Monthly Archives: November 2018

Whatever happened to the distorted guitar?

I never hear really layered distorted guitar sounds on modern indie records – it’s completely out of style. If you want to hear that kind of thing, you’d have to go back to older records, or to bands that began in that era and haven’t shed all vestiges of that sound, and few of them are nowadays operating at an artistic peak.

Like a good recorded drum sound, the pleasures of a well engineered distorted guitar sound lie in the physical response it creates through texture.

Distorted guitar is an incredibly textural sound source. Distorted chord-based rhythm parts occupy an enormous amount of sonic real estate across a huge frequency range, partly due to the fact that their heavily compressed nature make them essentially a steady-state presence within a mix.

The combination of extreme sustain, low transient quality and huge frequency range makes distorted guitar extremely malleable within a mix. You can essentially manipulate a heavy guitar signal with downstream EQ the way a Hammond organ player can manipulate her sound with the drawbars.* The best practitioners of the fine art of layering distorted guitars (for me, that’s people like Kevin Shields, Jerry Cantrell, Billy Corgan and J Mascis – I was never a fan of the scooped, no-mid-range sound of ’80s and ’90s metal), along with engineers and producers like Dave Jerden and Butch Vig, used this knowledge to create an almost orchestral richness to their guitar sounds.

They could craft sounds to be hard or soft, aggressive or comforting, sharp or ambient, through the combination of different guitars, amps and processing when layering duplicate or complementary voicings over several tracks. Those who took it furthest would split one guitar performance over two or three amps (selected for their characteristics in different frequency ranges), then switch guitars and repeat, then play a complementary part and repeat again. All in the analogue realm, too, meaning that bouncing of tracks would be required in order to keep going once real estate on the 2-inch tape was used up.

Outside of metal (which if I’m totally honest I don’t listen to all that much), this is kind of a lost art now, which makes me a little sad. The tools have changed, too: digital modelling amps, reamp boxes and amp simulation plug-ins are as common if not more common among the musicians who are still grappling with the beast that is distorted guitar as valve amps and analogue effects pedals. Modern mix topologies aren’t hugely kind to bands that deal a lot in distorted guitars, either. It’s enough to make me a bit wistful, thinking back to the days when a rock band wasn’t a rock band unless their guitars were just blasting out a sea of white noise. Ah me. The years go by so fast.

 

*Much of what I know about the science and art of recording distorted guitars, I owe to a recording engineer and producer called Tim Gilles, who was known online as Slipperman. Slipperman’s guide to recording distorted guitars, which consisted of a series of forum posts and podcasts, was a hugely informative, frequently digressive and entertainingly foul-mouthed bible for me 10 years ago when I was trying to learn the basics of recording and devouring every source of knowledge that was cheap or free. Wherever Slippy is now, I wish him well.

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Veteran artists who went new wave

Jim Messina (the fictional version from Yacht Rock, not the real one) called it charming the snake. What does that mean, asked fictional Michael McDonald. “It means reinvent your image in a desperate attempt at relevance!” cried fake Christopher Cross, bursting through the garden gate with a pastel jacket and a Keytar.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, how else could you charm the snake but by going new wave? The odd thing was, some of those who did had the pop smarts to pretty much bring it off. (Yes, I am serious. No, you’re not reading Buzzfeed.)

Johnny and Mary – Robert Palmer
The crassness of Robert Palmer’s populist moves grate all the more in the knowledge that beneath the immaculate tailoring Palmer was an omnivorous music fan, with interests from across the spectrum; as well as securing the Comsat Angels a record deal, he covered songs by Gary Numan, Toots & the Maytals and even Hüsker Dü. That’s a deep music fan with broad tastes.

On his 1980 album Clues, Palmer hit the sweet spot between his commercial and experimental impulses. Apart from the aforementioned Numan cover (I Dream of Wires), it featured a Numan co-write as well as two of his strongest self-written efforts: the hyperkinetic Looking for Clues, which is close in spirit to McCartney’s similarly restless Coming Up and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (all three were released within months of each other), and Johnny and Mary, which is a singular proposition indeed.

