrison and David Todd for the 12-inch version, which today is much more widely known than the 3-minute album cut. It’s an example of the power of a mix engineer to completely change the feel of the music with judicious use of equalisation, compression and even the simple act of panning a signal to a different point in the stereo field; the 12-inch mix is notably wider mixed and more spacious than the album.

In its original form, Shame is a decent, slightly unconventional disco track. As a remix, it’s an undisputed dancefloor classic.

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Dinosaur Jr @ The Roundhouse, 23/03/18

When Dinosaur Jr spluttered to a halt in the late 1990s after touring the unenthusiastically received Hand it Over, it seemed unlikely that 20 years later the band would be celebrating a decade, and four strong albums, back together in its original form. If they’re not Exhibit A in in defence of the idea of old bands reforming (I’d maybe cite the Go Betweens, who I think made their best album right before Grant McLennan sadly passed away), they’ve certainly proved that a group can get back together and rival their best work.

Having never seen them back then, and always being short of money in the early years of their reformation, I’d never seen Dino play live, although I did catch a J Mascis solo show a couple of years ago, and I thought it was about time I made the effort. The gig was originally scheduled for December last year, but J Mascis had a throat infection and the band had to cancel. So last night, finally, I went to the Roundhouse to be deafened by Mascis’s mighty wall of Marshalls.

In the event, the band weren’t the all-out sonic assault I’d read about in Our Band Could Be Your Life and sundry other places. It was perfectly safe to be without earplugs, though I found that keeping them in attenuated some of the high frequencies from Mascis’s guitar and made Murph’s snare drum more audible. Certainly they never got into My Bloody Valentine territory, which is kind of what I was expecting.

So today, with hearing intact, thinking about the gig, I feel like the band put a shift in, but something didn’t quite take off for me. I think fundamentally, Dinosaur Jr are a small-room band. So much of the pleasure of their music is the physical sensation of the J Mascis guitar sound and Lou Barlow’s distorted bass (which is strummed more than anything), and hearing it in a large room changes your relationship to that sound. It’s very noticeable that the band make their records in Mascis’s home studio and they seem to use small iso rooms to track drums and guitars, which makes their records sound very close and upfront.

Still, while I never felt immersed in the music in the way I’d hoped to, the band played well. They opened with Thumb from Green Mind, which is a very different experience live from the Mellotron-based studio version with the weird drum sound (what was going on there? It sounds like a drum machine. It couldn’t be, could it?), and followed it with three strong songs from new album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. I was particularly happy that Barlow and Mascis swapped instruments and Lou got to take a lead vocal; if you’ve been on my blog before, you’ll know that Lou’s my guy.

Watch the Corners from the last album was one of the set highlights (Mascis’s solo at the end was great), then they went back to the mid-1990s for Out There and Feel the Pain. Those aren’t, if I’m honest, favourites of mine, but the crowd loved them, especially the latter. In fact, the audience was pretty energetic throughout (first time I’d seen anything that could be described as a mosh pit at a gig I’ve been at in about a decade and a half), and Feel the Pain got them pushing and shoving like it was 1993. One clown kept trying to crowdsurf, even as he kept being dropped to the floor. There’s always one.

Then came a pair of key early tracks: the mighty Sludgefeast and Raisans, from You’re Living All Over Me. They sounded as weird and heavy and claustrophobic as they ever had. With some key exceptions I’ll get to, I respond to early Dino much more than the group’s major-label material, made after Barlow was fired. Mascis isn’t the world’s most expansive melodist, so the twisty-turny structures of the early songs make them more compelling to me. It provides the interest that for me isn’t there on something like Out There.

But there is one mid-1990s Dinosaur Jr song I love. Start Choppin’. And so when Mascis hit that oddly Nile Rodgers-like guitar intro, I was delighted. They did a good version, but this was one of those occasions where I’m so into the studio recording that any live version that doesn’t copy it exactly is going to disappoint me slightly. The tempo seemed a bit too fast, and Mascis’s solo didn’t have the tension and release of his studio effort, which begins as noise and then takes flight when he suddenly breaks into a glorious melodic section that shows off the flashier end of his technique.

Budge and Freakscene went over as well as you’d expect them to, and were delivered coolly, with no fuss, then there was a real treat as they finished the set with Forget the Swan, from their debut, Dinosaur. Mascis-penned but Barlow-sung, Forget the Swan is one of their best early songs, but it’s always been better live than on its anaemic studio incarnation. I wasn’t expecting them to play it, and they pretty much nailed it. Barlow’s delivery is of course massively more assured than it was in 1985, and he and Murph were brick-wall solid as Mascis wailed on top for four minutes or so to end the set, leaving his guitar screaming as the band walked off.

The versions of Tarpit and Raisans during the encore were a little perfunctory, as in honesty, they couldn’t top the way they’d ended the regular set.

So while it was maybe a notch or two below what I’d hoped for, a lot of which I’d put down to the venue just not being right for them, I enjoyed finally seeing them play, and I love the fact that Dinosaur Jr are still together with Barlow and Mascis are working side by side when for years there was such animosity (at least on Lou’s part), and that they’re making records that stand proudly with the work they did in their youth. So few other bands can say that.

The NME is fragile; no more print editions of the NME

Obscure David Bowie reference for you there. Before we turn to the NME, I just wanted to let you know that James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar, have just released a new track called Rocks and Pebbles. And here it is. A full EP to follow in June, then an album. All mixed by your genial host at this weblog.

And now to the NME.

The NME lost me in the early noughties, when it became obsessively focused on the Strokes, the White Stripes, Interpol and, slightly later, their inferior British knock-offs. I simply wasn’t interested in a paper that could find nothing more worthy of discussion and analysis than Pete Doherty. It seemed to me then, and still seems now, that Conor McNicholas (the paper’s then editor) had driven them into a cul de sac, and was at some point going to have to reverse out of it, allowing his writers to turn their attention to something beyond retro indie rock.

When the NME did pivot away from indie towards pop, it was far too late.

But wider forces are at work here, of course. Chief among them is that, for all McNicholas likes to think his paper “owned” that cultural moment, and he’s been quoted plenty saying that it did, all the initial heavy lifting that made Brooklyn indie into the dominant form of rock for a decade was done online, by MP3 blogs, webzines and the young Pitchfork.

Like any long-lived print publication, the NME did not think digital. It’s now a web-only publication and it still doesn’t. Of all the music-writing portals online (they are legion, and some are spectacularly good), none has an uglier, more badly designed website than the NME. They’ll need a total site redesign immediately to have any chance in such a saturated market.

There’s also the thorny issue of music fans not needing gatekeepers to tell them what is and isn’t worth listening to, when they can do it themselves on their phones immediately and at no cost other than data. Oh, and the whole issue of editorial focus. These are not partisan times, musically. We all listen more widely than 20 years ago, because it’s so easy. The NME needs a staff who know stuff, can offer insight and analysis. If all they’re going to do is publish lightly edited press releases or stories off the wire, they’ll be completely dead inside 18 months.

I never knew the NME in its glory days, whenever you consider those to be. But I grew up with the NME still a thriving, widely read publication that could set an agenda, and seeing it slowly crawling to its end is a deflating experience. I hope those working for it are able to find new work, but my gut tells me that most of them won’t be able to find gainful employment in a similar sphere. The online ad market won’t support the number of titles it’d take for everyone to keep their jobs. The issue remains, how do you make money from something that everyone can get for free and that no one’s willing to pay for? And if you can’t get people to pay for music writing, how can you pay the people writing it?

Archives and remixes

Recording isn’t simply about documenting a musical performance. Nor is it just the painstaking creation of an artistic work in musical form. Still less is it about making something to be bought and sold, at least in my world. Recording is what one must do to have a proper archive.

At my dad’s house, in my wardrobe and under my bed are shoeboxes full of TDK SA90s. These tapes contain old four-track demos of songs I recorded between 1999 and 2006, many of which I haven’t heard in over a decade, some of which (as the old joke goes) took longer to play than they did to write. On my laptop (and my old laptop, and my old desktop, and on several external hard drives), are the hundreds of recordings I’ve made since I started recording digitally in 2006.

I’ve not just archived my own songs, either. I have recordings I’ve made of at least a dozen other musicians, maybe as many as twenty. My archive of recordings by Yo Zushi, for example, stands at more than 50 songs, of which only around half have ever been released. Every now and then I like to go through them, and of course, once the project file is loaded and I’m listening, I can’t help but hear possible improvements to the mixes. At times I do a proper remixes, for my own listening, of songs that have already been released.

What’s that about? It’s not like I don’t have live projects I could be working on. I think it’s about something more fundamental. To make a recording of something is to fix it into place, to say “this is a thing that happened”. It helps make sense of the past. To someone with my cast of mind, that’s a reassuring thing; I can measure my life as an adult in recordings I’ve made on various media with various other players. But it’s also a track-by-track record of my development as a musician, recording engineer, mixer and arranger. Some of it is precociously good, but inevitably some of it is terrible. Most of it is OK but would have benefitted from having the self-confidence to play less, to not try to fill up space the whole time. My drum performances until about 2014 bother the hell out of me – why is it that drummers that can’t play always want to play the most stuff? I can’t resist the urge to relive the past while simultaneously making it better, airbrushing it. I’ve even recorded proper versions of songs by my high-school band, with me playing everything (I was the bass player).

The elephant in the room here is the fact that, while I’ve played on and/or mixed records that have had proper releases (a couple on labels, more that were self-funded), I’ve never done a physical release of my own music. When you release something digitally on, say, Bandcamp, you can replace the master files at any time, allowing you to to continue tinkering with mixes. The song is released and it’s out there, but you can call it back at any time. Once you’ve pressed up vinyl or CDs, you can’t do that. It’s out in the world, and not yours to control any more.

This year, I’m forcing myself to put out a couple of physical releases of my own music: first an EP with a couple of non-album tracks, then the album itself. I doubt I’ll be able to truly say goodbye to those songs even when I have, but it’s a big step for me to learn to let go. Saying that a project is done, putting it out there, and watching as it’s received (or not) by whatever audience it finds (or doesn’t) is a brave new world for someone who spends as much time as I do messing around with past projects.

But right now, I have a couple of hours’ worth of unreleased Yo Zushi songs waiting for me. He wrote some great stuff in 2009/2010 or so that few ever got to hear.