While punk in its first wave had been about aggression, many of the bands that came after the initial explosion (whether you call them new wave or post-punk or something else entirely) found much of their effect by stripping away overt shows of emotion, aggression included. It’s in its blankness that Johnny and Mary is most obviously new wave influenced. With no true bassline (there’s a synth playing a low register-ish line, but it’s quite trebly and thin), Palmer fills up the low end with his voice, never emoting, forcing his words to fit the mechanical metre and reaching down to his very lowest note halfway through each verse. There’s no chorus, so the tension never breaks.

Had Palmer allowed himself to sing more demonstratively, trying to force us to empathise with these two lost souls, the delicate spell would have been broken. Johnny and Mary is powerful because he sings the whole song in the same detached way, as if he was a scientist observing and recording human behaviour, or as the video suggests, an author who is making his creations behave this way. It’s a great, well-judged vocal performance for what is maybe his finest song.

I Know There’s Something Going On – Frida
In 1982, during the last few months that ABBA were still a functioning group, Frida (Anni-Frid Lyngstad) was recording her third solo album, and her first in English, in Stockholm’s Polar Studios (which was also ABBA’s based). Lyngstad had approached Phil Collins about producing her after falling hard for Collins’s debut Face Value, and its atmospheric single In the Air Tonight.

It was a wise move. Collins was a coming force in music (not quite yet the world conquering megastar), and working with him put stylistic clear blue water between her music and ABBA’s. The single I Know There’s Something Going On, with its huge gated drums and raw guitars, was an uncompromising statement of intent: sort of heavy rock, kind of new wave, a little bit whatever the hell In the Air Tonight was, and only pop music in as much as it was made by a popular recording artist.

You have to wonder what Bjorn and Benny, then hard at work with Tim Rice on the songs for Chess, made of it. Did they admire its nerve or disapprove of its lack of refinement?

Young Turks – Rod Stewart
OK, I always try to be positive here, and maybe if I’d been there in the early seventies, I’d hear his leering grossness more tolerantly. But I can’t think of a bigger star in rock of pop with less worthwhile music to his name than Rod Stewart.

Which is what makes Young Turks all the more surprising. Near miraculous, in fact. My basic problem with Stewart’s music is that his sexist public persona – which, we shouldn’t forget, he knowingly cultivated – doesn’t make his moments of sensitive balladry all the more touching. It merely makes them less believable. You don’t have to like a singer to like their music, but while you’re listening to them, your distaste for their public image can’t overwhelm the song. The only time I can listen to Stewart’s music and not find myself appalled by Stewart personally is when I’m listening to Young Turks. Apart from The Killing of Georgie, it’s the only time I ever truly believe him. When he sings “Patti gave birth to a 10-pound baby boy” and shouts “yeah!” afterwards, it’s the most human he ever sounded.

It’s the contrast between that humanity in the vocal and the semi-mechanised music that makes it work. Like Johnny and Mary (which many have cited as the obvious inspiration for Young Turks), it’s pretty much all played by live musicians, but they play it clean, precise and dead on. The band Stewart assembled after ditching the ramshackle Faces and moving to the US, featuring Carmine Appice on drums, was more than capable of playing it that way; indeed, Appice is one of the listed writers on Young Turks, and he’s the band’s MVP on this recording, no question.

How Do I Make You – Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt, like Palmer, was a musical omnivore whose genuine enthusiasm for new music was too easily taken for ambulance-chasing cynicism by her detractors.

Ronstadt wasn’t the only member of LA’s music establishment who wanted a musical overhaul in the late 1970s. But unlike, Lindsey Buckingham, she didn’t have a band to push and pull against. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is fascinating precisely because Buckingham wanted to do one thing while his bandmates were happy doing the same old thing. The tension between his songs and the exquisite, intricately woven likes of Sara and Over and Over are exactly what makes Tusk so compelling. Ronstadt, in contrast, was sole ruler of her musical domain. She hired musicians, told them how to play and they’d play that way.

So Mad Love, released in 1980, gets arguably closer than anyone else of her generation to an authentic punk/new wave sound. Yet something like How Do I Make You, while a pretty accurate facsimile of Blondie in Hanging on the Telephone mode, remains just a little too cleanly played*, and Ronstadt is a little too studied vocally. She downplays her vibrato and tries to leave some rough edges, but she’s singing against her instinct.

Three years later she’d try her hand at the Great American Songbook with more mixed success.

Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime – The Korgis
The Korgis formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a more-or-less progressive British band who’d been around since the early seventies. Its principal members by then in their early thirties, the Korgis in 1980 were a little too old, a little too paunchy and their hairlines a little too receding for their new threads and shiny updated sound.

They managed quite a good trick in sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is plain pastiche), leaving Yoko to adjust to contemporary music on her own. The band’s James Warren, with his pudding bowl haircut, long nose and round glasses even looked like Lennon.

If, in the long term, Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime (the band’s biggest hit) has endured in a way that leaves many music fans unsure who recorded the original, the Korgis’ reinvention was an example of how veteran artists can reinvent themselves without total artistic compromise of the Starship/Asia variety.

*Ronstadt’s band consisted of Russ Kunkel, Bob Glaub, Mark Goldenberg and Billy Payne, and the record was produced by the fastidious Peter Asher, so of course it was never going to be messy.

Quincy

Quincy is a 2-hour film about Quincy Jones, directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks. It debuted on Netflix in September.

Compared to the BBC’s two-part documentary The Many Lives of Q from around 10 years ago, Quincy is an intimate, almost home-movie-ish affair. Rashida Jones and Hicks divide their film into two parallel strands: one that follows present-day Quincy as he produces a stage show to commemorate the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and one where, in voice-over, Q talks about how he got to be the most famous living record producer, and a man so powerful he can just name his cast for the aforementioned stage show and know they’ll drop everything to be there.

It starts, though, with a serious health scare. We begin with scenes of Quincy enjoying various parties, always with a glass in his hand. It isn’t long before someone asks him if he’s going overboard. He says he’s fine. Cut to Quincy in a hospital bed in a diabetic coma. After this near-run, Jones cut out the alcohol and concentrated on work.

As we find out during the biographical sections, Quincy Jones has always worked. To a fault, really. His need to keep working, keep finding new worlds to conquer, is more or less blamed for both his inability to sustain his marriages and the serious bouts of ill health that have punctuated his adult life, including the brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in 1974. The other shadow over his life, one that The Many Lives of Q didn’t discuss at all, was his mother’s serious mental illness, which led to her institutionalisation when Quincy was a child. She subsequently reappeared in his life at various, usually inopportune, times, and Jones remains clearly deeply ambivalent about her.

The film is at its strongest when it shows present-day Quincy putting the show together, and at its most moving when he walks around the soon-to-open museum, looks at the exhibits about the legendary musicians he knew and worked with, and remarks on how they’re all dead, apart from him. Conversations with his fellow living legends (Herbie Hancock, et al) revolve around how old they all are now.

Elsewhere, there’s a little revisionism going on. The film spends comparatively little time on the records for which he’ll always be remembered (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Donna Summer, George Benson’s Give Me the Night and of course We Are the World), the work he produced as an artist (The Dude, Walking in Space, etc.) and the innumerable movie and TV scores (The Italian Job, In the Heat of the Night and Roots, which hardly was mentioned at all). Sinatra is over-represented; Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan under-represented. The Many Lives of Q, with its more linear structure, gives a clearer view of the man’s astonishing career.

Yet, while flawed, Quincy is a success on the whole. Few films about icons give away much about the private individual, and this one definitely leaves you feeling like you’ve got a sense of the man behind the platinum records and Grammy Awards. That’s a trick perhaps only Rashida Jones would have been able to pull off.  Would Q have let his guard down around Asif Kapadia or Alex Gibney? Unlikely. Quincy is definitely worth your time, but if you can find The Many Lives of Q, watch that too. Watch it first, in fact. The extraordinary body of work will make you care all the more about the extraordinary man behind it.